When the women of Atrocity Girl, a grunge-influenced heavy rock band whose four members live in the North Seattle and Shoreline area, walked through the door of a studio to record their first single in 2019, they were met by a lone male audio engineer and a bad joke.
“Women are always late,” is the first thing he said, according to drummer Angela Dane.
After that and some awkward setup time, the band didn’t have their usual easy, joking rapport, and weren’t able to get into a good groove when it came time to play. Dane emailed the engineer after and said the band would pay him for both days booked, but wouldn’t be coming in the next day.
They tried another studio, but by that night of recording, the male engineer had already started flirting with the guitarist via Instagram. They found a guy with a home studio who seemed perfect: Then, a few days before they were set to record, he mentioned if they recorded with him he would solely own the copyright to the original recordings of their music — something the band hadn’t agreed to and didn’t want, Dane said.
The music industry in general is packed with men, but nowhere is the disparity more overwhelming than behind the glass of the audio engineering room. A 2021 report from the University of Southern California, with funding from Spotify, found that while women only make up 21.6% of recording artists, and 12.6% of songwriters, they account for a meager 2.6% of producers and audio engineers (whose jobs are not necessarily interchangeable, but are often grouped together). A 2016 survey from the Audio Engineering Society found 7% of its 12,000 members worldwide identified as women, though respondents could opt not to share gender.
For the few who do stick it out, it’s often a calculation of “how much abuse is this job worth?” according to Rachel Field, a co-owner of Resonant Mastering, one of three women-owned studios that Field knows of in Seattle. Field has been in the industry for around a decade, and worked with the likes of Brandi Carlile, Eddie Vedder and Whitney Mongé.
“There are a million things making the job more difficult for women to enter and succeed in, and it isn’t anymore that the education is unavailable to women,” Field said. “It’s now more of a culmination of, the environment is unfriendly sometimes, and you can’t get work until you have credits but you can’t get credits until you do work. So you just kind of have to endure until you get somewhere.”
But the members of Atrocity Girl decided not to just endure but to do something about it. The journey they embarked on — trying to teach themselves to record audio — would culminate in the creation of a one-of-a-kind audio program at North Seattle College, which has just finished its first year of classes.
Though it’s still small, its architects think it might be the only audio program in the country taught entirely by women and people of color through a college institution.
Atrocity Girl quarantined together when the pandemic hit. Their upcoming shows were canceled, and studios weren’t recording in person. Who knew how long before they could finish recording their single, let alone their album.
So Johnny Angel, the frontwoman, had an idea:
“‘Maybe we can learn this for ourselves,’” said Ryan Lee, the guitarist, recounting the moment. “‘Maybe it’s not that hard.’”
Of course, it was hard. They would soon learn there are a million little things that separate a professional-sounding musical track from a janky amateur one. Recording instruments such as drums, live, takes expensive, specialized microphones. Editing programs require days to learn on your own. Little issues can send you to the internet for hours and often you don’t even know what you’re looking for. Balancing, equalizing and adjusting vocals, bass and other elements is an art unto itself that takes a very talented, or very practiced, ear.
But that’s not really what keeps women from getting into the field, according to Seattle-area women in audio engineering who spoke to The Seattle Times. When there are already very few women around you, it’s hard to be one of the few.
Talaya Logan is one of Seattle’s most visible up-and-coming full-time female engineers/producers of color, but when she went to Bellevue College to learn audio, she only lasted one semester.
Logan was one of two women in Audio 1, and the only Black person. She didn’t have some of the prior experience or fancy equipment her more privileged classmates had, and the learning environment wasn’t the right fit, she said. She would stay late mixing songs on her mom’s 2012 MacBook, a “dinosaur of a computer” that sometimes refused to even boot up, and she would hear men walk by talking about equipment she didn’t even know how to work yet — like, “Hey, do you want to go to my dad’s studio? He has a new LA-2A compressor.” Once during class, everyone stood in a circle and learned how to properly wrap cables: She tried three times and couldn’t do it correctly, and the professor wouldn’t move on until she finally did.
But he also told her she had a good ear for mixing, and not to give up. Logan dropped out after one semester because she felt out of place, but she had learned enough to know what to search for on YouTube, and began teaching herself.
“It’s very hard” to start out, Logan said. “It was definitely a lot of years of struggling through and being frustrated.”
She also had different, better learning experiences where there were more people of color, women, and gender-nonconforming people, such as at Macklemore’s youth program The Residency. Today Logan works at the Ruby Room, a go-to studio for several notable local hip-hop artists.
She does her best to give back to up-and-comers like her, giving free consultations and recommending them for gigs she can’t make or thinks they’d be good for.
Even if you do finish school, it can get harder. Working in audio engineering is essentially working in “customer service,” says Field, of Resonant Mastering.
The customer might not always be right, but it’s their music, and their name on the album — your name is in tiny print on the liner notes, if at all, said Lilian Blair, an audio engineer at the Vera Project, a Seattle nonprofit studio, venue and creative space for youth. Blair, who’s been in the industry for more than five years, had men simply walk away when she would approach artists early on and ask about collaborating.
So there’s some amount of weird or frustrating behavior that everyone has to endure, according to Field. “It is really important to be able to navigate those relationships,” she said. “If something rubs you the wrong way, there are times when you have to let it go.”
But for women, it often feels particularly bad. In the early days of her career, Field endured so much she came close to quitting the industry several times, she said. It was the early 2010s, years before #MeToo, and Field would get everything from people asking her if she was the engineer’s girlfriend or the secretary, to constant comments about her body while she was trying to work.
Partially because of this, Field moved away from the face-to-face recording side of the work and got really good at mastering — the final stage of audio production, wherein the music has already been recorded and the engineer puts on final touches, enhances the overall sound and makes it consistent across the album. It’s often solo work.
Things have gotten better since then, not in the least because the studio Field got her first full-time job at in 2012 was sold in 2016, and she and her co-worker, Ed Brooks, bought it. She controls her hours and to some degree, who she works with. Nowadays, any sexism she deals with is mostly people treating Brooks with deference and her with “weird disrespect.”
Nowadays, Field is trying to give back — to make it easier for other women coming up in audio engineering than it was for her. That’s why, when Atrocity Girl reached out to her, interested in having her mix their single, and then told her that because of the pandemic they were thinking of recording the single themselves at home, she and Blair decided to help.
“Amazing women coming to our aid”
Atrocity Girl turned to women like Blair and Field who’d already blazed a trail. Field drove to Dane’s house and lent the band mics, cables, speakers and equipment. Blair sat down with them for hours and taught them how to use the audio-production app Pro Tools, then helped them record.
They started joining online communities and Facebook groups. Dane started a Facebook group for women in similar positions, and soon found that high-caliber women producers and engineers would come on Zoom to talk to them. Sylvia Massy, who produced Tool’s triple-platinum selling “Undertow” (1993), as well as music for Johnny Cash, came and gave a mix demonstration; Susan Rogers came to speak about her time as staff engineer for Prince.
“Just amazing women coming to our aid,” Dane said.
By the end of the process, they’d outfitted drummer Dane’s house with XLR cables running from her bedroom to the guest room (the “studio”), and they’d communicate between the two with walkie-talkies. They put out that first single in 2020, and released their first album last month.
Dane fell in love with the production side. She decided to get her certificate in audio production techniques from the University of Washington.
But there, Dane encountered something far different than during her baby steps in audio engineering. Her instructors were all men (as are all the instructors listed on UW’s website for the program), and she said they didn’t listen to any mixes by women in class. When they separated into study groups, she was always the only person of color and the only woman in the group.
Blair, who taught Dane Pro Tools, also had a somewhat similar experience at Shoreline Community College when she was starting out five years ago. She noticed that lots of women started the program with her but very few finished.
Dane and Blair began talking. What if they could design an audio program taught entirely by women and people of color, using Zoom to bring in guest lecturers like Massy and Rogers from all over the world?
They presented a curriculum to administrators at North Seattle College, where Dane teaches women’s studies. It seemed like a natural fit as a program in the college’s continuing education department, according to Christy Isaacson, director of continuing education and contract training.
Though it’s not accredited, a big point of the program is getting students hands-on experience at the sound board — and the classes with in-person studio opportunities have been the most popular, Isaacson said. They’ve held three classes a quarter and had an average of eight people take each class. A few of the classes have struggled with low enrollment and coronavirus exposures limiting in-person studio time, but there was enough demand to do a previously unplanned class this summer and more in the fall.
Dane and Blair teach classes; Field guest-lectures. The gender balance between men and women in Blair’s classes is pretty equal; in Dane’s, there are more women. Dane said at around $200 a class, it’s more affordable than her certificate at UW, but there are scholarships available.
And as efforts like these proliferate, things do feel like they’re beginning to get better, Field says.
“It does seem like there are more women in the industry,” Field said. “We just need more women to get more high-profile work, so they can get more high-profile work.”