from Women in Sound #6
released February 4th, 2019
interview by Madeleine Campbell
You’re currently at Death by Audio?
Yes, I currently work at Death by Audio, but most of my experience is in freelance synthesizer repair and modification. I also do maintenance work for mostly analog and some digital synthesizers. I started at Death by Audio about three years ago and it’s been really interesting for me.
It’s a totally different world than synths. A lot of guitarists don’t want all the knobs. They want to keep it simple. They want a pedal with two knobs that just sounds good.
What’s your title at Death by Audio?
I think the best title would be “electronics technician.” It’s a small company. There are only nine of us, so we all do several different things. I work with Oliver [Ackermann], the owner. The pedals are his ideas, but I have certain design projects where I’ll have to figure out various aspects of the circuit.
I’m excited to now know of two awesome East Coast-based synth technicians who are both women. Do you know Alison Stout?
Yes! I know her very well. She’s great.
What’s a regular work day like for you?
Well, I was working at a repair shop and the owner retired, so now I do that work freelance. I’m full-time at Death by Audio, but I still take on a lot of freelance jobs doing synth repair. At Death by Audio, a regular day usually starts with coming in and checking email. I respond to a lot of technical questions people have if they have an issue with our pedals. Because we’re so small, we spend a lot of time actually building pedals. We don’t outsource our [circuit] boards or anything like that. Everything is through-hole. There’s a lot of soldering. A few days of the week, I have a design day where I sit down and work on my own projects. We all wear several hats.
What made you want to go into this field?
I have a very deep love of music. I always have. Part of the reason I went into engineering is that my parents are from Cuba. I’m the daughter of immigrants. I have this innate need to make my family proud. The options in my mind were like doctor, lawyer, engineer. I thought, “Alright, I’ll be an engineer, but for music.” It was like a shield so that I could still be creative but still feel like I was doing something important that would please them. I don’t want to suggest that they aren’t proud of me. They’ve always just wanted a good life for me. My whole life I’ve been in-between wanting to be creative and wanting to be the best at something. Maybe not the best, but to be really good at something. That kind of landed me here.
That’s a lot of pressure.
But so cool that you’re still such a large part of the creative process. It’s similar to why I like doing front of house sound. It feels like being part of the band.
Yes. Right now I actually play bass in my friend’s band. I went on tour with them and, not having played live for such a long time, I was so nervous. If I made the tiniest mistake, I was horrified. It’s been a process to unlearn, feeling like I have to be the best at something or I’m not good enough. I feel like the women I know experience this way more than the men.
I hear you. I totally agree with that. What’s the band called? I want to listen.
It’s called Degreaser. I’m also currently working on a project with some extremely talented friends and that’s called Twitchy Nieces. I’m very excited about that.
How did you start learning electronics?
I went to school for electrical engineering. I dropped out with one year left in my program. I lived in Asheville and I really wanted to work as an engineer at Moog. I wanted to work there so badly, but I realized the people who work there kind of...stay there forever. After that I moved to New York and in my spare time I would buy things broken on eBay, take them apart and learn to put them back together or fix them. That was early on, maybe 2012. I would buy a Juno 106, then I learned how to do the voice chip treatment. I would buy it and flip it. After that, I moved to Philadelphia and sort of decided that I wanted to do it for a living. I dropped out of school because I didn’t want to work at Whirlpool or GE or something more along those lines. I didn’t want to do any of that and I got really disheartened, so I just tried to figure it out.
So you have some formal training but are also largely self-taught from actually doing the work and getting your hands dirty?
Yes! I should also mention I took a course at the Analog Lab with Jeff Blenkinsopp. He was the synth tech for Pink Floyd. He’s really cool.
I know that name. Isn’t he like...a total synth wizard?
Oh my god, yeah. It’s almost frightening to be around that much knowledge, but I absorbed everything I could like a sponge.
That’s so cool.
At that time I thought I knew what I was doing. I think a lot of the confidence I have as a tech came from that course. Jeff taught me a lot. He’s also very intimidating. One of my biggest hurdles was learning to speak technically. I knew what I was doing but speaking technically was hard because I spent so much time alone staring at things. When I had to talk about it with someone it was difficult. He really taught me to speak up for myself. He was firm about it.
I appreciate that. Sometimes it takes us so long to realize that we are actually deserving of calling ourselves by our own titles and that we actually have the skill sets we possess. Maybe I’m projecting, but that’s something I’ve experienced a lot.
Absolutely. I 100 percent experience the imposter syndrome, too. Even now, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I still don’t know how to talk about myself. I think it’s a struggle for a lot of people, and a lot of women in particular. One of the biggest things I’m learning to accept is that everybody’s just figuring things out as they go. There are things at work that I look at now, and even though I’ve seen them a hundred times, they may take me a few hours to do when they should probably take me one. But I’m learning!
Yes! We are all works in progress in this field and that’s OK. It’s actually great.
It’s a huge thing for me. If I were to communicate anything to someone who’s interested in this sort of work, it would be to not give up. I have a block of projects in my basement and back home, too! I used to buy these guitar pedal kits. I had so many that I tried to build and just failed. I still have so many unfinished projects that I just couldn’t figure out and kind of just jumped ship. In my years of working in electronics, that gap has slowly started to shrink, where I have fewer projects I don’t understand, and that feels good. It’s OK to be bad at something. It’s OK to not know. And it’s also OK to ask questions. People try to overcompensate and don’t want to admit when they don’t know how to do something, but that actually inhibits you from learning. I think this is really important to talk about. We need to give ourselves permission to do things and start from the beginning. It’s OK to learn slowly and to not be good at something for awhile.
Oh man, I want to tattoo that on my forehead. It’s OK to be bad at something. Especially because this is not innate knowledge. This is hard material. Are there other resources you can recommend for someone interested in getting started learning electronics and, specifically, circuit design?
Start with basics. Instead of jumping in with the idea, “I want to design a fuzz pedal,” or something like that, I’d say learn the different aspects of the circuit. I would also suggest trying to recreate something you know you love already because that’s a great way to familiarize yourself with a circuit. There are so many schematics out there for all kinds of pedals, even synthesizers, that you can build and then alter. After you’ve built something you can start to experiment. Get to know components — there are many of the same ones in all your favorite pedals. Get to know them and what they do. I usually do all this experimental stuff on a solderless breadboard, which you can buy online. It’s extremely useful for prototyping!
There’s also fixers guilds. I went to a meeting about a year ago in New York. I think I was the youngest person in the room. It’s a bunch of people who bring in their broken things. Everyone sits around a table and they fix them together. It’s amazing. Usually there’s one person who’s been an electrician for 30 years and then someone brings in a toaster, which is different than what they normally do, so it’s fun. Reaching out to people when you don’t know something is important. I’ve had a lot of girls email me, asking if I’m going to do a workshop anytime soon or with questions about a project they’re working on. They need someone they feel comfortable asking.
What are your favorite pedals and synths?
This is a tough question I get asked a lot and it’s difficult to answer because I am constantly seeing new things. I think, currently, some recent pedals I’ve gotten and can’t stop using are the Industrialectric RM-1N. It’s the most wild reverb I’ve ever used. It does the subtle spring reverb all the way to that huge ambient drone reverb you want. You can get really great distortion and feedback. It also has a momentary footswitch. I absolutely love it. It really feels like an instrument all on its own because of how many different sounds you can get out of it. I also really love the Fairfield Circuitry Shallow Water. It’s one of those pedals I just find myself using all the time. For synthesizers, I have so many favorites. I think a few favorite classics would be the ARP 2600 because it is just such a beautifully designed machine. I also worked on and owned a Sequential Circuits Prophet T8 pretty recently and I absolutely adore those. There are so many!
What music are you excited about lately?
I can’t stop listening to Dara Puspita. I’m also currently freaking out about music I have never heard until now that was coming out of Ethiopia in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. I think it’s all I’ve been listening to for the past three months. I just fell down a YouTube hole and haven’t really come back since. Aster Aweke is incredible and I think that’s where I began clicking around. CHAI is also a super cool band that’s been exciting for me to hear lately. I love music so much that if you asked me this question tomorrow you might get totally new answers.
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Since this interview, Natalie hit the road as a backline technician with Brittany Howard. Keep up with her on Instagram.
- Women in Sound 2019 -