Atlantic Records’ Senior Producer, Engineer Ebonie Smith Talks Craft, Moving The Conversation Around Gender Forward With Nonprofit Gender Amplified
Ebonie Smith always has her finger on the record button. As the in-house senior engineer and producer for Atlantic Records, headquartered in New York City, Smith is constantly at the ready for any of the artists that step through the studio’s hallowed doors. A former governor of the New York Chapter of the Recording Academy and current member of the Producers & Engineers Wing, Smith has worked on GRAMMY-winning albums Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording) and Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. She also worked on the GRAMMY-nominated albums Dirty Computer from Janelle Monáe and Invasion to Privacy from Cardi B—just a few standouts from her impressive CV of credits.
Smith is also the founder and president of the nonprofit, Gender Amplified, supporting and championing women and non-binary individuals in the music production space. Smith started Gender Amplified during her undergrad days at Barnard College, before receiving her master’s degree in music technology from New York University. Smith will continue paying her education forward in her GRAMMY U Masterclass featuring Memphis-based funk duo, The PRVLG in collaboration with the Recording Academy’s Black Music Collective and Powered by Mastercard on June 30th on the Recording Academy’s YouTube and Facebook platforms.
Smith spoke with GRAMMY.com via email about her craft, creating space for women and non-binary creatives through Gender Amplified and gives
How did you first get into mixing and production?
I always had the desire to make records and be a music producer. I was a college sophomore, and I had a campus job as an audio/visual tech when I first bought some equipment and started to experiment with GarageBand. I realized there was a world out there where musicians and producers made the backing music and also curated the sounds, which is the path I decided to go down. Once I purchased my microphones, computers, cables—the whole nine yards— got it home and plugged it all up, I realized the things I was making didn't sound very good. That took me down the path to try to professionalize my sound, which is where mixing came in. I wanted everything to sound as great as it did on the radio, so mixing became a priority with respect to making sure the music sound polished and finished.
Do you feel your graduate degree in music helped in your career in a way that being self-taught might not have?
I tell people all the time: the only way to learn how to make records is to make them. However, being successful in the music business, in particular, requires networks and being a part of a cohort, understanding how to navigate studio culture and industry environments. That's definitely something I learned at NYU, in addition to learning the fundamentals and basics of signal theory on digital signal processing, acoustics and the overall underlying sciences pertaining to engineering, specifically audio engineering. I also met quite a few of my collaborators there and some of those collaborators have gone on to earn GRAMMYs and become very successful. I was able to identify my tribe in graduate school as well, which was another very important aspect of my education.
Did you do any apprenticeships or internships in the recording field while you were in school?
The audio/visual campus job at Barnard College, even though it wasn't specifically an internship, gave me access to equipment, microphones, mixers and a lot of the technology we use in the studio. Even though I did not intern specifically for a corporation or a label or a commercial studio, I interned with individual producers and I did a number of apprenticeships that helped me develop my skills and also gave me a vision for the future that I wanted to have, and a sense of how to professionalize myself.
What was your first engineering and/or production job upon graduating?
It actually took about three years to get my first official job, which was at Atlantic Records in 2013. Before that, I was working as a freelancer for different producers: engineering, mixing, editing. I also worked for DJ school where I was doing everything from managing teachers to helping teach some of the classes myself.
How did you get started at Atlantic Records?
The job at Atlantic basically came about as just an audio posting online. I submitted through the traditional routes on the internet and then I networked as a means of finding a way to get the interview. I got an interview and then I did another interview, and the rest is history.
In addition to being studio-savvy, you are also a musician and singer/songwriter. How important do you feel it is to your studio approach that you also have an understanding of the craft from the creator standpoint?
It's extremely important because it's important for me to understand what the musicians are experiencing. Little things like knowing, for example, the problems that could arise as a guitarist is playing guitar. There's a technical experience of what it means to mechanically play an instrument and to have a sense of that so I know what the musician is feeling.
Also, understanding what a musician needs when it comes to the headphone mixes. If you've never been on the other side of the glass, you're always guessing what that experience is like. But when you have had the experience of being a performer or being a musician and working in the live room and less in the control room, you know exactly what the musician may need and you can preemptively anticipate their needs. I think it keeps me one step ahead as a technician and as a producer.
How important do you feel it is to stay updated with changes not only in technology but also in music styles? What do you feel is the best way to stay current?
The best way to stay current is to have a sense of what's happening at the moment and to try to build your sound in a way that is in conversation with that, but it's also reaching farther ahead of it. To make a song that sounds exactly like what's on the radio is in some ways a great exercise, but it might not necessarily give you a competitive edge. It's very important to know what aspects of production are timeless. For example, great songwriting, great imagery in the lyrics, great sound quality, a great groove, a great feel, and a record that's relatable.
There are some timeless characteristics that work across genres and eras in music. But with respect to style, taste and tone, that changes with the wind. The most important thing is originality and authenticity and carving out a signature voice for yourself.
As far as the technology is concerned and staying current with that, it's very important for the sake of understanding what tools are at your disposal as a producer. How to engage them to help you reach your own musical best and to help you along your artistic pursuit.
Who are some women you looked up to in the studio and recording space?
DJ Cocoa Chanelle, DJ Diamond Kuts, DJ Jazzy Joyce, Wendy Carlos, Terry Lyne Carrington. There are contemporaries like WondaGurl, Nova Wav, Erin Tonkon, Rachel Alina, Divinity Roxx. I really can't name them all, but there are so many I look up to, past and present.
Who have some of your mentors been and how did they guide you?
Some of my mentors include people who I've never met. Al Schmitt, his book, On The Record, was very influential. Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records. Clive Davis—his documentary, The Soundtrack of Our Lives was very inspiring. There are athletes I really look up to. Tamika Catchings who is a long time WNBA icon. I watched her career for close to 25 years from being an amateur to a pro. One of the things that really inspired me about her is her level of dedication to her craft, her fiery competitiveness, and also her focus on faith and Christianity as being the source of her power and prowess, both on and off the court.
What were some of the key turning points in your career?
Working on the Hamilton cast album was a major turning point because it was such a huge record. But also, it taught me that it was very possible to make work that was commercially viable and also made a difference socially and from a justice and an equity perspective. It also helped to change the culture of arts in our society.
As a mentor yourself, what would you like your impact to be?
I'd like my impact to be as someone who was able to use her influence to really change the state of the music business for the better, in an equitable way, in an intellectual way and in a musical way.
What motivated you to start your organization Gender Amplified? Can you describe the organization and your goals with it?
Gender Amplified was an idea that started off as a senior thesis project when I was at Barnard. I decided to do a festival and conference to compliment my senior thesis, which was all women in music production, specifically working in hip-hop. I did an ethnography on the women in the New York area that were influencing hip-hop as producers and engineers. My university gave me the funding and the support to bring the women to campus for a day of celebration, as well as academic discourse around the state of women in music. That really kick-started everything. There was such a power around doing that event back in 2007. Over the years, as my career continued to progress, I continued to do events. It just made sense to professionalize and legitimize what I was doing to really give it organizational body and turn it into a business entity.
What has the feedback been on how this has encouraged women to enter the recording space?
We do our part to inspire the next generation to consider the craft and to look at the framework of making audio, using audio as a means of self-expression and music production as a means of self-liberation. The feedback has been tremendously powerful in the work that we've done over the years, our festivals, our digital programming, our panels, our social media accounts, our blog and the scholarship program that we recently started at Barnard college. In our way, we've been able to move the conversation forward. Our goal is to do more and more of that in the future.
What are you planning on presenting and teaching in your GRAMMY U Masterclass? What do you hope viewers get out of your presentation?
I plan to talk about the fundamentals of recording drum and bass from a studio perspective. The ways to work with artists and musicians to get the best quality recordings. I hope the viewers will pick up a handful of techniques they find useful in their recordings, no matter where they record. If it's a commercial studio, if it's a project studio, that they have the tools, the fundamentals, to understand how to process signal, how microphones work and how the process of recording works.
Why is it important to you to share your knowledge with the next generation of producers and engineers?
They are going to be the keepers of the American heartbeat. The music we make is our most important and fundamental export. All across the globe it carries our personality, our ministry and our mission as a nation. Music is the thing that characterizes us as a powerful nation. What we say in our music, not just the lyrics, but also in terms of the musicality, is very important. To nurture the next generation to make sure they understand the magnitude of that is quintessential to ensuring that we continue to be a leader in music consumption, and that they know the impact of what they're doing really matters.
What are some missteps you would warn people who are trying to get into your field about making?
I would say putting too much value into the "noes" you hear. You will hear a lot of "noes" from people, but we only need one solid "yes." The "noes" are just stumbling blocks along the path.