By Sue Barrett
An Australian musician recently commented on the lack of women working in recording studios when he started out in the 1960s - except for the 'girl' singers, tea ladies and secretaries. When the conversation turned to his new album, he enthused over the finishing touches that were being done by 'the guys' at the studio - one of the guys, it turns out, is a woman.
And here are eight women whose work as record producers and/or engineers extends over more than three decades.
JEN ANDERSON (Melbourne, Australia) has been a professional musician since 1982 and a producer since 1991. Her production, co-production and/or engineering credits include: Andy Baylor, Ruby Hunter, The Waifs, Weddings Parties Anything, as well as Tim Rogers' What Rhymes with Cars and Girls (for which Tim won an ARIA Award for Best Male Vocal in 1999).
Jen has been a member of The Black Sorrows (1989-93) and Weddings Parties Anything (1994-98). Although best known for her violin playing, she plays several instruments and has performed on recordings by Nick Cave, Deborah Conway, Hunters and Collectors, Julia Darling, Renee Geyer, Ruby Hunter, Midnight Oil, Archie Roach and Tiddas.
Jen has written film scores for the full length silent movies The Sentimental Bloke and Pandora's Box and for the feature film, The Goddess of 1967. And she has also composed music for television (The Dahlia Men, Simone de Beauvoir's Babies, The Great Outdoors), dance and theatre.
During 2001, Jen has been continuing with her studio recording work, writing the score for a short film, composing music for a teenage television drama series and performing in the musical play, Long Gone Lonesome Cowgirls, at the Tamworth Country Music Festival. The year has also seen the Australian premiere of The Goddess of 1967 and the release of the soundtrack for the movie.
Jen Anderson can be contacted through her Manager, Andrew Walker (email@example.com).
TRET FURE (Wisconsin, USA) began working as a professional musician and engineer/producer in the 1970s and was the first staff producer and engineer for Olivia Records. Her engineering and/or production credits include: Meg Christian, June and Jean Millington, Cris Williamson, Melanie DeMore and Michael Quatro.
As a performer, Tret has opened for the J Geils Band, Yes and Poco, been part of a duo with Cris Williamson and worked as a guitarist and vocalist for Spencer Davis. She has released five solo albums, plus three albums with Cris Williamson.
Tret is an executive board member of the North American Traveling Musician's Union, Local 1000.
In 2001, Tret has been undertaking an extensive tour of North America, promoting her new album, Back Home. In addition, she is teaching songwriting in various parts of the USA, doing book signing for her latest creation, the Tret's Kitchen cookbook, and continuing to expand and maintain her clothing line, Tomboy girl wear.
LESLIE ANN JONES (California, USA) started working as a recording engineer and producer in the mid 1970s.
She has worked for ABC Records, ABC Studios and Automatt Studios and was staff engineer for Capitol Records for nine years. Her record credits include: Rosemary Clooney, Harry Connick Jr, Dave Edmunds, Michael Feinstein, Ferron, Jane Fonda, Ronnie Gilbert, Marcus Miller, Herbie Hancock, HARP (Holly Near, Arlo Guthrie, Ronnie Gilbert, Pete Seeger), Manhattan Transfer, John Mayall, Carmen McRae, Van Morrison, Holly Near, Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter and The Kronos Quartet. The film scores that she has recorded include Requiem for a Dream, Grace of My Heart and White Men Can't Jump.
Leslie, who is the daughter of band leader Spike Jones and singer Helen Grayco, is currently Director of Music Recording and Scoring at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, California and Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
KAREN KANE (Toronto, Canada) has been engineering and producing albums independently for more than 25 years, with over 150 album credits and countless live shows.
Karen has engineered two Canadian JUNO Award nominated albums (1997, 2001). Other albums have been nominated for Boston Music Awards and singles have appeared on USA music charts. Her extensive experience with on-location mobile recording includes the Barenaked Ladies and Janis Ian. In 1986, Karen helped launch Tracy Chapman's career by engineering her first-ever recording.
In addition to several years of jingle engineering, Karen managed a number of recording studios including a major jingle facility in New York City. She has had numerous articles published in Canadian Musician, Professional Sound, Sing Out! and Hot Wire. In 1998, Karen joined the faculty at Harris Institute for the Arts as a producing/engineering instructor. Karen's career, originally focused in the Boston area of the USA, has been based in Canada since 1991.
During 2001, Karen has continued to work all over North America.
For a full list of credits, published articles and profiles, visit Karen Kane's website, www.total.net/~mixmama
JOAN LOWE (Oregon, USA) commenced working as a recording engineer in the mid 1960s and later moved on to production. In 1968, she established Pacific Cascade Records.
Joan's album credits as engineer and/or producer include: Margie Adam, Meg Christian, Holly Near, Nancy Raven, Malvina Reynolds and Cris Williamson. She was also the production consultant and recordist for Virgo Rising: The Once and Future Woman (Thunderbird Records, 1973) - one of the first albums produced, engineered and performed solely by women.
In 2001, Joan is continuing to enjoy semi-retirement in the rainforest of Oregon on the whitewater McKenzie River, where she maintains the Pacific Cascade Records catalogue, undertakes the duties of business manager for Cris Williamson's record company (Wolf Moon, Inc), restores special interest motor vehicles and serves on the board of a large fire and life safety district.
Joan Lowe can be contacted via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
SIIRI METSAR (Melbourne, Australia) has been busily twiddling the knobs both in recording studios and behind live mixing consoles for over a decade. Having earned a BA majoring in music at Melbourne's La Trobe University, she went on to serve a six-year 'apprenticeship' as house engineer at C'est Ca Studio. During this time she instigated the 'Girl Zone' series of CDs, showcasing the musical and artistic talents of Melbourne women. In 1996 she turned freelance, basing herself at Fortissimo Studio, and more recently at Metropolis.
Siiri has become known as a specialist engineer/producer in folk, world and acoustic music, and some of her recent credits include Yalla! (traditional Arabic music), Klezmeritis (Klezmer with jazz influences), Pheasant Pluckers (bluegrass, r&b), Akin (world influences), Marcia Howard, Judy Small, Penelope Swales (all folk acoustic singer-songwriters), Wendy Rule (songwriter with Wicca witchcraft overtones) and Emaline Delapaix (lush acoustic music).
Siiri is very much in demand as a live sound engineer, and apart from regular gigs in inner-city clubs and venues, her work has included shows at the Victorian Arts Centre, at the Melbourne Concert Hall, with the Sydney Dance Company and Circus Oz, with the Boite World Music organisation, Womadelaide, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She owns a PA, and her interest in folk and world music has resulted in some long-standing associations with many of Australia's biggest folk festivals, including annual stages at Port Fairy, Woodford, Maldon and the National Celtic Folk Festivals, Stringybark Bush Festival and Knox Festival.
In 2001, Siiri has been working on various recordings, including albums for acoustic trio Jigzag and singer-songwriter Emma Wall. She has also travelled to South Africa, on a trip organised by South African singer-songwriter Valanga Khoza. During the trip, Siiri made location recordings and took part in a number of workshops.
Siiri Metsar can be contacted by e-mail (email@example.com).
SUSAN ROGERS (Minnesota, USA) worked as an audio technician for Audio Industries Corp, Los Angeles; studio technician for Crosby, Stills and Nash (1981-83); and staff engineer for Prince (1983-88), before becoming a freelance producer/engineer.
Susan has over 30 album credits, including: Jeff Black, Edie Brickell, David Byrne, Tevin Campbell, Julia Darling, Sheila E, Robben Ford, Geggy Tah, Nil Lara, Odds, Michael Penn, Prince, Public Image, Jill Sobule, The Jacksons, Toad The Wet Sprocket, Tricky, Violent Femmes, Wendy & Lisa, Paul Westerberg and the Barenaked Ladies' multi-million selling album, Stunt.
During 2001, Susan is studying at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Biology. She has just made the Dean's List and, after completing her studies, is planning to work in the cognitive or neurological sciences.
WILSON (Massachusetts, USA) has been involved in recording since the
As a producer and/or engineer, Darleen has over 50 album credits, including Chris Smither (Live as I'll Ever Be), Cry Cry Cry - Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell (Cry, Cry, Cry), Leslie Smith (These Things Wrapped), Catie Curtis (Years from Hours; Truth from Lies), Patty Larkin (I'm Fine; Live in the Square) and Bill Morrissey (Standing Eight).
Currently at WGBH Online in Boston, Massachusetts, Darleen is a web producer charged with developing and enriching content for the new site. She is responsible for creating sections such as www.wgbh.org/jazz and www.wgbh.org/classical, as well as contributing to www.wgbh.org/btscenes.
And now to the questions...
What part does music play in your life?
JEN ANDERSON - I've always been surrounded by music. My dad was a jazz pianist earlier in his life, and he later started researching medieval music, so we always had Gregorian chants floating around the house, as well as jazz and classical records. I started playing violin when I was seven, and my brother and sister also learnt instruments. I used to sit around and jam with my brother and other friends a lot.
TRET FURE - Music has been a part of my life since I was five. I started playing piano at the age of five, picking up the violin at the age of nine and finally the guitar at the age of eleven. The guitar was it for me, I was in love and have never stopped playing. Music is my soul and songwriting my craft. I love performing and lately teaching songwriting and performance.
ANN JONES - Music plays a huge part in my life. Although I don't get
to go to live performances as much as I would like, I do listen to a lot
of recorded music for recreation...not to study for work or anything. I'm
a recent opera buff, and have always enjoyed jazz and acoustic music.
KAREN KANE - Before recording studios, music was my life. Collecting records, going to concerts, playing guitar/bass. After I started doing this work, my interaction with music became very different. For me, now that my life revolves around making recordings of music, the 'thrill' comes from the creative process in the studio and less often from playing an instrument or listening to other records.
JOAN LOWE - Music has always been a major factor in my life. After almost three years in Labrador as a housemother for 52 children, ages 6-18, on a Grenfell Association station, I returned to school and work in the Boston area. My first acquisitions there were a bed and Heathkits to build a music system.
SIIRI METSAR - It's always been an important part of my life. From playing music, both solo and in assorted ensembles, as a child and teenager, to listening to records and watching all the pop TV shows - which I still do! I love gigs and concerts, opera and theatre, but I enjoy them all infinitely more now if I'm actually involved in some way with the production or sound, so I still love live music of all descriptions, but would tend to be actually working on a show now, rather than just being a punter.
How did you become involved in the recording industry?
JEN ANDERSON - I became involved because I was a performer. My first 'serious' recording was with the band Kings of the World in 1988 for one of the early Young Blood [compilation] albums. Whilst in The Black Sorrows I played on quite a few tracks on the Harley and Rose album, and after that began getting quite a lot of freelance recording session work, both as a soloist, and as part of a string section.
TRET FURE - I was recording my second solo album (one that was never released) and I found that I really felt inadequate in understanding the terminology. I borrowed a book called Recording Techniques to read in hopes of having a better grasp on the language. I found that I understood more than I expected and so impressed my engineer that he took me on as a second engineer. So I got on the job training - working 18 hour days for 1 1/2 years before striking out as a first engineer.
LESLIE ANN JONES - I think it was through osmosis. My parents were in the business, so I was surrounded by great music and great singers all the time. My Dad had a wonderfully eclectic record collection ranging from Sandy Denny to Elvis Presley, and my Mother was always playing records and tapes of great singers: Mel Torme, Barbra Streisand, etc.
I started playing guitar and singing in a band with my cousins, and did quite a bit of recording that never went anywhere. In my early twenties I inherited the PA from a band I was in and started mixing sound. I eventually figured out I didn't have what it took to be the great guitar player I wanted to be, but I seemed to have a knack for mixing. I started a PA company with two friends and we eventually purchased one of the first TASCAM 1/2" 4 tracks and consoles available and started doing demos in my basement. I was working for ABC Records at the time and, after returning from my first and only road trip with the band Fanny, I was hired as a 'production' engineer by ABC Studios.
KAREN KANE - In 1970, at age 19, I became an assistant studio manager at 6 West Recording Studios in New York City. The following year, I became the studio manager. Three years later, I moved to Boston and attended Berklee College of Music for a year. After that, having begun to study music privately, I got a job at Intermedia Sound in Boston as studio manager. Right away I started reading engineering books and playing around with the equipment. By 1975, I became an assistant engineer at Intermedia and by 1976 became a full-fledged first engineer. In 1977, the studio was sold and we all got laid off. I then became self-employed. Not by choice, as no one would hire a woman as an engineer at that time. I have been working as an independent since 1977.
JOAN LOWE - My basic and deep interest in music, coupled with an electronics background, made it a natural step into the recording studio. In the days of my apprenticeship, ours was the odd errand, coffee making, work no one else wanted to do. Earning time to observe, eventually doing minor hands-on techniques at the board and outboard equipment settings gradually brought recognition and then full-fledged assignments as a Second (engineer), later a First, qualified for all multi-track recording. I worked for major labels, Capitol, RCA, miscellaneous independents, and then as a freelancer later. I produced commercials, film music, etc. under my own independent recording firm.
SIIRI METSAR - My mother started me in piano lessons when I was six years old, which I continued for over a decade. At school I learnt to play flute, and a bit of guitar and took singing lessons. Despite all the influence of quite a thorough musical education, however, it became clear to me by the time I was in my teens that I wasn't going to be a musician because, quite frankly, I wasn't very good! While I was learning to play music, though, I was also very keen on listening to recorded music, and I have vivid recollections of listening really closely with headphones to my favourite records as a kid, trying to figure out how they were made. I guess I have a fairly technical mind, and a healthy disregard for convention, so by the time I was about 14 years old, I had decided I wanted to be a recording engineer - it just seemed the logical career choice for me. It is probably just as well (for my mum's sake too!) that all those years of lessons didn't go entirely to waste, as a working knowledge of music is definitely an asset in the studio.
When I finished school, I went on to do a BA at La Trobe University, Melbourne, with a major in music and electives in Audio Engineering and The Physics of Sound. From there it was a couple of years before the right opportunity came along and I finally got a foot in the recording studio door.
SUSAN ROGERS - I was living in Orange County, California at age 22 and wanted desperately to work in the music industry. I am not a musician but have always had a passion for records. I had no idea where to begin, not knowing a single person involved professionally or otherwise with music, but I moved to Los Angeles anyway and began inquiring at a recording school. I could not afford tuition at the University of Sound Arts so I took a job as a receptionist. This allowed me to meet the engineers and maintenance technicians who were employed as instructors. I overheard an industry professional tell someone, 'Do yourself a favour, become a maintenance technician and you'll never be out of a job.' I had the feeling that I would have to know what I was doing absolutely thoroughly if I was to compete against the overwhelming ratio of men to women in this field so I followed his advice and began studying electronics. I would visit the technical bookstore and buy everything I could on basic electronics, sound, recording, and audio.
Shortly after that I was sufficiently prepared for my first job, as an electronic technician trainee with Audio Industries Corp. in Los Angeles. My job had me visiting studios and repairing consoles and tape machines as well as studio installations.
My next job was working for Crosby, Stills and Nash as their studio maintenance technician. This allowed me to do some assisting on sessions and use the equipment on my free time.
[Then] I heard that Prince needed to hire a technician...When Prince asked his management to find him a technician, he was expecting that person would engineer his records, he was not really aware that they were two separate jobs. The first thing he asked me to do when I came to Minnesota was install an API console in his home studio and repair the multi-track. This done, he asked would I record a vocal for him. I worked for him for five years...I went on tour, worked on three films, many videos, countless rehearsals and recording sessions and generally had the time of my life. It was sort of a cross between being in college and being in the circus.
DARLEEN WILSON - I got into the business first as a musician. I started recording because I wanted to hear arrangement ideas. Initially, I worked with a friend's sound-on-sound deck (this was a zillion years ago and the format has long been obsolete). The early tapes were truly horrible and I learned by painstaking trial and error how to make them a little better. I was not consciously thinking about 'engineering' at that point, I just wanted to get some songs down. Eventually, we got a four track, I started recording more complex arrangements, then friends, then friends of friends. My first formal studio experience was in the mid '70s, on the other side of the glass at The Barn in N. Ferrisburg, Vermont, recording on an album for Philo Records.
Eventually, I did a location recording which I took into a studio to mix down. The studio, now defunct, was four track about to expand to eight, had some kind of 12 channel board, an analog delay, a (spring?!) reverb unit and maybe a compressor. It struck me it would be totally cool to have access to all this gear. I went back there and got my foot in the door by agreeing to compose the music for the mail order music service that was produced in-house. (I bowed out of that two weeks later, but by then, I was in the door.) This was in 1978. I spent the next six or so years there as a staff engineer. Primitive equipment forces you to hone your understanding of fundamental recording principals. It also can force you to be creative to overcome the limitations of the equipment. My training was very much hands on, and my skills expanded as the studio expanded to 16 track and we re-designed and rewired the control room. Since there was rarely a formal producer on most of the sessions, I frequently took on some of the duties of producer as well as engineer. I left the relatively comfortable but stagnant position of in-house engineer and worked as a freelance engineer or engineer/producer for another six years beyond that and since then I've been mainly producing.
What are the best learning grounds for producers and engineers? How can producers and engineers practice and develop their skills?
JEN ANDERSON - Hands on experience has always been the best way for me to learn anything. Often things just don't 'click' until I have a go at doing them myself. Being a part of a band or group that is in a studio recording is another way of 'absorbing' skills, by listening to other peoples' opinions and watching what the engineer is doing in a given situation. And then just listening to lots of different bands and musicians, and working out how they have achieved their 'sound'. Talk to and listen to people who have more experience than you, and be prepared to experiment with ideas and techniques.
TRET FURE - The best learning grounds are the studio itself. I was lucky to get on the job training and I believe that makes the best engineers. Also, one must be willing to spend long hours in the studio whether working or not. Even when I wasn't working myself, I was in the studio listening, getting my ears accustomed to discerning subtle frequency changes and miking techniques. Ask for down time in a studio to practice getting used to the control board, trying different equalisations, listening for hours on end 'til you know what something is supposed to sound like.
LESLIE ANN JONES - I think live sound can be a good training ground as it teaches signal flow, console basics, variable acoustics, etc. But the best training ground is a job in a very busy studio, one with a lot of good mixers coming in. I would stay away from the one room facility; although a beginning engineer might have more time to learn, the best skills are not necessarily picked up that way.
KAREN KANE - Since the late 1970s, 'audio' school has come a long way. I believe that the best learning ground in this day and age is one of these schools, coupled with a musical education. Practicing to develop skills is difficult if you are not connected to a recording studio. However, development of one's ears can be done by listening to a lot of albums, going to a lot of concerts and trying to get into a studio environment as much as possible.
JOAN LOWE - When I began, there were no schools for recording engineers. Apprenticing was the only way, fraught with many obstacles and prejudices. There are now schools which help immeasurably to bring recognition to personnel and trained staff to studio operators.
SIIRI METSAR - It is really important to do some sort of course initially to have an understanding of the basics and at least the key words. You will find that just about every recognised producer has started out as an engineer. Because the role of the producer relies on a thorough understanding of recording techniques, this is about the only way you'll ever become conversant enough with the techniques and their applications to be a good producer.
SUSAN ROGERS - The type of education required to be a good engineer involves understanding the technical aspect as well as the musical. I received a thorough technical training in my work as a maintenance technician and it was a firm foundation from which I could begin the process of becoming an engineer. The rest is purely musical. Many engineers get their start as an assistant, working with someone who can teach the basics and pass on those techniques. I received my training from a musician. This was also a good way to start since it allowed me to develop my ear.
When I began producing records I realised that the focus is very different. Producing involves knowing the artist, particularly the songwriter and understanding what it is you wish to express musically. This is an ongoing education. I do not play any instrument and do not write songs but I do consider myself a musician.
What are the most important qualities in a producer and/or engineer?
JEN ANDERSON - Empathy with the artist/s you are working with is the most important thing. I don't think that producers should mould or manipulate musicians into sounding like something else than what they already are, but rather, work on getting inside their head, and bringing out the best qualities in both their songs and their playing. Intuition seems to play a big part in good production too. If you are working on a part over and over, it is important to get a feel for when you have the best 'take' from a particular player, and know when to stop. Some people can play a part a hundred times, and each time it is a little bit better. Other people go 'stale' after a few passes, and there is no point in trying to squeeze that extra bit out of them.
TRET FURE - The most important qualities for both an engineer and producer are patience, the ability to work long hours without complaint, an understanding of people and their idiosyncrasies. Equally important are a good set of ears, the ability to discern frequencies, the knowledge of what instruments should sound like and an innate understanding of music and the structure of songs.
KAREN KANE - Great musical instincts and ears, good people skills, time saving organisational skills. Patience, lots of PATIENCE!
SIIRI METSAR - There are several key qualities. The first of these is patience. You need bucket-loads to even be in the studio, let alone work in one! A genuine enthusiasm for all kinds of music definitely helps. And whether you are a producer or engineer, although you need to have an eye for detail, an ability to see the bigger picture is essential. It is easy to become precious, or get bogged down in infinite detail, when a view of the project as a whole will keep it on track. I don't think you necessarily need to be a techno-head to be a good engineer, although it is essential to have a clear understanding of all the equipment and the signal flow in the studio. You need to be able to work quickly, and being at ease with the technology certainly helps. It also helps a producer in being able to translate an idea into reality.
The true skill of the engineer or producer lies in making people feel at ease, getting the best performance out of them, and making recording an enjoyable process, rather than a harrowing ordeal.
SUSAN ROGERS - At the start of a record I try to be very clear with the artist or band regarding what it is they wish to say and how they see themselves. I discuss style and image, trying to understand what sort of record they want to make and how I can best help. We go through the material and talk about what makes them comfortable in the studio and how they like to record. We talk about their strengths and weaknesses and how we can deliver a record that will satisfy their audience as well as their desire for self expression and artistic growth. And I like including the management and record company at this stage.
I also listen to the songs in their skeletal state, usually just guitar and vocal, in order to make any changes in arrangement or correct an awkward lyric. This familiarises me with the material and allows me to understand what actually is being said apart from a specific style. From there we work on finding the best way of realising that in the studio, trying different instrumentation or tempos or time signatures. I try to keep people from being attached to a particular part so that we have the freedom to find what services the song the best. In addition I try to keep the focus on the album as a whole piece of music, not a collection of twelve tracks.
How does one achieve an appropriate balance between the musical and business sides of a recording project?
JEN ANDERSON - I think it's best to get the business side of things sorted and out of the way early so that you can then concentrate on making the best possible record with the budget that is at hand. It's important to make a few vital decisions from the start, such as how quickly you would like to record, where you would like to mix, and how many extra session players you would like and can afford. Expect things to go slower and take longer than what they should, and budget accordingly...And then having made a 'flexible' kind of plan, forget about it and go make good music.
LESLIE ANN JONES - Good planning helps, as well as an understanding of costs and new technologies. A lot of producers make the mistake of thinking a cheap studio will be okay, but when they have to rent different pieces of gear to make the project work, cheap becomes expensive. A mediocre engineer can make a great room sound good. A great engineer can only make a bad room sound mediocre.
SIIRI METSAR - I think this comes back to having an overall view, or a bigger picture, in mind. There is no point trying to achieve perfection when you are doing a budget job, or if it is beyond the capabilities of the musicians - whether financially or musically. If a budget stretches to getting session musicians or well-known musicians to 'guest' on a CD, and if this is important to the project, then well and good. On the independent band level, however, I think people get a greater sense of achievement when their own abilities have been highlighted, rather than professionals called in to get a project perfectly right. At the end of the day, personal achievement and the spirit of a project are more important than some 'perfection' ideal.
DARLEEN WILSON - In the context of a project, THE key to affordable and fine production is in-depth preproduction. This is where you establish a working relationship with the artist, determine the goals of the project artistically and commercially, and get a handle on the job ahead.
I think it's important to deal with the business side of a project up front, to pound out a budget, and write up some kind of contract as to the terms of your agreement for the project.
In the bigger picture, for me the issue is less one of balance between the music and the business than it is the viability of business at all. The industry is so polarized, records are typically either grossly under-funded or grossly over-funded.
What are the most rewarding/inspiring aspects of work as a producer and/or engineer?
JEN ANDERSON - I love watching a song shape up. Especially if it takes an unexpected turn, and starts becoming something else that's better than what you imagined. I also love watching people grow as they make records. I like seeing a young singer with a lot of talent blossom once they've gained some confidence in the studio. Or even someone with not so much natural talent find their own unique sound in their voice that can be their trademark. Or if someone finds a guitar sound they never had before. The studio environment can be so daunting and relentless and it often puts pressure on people and their creative abilities, but out of that some pretty amazing things are born. That's what I like.
TRET FURE - The finished product [is the most rewarding aspect]. I love mixing most of all. That is the fun part. The finish carpentry. It is where you can be most creative. Playing the board is like playing an instrument and if done right, you can create magic.
LESLIE ANN JONES - [The most rewarding aspect is] being in the room when a remarkable performance happens. Also becoming friends with the people you work with.
KAREN KANE - There is an enormous satisfaction in being able to take songs from a raw state and metamorphose them into a finished state. And there is the feeling I get when I see that my work has contributed to the success of the project and the happiness of the artist/s.
JOAN LOWE - [Rewarding aspects include] acting as part of a team effort, bringing all elements and personnel into an artistically satisfying and potentially marketable end result.
SIIRI METSAR - To see a song take shape and emerge from a mere idea to a tangible entity, that can be really inspiring. When you see musicians get enthusiastic and inspired by the music that's being captured on tape, and they feel that you've been an important catalyst in that process, then that's very rewarding. If you know that your ideas and direction have helped to capture the spirit of a song, then that's also very rewarding. Basically, production/engineering is a service industry, and to see your clients happy with the service is rewarding in itself, and to know that you have helped to bring enjoyment - or just pure entertainment - to a wider audience is an added bonus.
SUSAN ROGERS - The only way I make music is by making records. My satisfaction comes from getting a moving or exciting performance on tape. In order to get there the musician one is working with must feel inspired and confident. Being a good producer takes the skills required to be a good teacher, or parent, or book editor. It also requires honesty and respect for others. Producers should understand the role and the point of view of the managers and A&R representatives and be able to communicate well with them about the record's progress and the band's creativity. All of these things take time and experience to learn but they stem from a desire to bring out the talent in others and to use your own to supplement theirs and create a finished product that everyone can agree is exactly what you hoped to achieve.
Is your work characterised by a particular sound or style?
LESLIE ANN JONES - I hope not! Except that a comment I have always heard about my mixes is that the listener can hear everything.
JEN ANDERSON - I love organic sounds. I love real drums, real pianos, real strings and so I like working with bands who are into that as well. I work a fair bit with people on my simple eight track setup at home, and so a lot of my production is very straightforward, due to the track limitation. This I don't see as a bad thing at all, but rather a positive move towards getting the 'essence' of a song to the listener, rather than glossing it up with layer upon layer of stodge. That's not to say that I wouldn't mind being let loose in a 24 track studio a bit more often!
TRET FURE - I love all kinds of styles of music and listen to everything I can, when I can. At home, though, we tend to listen to a lot of classical, it is soothing and intelligent. It also doesn't interfere with my creative process. If I listen to too much contemporary music, it influences my own music in ways that I may not want. I try to stay as original as possible.
KAREN KANE - I think I try to do what is appropriate for the kind of music I am working on, rather than having a sound or style that pervades everything. I also do not like to stay stuck in any one way of doing things so I am open to trying different things. I do however, have a preference for certain kinds of equipment that I try to use a lot and a style of working that seems fairly consistent.
SIIRI METSAR - I approach each project as a separate entity and try to tailor my methods and approach to suit each individual situation. I try to listen to as many different musical styles and production ideas as I can, to listen to the way other people approach certain styles of music and try to stay open-minded about how I work. To have a 'particular' sound in my opinion would be to force a specific approach onto a project, and thus would be detrimental to the individuality of each separate project, taking away from what in fact makes different musicians different. I like each artist's style and uniqueness to shine through the project. I have achieved my goal if my input is essentially 'transparent', and the musicians' talents and abilities shine through in their most flattering and listenable way.
What music do you listen to before you do a mix?
JEN ANDERSON - Listening to other peoples' CDs is a really good way for the musician and mixer to communicate about what they like or dislike about a certain sound or technique on that recording. It provides a common language, and helps set up an idea of what the artist would like to achieve from their own mix. And so I like people to play me things and say 'I really like that snare sound' or 'I really like that vocal effect'. But once mixing has started it's good to just concentrate on the job at hand, and during breaks have silence, to give the ears a bit of a rest.
LESLIE ANN JONES - Unless I'm checking out new speakers with my own mixes I usually put on something totally unrelated to what I'm doing. Just a CD that I like to get me in the mood while I'm setting up.
KAREN KANE - I do not listen to music before I do a mix. I try to keep as quiet as possible in the few days before going into mixing a record. I bring well mixed CDs to the studio of music that is similar to the project I'm working on and throughout the mix process, I compare.
SIIRI METSAR - I like to listen to anything that inspires me, and that may change from day to day, or from project to project. It's good to play something in a style that's compatible, or at least sympathetic, to the style of music being mixed, but that isn't essential. It's important to get your ears and your mind into a state where you're giving a mix your full concentration and attention to detail, but also maintaining an overall view of the mix, and listening to something that's inspiring - and technically good - can help this.
For you, what determines the success of a recording project?
SIIRI METSAR - Basically, if the musicians or artists are happy with the project, and have enjoyed the recording process, then it is a success. If millions of other people are in agreement and buy the recording, then it is a miracle! But seriously, if that happens, then it is an added bonus. And if your engineering or production gets noticed by reviewers or by the general public, then I believe you have every right to be proud. Success is really determined by how everyone concerned feels about a project, rather than by any tangible accolades. If you feel you have tapped into the essence and spirit of the music, and have captured forever the best performance that a musician can make, then surely that is the goal of the engineer or the producer.
How does record production/engineering in the 1990s differ from previous decades?
JEN ANDERSON - Good quality equipment is now much more accessible to musicians at an affordable price. This, combined with the trend for more 'natural sounding' or 'live' recordings has led to a blossoming of home studios that can produce release quality work. Gone are the days when bands had to snare a major record deal before they could get the finance to make a decent record. These days many bands are able to finance the whole thing themselves, and sell CDs at gigs or through mailouts, thereby making their money back a lot quicker than they would through a record company. I see this as a really exciting trend. It frees people up to produce and engineer their work with total creative control, and whilst the work may be a little restricted by budget constraints, it usually ends up being a much more honest interpretation of how the band/artist sounds live.
JOAN LOWE - Having begun my recording apprenticeship and active engineering in the mid 1960s, I've seen an incredible change in equipment, techniques and an opening of the industry to independent labels and self-produced recordings. My early work was principally acoustic recording. There were few electronically enhanced or designed instruments, usually guitars, including bass guitars early on. I used to carry my location equipment to late night jazz clubs to record live sessions just for the practice of choosing and setting up miking and recording. I started out with a single-track recorder, then a 2-track (also known as half-track), and onward. The early equipment required on-the-spot live mixing, of course, and was abominably heavy!
SIIRI METSAR - I think the industry is going through some of its most dramatic changes since the inception of multitrack recording. Because the cost of technology is effectively coming down, a large chunk of the recording market has moved into musicians' bedrooms or attics. The same amount of money that, say, 10 years ago would have paid for an album's worth of recording can now buy a half decent home studio set-up. This hasn't made the professional studio obsolete, but it has meant that the industry as a whole has been forced to re-assess what it is offering, and if anything, studios are tending to now highlight the service aspect of their facility, rather than emphasising just their equipment.
Also, as most engineers now tend to work freelance, studios are having to sell themselves to engineers as well as the bands. This has brought about a subtle shift in the way that studios are set up and operate. It also means that there are fewer 'house' engineers as such, and therefore even fewer opportunities for new up-and-coming engineers.
DARLEEN WILSON - Although I still love analog technology I'm happy not to have to deal with vinyl and the nightmare of test pressings any more. The portability of digital technology has made it feasible for me to do high quality recording outside the confines and expense of the high priced studio. It has also changed how I approach production. Due to the flexibility of the digital domain I can go for whole performances and edit between takes. The recording experience can thus be more fluid for the performer, which of course bodes well for the tracks.
Has being a woman had any impact/influence on your career?
JOAN LOWE - Yes! At first limited to scut work, then proving oneself under very negative conditions and pre-judgments, requiring doing everything better. Later, the opportunity to encourage other women and to assist in education and advising was an unanticipated reward.
JEN ANDERSON - A difficult question to answer. Of course it has, but how to explain it all? Sometimes I've been offered opportunities because I'm a woman, sometimes I've missed out because I'm a woman. I would like to think that...most offers I get for work are because of what I have to offer as a person and an artist, and nothing to do with my gender at all. Having said that, it is fairly obvious in this country that production and engineering are still completely dominated by men, and dare I say, that most people, both men and women, still feel more comfortable with a guy at the helm. This is a social phenomenon that only time will change.
KAREN KANE - In the beginning, being a woman was very difficult. In 1974, men in the audio world did NOT take a woman engineer seriously. But now...things are MUCH better and getting better all the time. However, it is true that as a woman I have to promote myself TWICE as hard and that my work has to be TWICE as good as the average guy to get any respect.
LESLIE ANN JONES - As I sit here now I think being a woman has had an impact on my career. It has certainly made me work harder, both on my craft and pursuing work. But I also think I have been noticed because of, not in spite of, the fact that I'm a woman.
SIIRI METSAR - In many ways, I think that being a woman has had a positive impact on my career because for one thing, I stand out a little bit more! Although I have never really had any blatantly negative reactions from people I work with, as a friend pointed out once, I cannot measure the amount of work I haven't got from people who have shied away from working with a woman in the studio.
There have been times when I'm working - especially in live sound - where I feel that I really have to prove myself, or be exceptionally good to get any credibility, but then there isn't any reason why a man shouldn't also feel that pressure at certain key gigs.
Most of the time when I am working, however, I don't really think of myself as a woman working in a male-dominated industry. In fact, I feel quite 'gender-less' - more just a person doing a job. Perhaps because I don't make an issue of it, then other people don't either.
As a result of putting together the Girl Zone project (a Melbourne-based compilation CD featuring only female singer-songwriters and bands) I guess I was forced to consider in more detail the whole question of how women are regarded in the music industry. I came to the conclusion that it is much easier for me, as an engineer/producer, to be accepted than it is for female musicians, because at the end of the day, it's the question of whether an engineer knows what he/she is doing that counts. A musician has to deal a lot more with individual taste and the prejudices to do with image, appearance and performance on stage.
DARLEEN WILSON - People come to producing from all kinds of different backgrounds. There are producers that were techies, musicians, fans before they got into making records. As a producer, it is useful to have engineering skills, but it is not a pre-requisite. As a female producer, I feel like it was absolutely necessary for me. First, for me to feel comfortable in the environment, I felt like I HAD to understand it thoroughly. A guy who wants to produce doesn't necessarily think he has to know everything about the environment before he is entitled to be there. Additionally, because the team of producer/engineer doesn't work if the engineer doesn't take direction from the producer, being able to speak the language helped establish my credibility.
I think the issue of entitlement and place is changing. In the mid-late '80s I taught a community college recording course. The three women in the class were very tentative around the equipment and extremely modest about their expectations. Five years later I taught a similar course at a trade school. Half the class was female, and half of those had clear and bold objectives, asserting their positions at the console.
Generally, I have not experienced the gender issue to be an oppressive problem in the studio. I typically find that musicians of either gender who are secure in their own abilities and position, tend to be respectful and appreciative of mine. We focus on the work at hand and there is a lot of give and take.
SUSAN ROGERS - Being a woman in this field is something I have been proud of and something I have dreaded. I am at the age [when initially interviewed in 1997] where I will soon have to make a choice between continuing as I have been, working almost constantly, or leaving this profession to have children. I would not bring a baby to the studio. The long hours would mean having to leave a child at home with a husband or nanny. Unlike men, I don't think I could have both my career as a producer/engineer and be a parent. I say this knowing it is true only for myself, other women may find it possible and satisfying, I don't know. I'm sure they are bound to disagree with me and I welcome the difference of opinion. However, I do believe these are the considerations which have kept more women from entering and staying in careers as engineers. I don't think any other barriers are more daunting.
What advice do you have for performers about choosing a producer, engineer and/or studio?
JEN ANDERSON - It's vital to find a producer/engineer who is empathetic to your songs and personality. The studio just has to be somewhere that you feel comfortable working (budget restrictions aside!). I often find that it is a good idea to set up a 'trial' day with a band, and work on a song or two to see if there is common ground between us before committing to anything further. That way, everyone can get a feel for how recording on a larger scale might go.
TRET FURE - Choose a person that appeals to you. Chemistry is everything. You must like the people you are working with. There are plenty of producers/engineers to choose from so don't feel like your options are limited. Look around. Find someone you connect with. Find someone who is sympathetic to your need. Most of all, find someone you can have a good time with. That is essential to a successful, fulfilling endeavour.
LESLIE ANN JONES - In choosing an engineer or producer I would suggest feedback, both good and bad, from past clients. Make sure to ask what the artist didn't enjoy about working with a particular producer or engineer. Although it's important to have technical knowledge, it's also very important to like the person you're working with. Studio days are long and many. It's important to be with someone you not only respect but can have an enjoyable time with.
KAREN KANE - My best advice would be research. Get recommendations from other musicians, call and make appointments with some of the studios, producers and/or engineers that advertise in your local area. Meet and get to know the people you are considering working with. Listen to other projects that the studio or producer/engineer have worked on. The thoroughness of your research in this area is DIRECTLY RELATED to the success of your recording project.
JOAN LOWE - Listen to work produced by each constituent. Interview, interview, interview. Inspect a studio thoroughly, its management and staff, attitude, pricing, openness to your type of project. Ideally, each element joins together to become the team to produce a quality work.
DARLEEN WILSON - Before you choose a producer, engineer or studio, clarify what it is you are trying to accomplish. What is your artistic vision? Do you need a full band with the sound of dancing bears rollerblading across the gymnasium floor on the final chorus; will a hand drum and solo voice say it all? How does your vision relate to your abilities? How does it relate to your short-term and long-term career goals? What kind of financial resources do you have to realise these goals? Can you put together a business plan and solicit independent backers? If you have a record deal, will your record company back you?
SIIRI METSAR - Production is such an individual, personal thing, that having the wrong producer can totally destroy a project. Having the right one can take the project to a new dimension. My advice would be not to have a producer unless you are sure you want one, and then to go along with the producer's advice wholeheartedly. Too many bands like the idea of hiring a producer, but then find that they think they know better anyway, so the whole project ends up in arguments and ill feeling.
It is important that the producer and/or engineer you choose will at least be sympathetic to your style of music. Talk to the person, listen to the material they have worked on before and get a feel for the person. See if you feel you can trust that person and whether you would feel comfortable baring your soul to that person in a confined area for many hours at a stretch!
In choosing a studio, shop around, compare prices and facilities. However, do look beyond the aesthetics of a studio and delve into those deeper issues of tape format, number of channels for mixdown, outboard gear, whether they have mix automation. And, of course, check out how many types of tea they have on offer!
Sue Barrett is a freelance music writer and lives in Australia. Sue has also written articles about opening acts ('You Don't Know Me...I'm the Opening Act'), tribute songs ('Songwriter to Songwriter: A Score of Musical Tributes') and photographer, Irene Young ('True to the Heart and Soul of the Musician').
- Sue Barrett 2001
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