There has been a lot of talk in our society lately about gender equality and the roles of women and men. As a music producer and engineer, is has been a fascinating experience watching those roles evolve in my industry over the course of the past 35 years.
Way Back When
When I first started out, there were almost no women in audio engineering and producing — not only in the major industry roles at record labels and commercial studios, but also in the home studio market, where I started out.
We’ve all seen it: back in those days, anything technical was considered a “man’s job” and women would do best to settle for a pat on the head and stay out of the way (you know… maybe hang out in the kitchen or the nursery) while the man got the “real work” done. I call this the “car mechanic syndrome” and I’m sure that EVERY woman reading this post knows EXACTLY what I’m talking about! Yikes! That’s the way that it was in all areas of society back then, and that included the technical side of the music industry.
In fact, there weren’t many women in any aspect of the music industry, except for a few, very specific, clearly-defined roles, like songwriter, artist, music teacher, etc. Even when women were musicians, they didn’t normally play the same instruments that men did (for example, how many women lead guitarists were there — anywhere — 35 years ago?). And the exceptions were truly exceptions, as in, only a handful of them did what they did. And heaven forbid, there would be any women music executives, like heads of labels, publishing houses, booking agencies, or commercial studios. Fuhgeddaboutit!
That Was Then, This Is Now
Fortunately, all of that has changed dramatically, especially in the past few years. Today, women fill EVERY role in the music industry, and in many cases, the men who used to be their bosses are now working for them. Yes! 🙂 Here are just a few women who are now “household names” in the production/engineering field:
- Emily Lazar – Grammy-winning mastering engineer at The Lodge
- Trina Shoemaker – producer/engineer for Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Queens of the Stone Age
- Sarah Jones – Editor-in-chief of Mix Magazine, Electronic Musician Magazine
- Paula Cole – Grammy-winning Producer of the Year for her 100% self-produced CD, This Fire
- Sylvia Massey – producer/engineer for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tool, Sevendust, Johnny Cash
Then there’s Linda Perry, Kara DioGuardi, Gail Davies… you get the idea.
But let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that the numbers are 50 percent women and 50 percent men in those roles, or that life for women is truly “equal” in all respects — not just in the music industry, but in society at large.
It’s Not Either-Or
So yes, the Glass Ceiling has broken (or is at least breaking). But in all the talk about gender equality, I think some of us are missing one critical thing: yes, women and men should be treated equally and have equal opportunity; but they are different, and that’s a good thing — a VERY good thing! In an ideal world (at least in mine), women and men should be celebrated for the different talents, perspectives and outlooks they each bring to the table; it’s the combination of our uniquenesses that makes us all truly stronger, and the results that much better. Nowhere is that more true than when it comes to producing music.
Learning Through Observing
I’ve witnessed an intriguing transition taking place in my own producing and engineering career over the past dozen years or so. I’ve found myself producing more and more projects for female artists rather than male artists. And the percentage of students who take my recording, mixing and mastering courses is shifting — dramatically — towards women. I’ve reached the point where I work so much with women who are involved in music production, that I now even offer live recording clinics exclusively to women.
All this to say, I’ve spent a lot my career working with women in the studio, on both sides of the glass. And through this process, I’ve noticed some traits that women tend to bring to the process compared to men, and vice-versa. It’s not a question of who’s “better” or “worse;” rather, it’s a fact that, when women’s and men’s strengths are combined in a truly collaborative environment, sheer magic happens with the music. I’d like to highlight a few of the unique abilities that women bring to the production and engineering process. Some folks might disagree with my take on these, but they’ve been reality for me, based on my 35 years years of experience in the studio.
It’s a fact of biology and evolution: women have a higher degree of hearing sensitivity than men do. My wife calls it “mom hearing.” Not only do women hear a wider frequency range, they also hear a greater degree of nuance in sounds. They’re attuned to finer degrees of sonic subtlety than men are. The implication? When it comes to mixing and mastering — or even something like headphone selection or monitoring volume — women have the upper edge. They’re going to hear things more — and therefore, differently — than men do in exactly the same scenario.
It’s All In The Details
On a related note, I’ve found that women tend to have better attention to detail in the studio. Part of it may be nature and part of it may be cultural, but I find that women producers and engineers tend to catch certain little, subtle things that might pass right by their male counterparts. Perhaps it’s because women seem to be able to laser-focus on a single thing while blocking out most everything else, and therefore are able to pick up more information about the one thing they’re focused on. This attention to detail, it just so happens, is essential to being a great recording engineer.
So Many Things…
At the same time (and I suspect this one definitely has its roots in evolution), women seem to have an uncanny ability to multi-task — to be able to pay attention to and manage many, disparate things at the same time. In the studio, that translates into being able to listen to the performance of the vocal, the message of the lyrics, the frequencies of the instruments, and the overall emotional impact of the entire production — ALL AT THE SAME TIME! This ability to multi-task and work at different levels simultaneously is one of the hallmarks of being a great producer. Sure, men can learn to do it well, too (there are certainly plenty of super male producers out there), but for women, it’s a skill that just seems to come more naturally.
Must… Get… Through… This…
Like many of the things I’ve listed here, this one is admittedly a generalization, but I’ve found that women tend to have a LOT of endurance in the studio. One of my favorite women engineer/producers (and a mentor of mine), Kim Person, seems to be able to work 20 hours straight in the studio without a break, and never lose a step. I, on the other hand, am absolute toast after about eight hours. And the reason I check out much earlier is that I reach a point where I’ve lost all perspective and no longer trust my hearing, and know that if I keep going, I’m going to really regret it when I listen back to what I’ve done the following day, and will probably have to re-do it all anyway. But Kimmie can just keep truckin’ along and never lose her edge, no matter how long she’s been at it. It’s a skill that’s absolutely critical on either side of the glass, but particularly in the control room, where a lack of concentration can mean the difference between capturing a perfect track, and ruining one. So, hats off to the women for being able to push on through, since life in the studio is frequently a test of endurance.
What Am I, Chopped Liver?
At this point, you may be wondering, “what about the guys?” You might be thinking that what I’m saying is that the women have all the great skills to be super engineers and producers, and guys are shit. Well, hardly. While it’s not the focus of this article, men DO bring a LOT of unique strengths to the process. For example, I’ve found that men can tend to get less “stuck” in the studio than women might, and as such, can free themselves from the moment, make a decision, and move on.
Also, men tend to be less timid in the studio, and are therefore more willing to present an idea or argue their case when they believe strongly, whereas women might spend more time worrying about offending others, or asking for permission or approval. Sometimes, the idea that gets resistance right up front can still be the best idea, and if the person presenting it is not willing or able to push back a little to be heard, that idea may never see the light of day, and the music loses in the long run.
Those are just a couple of examples, but yes, men do bring many positive contributions to the process. But the whole point is that, naturally, women and men have different emphases; and when they’re combined, we get the best results. With practice, we can each become better at the things that come more naturally to the opposite gender, and ultimately, every one of us — whether female or male — will become more “in tune” with the music. And that, after all, is why we’re all here.
A Call To Arms
I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with so many women artists, engineers and producers over the course of my producing and teaching career. I’m thrilled to see that there has never been a better time for women to step up and take their rightful role in music production and engineering.
So, to my women colleagues, I say your time is NOW. Share your plan for stepping up in the comments below.
I look forward to seeing YOUR name on hit records in the future! 🙂
P.S. If you’re a woman who already records and/or produces music for yourself or for others (or are aspiring to), I’d like to talk with you about how we might work together.
A great place to start would be my live, Women-only Recording Clinic that will be taking place in Nashville April 6th — 9th, 2017. You can find out all the details and sign up for the Clinic at this link:
About the Author
is an independent music producer and engineer, published author, music career coach, and co-founder of the Azalea Music Group in Nashville. He helps artists and songwriters reach their fullest sonic and emotional impact with the recordings he produces, and also teaches them how to do it themselves. His diverse list of clients includes Davy Jones of the Monkees, Grammy-winning songwriter Don Henry, and international guitar virtuosos Tommy Emmanuel and Muriel Anderson.