Women's Audio Mission: The World's First Entirely female-run recording studio
October 2, 2015
interviews by Madeleine Campbell
illustrations by Elly Dallas
Women’s Audio Mission is a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of women in music production and recording arts and sciences. Established by renowned engineer, producer, educator and musician Terri Winston in 2003, WAM is actively “changing the face of sound” by offering girls and women resources and hands-on education in all areas of the field.
Through their free and low-cost workshops, events and Girls on the Mic youth education program, WAM serves over 850 people every year. Women’s Audio Mission is the only entirely female-run recording studio in the world.
For this issue, WiS spoke with three members of the WAM staff: Kelley Coyne, Laura Dean and Sami Perez
KellEy coyne: "I don't want girls to doubt themselves like I did in the past. It was a waste of time and energy."
girls on the mic coordinator, Women's audio mission
RECORDING AND MIXING ENGINEER, TINY TELEPHONE RECORDING
Tell me how you started working in sound.
While I was studying vocal performance at American University in Washington D.C., I had a part time gig as a kitchen server at the legendary 9:30 Club. That’s where I developed a passion for concerts and live sound. I had a radio show at school where I would push around one or two faders, but that was the extent of my audio knowledge. I had a few friends studying audio engineering, but I figured I would be too far behind to take those classes. Basically, I was scared and convinced I wasn’t capable. After college, I taught elementary school for a few years. Teaching youth had an incredible impact on my confidence and desire to try new things. That itch to learn about live sound led me to a certificate program at San Francisco State. I learned the basics of sound at school, but learned my most valuable skills at three internships. One at a music venue called Rickshaw Shop, one at Women’s Audio Mission, and one at Tiny Telephone Recording. I cannot express the amount of gratitude I have for these places, especially since they took me in when I knew so little. They are the reasons I have work today.
What factors do you think contribute to a great recording?
Imperfection is beautiful. I would take a a recording that has a few mistakes with high energy over an exhausted “perfect” track any day. There’s a tendency to go down the rabbit hole with Pro Tools these days and spend hours perfecting drum tracks, but for me there’s no creativity in that. Some of my favorite tracks have accidental glitches that evoke emotion in ways perfection cannot.
Think outside of the box with instrumentation. A lot of bands use dozens of guitar tracks, but using synths and percussion will give more space to the recording. It’s important to think of a recording as having a limited amount of space so it doesn’t become crowded. The bass takes up low end space, guitars take up mid range and so on. Sometimes less is more. Don’t be afraid to try something weird. There are so many recordings out there. Pushing the boundaries of what genre your music falls in will allow you to be heard.
What are some of your favorite recordings?
Television by Doe Eye. That album has an incredible use of analog effects, synths, beautiful vocals and lyrics. I have probably listened to it 500 times. Channel Orange by Frank Ocean. That album is so interesting, honest and complex. It made me want to work on R&B records. Any David Bowie, but especially Diamond Dogs. He’s always pushing the limits.
Do you have a favorite session you’ve worked on?
As far as assisting sessions, working with Doe Eye and Powerdove were my favorite. I recently recorded and produced my first full length album with the band Phosphene and I discovered a real passion for music production, so that session might go down as my favorite.
Any gear you find yourself using a lot or that you particularly love?
I love using the Dolby 301A filter on vocal doubles. It’s an incredible way to slightly change the sound of the vocal. I also love Josephson C42 microphones. They sound good on everything!
In addition to studio recording, you’re a live sound engineer. What are the biggest differences between the two jobs?
I think there’s a different type of patience in live sound. In recording, you need patience for the artist to record a good take, whereas with live sound you need patience with things going wrong. Feedback! Broken cables! There’s a lot of troubleshooting in both jobs, but with live sound there’s an audience waiting for you to fix things and they’re not always patient. It sounds scary but live sound is an incredible way to get better at thinking on your feet. This is also great in recording because the faster and more efficient you work, the more grateful a client becomes and the more likely they will recommend you to other bands.
You serve a really special role at WAM as the Girls on the Mic coordinator. What does this entail for you?
I love being the Girls on the Mic coordinator! Girls on the Mic is an after-school program that serves over 650 underserved Bay Area girls a year, ages 11-18, with free music production, digital media and recording arts training in a professional studio environment. I create and implement the lessons, with the help of our amazing team of interns at Women’s Audio Mission. Our girls create podcasts, recreate sound effects from cartoon clips, write and record original songs and so much more. Girls on the Mic allows me to feel connected with the Bay Area community and spread the message that we as women are awesome audio engineers. I grew up not being aware of careers in recording and live sound. I am so happy I get to reach out to girls at an early age and demystify the technology surrounding audio engineering. I don’t want girls to doubt themselves like I did in the past. It was a waste of time and energy. The best part of my Girls on the Mic experience is seeing the girls’ confidence grow and the veil of doubt around using Pro Tools or mixers simply fall away.
Advice for a young person looking to get started in professional sound?
Don’t be afraid to ask a place you live, whether its a music venue or a studio, if they take interns. In my experience, working hard at internships has always led to paid work so it’s definitely worth it.
Laura Dean: "Focus more on what you are hearing than what people are telling you about gear."
recording and mixing engineer, Women's audio mission + Tiny telephone recording
How did you start recording?
I got interested in sound recording because I was in a band in high school and writing a lot of music. I was 15 and my dad wanted an excuse to buy a microphone and 8-track recorder. I loved the idea of being able to record my own music and learn about how songs were transformed into these permanent works of art. I recorded my own solo project, as well as a riot grrrl band I was in at the time. That was the year I decided to pursue studio engineering as a career. I actually tried to apply for local studio internships at that time but all of them told me to go to college first, so I did.
Are you still an active musician?
I currently play keys and sing in a band called Taxes and have a new project in the works. I occasionally contribute backing vocals and other small parts to recordings I work on, as well.
Are you self taught or did you study recording in school?
When I decided I was going to be an engineer, I dropped out of public school in order to homeschool myself. I wanted to use my extra time that public schools normally channel into a small category of electives like band or art to study engineering instead. I was self-taught through high school and then attended Georgia State University for recording and then transferred and graduated with honors from Middle Tennessee State University.
In the summer after my first year in recording classes, I applied for a few internships, got turned down a few times and finally got an internship at ZAC Recording in Atlanta. I think because of the dedication and amount of hours I was able to put into the internship, I was offered assistant and engineering sessions within a couple of months. I took a semester off to extend my internship so I could further build upon the experiences and opportunities I was afforded there. I then transferred to MTSU to finish off my degree. I moved to San Francisco in 2007 and within a week started at two more internships to gain additional experience and networking opportunities.
How did you end up at Women’s Audio Mission?
I had been working full-time as a studio engineer in San Francisco for a couple years when Terri Winston, the founder and Executive Director of Women’s Audio Mission, contacted me to set up a meeting. A year or so later when I was taking some time off, I started volunteering at WAM and eventually began taking on sessions and other responsibilities. I was excited to be involved with and support an organization that helped empower more women to get involved in recording. I was also secretly relieved to not be the only one in the room for the first time. It’s been very inspiring to pass my knowledge and experiences on to a younger generation.
What are some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on?
I have particularly enjoyed working with Kronos Quartet, Amanda Palmer, Dead Kennedys, Sean Dorsey and Shawna Virago. They’re all visionaries in their work, focused on their artistic goals, inspired personalities and fearless in their endeavors. I enjoy working with passionate and inspired artists who do experimental and groundbreaking work.
That’s a great mix of artists. I’m particularly curious what was it like to work with Dead Kennedys?
They were incredible! The thing that struck me the most was to have grown up with their records and suddenly be on the other side of the glass with them. When they started playing, it immediately sounded like them. They have a such a strong and unique aesthetic and it was apparent that all their recordings were capturing what they do really well, as opposed to the studio creating that sound for them. I enjoyed bonding with East Bay Ray over our mutual love for argyle socks and having Klaus Flouride tell me that he would tell his daughter to stop doing homework for the night and to balance work with play. I remember thinking, “How cool would it be to grow up with a punk rock dad from the Dead Kennedys?” I also remember Ray bringing out this 70s vintage suitcase that he stored all his guitar pedals in. I loved their whole style.
What are some of your favorite recordings?
My favorite recordings are ones that capture the magic and vibe of an artist. I’m less concerned with extreme fidelity and more concerned with translating the emotion and expression of an artist. I like hearing little details, like the ghost of someone tapping their foot in the background of a vocal take or comments made between the engineer and artist before or after a take that some people choose to leave on their records. Pixies come to mind, as well as a lot of punk records and all the old Motown records. Motown was my first real connection to music. I discovered it as a child in the 80s. It’s such a great blend of raw talent, pop elements and minimal recording techniques. I believe it takes a very clear picture of the talent of artists at the time, even with the limitations of recording technology in that era.
What gear do you find yourself using most often?
If I had to choose a few of my meat and potatoes gear, it would be [Shure SM] 57s, [Empirical Labs] Distressors, Josephson microphones, Earthworks microphones, vintage Neumann microphones, Great River preamps, vintage Neve preamps, AKG 414s, Coles 4038s, 1176s and good placement. Good microphone placement will really go a long way, no matter what gear you are using.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in sound recording?
I think getting a degree from a reputable school is very important - at least two years, but four is even better. Take on multiple internships because every engineer, producer, artist and studio has a unique way of working. You will develop your own style by exposing yourself to a range of experiences. Focus more on what you are hearing than what people are telling you about gear and always know that less is more, especially when you’re starting out. Learn how to make one mic going through one preamp on one instrument sound good before you even think of adding EQ, compression or FX.
Listen closely to recordings you love and read about how they were created. Experiment as often as possible, but always start from a working knowledge of what has been successful for other engineers in the past. The more you learn about your craft and are inspired by personal experience from the gear you use, the more you will thrive in this field and be able to communicate your expertise to others. Continue to learn and be humble. I still assist other engineers and producers in my time off to continue to learn and be inspired by something that another engineer does that I hadn’t thought of.
Sami Perez: "Don’t let age or gender make you feel incapable."
recording and mixing engineer, women's audio mission
recording artist, the she's
How did you first get involved with Women’s Audio Mission?
I started playing music with The She’s when I was in 7th grade and we recorded our first album at WAM in 2010. It was awesome being introduced to audio from the engineer’s perspective at such a young age. WAM’s mission statement stuck with me all throughout high school. I was really into math and took all the physics classes that my high school offered. I could feel the lack of female presence in the classroom. My school offered a music production course where I was one of two girls.
I started volunteering at WAM my junior and senior year and once I graduated I started interning. It’s been a really great opportunity to learn everything, be it managing equipment, tracking, editing, or mixing at WAM because now when The She’s record, I can sit at the console with the producer and engineer and not only understand what they are doing but also give input on my opinions as the artist. Now we have the ability to record and produce ourselves when we want to, which seems like an under-appreciated power. To me, it’s important to have control over your sound because production can be just as much of an art as the musical composition itself.
Good for you for being in control of your own sound. What sounds do you gravitate towards most?
Despite the trend of lo-fi, I really appreciate a full sound. That can be treated in mixing but I enjoy finding ways to fill out frequencies while tracking too, whether that means experimenting with mic placement, like hiding a microphone in the corner to get a weird high-mid range, or experimenting with microphones in general, like using old phones or walkie-talkies. Even using unusual instruments like foot organs or timpani or anything you can find that takes up its own space.
The more interesting tracks I’ve recorded, the less I tend to mess with things in mixing. I like to have a collection of neat, raw sounds to play with rather than just pitch shifting one instrument and piling a ton of plug-ins on it to get a full range of sounds. Space is important whether its in terms of frequency range or panning. If you’re going to fill a song with a ton of weird miking arrangements or weird instruments, it’s important to spread the tracks out in a way that makes sense.
I love layering too, especially with vocals and guitar, so it’s easy to get a muddled and overwhelming sound if the tracks aren’t panned right or are mixed in too loud. Cutting tracks is always a difficult but important thing to do. I like a mix that sounds simple and elegant but has details hidden and tucked into strange places that add a subtle uniqueness to the track.
What are some of your favorite recordings?
I love almost everything that Phil Spector produced. [The Ramone’s] End of the Century is one of my all time favorites. The Wall of Sound is brilliant. All of Beach House’s recordings have beautiful production. I could sit in a dark room and listen to Bloom at full volume for hours. Being raised on old British and SoCal punk records often inspires me to play around with the studio’s four-track. Also anything from the band Girls. You can hear the evolution of production throughout their discography but I love all of it.
Tell me about your experience with WAM’s Girls on the Mic program.
I assist during classes, answer girls’ questions and help make presentations. Girls on the Mic is really important to me because I completely understand how a girl can feel like an outsider at that age when working on technology-related projects or anything math or science related. I really enjoy witnessing girls find interest in a field society doesn’t typically expose to their age or gender. Even if they aren’t always interested in audio specifically, it’s apparent that Girls on the Mic opens their minds to a sense of creative independence, which is one of the most important things I’ve come to value throughout my career.
What gear have you been excited about lately?
So much cool gear. I can play with the four-track for hours bouncing to ProTools and adding more tracks on top. I found love for Arduino and LittleBits where I can program little synths or robots using the Arduino interface on a magnetic circuit building kit. We get to play around in the control room mixing and doing practice sessions. My favorite piece of outboard gear is definitely the Eventide H3000 reverb. There are, like, a million and one programs on it. I still need to practice soldering more but I’d love to start building things.
Do you have any advice for a young person looking to get started in professional sound?
Find as many internships as you can. Take every opportunity you get and don’t be afraid to do so. Don’t let age or gender make you feel incapable. Know when to experiment and when to behave yourself and do what you’re told. Also, it’s all about connections, so get yourself out there! Practice a bunch so you can impress them by knowing what you’re doing. Research everything a ton - every venue, every studio, every piece of gear, every band. This career can be really frustrating and slow, so be patient and stay motivated.