A woman’s place is at the soundboard: Women’s Audio Mission works to change the industry of music
New ‘Undefeated’ song was written, engineered and produced by women
Trakgirl is a Washington, D.C., producer who’s been making beats for 13 years. But until May, she’d never been part of a recording session that was 100 percent female, from the songwriter to the vocalist to the engineer to the producer.
That changed when Trakgirl, 28, went to the Women’s Audio Mission (WAM) in San Francisco to record an original song for a project by The Undefeated about black female athletes. (You can listen to the track, called “Undefeated,” here.) The nonprofit Women’s Audio Mission, now in its 15th year of existence, touts itself as the “only professional recording studio in the world built and run entirely by women.”
“It was amazing,” Trakgirl said. “It feels good to see another woman control the board and really be focused. You don’t see that all the time, the industry being so male-dominated in the studio. So it’s just refreshing.”
That’s the feeling Terri Winston, WAM’s executive director and founder, has been trying to make less and less of a rarity. Winston started WAM after a multi-decade career as a songwriter, composer, recording engineer, and producer. She’s worked with acts such as the Flaming Lips, Fugazi, P.J. Harvey, Pixies, Throwing Muses, Cake, and Third Eye Blind. But Winston didn’t see too many women doing the same jobs as her, much less being recognized for them. So she started WAM in 2003 while she was working as a professor and the director of sound recording arts at City College of San Francisco. What began as a modest mentorship program took in enough donations from individuals, corporate sponsors, and foundations over the years to open recording studios in San Francisco and Oakland, California. According to tax information from 2015, the latest available, WAM received $1.27 million in donations that year and another $6,600 in membership dues. Its expenses were just over $934,000.
WAM has now become a recognized professional pipeline for women in the music and recording industry, with training programs and internships for college-age and post-graduate women and free youth programs targeting girls in the Bay Area. When record companies are looking to hire women, they often call WAM.
The Mission’s free Girls on the Mic workshop brings middle-school girls to its studios to get them interested in music technology and offers similar workshops in Bay Area public schools. Instructors even teach girls how to make a rudimentary speaker from a plastic cup. About 1,500 girls participate in Girls on the Mic each year, a Mission spokesperson said.
It offers six-month internships that serve as a feeder program to entry-level audio jobs and multiweek certificate training programs in production, engineering, sound design and other areas in music and sound technology. Its studios serve two purposes: They provide dedicated training grounds for women, and studio space for artists who want to record there.
The Kronos Quartet, the St. Lawrence String quartet, tUnE-yArDs, and Angélique Kidjo are the highest-profile acts that have worked with WAM. When it rents studio time, the Mission mandates that a WAM-trained engineer control the soundboards, ensuring that a woman will get the job.
According to Winston, the organization has placed roughly 650 women in jobs, many of them in the Bay Area, at companies including Dolby, Electronic Arts and Skywalker Sound. But gender parity in the music industry remains a long way off. It’s a long-standing problem that’s spawned an entire genre of news articles. According to a recent study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (the same initiative that recently revealed dismal diversity numbers in film criticism), female producers made up just 2 percent of the recording industry from 2012-17. “Additional information on individuals working as session singers, instrumentalists, mixing and mastering engineers throughout the industry must also be further clarified,” the study’s authors stated.
Celebrity can be a powerful tool, and Winston thinks it would help if an A-list artist announced that she or he would work only with female producers and engineers on their next album, the way, say, Ava DuVernay insisted that every episode of Queen Sugar be directed by women.
At the height of Janet Jackson’s musical career, her celebrity shined a light on two guys who looked like the Blues Brothers and never said much. As songwriters and producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis became a part of the Janet Industrial Complex, recognized on their own merits as the architects of Jackson’s signature sound.
It would be invaluable if a music star could vault a female producer into the national consciousness in a similar way, Winston said. Jackson herself is the first of just six women who have been nominated for a producer of the year Grammy (it was for Rhythm Nation).
“Women’s Audio Mission has been doing it for 15 years, but we need a bigger mouthpiece,” Winston said. “We need folks to help us get the word out.”
Why does gender parity in the sound and recording industry matter so much?
Most of what we hear pulsing through our earbuds at the gym, through our cans on trains, buses or planes, or our car stereo systems, whether it’s news or music or podcasts, is delivered through a prism of maleness.
“How many days in your life have you spent in complete silence?” Winston asked. “Like, none, right? I mean, unless you’re a monk or something, or a nun. Right? That’s how important sound is to us. It’s a really constant soundtrack that we live to every day, and when you have less than 5 percent women creating and shaping all of those messages, that means we’re not at the table. To me, that’s where all the decisions are being made on all the messages, the things we hear every day. We’re not at the table, and so women’s ideas and perspectives and points of view just aren’t audible.”
Places such as WAM and SoundGirls, a women-in-audio organization with chapters around the country, have endeavored to bring more women to the table. They teach all sorts of skills, from getting comfortable with using mixing boards in recording studios to building speakers and synths to writing code for drum machines. Sound design isn’t just about radio, music and podcasting; it shapes what we hear in movies and television, and how we hear it.
Having women visible as audio producers and engineers is “hugely important, because it just shapes everything,” Winston said. “It’s going to shape whether a girl decides to pursue a technical career. If those messages are not getting to her, she’s not going to make that choice. It’s not that they’re not interested, it’s that they’re not exposed to it or, worse than that, discouraged from heading down that path.”
Having a place like the Mission can be hugely important for women who are coming to audio as a second career or are still deciding how much they want to invest in formal training.
Trakgirl, 28, comes from a musical family, but her parents didn’t want to pay for her to study music in college. So she attended Hampton University and obtained a degree in business while pursuing her passion for beat-making on the side.
Trakgirl is from southern Virginia, and she was inspired by Timbaland and Pharrell Williams, both well-known products of the 757. But it was Missy Elliott who inspired her the most.
“She produced her own records, wrote her own records,” Trakgirl said. “It’s like, ‘Man, I really want to do what she does.’ I just researched and got into the studio. I come from a background of musicians in my family, but I never wanted to do the traditional route.”
When Trakgirl was 15, she worked at McDonald’s. She had a red Gateway laptop and she saved her money to buy an AKAI MPD drum machine for about $100, then started experimenting with making beats on her own.
Now, she has a personalized process for working that’s different from most producers. Instead of cranking out beats and selling them, she takes time to personalize her work for each client. Her latest is singer Luke James, who sends Trakgirl ideas that he records on his iPhone as voice memos. She’ll build a track around the idea, and they’ll finish it together in a studio.
“I feel like artists, producers should have some type of connection first from a personal standpoint before really deep diving,” Trakgirl said. “I think we built a friendship first before we got into the session. The day-to-day, it’s just literally just being in the studio talking about what’s going on in our lives. Just having fun and just creating and then coming back to it.”
The barrier to entry for female producers is arguably lower than it’s ever been. Most women and girls have a tiny production studio available to them in their pockets or purses. It’s their phone.
One woman who’s realized this is Cleo Reed, a sophomore at Berklee College of Music studying electronic production and design. She’s the only black woman in her program. When she first arrived, Reed thought she would study songwriting. She quickly realized she still had a use for the skills she’d acquired while attending her STEM (science, engineering, technology and math) high school in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“I was familiar with math and engineerin, and I had a huge passion for music, and I had kept them so separate,” Reed said. “Going to college made me realize that those things aren’t separate. For me, they go hand in hand. The cognition that I used for math and calculus and coding in HTML and in C++ is the same cognition that I would use to write a song.”
What gave Reed the confidence to apply for the electronic production program was the realization that she’d actually been producing and mixing her own work for years. When Reed needed to record the vocals for her song “Drive Me Down,” she didn’t do it in a fancy studio that charges expensive by-the-hour rates. She created a studio in her bedroom with some blankets, her laptop, and a USB microphone she bought for about $100.
It came out sounding like this:
But it wasn’t until she met Abhita Austin, a producer and mentor she met at the NYU Future Music Moguls program, that Reed recognized she was able to do the sound engineering herself too.
It was Austin, Reed said, who told her, “You don’t have to put your art in someone else’s hands.”
Now, Reed’s manager is a woman. The artwork for “Drive Me Down” was created and shot by women, and those decisions were purposeful. “I understood how it felt to be in an industry where you’re the only woman doing that thing,” Reed said.
Like Winston, Reed thinks that if women are to enter the industry in significant numbers, there has to be a change in the way the skills for production and engineering are discussed and taught. No one really told her that there was a connection between her STEM skill set and her creative one, Reed said.
That’s a big part of WAM’s mission: to get girls interested in STEM careers early, using music and audio production as the vehicle. It’s important to target them specifically because producing, coding and engineering are typically seen as male professions. When Trakgirl first began arriving to studio sessions, for example, men would invariably mistake her for a vocalist. They couldn’t believe she was a producer.
“I still find it important, especially as a woman in this industry, to at least have a foundation in each of these more technical areas of the creativity,” Reed said. “At least so I can have a hand in being able to explain my vision properly to someone who might be engineering for me, to explain my vision properly to someone who does lights, someone who does live sound.”
The Women’s Audio Mission is working to ensure that there are more who control their own voices.
“It took some time for me to be like, ‘OK, this is what I really want to do and really shape my own career,” Trakgirl said. “I’m just really trying to show other women that you can really have a successful career doing this.”