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Making Sure the Sound Guy Isn’t Always a Guy

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four young women smile while adjusting knobs on a sound board in a studio
Students in Women's Audio Mission's Girls on the Mic program learn about studio engineering. Founded in 2003, the organization is celebrating 20 years of training and mentoring women recording engineers. (Courtesy Women's Audio Mission)

Burned out after a decade toiling as a software engineer, guitarist Sammie Wallinga knew she had to make a change.

She’d moved from Chicago to Oakland in 2021 while working a remote tech job, and quickly established herself on the Bay Area music scene playing in various metal bands. But her dream career as an audio engineer seemed to hover permanently on the horizon, always out of reach.

Then she heard about Women’s Audio Mission, the San Francisco nonprofit that’s trained thousands of women to run sound boards and recording equipment at studios and venues over the past 20 years. When a pink slip arrived last April, she took the bad news as an opportunity: the timing was perfect. “I immediately applied for the WAM internship, which was starting up in a couple of weeks,” says Wallinga. After training at WAM’s learning lab in Fruitvale, she plunged into classes at WAM’s San Francisco studio on Natoma Street to earn certification. “And now I’m a house engineer at the WAM studio.”

Wallinga continues to play music too — she performs with Exuvia at the How to Destroy the Universe festival in Oakland this Friday, Oct. 13. But for the past few months she’s spent most of her time recording voiceovers and podcasts, including an interview with a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor (for the public radio show Radiolab), work for KCRW, and guided meditation sessions for yet another client. But “my favorite thing is working with musicians as part of WAM’s Local Sirens program, sitting in at sessions and helping bring these songs to life.”

a Black woman with a guitar stands on a stage, performing with her band in front of a red sign that reads 'women's audio mission'
Skip the Needle performs as part of Women’s Audio Mission’s quarterly performance series, Local Sirens. (Jamie Hernandez)

Wallinga’s career is just one of thousands that’s been launched or shaped by WAM since it was founded in 2003 by recording engineer Terri Winston. Early in her 10-year stint as a professor and director of City College of San Francisco’s sound recording arts program, Winston — looking to the Bay Area’s history of award-winning women engineers, like Cookie Marenco and Leslie Ann Jones — saw an opportunity to provide women not just college courses, but on-the-ground training and mentorship.

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While the field is still disproportionately staffed by men, the number of women audio professionals has increased exponentially in the two decades since Winston launched the organization. WAM will celebrate that legacy with a 20th anniversary fundraiser at Herbst Theatre this Thursday, Oct. 12, featuring a performance by singer/songwriter Neko Case. (She’s one of many artists who’ve recorded at WAM’s studio, including Toro y Moi, Tune-Yards, Kronos Quartet, David Sedaris and Beyoncé’s band.)

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The milestone is an against-all-odds triumph for a project that started with Winston pushing a shopping cart of audio gear around to give recording workshops. WAM has found many male allies in the industry, but also faced numerous slammed doors: When a major audio engineering convention refused to rent WAM a booth early on, Winston says it took the City Attorney of San Francisco’s office intervening to get her in the door.

Now, “We’re training 2,000 women, girls and gender-expansive folks every year,” says Winston, who has built the organization through partnerships with companies looking to transform the once-cloistered profession, like Meyer Sound and Dolby, which regularly take on interns from WAM. At Outside Lands, WAM interns shadow engineers at nearly every stage, learning the ins and outs of live festival sound.

The pandemic brought the organization a surge of interest — and new challenges.  Already offering classes online, the organization managed a surge in enrollment as hundreds of musicians and aspiring audio engineers from around the world signed up for courses. Within weeks the course load doubled, “which was good and bad,” Winston says. “The good was we gained global following, and the bad was keeping up. We were hiring in the middle of the pandemic. We did have a lot of support because we’d built that trust.”

WAM had also just been stepping into a new five-year plan to expand in Los Angeles when the pandemic hit. Last year, WAM received another major boost with a $1 million grant from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott to bring WAM to the recording industry centers of L.A. and Nashville. And Dolby recently invested to create new, advanced spatial audio recording rooms at WAM’s San Francisco studio.

a group of seven young women pose in front of a sign that reads 'Dolby Cinema'
Women’s Audio Mission helps aspiring engineers land internships at some of the world’s biggest audio companies. (Courtesy Women's Audio Mission)

For artists, the presence of women in the studio isn’t just a question of equal opportunity in the business — it can go to the heart of the creative process. Merrill Garbus, who founded the Oakland project Tune-Yards with Nate Brenner, was “a puppeteer longing to be a musician” when she had her first dispiriting experiences in the studio. While working as a nanny for a veteran recording engineer, she bartered some of her compensation for his help recording her first songs.

While he was “a perfectly nice human being,” says Garbus, the dynamic left her feeling “totally disempowered. It was not a model to have authority for the kind of sound I wanted.” It was a familiar feeling, says the musician: “In a previous band, there were no women except for me in the room. Without knowing the technical stuff, there’s an insidious quality of disempowerment.”

Garbus turned poison into medicine with the first Tune-Yards album, 2009’s Bird-Brains, which she recorded entirely through a Dictaphone — “the only way to own my sound,” she says. “That was my attempt at reclaiming that authority.” The compressed, lo-fi audio became a Tune-Yards trademark, even as she grew increasingly confident in the studio.

Witnessing the infusion of women in studio positions has been heartening, Garbus says. “It has changed over my time as a musician and changed particularly because I live in the Bay Area. I reap the benefits of what Terri has done.”

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Women’s Audio Mission’s 20th anniversary fundraiser and concert featuring Neko Case takes place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 12 at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets and more info here.

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