Women Roar Onstage But Barely Exist In The Sound Booth

By Lindsey Havens
Chicago Tribune.

CHICAGO

There is no denying that more women are conquering the pop charts in the form of big names like Beyonce, Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj. In the artistic realm males and females seem to be on equal footing.

But there is still a significant gender imbalance in vital roles that go unseen, from executives to sound engineers who are lucky to appear in a liner note. Mary Gaffney is one of the latter.

Gaffney is part of an unintentionally exclusive group, the 5 percent, a minority of sound engineers who are women.

But before Gaffney, 64, could blaze a trail, she had to learn the craft. In the absence of any formal schooling on how to become a recording engineer, she said, people were willing to teach her, and at the time, that pool of people consisted solely of men. She was inspired by Hank Neuberger, former head engineer at Chicago Recording Co.

“When everyone was saying, ‘No, women don’t do this,’ Hank said, ‘Give it a try,'” she said.

A softball game in the early ’70s got the ball rolling. Gaffney was playing on a team made up of local musicians along with Rich Warren, an engineer for Chicago folk and classical station WFMT. Gaffney was studying radio broadcasting at the time and Warren wanted to get off the night shift. It was a perfect opportunity that Gaffney, discouraged by her school advisers, turned down. But a few months later when she was offered the job again, there was no hesitation.

Gaffney became a piece of “a very small framework of women creating entree for themselves,” said Steve Albini, longtime recording engineer and owner of Electrical Audio in Chicago. He said there has always been a general undercurrent of sexism in all traditionally male-dominated industries, especially technical occupations. An unfortunate result of this is lost talent.

“Any time you take half the people, cut half the potential participants out of a scenario, then you’re half as likely to have your chance of finding the best person for the job or finding the unique insight and I just, I would like for it to not be an issue,” Albini said.

For Gaffney it never was. With few female role models to follow, she became one. Having once been “tutored,” she said, by engineers who ran successful studios such as Chicago Recording Co. and Studiomedia in Evanston, Gaffney now runs one herself. She is the audio supervisor for Chicago Public Media.

Her large role represents a small statistic. When told that women account for 5 percent of all audio engineers, according to SoundGirls.org, Neuberger (who now supervises broadcast audio for the Grammy Awards, among other jobs) said he’s not even sure it’s that many.

Gaffney moved to Chicago in 1974 with a music education degree from Duquesne University in Pennsylvania and landed a few jobs as a background singer. One early job included singing backup vocals on Chicago-based singer/songwriter Steve Goodman’s recording of “Go Cubs Go.”

Enticed by the other side of the glass, she said she was more interested in the intricacies between one take versus another, she started messing around with recording equipment with friend and former colleague Victor Sanders (who is now an audio engineer as well).

When she found out that women weren’t in the business, she said, “That surprised me, but didn’t stop me.”

It didn’t stop SoundGirls.org co-founders Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato and Karrie Keyes either. Audio engineers themselves, they formed the organization in 2013 and have since helped women and young girls pursue sound in all its various forms.

A decade earlier, Women’s Audio Mission formed to combat the inequalities women face in the industry. When Gaffney was just starting out, organizations such as these didn’t exist. Both SoundGirls.org and WAM formed postmillennium, a byproduct of “conventions and stereotypes and the reluctance of people to break them,” which Albini said “has just gradually been eroding over time.”

This slow erosion dates to the mid-1970s when Kathy Sander, “the first of the 5 percent,” according to SoundGirls.org, started her career, around the same time Gaffney was gearing up to do the same.

Others who dove into this field of firsts include: Leslie Ann Jones, the first female assistant engineer hired at ABC studios in Los Angeles; Margret Ann Buxkamper, who, according to her obituary, was one of Nashville’s first female sound engineers and ran the soundboard for several performances at the Opryland and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center; Sylvia Massy, who has more than 25 gold and platinum records for her work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty and others; and Trina Shoemaker, the first female engineer to win a Grammy for Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical) in 1999 for her work on Sheryl Crow’s “Globe Sessions.”

Such distinguished names are about the only ones Neuberger said he could recall. He said he “really has no clue” as to why there are fewer women in this field and that it remains a mystery to him.

“Whether it’s in the live sound world or the studio recording world, female recording engineers are shockingly rare, and I can’t explain it,” he said.

Zaneta Ogar, a woman, is the live sound engineer for Albini’s band Shellac. But Albini said when they show up at a festival or somewhere to play she seldom sees other women working on sound. “There’s sort of a fraternal network,” he said, a notion shared by many.

“It’s very much a bro society,” said Juliana Armbrust, who has mixed bands at Pitchfork Music Festival for the past seven years.

She said there are no women recording at Pitchfork. “Sadly, it’s all men.” A few women were seen by soundboards at this year’s festival, but their job titles were unknown.

Rising rock band Bully performed at both Pitchfork and Lollapalooza this past summer. Alicia Bognanno not only fronts the band but also engineered its debut album, and before her band’s growing success she interned at Albini’s studio. Albini said women being involved to a lesser extent than men means we are “missing half of our opportunities, or a large fraction of our opportunities to have greatness involved and it bothers me.”

The lack of female professional peers never fazed Gaffney. She said her dad always encouraged her to do whatever she wanted, from fixing her car to taking her pick of summer jobs. “I was driving trucks, ice cream trucks, for college summers and women didn’t do that either.”

Growing up in Baltimore, then Bowie, Md., Gaffney was certain of one thing: She didn’t want to be a receptionist. Because of the times, she said, she never planned on a professional career at all. She figured she would fill the assumed role of a mother with children.

But when she bought a tape recorder with her first paycheck, that assumption soon changed. She recorded people speaking, her grandparents’ cows and a cricket in her garage. “Sound just excites my mind,” Gaffney said. “My mind just keeps trying to identify and hear and scrutinize what’s being put in front of it.” At the time, and maybe even still, she was unaware that her early interest in sound would make her a pioneer.

Regardless of gender, Gaffney said audio is a difficult place to find a home, especially now. She said there aren’t as many places to approach this job, considering the rise of home recordings and the collapse of several studios.

And though Gaffney may be just one piece of a framework still being built, in terms of Chicago sound, she is part of the foundation. She presides over a studio that produces local and national programming and is considered state-of-the-art.

Through a doorway is the recording room, a midsize space with low lighting and countless wires that run across the floor like snakes, somewhat concealed by rugs that double as a cushion for the drum kits that sit atop them. Gaffney walked through the space with the excitement and pride of a docent on a first day, even though she has been a broadcast and recording engineer for nearly 40 years.

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