Pandora’s Box: female sound and power in music technology

by Helen Reddington

Historically, women have not been associated with technology unless it helped with the housework – vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and washing machines – or their fertility (ten years ago I did a search for women+technology and was rewarded with a pageful of sites offering reproductive technology solutions). In times of war, we were useful as code-breakers and navigators; suddenly our supposedly non-mathematical brains develop useful ‘male’ attributes that disappear as soon as peace resumes. Women were at the forefront of computing in the 1940s (see I Code Like a Girl). In the competitive world of the music industry, the marketing of women’s sexuality has always been to the forefront, conveniently stereotyping women as singers, and men as instrumentalists or controllers of sound production. This stereotype appears to be impossible to shake off.

As a University lecturer, I have found it extremely frustrating to see students streaming themselves according to gender in the studios, and I’ve been researching this, and the reasons for the lack of female producers, for more than ten years. In spite of equal access to training for female and male students, only a small number of female students graduate with skills flexible enough for them to run sessions themselves.
In 1992 the academic Andrew Goodwin wrote that he’d expected a move into production by women because of its focus on the ‘female’ instrument, the piano, as a controller of MIDI; but it didn’t appear to be happening: the only visible producer/songwriter who actively used electronic technology at that time was Betty Boo.
Behind the scenes, the skills of Delia Darbyshire and Daphne Oram had been nurtured by the BBC; Stockhausen was known for using female editors and Felicity Hassell was assisting her husband John in leafy British suburbia in cutting dub plates for the stream of Rastafarians who beat a path to their door.
There is more to musical life in the studio for us than the role of honorary man, or assistant, though. It is really heartening to see that there are now so many women producers and DJs; laptop technology has been a boon for women musicians, as Paula Woolf’s research has shown, allowing artists to develop confidence in their sound before (and if) they move on to a fully-equipped studio.
As part of my research I have interviewed more than 20 women producer/engineers in the UK, across all ages and across many genres of music; my criteria for most of them has been that they should be sonic mediators: in other words, responsible for recording other people (as well as sometimes themselves). Apart from the horror stories- I suppose we could call them pranks, if we were being generous- the level of skill is amazing, progressive and inspiring.
The decision to concentrate on sonic mediators was made because of the overwhelmingly sinister aspect to the control that producers have over mainstream pop music: almost every gatekeeper is a man. Promoters, record company MDs, radio producers, Therefore not only do we hear lyrics that men want us to hear (and often write: Cher’s Believe had seven male writers and Beyonce’s Run the World, Girls had five male writers) but we also hear sounds that men have chosen, especially the sound of women’s voices. Of course, there are exceptions: Linda Perry and Missy Elliott in the US, Anne Dudley (who produced Alison Moyet) and Maya Jane Coles in the UK, for instance. Imogen Heap is one of the high-profile musicians who has followed in the footsteps of Laurie Anderson, and Kate Bush has been a self-producer for much of her career.
The next hurdle for us to overcome is the hurdle of being perpetually cast as sonic muse, or worse, sonic prostitute. Bjork has rightly exposed the foolish assumption that women can’t operate complex technology successfully. Now it is important for female producers to take their skills into the mainstream.

Copyright: Helen Reddington 2015
Dr Helen Reddington is the author of The Lost Women of Rock Music: female instrumentalists of the punk era (Equinox, 2012). She is currently researching the history of women sound engineers and producers in Britain.

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