On 9 November 2019, Spitfire Audio hosted London’s first-ever Tech Dissect, an event specially created by Bristol organisation Saffron, with the express intention of supporting womxn in music and music technology and challenge the current climate of the industry where only 7% of UK engineers and producers are currently female.
Over the course of the day there were a range of talks and workshops from many prolific women and non-binary people working within music as composers, engineers, producers and business professionals, all with the purpose of inspiring and educating the next generation of womxn into the industry.
The day began with a panel from producers Emmavie, Shy One and Elkka, discussing their identity in music, exploring how finding themselves musically tied in with the processes of coming out and how their creative process has developed through peer response, collaboration and evolving sounds outside of the confines of one genre. London-based songwriter, producer and DJ Emmavie elaborated further to us about her perception of the industry (and cultural change within) “There’s more inclusivity. Now that we’re not hesitant to speak about these things we have so much representation, and allowing anyone to be in any space is only contributing to art itself.
For example, there’s the disparity between gay and straight men in rap music. Imagine how many amazing people exist like Frank Ocean that are afraid of doing rap because of judgement. That is what is so massive about people being inclusive right now, we have Frank and others (for example country rap star Lil Nas X, who came out earlier this year) who before wouldn’t step in front of the mic for fear of being judged, rejected or even killed, that now don’t have to be quite so afraid.”
Elkka spoke about translating her music in more tangible methods through hardware synthesizers and tools to remove the restriction of watching things happen through a screen, while Emmavie explained further about her own process, and how she uses creation methods in up to four DAWs per track, starting out in Cubase and ending in Studio One. She told us that “I love learning and absorbing things. Technology is progressing at such a ridiculous rate I’m seeing people do things I’ve never seen before, so obviously if I learn how to do that I’m going to have a new tool and get something to add to my sound.
“In my collaborations, I’m working with people that are also developing, so when you go into every session that person has grown in a different way and we come back to meet in the middle as different people with more artillery and weapons to make greater music. I’m currently doing that with so many artists that I’m always evolving myself.”
This panel concluded with some insight into not being afraid to break out of conforming to what you think your music should sound like and experiment by taking inspiration from anything from Disney soundtracks to street noises, and the importance of breaking down aspects of songs you admire to learn new techniques that can be applied to your own process.
Also in attendance at Tech Dissect was electronic composer, producer and artist Hannah Peel who we spoke to directly about her own experiences in the industry, as well as her creative process. “When I was younger, I always found people like Matthew Herbert and Laurie Anderson inspiring, but when I first started writing music there wasn’t that much that I could find inspiration from, especially electronically. It was more to do with technology and finding people that were using it in an interesting way.”
Hannah tells us “When I was younger it was people using loop pedals and tape machines, but it was quite hard to find influences without the internet. These days it’s people like Julianna Barwick, Holly Herndon and James Lavelle who I feel are amazing. I saw Holly about five years ago and loved what she was doing and she’s only gone on to bigger things, but it was really experimental stuff that she was doing when I saw her and it blew my mind that she was even doing that back then.”
So has Hannah noticed the positive trend towards greater inclusivity in her own professional experience? “Definitely. They are being given opportunities, companies are actively looking for female composers rather than being lazy about it now. They are finding people and giving females a chance and quite rightly, we should have been given chances a long time ago, but it’s a really great time. I feel very humble to be doing so much at the moment.”
That being said, Hannah remains realistic about the tough realities for any person trying to break into the music production world. “You’ve got to work double hard and you can’t be dismissive about your work, you’ve got to trust and believe in it, that’s all I can say. You can’t just think that things are going to come in because they don’t and if you want to be the best you can possibly be, you’ve got to hone that craft and really work it rather than just relying on other people.”
The second talk of the day discussed gender and music for media with composers Nainita Desai, Connie Edwards and Sarah Guerin, touching on the importance of being able to find an emotional connection within music and having belief when making it, highlighting the fact that while companies are now actively searching for female composers, there’s an unfortunate shortage of submissions from them that needs to be rectified.
Miri Kat is a Livecoder/AV Artist based in London who entered the music-making world via a stint studying game design. We ask her about her inspirations, and thoughts on the industry’s imbalance. “Growing up in Iran, I was always into games, programming and hacking, I think the reason for that was because everything was so forbidden, so you had to find hacks to be able to do things. I don’t recall any women that I was looking up to, but then I came here, studied game design and was working in the game industry and the people I was working with doing game music were using PureData and Max MSP, so that was my entry point.
“I started working in music and I work at Focusrite Novation with web technologies now, but I’ve always enjoyed quite niche extremes so naturally I went into live coding. Right now I use Max MSP for sketches, before that I used PureData, and for my performances I’m using Supercollider, but I did a workshop in Gibber today, so there are lots of tools out there to use.”
“There’s obviously a stigma,” Miri Kat explains, “A lot of women for some reason, probably because they don’t see enough role models, don’t feel like this is their thing or that they can do this and I think we underestimate how much humans think like that. When you see someone like you doing something, you think, ‘I can do that too, I might try that’, but if it is never represented as your thing then you’re less likely to even try.”
Miri Kat goes on to tell us that she is currently a STEM ambassador. “I teach girls at schools and workshops and I’m actively trying to make a change, but it is up to all the women in the industry to take charge to represent and teach what you know so you can create more of you. The good thing about open-source and non-proprietary software in the coding world is that anyone can use it, you download and start learning it, but the difficulty right at the start is getting people inspired by positive representation.”
Aside from the event’s primary focus – and discussion of – gender and inclusivity in the music production world, there were also hugely popular workshops covering mixing with AIR studios’ engineer Fiona Cruickshank and composing with Spitfire Audio’s in-house composer Homay Schmitz, with both dissecting tracks to give precious insight into their processes, while we also attended a workshop with Katie Tavini giving an in-depth overview of her process as a mastering engineer, providing a mountain of useful tips and checklists to keep in mind when both mastering and preparing your own tracks for the process.
Another workshop of note was with producer Young Padawan, running through an introduction to working with Eurorack modular synthesizer systems and using the Moog Grandmother and Mother 32 to create techno beats.
The workshop highlighted the importance of knowing exactly what you want to achieve before putting together a modular system, but also the key role of womxn producers to go all out and produce the unexpected, proven by her own experiences of fellow male producers underestimating her music and being shocked at how heavy her live sets were.
The day closed with Hannah Peel in conversation, led by broadcaster Jennifer Lucy Allan, where Peel discussed her career so far and future within scoring, composition and collaboration. As well as an interactive talk from London-based producer Bishi during which she discussed her own career and the Women in Technology Creative Industries Hub (WITCiH) project of which she is the co-founder and artistic director, as well as the crucial need for investment for women and minorities working in music technology.
We spoke to Bishi about this initiative. “Part of the reason I set up WITCiH was to foster a sense of community, but when I do a lot of talks people always ask for this idea of what we can do and I just say investment.”
Bishi goes on to tell us that, “People only feel comfortable to invest if they feel there is an actual movement and bit of the market, so as annoying as it is and as much as we should be free to be creative beings, creativity needs support and investment. My career has never had traditional management or label support, but what I have had is a lot of opportunity so I have had to learn how to make it work and make a living out of it. I have enjoyed it, but the conversations with gatekeepers have been really focused on race and not being able to sell me to white audiences. As a South Asian woman I make up 2 to 3% of the industry across the board and the kind of difficulty that I face completely mirrors how underrepresented people from my background are, so by clubbing together and creating networks, that is when ears really prick up. In short, we should have these events to foster a sense of community and help each other, but also to prove to people there is a really investable movement going on.”
Bishi also told us about the concept and process behind the creation for her upcoming record Let My Country Awake “It’s inspired by a collection of essays called The Good Immigrant which was edited by a friend Nikesh Shukla, and a lot of my POC writer friends have written essays talking about our second generation as our parents were all immigrants.” Bishi explains Nikesh set up The Good Immigrant as he was continuously told there was no market for writers of colour and now it’s clear there’s a massive market, and that really inspired the album. The title is taken from a Tagore poem all about immigration and identity that won the Nobel Prize in 1911.
The way that I write is with the RC 505 Loop Station to build really big choral patches, and I was trained as a pianist and sitarist, so I build sitar and electronics around that, then I’ll take it all over to a Logic project where I’ll develop more work. I have also started to MIDI map my sitar to my Ableton Push, and that is leading to some really interesting developments in terms of sound design, I have always wanted to be a sound designer and now I might end up becoming one so I’d like to push the sonic capabilities of what a sitar can be. This week in the studio there’s been a lot of MiniMoog and tape manipulation and Robert Fripp inspired sitar and analogue synth shenanigans going on and now I really want a MiniMoog, nothing sounds more perfect!”
As the day drew to a close, we took stock of an event that had proved to be a really important, eye-opening and enlightening day for the entire industry, showcasing some of the finest female and non-binary talents that are currently working in the music production landscape. Vital guidance, was passed on, and provided the rising new generation of womxn music makers all they needed to carve their own futures in the music-making world.