Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Who controls the sound?

Last week a friend of mine told me that she'd started a part time course on sound engineering. She's in a band and she's promoted gigs, so it shouldn't have been such a surprise, but it was. I was a weird blur of happy-proud confusion. I pondered on that initial sense of "huh?"  a little later and realized I'd been so dazzled because it's such a boy-dominated profession and I'd never met a girl who said this was something she was interested in learning/doing.

Sadly, I was right in guessing that she's the only girl on the course.

I like it that she'd sidestepped any sense of permission in training for a role that's become (always has been?) so gender specific. I hear "sound guy" or "sound man" way more then I ever hear the gender neutral version of  "sound person".  I've been attending gigs, putting on gigs and promoting gigs for donkey years, and in all that time I've met just two female sound engineers. It's possible that I've forgotten some in a haze of beer fogged amnesia, but "hengineers" (eww) are so scarce in London that they tend to be memorable when you do meet/spot one; they have rare species status.

What has become apparent throughout my extensive emails/phone convos/face-to-face chats with lady artists is that it's not just that big ole rekkid label boss/macho magazine CEO/boys club networkers that keep women back - it's the fucking sound guy too. I've been interviewing women in music for over three years, and nearly every female artist I've talked to (yup, even the few who claim they've never been subject to second rate treatment) has a "super-patronizing sound man" story - that self-important dude who has assumed that these lil gals don't know how to tune their own guitar, or rolls his eyes when they dare to ask for a little more bass in the monitor.

I told my trainee engineer friend about this and she paled in disgust. She said that one of the first things her (male) tutor had impressed on the class was how instrumental the sound peeps' power is in the whole live show dynamic, that it's the sound engineer's job to support the artist in both a technical and emotional capacity and that musicians should be stepping out in front of their audience with confidence, knowing that they have a friendly, co-operative engineer backing them all the way through their set.

It's a shame then that female artists have to wade through so much ingrained opposition just to pick up a mic/guitar/etc and be heard in the first place, only to have some failed muso beat them down before they've even made it through the sound check.


  1. Interesting piece. I feel I should rep for sound engineers here (given that I am one) by saying that I think you're overstating the problem.

    It's true that it's a male-dominated profession. That's inarguable. But this is not something unique to sound engineering - it's a problem with the music industry (hell, virtually any industry) as a whole. If I were to posit a reason for why there are so few female sound engineers, I'd take it back to primary and secondary education and say that stereotypes need to change there.

    What I mean is this: in school, boys are generally steered towards electronics and machines, and girls are steered towards more artistic pursuits. This means that boys are more likely to get involved in a highly technical field like sound engineering - girls are quite simply never taught to be comfortable with the technology. This is a sweeping statement, but it's a view that has been put to me many times by female MCs, guitarists, singers and radio DJs. One even said that she thought that all the heavy equipment scares girls (make of that what you will).

    And I wouldn't say soundmen are patronising towards female musicians. I'd say they're patronising to musicians in general. We're a prickly, difficult breed, and we always know what's best with our equipment and damn everyone else. That goes for any singer, male or female, who wants the bass raised. What do THEY know? Our setup is perfectly calibrated, thank you very much. So what if the singer can't hear the track? Fuck 'em.

    Sure, you'll get sexist sound engineers - just as you get sexist industry heads, DJs, guitarists...I'm not saying they don't exist, but I do believe you're creating a problem where there isn't one, really.

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  3. Your first argument about the lack of women sound engineers being a product of socialisation is totally correct and backs up my point that something is preventing women from even considering this as a valid career goal. This sucks and should be addressed.

    It's a geeky job. But whilst I don’t doubt dickheadedness is a natural attribute that comes with obsessive knob twiddling, I do think my own experience of talking to women in depth about gender challenges in the industry and coming up with same story every time speaks for itself. I think it's telling that even the female musicians who INSIST they've never suffered from sexism in the industry - who have no direct allegiance to feminism or any kind of agenda - THEN follow up with an almost word-for-word account of various sound men who have treated them like they're idiots. If women who think feminism is a semi-dirty word are sensing some kind of misogyny from their sound man then we gotta assume they’re on to something.