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July 21, 2008

Audio Musings 1

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

For a number of weeks now The Wife and I have been spending our days in an audio studio, recording, then editing, and now mixing an audiobook that we've co-written. If you're interested: It's a raunchy satire of the movie world, done in a radio-series- like fashion: 50 roles, 30 actors, 17 stories ... Our very own foul-mouthed, tons-of-story-lines, late-night HBO series, in a way, if minus the imagery. We'll be a little less ambitious next time out, that's for sure. Once we wrap up mixing chores, we'll be offering our masterwork online and charging for downloads.

The audio-production process is fascinating -- a matter of hours upon hours of painstaking tedium interrupted by occasional bursts of giddy hilarity and satisfying creativity.

Audio production is also its own distinctive little world, I've discovered. The techies, engineers, and producers are often fun, sparky, driven people. They're also far more down-to-earth and rough-and-ready than the writin' crowd, thank god.

There's a distinctive character type that seems to thrive in the field: part geek, part rock 'n' roller. Many in fact have come to the field after spending years in bands; many continue to play in bands and / or make recordings on weekends.

About 15 people work at the place where we're laboring over our epic and silly project. Two quick observations about them, and -- in honor of election year -- two quick questions.

  • Observation #1: 12 of the 15 people working at this studio are males. Of the three females, two are office assistants. In other words, all but one of the audio engineers are male. Question #1: Do we have here a sign that the audio engineering field is biased against women?

  • Observation #2: An amazing number of these guys show up at work wearing low-slung tight jeans and black death-metal t-shirts.
    Question #2: Is this proof that the field is biased against people who aren't metal fans?

Time to call in the EEOC?

Semi-related: I wrote back here and here about some of the differences between book-world people and movie-world people. A superb producer of audiobooks, frequent 2Blowhards commenter Charlton Griffin offers his latest production here.



posted by Michael at July 21, 2008


I'm one of those guys - though without the metal fashions. It's almost entirely a guy thing, like other geeky pursuits. And the guys into it HATE that, for obvious reasons. The idea of gender discrimination is laughable, though that doesn't mean that women wanting to get into that field might have a bit of a steeper climb. But few are interested.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on July 23, 2008 12:45 AM

I know a woman who is a recording engineer based in London. She says she is sought after because there are so few women in her field. I personally believe this is because of the male/female brain differences described by Dr. Simon Baren Cohen in his books about autism and Asperger Syndrome.

Engineering of any kind is a male trait and the field is rife with men on the autistic spectrum.

The black heavy metal t-shirts....just a fashion style. You don't come across many punk or country-western t-shirts even on eBay, where they bring in big money. Metallica shirts are a dime a dozen. Ask those sound guys to name the origiinal members of Iron Maiden, and see if they're posers or not!

Posted by: Sister Wolf on July 23, 2008 12:50 AM

Running a recording studio is a capitalist enterprise. You don't get paid unless you book the time. At the lower end of the food chain, it is sometimes necessary to enforce payment with a punch in the mouth.

The guy who runs the studio where I do my day-to-day stuff once got annoyed with my lack of progressive politics and announced: "You know, I'm a socialist." What his socialism amounts to... well, I'll be damned if I know. He mostly survives by doing radio and TV voice-over spots for car dealers and restaurants. If he employs anybody, he does it on a per job basis. This is cowboy capitalism.

So, the lack of women is the same old story. It's a tough guy business. Long ago (and to some extent still today), it was a Mafia biz. Job security, a paramount factor to women, is non-existent.

As for the Iron Maiden t-shirts. I'd never seen or listened to them until last night when I caught about 2 minutes of their act from 25 years ago on MSG TV. They were ludicrously awful, virtually a parody of the loony lugubrioso and daffy posing of Spinal Tap. Hard to believe anybody would pay to suffer through that. But, there they were playing to what appeared to be a sold out house.

How to account for that? Testosterone poisoning in late adolescent boys?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on July 23, 2008 7:25 AM

Most of the recording situations my Wife (a musician, radio announcer & theater sound designer) has been involved in had geek/musician men in the engineering roles ... although few metal heads. The Mastering (as opposed to recording and mixing) engineer preferred by the male jazz player/engineer/producer used on a couple of projects she was involved with is a woman and she does excellent work.

Posted by: Chris White on July 23, 2008 7:38 AM

Todd -- Audio engineers aren't going to bump into many females in the course of a workday, that's for sure. Question for you? How do you handle the whole slumped in a dark room before a computer situation? I love making audio, but the body does go dead, even more than in normal office work. Most of the 25 year old guys at the studio are pasty-skinned and developing saggy middles.

Sister -- Some guys do love (and take to) machines, electronics, dials and knobs, etc. Often wish I were one of them, but I seem to have a rather girly brain in some ways. I was comparing notes with the rock n roll geeks we're working with, who are much younger than I, and it was funny to remember the kind of teen and high schooler they'd been: rockers and screwups, basically, who hated school, but who had a funny knack for math and machines. I remember those guys.

ST -- It does seem like a ludicrously dirty rotten business. generally speaking. The people who survive in it must see a lot of life! Wish I had something-anything to say about metal, which I've never spent more than 10 minutes listening to. I've heard from a few people that there is such a thing as good metal, and from others that a lot of metal fans are smart and funny - they enjoy the theater of it, like some people enjoy professional wrestling or extreme fighting. And also that some of the bands are made up of fantastic pro studio musicians who love putting on makeup, costumes and shows on the weekend. Any truth to it, do you know?

Chris -- The one gal at our studio who isn't an office assistant is in fact the boss, as well as the top dog where engineering is concerned, evidently a legend in the field. Great to watch her work -- incredible ears crossed with an amazingly direct instinctive-seeming feel for the machines. It all feels kinda magic and organic when she's really cooking. The guyz live in fear and awe of her. But she seems to be a real rarity in the field.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 23, 2008 9:59 AM

I think that the metal thing appeals only to males from about 17 through 25, and the few females who want to be associated with the testosterone fueled, heavily pierced and tattooed type.

Drugs, I dare say, play a large role, particularly cocaine, ecstasy, alcohol and pot... all taken simultaneously. The idea seems to be to provoke the nerve endings to scream. Loud, fast, macho bass and lots of reverb.

I've heard a few cuts from Metallica that are pretty good, but I think that that band is far removed from the rest of the pack.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on July 23, 2008 10:18 AM

I've been doing commercial voiceover work for 25 years in countless studios in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlanta. In all those years, I've encountered two female engineers. Both were/are in Atlanta. Just an observation.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 23, 2008 10:37 AM

As always, take anything ST says with a grain of something. I know a lot of metal fans/musicians - in fact my entire group of close friends are both; while they may have gotten into the stuff young (pre-17,) all of them are somewhere well past 25 at this point, and none of them are druggies or heavy drinkers. And all of them got tired of Metallica somewhere around the time they started to get "far removed from the rest of the pack," (read: not-so-much-metal-anymore-as-hard-corporate-rock.)

Of course anecdotal evidence doesn't mean much. I'm not likely to be friends with druggies; maybe everyone who's into metal but not my friend fits ST's description. I wouldn't know.

I enjoy metal too, though it's not my primary musical interest. Just like with any style of music, there's good and bad, profoundly talented and surprisingly talentless. It takes work to understand it, also like any style, and it takes A LOT of work to do it well.

As far as audio studios and knobs - that's one idea of heaven for me. Maybe why I'm pasty-skinned and well past developing the saggy-middle. Never met a woman/girl doing that stuff in person, though they can be found (albeit rarely) online, in the void. My wife's never touched a mixer or a microphone, and has never wanted to. I'm gradually in the process of seeing what happens when my daughter grows up helping me with recording. Maybe I'll report back in another 16, 17 years.

Posted by: i, squub on July 23, 2008 12:24 PM

"How do you handle the whole slumped in a dark room before a computer situation?"

Yeah, that's a problem. Frankly it burned me out. After 20-odd years doing electronic music I've lately bought a piano and spend almost all of my time unplugged.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on July 23, 2008 1:48 PM

The reason most sound engineers are into metal is because it's a technical field and most metal is nothing if not brute displays of technical virtuosity. Metal musicians love the studio for that same reason. All that equipment to play with. One running joke we'd have in the studio was, "Hey, can you adjust the reverb on my rack tom mic?" Sort of poking fun at the obsession with detail many of those guys have. But then again, I played in punk bands, where the aesthetic is less is more. It's the reason you don't find too many punk engineers, although I recorded with one or two back in the day.

As for metal music itself, it's a HUGELY varied genre. I know of some bands populated by the most technically virtuosic musicians I've ever seen (Dillinger Escape Plan and Candiria, to name two). The complexity of songs (labyrinthine time changes, mixing metal with jazz with classical) and just pure chops of those guys are mind-blowing. Now, I'm not saying that that makes good music, per se. But it is very impressive to hear. And yeah, those guys are in demand studio musicians, as well.

As with anything, 98% of it sucks ass. The other 2% is just as worthwhile as the best of any other genre.

Posted by: JV on July 23, 2008 3:21 PM

I'm with JV on the technical demands of metal. And athletic demands. Metal drumming is an excruciating ordeal, demanding supreme physical endurance and the maintenance of a high level of dexterity and control all while intensely stressed, even exhausted (ever try that cymbal-grabbing damping manoeuvre metal drummers do with a heartbeat of 170bpm, and that's been that high for 2hrs straight?). Try that high metal singing too, while covering probably ten miles per concert crisscrossing the stage surface, and punctuating your demi-marathon with endless jumps, spins, and La La La Human Steps barrel rolls.

Metal guys are indeed iron men. Ignore the hair. There's some serious talent in some of those bands. Dream Theater, for example and IMO, play at a very high level of virtuosity all across the band.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 23, 2008 4:00 PM

"And all of them got tired of Metallica somewhere around the time they started to get "far removed from the rest of the pack," (read: not-so-much-metal-anymore-as-hard-corporate-rock.)"

That's a peculiar comment. I've made more money in some weeks composing background music for a trade show piece than I've made in whole years performing for an audience. I welcome corporate money.

This reference to "corporate rock." What's that about? Is there any other kind? What would it be about? Alternative lifestyles? Rejection of middle class life? What in the hell does that have to do with music?

I was recently contacted by a women looking for a keyboard player. She has a CD out called "A Nation of Sheep." I listened to a few cuts. Godawful screeching about something or other. I turned it off after 15 seconds.

PatrickH, if what you're looking for in music is athletic prowess... well, what can I say? I'd just as soon listen to a quintet of old men who don't move on stage. I have absolutely no interest in guys running from one end of the stage to the other. Why is this supposed to be interesting?

Years ago, when I was a teenager, I briefly understood this notion that bands were supposed to be fighting for some new idea about life... Now, I think that's the last thing in the world I want to hear from a musician. When I hear a musician start to preach about anything, I immediate turn him off.

You've got to admire the Rolling Stones. For a while when they were young, they had everybody thinking that they were a band with some sort of agenda. Years later, we can all see that their agenda was putting on a good show and making money. Mick Jagger is very clever. The Stones are certainly "corporate rock" in some way. They just own their own corporation.

So, isquibb, I don't understand what you're talking about. Are you expecting something from listening to music other than the pleasure of listening to music? Political messages? Why would you want that?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on July 23, 2008 4:23 PM

ST, Patrick mentioned athletic endurance of metal musicians IN ADDITION to the incredible technical musical demands that good metal musicians master, and emphasized the drummer. As a (non-metal) drummer myself, I can attest to the physical demands of playing drums in ANY genre.

Corporate rock is a catch-all phrase for anything that gets played on mainstream radio. Early Metallica was way too heavy to make it to the airwaves. When their sound got more nuanced (relatively), they became hugely popular and were heard all over the dial, and also influenced mainstream tastes to allow heavier bands the opportunity to get played on the radio. It's a very common path. Musical innovation, be it purely musical, theatrical, political, and/or a combination of all the above, happens outside of the reach of mainstream radio and then bubbles up to the surface. It's a real phenomena that even your extreme curmudgeon-ness cannot invalidate. :)

Posted by: JV on July 23, 2008 5:37 PM

I agree with the many comments above re Question #1: it's not sexism, it's just something about gender differences. Similarly, the whole audiophile area is male-dominated: getting picky and geeky about sound quality is just much more likely to be a male concern.

Posted by: PapayaSF on July 23, 2008 7:29 PM

Yes, audiophiles are largely men. They are never quite satisfied by their sound system, no matter how many times they upgrade em. My husband has ten thousand different mixes of the same Jimi Hendrix record. It never ends.

The female parallel is probably lipstick. You have to keep seeking perfection...

Posted by: Sister Wolf on July 23, 2008 8:09 PM

ST: JV said it better than I would have. I basically used the term "corporate rock" to piss you off. I sorta figured you'd come away from it with some question like, "Are you expecting something from listening to music other than the pleasure of listening to music? Political messages? Why would you want that?"

Sometimes music is more pleasurable, for me, when it's closer to the artist's own heart than when it's tailored for an audience. Nothing to do with political message; and also that's not always the case. There's plenty of made-for-an-audience music I enjoy. Who knows, maybe I'd enjoy your background music for trade-shows. Personally I've not had similar luck. A few days after I had my own band perform our mix of metal and classic rock for a company Christmas party, I was accused by the president of the company of being on drugs. Seems that quiet, soft-spoken tech writers aren't supposed to be able to scream and yell and jump around a stage without being on something. Ring any bells?

As far as political messages go: it's when they STARTED getting "corporate" that Metallica started really getting political. That whole Napster thing was very political.

Posted by: i, squub on July 23, 2008 9:24 PM

JV: I can attest to the physical demands of playing drums in ANY genre.

Ain't that right! Even jazz drumming, which you might think is easy enough, athletically that is, what with all the "subtle brush work" of the kind you'll hear on any Diana Krall snoozefest album, is fantastically demanding physically as soon you start even resembling the same species as say, Buddy Rich or Elvin Jones. Try drumming with that level of skill while your arms (and shoulders!) are on fire. Hoo-eeee! Talk about your five-alarm deltoid burn!

No need for the gym with those laddies. I'm waiting for a fitness fad that uses drums...Bongotonics, Kick-Kinesis? Gimme a name here people, and I think we could make this work.

I'm with ST though, that athletic prowess as such doesn't turn my crank so much these days, now that moshing and punking and metalling and Satan and Beelzebub and 48 hr mushroom binges are in my past. At least for this year. Gimme old guys standing on stage and I'm a happy geezer. (Heh, at a Tom Wilson concert he once pointed to the "middle-aged mosh pit" going in front of the stage. Polite, plump, respectful moshing. Try it some time, it's fun!)

P.S. Man, someone shut me up! I can't stop writing! Anyway, Ottawa had its Bluesfest lately, and the Blind Boys of Alabama played. The lead is 80 years old, and moves like a GOD. So maybe you can have your old man cake and eat it athletically too.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 24, 2008 9:54 AM

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