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Women In The Recording Studio: Overdubbing History From Her Perspective
The basic, age-old creative hierarchy in the recording studio usually goes something like this, starting at the top: artist, producer, engineer, assistant engineer, runner/intern. While these roles often blur, combine, overlap or vary, each person plays an integral part in serving the music and making the session a success. But can you imagine being mistaken for any of these roles based on your gender?
"I would walk into a session, six years ago maybe, and I would be the engineer, and they would say, 'Where's the engineer? Can you go get us coffee?' I'd say, 'I can get you coffee, and I can also record you,'" says young superstar producer/engineer Suzy Shinn. "Now, even in the past year, I've met other female engineers or producers. I think that's because a conversation has been opened up to say, 'It's cool, we can do this.'"
Shinn's anecdote is a familiar one among many women working in recording studios, and it stings with the sexism that runs through the nerves of our culture. But before it's through, it also weaves a thread of hope and progress.
Although other women have won GRAMMY Awards in the category for engineering, Emily Lazar became the first woman mastering engineer to win Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical for her work on Beck's Colors at the 61st GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 10.
"I am so grateful to get to be one of the people...that young women see and they can say, 'I can see it. I can be it," Lazar said of her GRAMMY win. "'That's a cool career, I want to go do that.'" In a later interview, she reflected, "That quote really speaks to a big part of the problem – if you don’t even know a career exists how can you aspire to do it?"
Just last year, a report by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative on gender balance—or rather, imbalance—in recording studios sent a message to the music industry, stating just 2 percent of producers and 3 percent of engineers/mixers across popular music are women. While a glance at these figures creates plenty of concern, a deeper look at the women currently crushing it provides inspiration, optimism and perspective.
"I think the latest Annenberg study… has sparked an amazing discussion across the world about the actual number of women that are in this industry," says mastering engineer Piper Payne. "And not only has it given those women, myself included, [not only has it] shined a light on them and their careers, but it has opened the eyes of those who didn't know it was a problem, or it maybe never occurred to them."
Make no mistake, women have crafted countless timeless recordings in the past, women are growing successful careers in the studio right now, and, even though many have put up with a metric ton of adversity, discrimination and sexism, new conversations around gender diversity are bringing about visible change. The narrative of absence is shifting to that of an undeniable presence of great women in this field, and their new normal is changing the game.
Take Shinn, for example, a wildly versatile producer/engineer, musician and songwriter. Even if you haven't heard her name, you've no doubt heard her work with Katy Perry, Dua Lipa, Panic! At The Disco, Fall Out Boy, Weezer and many more. Her path to a career in the studio traversed a series of realizations about the craft—and eventually the industry—behind the music she loved.
"Growing up as a kid, all I knew was the artists. I didn't know the songwriters. I didn't know the producers or the engineers or mixers," says Shinn. "Then I went to this music camp and discovered that, 'duh,' they have to record, they have to get [their music] into a format. All of a sudden, I went home at age 12 or 13, I got my first microKORG synth. I got my first computer, I was using GarageBand and Logic to make terrible demos and put them up on MySpace."
Shinn went on to major in producing and engineering at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she recalls being, "one of maybe three girls in the whole class," before moving to Los Angeles to break into the studio scene. She worked her way from intern to assistant engineer, but her musical creativity as a songwriter also shined through.
"I had casually written a song with one of [a publishing company's] writers. They said, 'Wait, you do this other stuff? What?,'" says Shinn. "Eventually it led to a publishing deal… That was very helpful and motivating, to think, 'Someone else sees something in me that they're willing to bet on.' That was a pretty pivotal moment for me."
Her success story is a reminder that the cornerstone of making progress is providing opportunity. In this spirit the Recording Academy Task Force on Inclusion and Diversity launched the Producer and Engineer Inclusion Initiative earlier this year. Aimed at making an industry-wide change, the initiative asks, "That at least two women are identified and therefore considered as part of the selection process every time a music producer or engineer is hired."
In a resounding swell of support, hundreds of producers, labels, artists, managers and agencies have joined, and there is a deeper reason to be optimistic.
"One of the amazing things about this Diversity and Inclusion Task Force is that it is an independent body," explains Payne. "We're able to get real, honest advice that is unbiased and fearless, and that's something that not a lot of other organizations are able to do."
The initiative marked a massive statement to those in control of hiring at all levels of the industry, from producers to executives. No doubt this will take a team effort, and it remains to be seen who might be the most powerful tide turners.
"Someone mentioned recently to me that a lot of this is in the artist's hands, because they know who they want to work with," says Shinn. "It's up to them to voice their opinions on what they want. I think it will just take time. I think in 10 years it's going to be a very different statistic, women in music."
But what is the reality of enacting this change? Acclaimed producer/engineer Sylvia Massy, who has worked with everyone from Prince to Tool to Johnny Cash to Red Hot Chili Peppers, offers her unwavering support of the initiative while acknowledging some of the real-world challenges of its implementation.
"I support it wholeheartedly," Massy says. "I have mixed feelings on whether or not it's right to push [or] to force people hire female engineers. I believe they should be hired on their own merits. But I am excited about this."
Massy's mix of enthusiasm and trepidation is not only common among forward-thinking supporters of such change, but also valid. But perhaps the solution rests in the heart of a time-honored studio tradition: mentorship. According to Shinn, this practice of experienced professionals taking a nascent studio apprentices under their wing is still alive, though it's evolving.
"It's not necessarily [happening] within the big commercial recording studios," says Shinn, "but it's these independent producers, writers that don't want to or can't do it all on their own, but who bring people up with them and who are positive people, are helpful and really just exceptional."
"I've hired and trained lots of women. I've hired and trained lots of men. And they've both been great through the years. Some of them have been terrible, some of them have been fabulous, and it has not been related to their gender." –Emily Lazar
In addition to thoughtful guidance, it takes a single-mindedness toward your dream to push through the uncertainty of a music career, according to Shinn.
"I think not having a backup plan," she says, when asked about the biggest lesson she's learned in her career. "The music industry is so unstable and unpredictable. If you're going for it, that's the only thing that you can do or can envision. If you have a backup plan, it gets really, really hard sometimes. You will fall on that backup plan."
Under any circumstances, the road to studio success has never been an easy one. Long hours on top of long hours, void of exercise and vitamin D, the stress of catering to the egos and of artists and producers – it can pile up. But the magic of a recording session can change not only the lives of those in its trenches, but the lives of those outside who are moved by its results. It takes teamwork, ingenuity and endurance, and the last thing anyone in that environment needs is additional challenges based on their background.
"When I walk into the studio, I don't think about myself as a female mastering engineer, I just think of myself as a mastering engineer," says Lazar, before catching herself and going one step further. "Actually… I just think of myself as a person, and I'm relating to my clients, and I'm relating to the world around me. I just don't view it in that way."
This notion pulls back the curtain for a peek at what a truly respectful, dynamic and equal studio environment might look like, one where each professional, regardless of their creative role, enters the session as a person first.
So, how do we get there? One possible solution starts with connection, the concept that the community can help build the individual, who can in turn help the community.
The Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing Steering Committee for 2018-2019 stands at 60 percent women, compared to the 2 percent industry index. This number's relation to the greater industry norm demonstrates something meaningful, that progress can come from the inside of the industry, and that community is key.
"I think with the conversations that have been opened up and the statistics that I've read and stuff like that, it really has made it eye-opening to say, 'Oh wait, yeah, I guess there's not a lot of females doing that. Maybe we should, give them a chance,'" says Shinn.
"A lot of people have asked me these kinds of questions through the years about, 'What is it like to be a woman in the studio? I'm like, 'Well, I can tell you what it's like to be me in the studio and the experiences I've had.' But I'm not quite sure, I don't really know how to answer. I don't view it that way," says Lazar. "However, I do realize there is a big problem, I do realize we need to fix it, and I really realize that I would like to be part of the solution and use my platform as much as I possibly can to help show girls that if they can see it they can be it."
Setting the example of excellence and inclusivity for young aspiring music professionals is not only crucial, it sets off a chain of influence in a young person's life. And while this phenomenon is easiest to observe on the individual level, being specific and deliberate about progress can grow to a potentially limitless influence once larger communities and organizations lock step.
"The one cool thing is that that fearlessness and that bravery of the Academy to step forward and say we are going to help solve this problem, and here's how we're going to do it, and this is when we're going to do it, and this is what we're doing," says Payne. "That has sparked other organizations like the AES [Audio Engineering Society] and lots of educational institutions and other broadcast groups to really take a hard look at what their demographics are and what they're doing to be more welcoming and inclusive to all types of people, not just women in the industry."
The numbers are alarming, and the industry has a long way to go, but be sure it is on the move. Right now represents a turning point of unprecedented awareness, the kind of policy awareness Payne points out as it makes ripples across industry institutions, the kind of self-awareness Lazar feels when she walks into a session as a person first, the kind of awareness Massy describes when an artist or label must decide who is most-qualified and best-suited to hire for a gig, the kind of awareness that sharpens action and directs change.
And for someone as multi-talented, accomplished, and hard-working as Shinn, it is an awareness of her own professional and personal progress.
"I'm getting to produce some records that, a few years ago, I would've been engineering," she says. "I'm getting called in to do more creative roles on with artists and bands that I really admire and look up to, and still doing writing sessions and engineering, too. Tomorrow I'm doing drums, which is always fun. We don't get to record live drums that often anymore. Yeah, every day is a new day. It's going really great."