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Women in audio: Hear us roar

Sarah Sharples 5 May 2017
Women in audio: Hear us roar

In this special extended feature, we are celebrating women in audio and the diverse roles they occupy throughout the industry. From Mandy Parnell who battled discrimination early on in her career and who now owns mastering studio Black Saloon, to live FOH engineer Bryony October, who has mixed for crowds of 88,000. Then there’s RAK Studios manager Trisha Wegg, who was awarded an APRS Sound Fellowship and is behind initiatives to get more girls into the studio. There’s Jo Hutchins, who spent 10 years designing audio mixers, as a software engineer and project manager. And there’s Emma Penny, an OB sound engineer who has been the only woman in any department she has worked in; MPG Breakthrough Engineer winner Manon Grandjean; Nicki Fisher, who leads a sales team at intercoms developer Clear-Com.

“Everyone can name George Martin or Pharrell is if you ask them who a famous producer is, but ask them for a female producer and I don’t think they could name one,” says Trisha Wegg, studio manager at RAK Studios. “I wonder how many people know Susan Rogers (pictured) was Prince’s engineer for a number of years? Or Alicia Keys’ engineer is Ann Mincieli?”

Wegg is talking about the representation and visibility of women in the audio industry and what can be done to encourage more women into the male-dominated field. She says it starts with education ­– she doesn’t think the career is offered as an option to girls when they are in school. Plus raising the profile of women in the field is necessary to encourage and inspire other women, she comments.

Last year, RAK hosted its 40th anniversary party. RAK has played host to Sam Smith recording his debut album In the Lonely Hour, High & Dry from Radiohead, Birdy’s People Help the People, The Pet Shops Boys’ It’s A Sin and Simply Red’s Holding Back the Years. Other artists who have passed through RAK’s doors include The Who, Duran Duran, Boy George, The Cure, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Barry Manilow, INXS, Ed Sheeran, Royal Blood and David Bowie.

Wegg (pictured) has been with the studio since it opened. She is also one of three women that has been awarded an APRS Sound Fellowship ­– a personal highlight of her career. (The other two were Maggie Rodford, music supervisor and managing director at Air-Edel Group, and Colette Barber, who retired as studio manager at Abbey Road in 2015).

Wegg says most studio managers tend to be female, but when you get to engineers and assistants, they are largely male. She hired RAK’s first female assistant back in 1984/85 and she thinks it was one of the first studios to have a female tape operator. “Over the years we’ve always had female assistants and some who have gone on to be engineers and producers. Manon Grandjean who won MPG Breakthrough Engineer of the year worked at RAK for a couple of years in a freelance capacity. The situation is changing – women are coming through – but this is still disproportionate to the numbers of men and we are hoping to rectify that,” she says. “I recently participated in a seminar, which included three female engineers, for a group of female students looking to enter this industry. RAK has recently hosted the Dice Music Day over a weekend at the studios for girls wishing to make a career in the technical side of recording. This is a part of other initiatives to help redress the balance and show young women they can have a career in the recording industry behind the console.”

For Grandjean, she loves being at the mixing desk, despite the long hours, which she says, makes having a social and personal life tricky. “I love being part of a team and being involved in an album from the beginning until the very end and seeing all the different stage of evolution of a song. Then hearing a project that you worked on for days – sometimes nights – being played on the radio, or hearing people’s feedback is a great reward,” she enthuses. “On a technical point of view, I like the fact that there are no rules, you can make your own, you can always try to push boundaries, to find interesting sounds and it is very creative.”

The French engineer (pictured), who is currently working with Grammy-award winning writer/producer Fraser T Smith in his own studio, was particularly proud about winning the MPG award as she believes it will encourage other women to pursue a career. “It is important that women see that they can also do these so called ‘men’s job’ if they want to. It is also important to give a positive message,” she comments. “Sexism does exist no doubt, but I have personally never experienced it in my job as a sound engineer, so I don’t want people to think that it is systematically happening in a male dominated environment, because it’s not.”

Trailblazers

Mastering engineer Mandy Parnell, owner of Black Saloon Studios, has been in the industry for 32 years. Parnell has added the polish to albums including Jamie xx’s In Colour, Aphex Twin’s Syro, and has worked with the likes of the Chemical Brothers, Max Richter and Brian Eno. Björk’s has called upon her services for many years: Parnell mastered Biophilia (2011) and Vulnicura (2015); she also worked on Björk’s digital exhibition last year, which included VR music videos, with Parnell responsible for the audio inside the headsets.

Parnell never liked playing with dolls as a child, she says, but had a keen interest in music from the age of five, when she would get the old records from the jukebox in the café her parents owned in Essex. Her parents bought her a portable Dansette record player and she would drive them insane by playing the same song 10 times in a row. She then ran away from home at 13 and ended up on the streets.

But this all changed when she visited a friend who was working as a housekeeper at the The Manor in Oxford, then owned by a young Richard Branson. She met an assistant engineer who took her into the control room and explained how it all worked. “It really was a euphoric moment and something really clicked. I was just, like, ‘wow’. So I came back into London and looked into courses,” she says. Parnell attended the School of Audio Engineering in London after which it took her about three years of running, interning, cleaning and being an assistant engineer – whatever she could do – before she got a paid job in the industry.

This was as an assistant mastering engineer at the Exchange, although she says she was considered to be the ‘joke’ interview as she had handwritten a CV – complete with spelling mistakes – and popped it through the doors of the studio on the closing date for applications.

Parnell has experienced sexism in the industry. One example was when her bosses told her they wanted her take on the role of studio manager as the previous person had been fired. “I said, ‘Excuse me I’m an engineer, I don’t want to be a studio manager. I’ve studied to do this, I’ve worked really hard to get here – I don’t want to go sit behind a desk in the office’,” she recalls. “I said: ‘If that’s really what you want me to do then I’m going to have to leave as it’s not something I’m happy to do. This was a sign of the times in the 80s where we started the big change about sexism in the work place. They didn’t put me in the office or ask me to leave and hey look where I ended up!”

But Parnell is proud to be a trailblazer for women in the industry. “I can show young women coming into the industry that you can have a career here, and you can achieve respect across the globe for your work,” she says.

Another trailblazer is Bryony October (pictured), FOH sound engineer, who has toured with artists such as the Noisettes, Foxes, Billy Ocean, Laura Marling, Marika Hackman and SOAK. Her start in the industry came about when she was 15 when she wrote a letter to her favourite band, The Levellers, asking to do work experience. From there she worked as an assistant merchandise seller, she joined the tech crew at the student union while at university, and the Levellers FOH engineer also got her to help with the PA load-ins, as well as mixing the support bands.

“The first time I ever mixed a band it was The Fish Brothers supporting the Levellers in Ryde (Isle of Wight) ice rink, which was a 3,000 capacity venue. It was on a state of the art Yamaha PM4000, which has an awful lot of buttons. It was a baptism of fire but I was totally sold on mixing sound from that moment,” says October.

She has now been in the industry for 21 years, touring with The Noisettes for four years and living through hairy moments such as when front woman Shingai would hang backwards off various balconies around the world… Then there was mixing Laura Marling on tour and having to dial her whole channel list in from scratch – old school style, with no soundcheck – for her second headline show on the main stage at Latitude in 2015. “The adrenalin hit when she opened her mouth and the first notes came out in glorious, perfect sound. Something I can’t ever forget,” she says.

In the summer of last year, the band Foxes, with whom October has worked with for the past couple of years, supported Coldplay around stadiums in the USA.. “We had very little in the way of time or budget to be ready for that tour and as opening act there was little chance of soundcheck as we weren’t able to even set up on stage until the doors were open,” she explains. “I had one day in (Wandsworth-based) Cato’s small rehearsal space to build the monitor and front of house files before we started the tour at the 88,000 capacity Mel Life stadium. Again it was the most incredible feeling to have the band walk out on stage, not really knowing how the rehearsal file would translate up to that scale and it all working better than I could possibly have hoped for.”

But like Parnell, she has also experienced discrimination in the industry, “almost on a daily basis to some extent”, although she said it is hard to decipher whether its sexism or bad-tempered employees.

“Some days you’ll be pushing flight cases around a venue when you’re packing up – all the rest of the crew will be doing the same thing – and the security guy will single you out and ask to see your pass,” she explains. “I’ve also had moments where you just get such dirty looks when you say you’re mixing the show, or huge amounts of interference or comments when you want to make changes to the way things are set up in a venue. Again you can never really tell if that’s because you’re female though, it could equally just be a really grumpy house guy.”

October says that because of the way the industry works it’s impossible to gauge how much a person’s career success is from getting lucky with a band who have a hit or being in the right place at the right time, but she can’t help and wonder sometimes if her career has been stymied by the fact she is female. “Conversely, I also work with a huge number of successful female artists because they want a woman around. However, I’ve certainly got peers who started off working at a similar time to me with similar level bands who are now mixing and getting offers of work at a consistently higher level than I do,” she says. “I wonder if I missed out on opportunities because when there is a choice of engineers and one is a woman they just don’t have faith in women as front of house engineers, because there aren’t very many of us at all. I would be lying if there haven’t been occasions when I have been told ‘off the record’ by tour managers that so-and-so artist ‘won’t have a girl doing FOH’ or that ‘you can do monitors but not FOH’ or ‘we are worried about balance on the crew as we already have a girl doing monitors and how will we be able to lift all the gear with so many women around’.”

While the touring lifestyle is not especially conducive to domestic arrangements, especially having children, October doesn’t want to discourage women. She is enthusiastic about the career it offers. “It is a really fun life and when you’re successful, it’s lucrative too. You travel all over the place in a gang and it’s like living in a bubble where the real world doesn’t really matter. It’s getting paid for pure escapism,” she says.

Technical skills

Jo Hutchins studied electronic engineering at university and was one of three girls on a course of 70. Three years after graduating, she started as a software engineer at Soundcraft, working as a designer on the first generation of digitally-controlled analogue consoles. She has a number of highlights from that job. “The opportunity to design the user interface for the first moving-fader automation system for recording applications enabled me to transfer my vision of the most effective creative practices for making music into products for professional sound engineers to use,” she explains. “Secondly, providing training for our distributors in how to sell these new products meant that I was getting direct feedback on how these products would impact the working practices of engineers. Most importantly, it was exciting to be part of a talented team of engineers within a company where every employee had the opportunity to feel the buzz of our industry.” Hutchins (pictured back then) went on to be a project manager with the Soundcraft R&D department.

And again, she’s faced prejudice for being female. “It’s annoying, but if you know where you’re heading and why, then you will work out ways to overcome it. You might just have to shout a little louder to get heard – and I do have a very quiet voice, as sound engineers always point out!” she says.

“The nice thing about engineering is that if you’re right then it works. I have been in situations where my methodology has been questioned. I am a strong believer that men and women have very different ways of thinking, so inevitably they will take different approaches to solving a problem. Perhaps we just need to take a little time to teach the men around us that we might know a few things they don’t,” she comments.

Currently Hitchins (pictured today) works for Interfacio and specialises in recruiting for R&D engineering positions for manufacturers of audio equipment, which still requires her to draw on her first-hand working experience and technical skills.

Parnell remarks that her technical skills have also been doubted, particularly early on in her career.

“The Exchange was really known for electronic music and the dance scene and we were cutting [vinyl for] everyone. Occasionally guys would come in with me and they would say, ‘Do you know how to cut a loud record?’, and I would retort: ‘Do you see where I work? Why wouldn’t I be able to? Do you think I would be able to work here if I didn’t?’ Whereas they would never ask that if they walked into one of the guy’s rooms,” she complains. “They would also hang out with the guys and just be chit-chatting about anything, but with me they would want to know every little thing I was doing. They would really question me about why I might be using that setting on a compressor or limiter or why I am EQing it like that. It was just a very different relationship. I’d have some producer who would be quite challenging on that level [but] luckily I was quite a geek girl and had been taught well.”

Tomboy or feminine?

Be yourself, says October, who likes to wear a dress on her days off. “Don’t feel you have to be a tomboy or butch,” she says. “I’ve kept my femininity but at the same time not made it a hindrance. The trouble is you have to be careful. I’ve seen women take it too far in terms of ‘Don’t try to help me of course I can lift this, how dare you insult me by offering to help’!”

October’s advice is to try not to think of gender as an issue. “Remember that most people are just grumpy and have their own shit going on and it’s not really about you. Be thick-skinned around bored bunches of men who have been doing it too long. Kill miserable local crew and house engineers with smiles and kindness no matter how hard a time they give you. And remember it’s OK to be girly,” she comments.

Parnell agrees that females shouldn’t try and be like one of the guys. “I talk about using your feminine energy in the studio. We can be gracious, you don’t need to be macho,” she says.

Eight years into her career, Parnell met a Native American woman, who realised she was working in a very male-dominated environment. She gave Parnell medicine bags to keep close to her, so she could maintain her femininity. “This was a great spiritual lesson for me,” she says.

Parnell (pictured. Photo credit: simonweller.com) adds that some studios just need more pink in them. “Brittany Hampton (RIP), daughter of [Paisley Park technical director] Dave Hampton, had a pink edition of the speaker specially made up for me. They are awesome.”

The future

Is it doom and gloom for women looking for a career in the industry? Not so much these days. While Parnell says it took her five years to meet another female when she first started in the industry, today women are lucky. “There are great female figureheads across every genre for any young women coming into the industry,” she says.

Like Wegg, she points to Susan Rogers (pictured in a mobile recording truck, during the Sign ‘o the Times tour. Photo credit: Jandro Cisneros), Prince’s mix engineer, who worked with him on Sign o’ the Times and who is now director of the Berklee Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory. Parnell also goes on to namecheck Jungle City’s Ann Mincieli, who has engineered for Alicia Keys, Drake and Jay Z. “How about Leslie Ann Jones over at Skywalker Sound. It’s also great to be able to say look at EveAnna Manley and the equipment she makes over at Manley Labs.”

Wegg adds: “This is a changing situation. There are already women out there making their careers in this industry and there is room for more. Love and have a real passion for music – that is your starting point.”

www.blacksaloonstudios.com

rakstudios.co.uk

www.interfacio.com

www.matrix-studios.co.uk

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