SASAMI shines a spotlight on female audio engineers

SASAMI is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter from Los Angeles. A former Cherry Glazerr member and Curtis Harding collaborator, this year she’s signed with Domino Recording Co. and shared bills with the likes of Blondie and Japanese Breakfast. Her debut solo double A-side single “Not The Time/Callous” was released in October.

I have been working in studios, filling a variety of different roles, for the last decade. I have sung and played in professional sessions, recorded songs of my own, produced tracks, and played many, many live shows. To say it is still a male-dominated industry is not untrue, however there is an ever-increasing presence of women and non-binary people operating in the music world – and quickly rising to the top of their fields. Today I would like to flash my little spotlight on four fiercely talented women, who are admirable audio engineers and highly regarded at their respective crafts. There are numerous specialised ways in which audio engineering takes form in the purview of recorded and live music, and I spoke with these featured engineers to get some hot, hot audio-goss.

There is an ever-increasing presence of women and non-binary people operating in the music world – and quickly rising to the top of their fields.

Producer: Lorely Rodriguez (Empress Of)

SA: How old were you when you first started producing songs? What DAW (digital audio workstation) did you use?

LR: I was 17. I used Reason to make beats and Logic to record vocals.

SA: What is your favourite plugin and why? What is the weirdest production method/effect you have used in your music?

LR: My favourite plugin is probably Soundtoys Echoboy. I print my vocals with effects, so the mixer doesn’t have to do any additional vocal effects. I like to automate reverbs a bunch on the vocals. For me, things constantly moving in the space (reverbs/delays/phasers choruses/panning) of the track can bring a drum/instrumental or vocal to life.

SA: Throughout your discography you have done most of your tracking and producing on your own. What advice would you give someone starting out, who is producing their own music?

LR: I would say to spend a lot of time doing what you want to be good at. I am an obsessive person. I love to eat the same thing every day. When I am working on music, I work on it every day for up to 10 hours a day. When I lived in New York and had four jobs, I worked on music at night till 4am. It’s an obsession for me, and practice will make you better at your craft.

SA: What is one record you go back to again and again, specifically because the production is inspiring to you? What is it about that album?

LR: I love Swim by Caribou. It’s a record that sounds like no other record to me. There are so many moving parts in the mix. The panning is like a songwriting element. A flute coming in sweeping from left to right is introducing a new section of the song. A drum-fill is the only changing element for a minute, but you feel the track building. You feel submerged in the songs. Every time I’ve listened to it I have noticed something I either forgot or am surprised by.

Recording Engineer: Sami Perez (Tiny Telephone Recording Studios)

SA: How did you start engineering?

SP: My first band started recording at studios when we were in middle school and worked with several older men who made us punk or bluegrass, or whatever they wanted us to be. In high school we did an album at Women’s Audio Mission (WAM), and I realised that if I learned my way in the studio, I could make my music sound however I wanted it to. And so I started to learn to engineer.

SA: What are the three MUST HAVE pieces of gear for a beginning audio engineer?

SP: Bogen Rp2 preamp (Skip Simmons rebuild), Original Lexicon prime time delay, Microtech Gefell UM70 mic. Honestly you should get a compressor, like a distressor, or an 1176 before you get the delay unit, but I’m going to say the delay unit to emphasise how important it is to learn how to dub and be creative from behind the board.

SA: I know you work in an analogue studio (Tiny Telephone) and get to use some amazing vintage and new gear. What is your favourite piece of gear and why?

SP: There are so many amazing and unique pieces of gear at Tiny, it’s hard to choose! Right now I can’t stop using the OG Lexicon Prime Time unit – it has four notches of delay times that completely alter the fidelity of the delay and is incredibly useful for unique/filtered tones. So many songs I’ve worked on use the infinite repeat feature on vocals or keys as a foundation – it’s become quite a staple. I’m also really into the vibrato on our Magnitone amp. It’s almost comically quirky, and I love it so much.

SA: For someone who doesn’t know much about audio engineering, what is a metaphor that you can use to describe how engineering fits into the process of making a record or song?

SP: I’m definitely stealing this from John Vanderslice a little bit, but engineering is a lot like being a chef – chef’s choice! If you don’t have good ingredients, there’s zero chance of creating a delicious meal. If you have the most amazing and fresh ingredients and treat them simply, you really can’t make a bad meal. If you’re trying to mask a bad meal with pointless garnishes, the meal will still be bad. It’s the same with gear and music. The artist’s work is your meal, and you must execute it tastefully!

Mastering Engineer: Maria Rice (Peerless Mastering)

SA: (For people who might not be familiar with the difference) what are the main differences between mixing and mastering a track?

MR: Mastering is the final step in the process of making an album before it moves into the physical production and distribution phases. The producer or mix engineer provides the source material we work with and our final output goes to the fan who buys/streams the record.

Mastering engineers usually work with a stereo mix for each track, making incremental refinements to the dynamics and tone to allow the project to achieve its fullest aesthetic potential. We generally aim to enhance what’s already there, not to change or correct – except upon request! This is accomplished by an accumulation of tiny steps — like multiple changes no greater than say, 0.5db – as opposed to broad strokes.

Another difference is that when mixing, you are probably dealing with a lot of parts, pieces, and versions. The mastering engineer brings the mixes together to create a whole and consistent sounding album — sort of setting the songs in one cohesive sound world that will come through in most listening environments. While viewing the project holistically, we’re also taking care of a lot of precise details, like removing small artefacts leftover from the recording process, creating fades and transitions between tracks, or encoding metadata to the production master.

SA: What is your most used piece of gear for mastering, and what does it do?

MR: It’s tough to answer this question. My honest answer would be the mastering room itself — monitoring, acoustic treatments, etc., and my ears. But that’s also the kind of snarky response you’d expect from a mastering person. Really though, most of the gear is used fairly equally and we have too much to list here. The big mainstays include multiple EQs and dynamics processors by Manley, Dangerous Music, Weiss, and a GML 9500 mastering EQ. You’re probably going to hear those on almost every project we do because they can be used fairly transparently, but there are always exceptions.

SA: Does being a classically trained pianist affect how you approach your job? If so, how?

MR: It does, in the sense that classical piano has taught me to really listen in terms of tonal (bright/dark), dynamic (loud/soft), and textural (percussive, blurry, etc.) balance. Solo piano compositions have multiple interwoven parts — more than two hands’ worth sometimes — and the performer really needs to listen and make small adjustments to be able to communicate the desired balance. The placement of energy is important as well. What’s driving the momentum? Something rhythmic, or a wandering melody? And if you think of the frequencies of the full piano keyboard as a rough representation of the different instruments in a band’s mix, the parallels come through even more.

Since home studios can’t all be built from the ground up with an acoustician’s blessing, the accuracy of any set of monitors will vary pretty wildly.

SA: What is a good pair of affordable monitors that you would recommend to someone who is mixing their record at home, to be mastered? What are the main things that they should be looking for, before sending it to their mastering engineer?

MR: Since home studios can’t all be built from the ground up with an acoustician’s blessing, the accuracy of any set of monitors will vary pretty wildly. The room you’re mixing in is going to affect everything you’re hearing, so even the most “flat” monitors are going to have different blind spots that might not have been as noticeable when you were trying them out in the store or some other studio. So rather than go straight for a specific monitor model – though you can always try Genelec, Mackie and Yamaha for affordable options, I would first look into performing an acoustic analysis to figure out what’s going on with my existing setup. That said, you don’t want to blindly rely on tools to tell you what you’re supposedly hearing.

When either mixing or auditioning the monitor set up, you can listen for clarity and details – like percussive elements or the tiny spaces between notes. Pay attention to the stereo field and make sure parts that are panned to the center actually sound that way. When checking for tonal balance, see if you have to strain to hear different areas of the mix, such as the bass or vocals, or if you can hear everything even when you turn the volume down. And of course, avoid distortion unless you want it to be there.

Live Audio Engineer: Madeleine Campbell (Women In Sound)

SA: You work in a studio and you also do sound live. What are the main differences between those two experiences? Is there one that you prefer?

MC: Studio and live mixing use the same foundational skills, but in reality they’re two totally different beasts. In the studio, I’m generally mixing in the same acoustically treated room with monitors and headphones I’ve used for years. I can listen to an artist’s demos ahead of time and take several hours to set up and dial in my desired sounds. On tour, I’m mixing with that night’s particular venue in mind. I may mix the same band’s set in very different ways depending on the room. Sometimes it’s a breeze and sometimes I have 15 minutes for soundcheck and to do damage control, using lots of EQ to remove various frequencies in the main speakers or monitors that are feeding back. There’s a great element of unpredictability to it, which can be stressful but also keeps things exciting. In live sound I have more established limitations. I can spend weeks picking apart every little detail of a studio mix but I’m finished at the end of a live set. I can’t go back and remix, regardless of how it went. If it wasn’t my strongest mix, I figure out what could have gone better, pack up and try again the next night. I love both jobs, but because I’m not currently in a band, it feels really exciting to be a part of a live show in that way.

SA: As a touring musician, I know that the sound/levels at soundcheck and during the performance are usually at least a little bit different. How do you predict what the differences will be? What is the main difference usually?

MC: Sometimes it’s really hard to predict! If I’m able, I walk around the room a bit during the first song or two of the set to see what mix tweaks need to be made. Though in general, bodies filling up a room can be helpful because they act as sound absorption, which deadens some unwanted reflections.

As you’re getting started, it can take some time to figure out how to best communicate your needs to a sound engineer.

SA: Having played in lots of rock bands, I hear the sentence “can you turn your amp down?” a lot. What are some soundcheck/live sound tips that you could give to people starting out in bands to make their experience working with a live sound engineer better?

MC: As you’re getting started, it can take some time to figure out how to best communicate your needs to a sound engineer. It may seem like a no-brainer but even if everyone in your band needs monitor adjustments, make sure one person talks at a time. It can easily get confusing for both sides, especially if there is one person handling all sound. Remember your needs are important and you shouldn’t hesitate to ask again if they have not yet been met.

My first priority is making sure artists are comfortable on stage, but keep in mind an engineer can only do so much if amps are blaring too loudly. If they ask you to turn down your stage volume, it’s probably because it’s masking a quieter track like a vocal or synth. There is a finite amount of room to turn up a track before it feeds back or clips. They’ll likely be able to make up for any volume loss by sending more of that signal to your monitor.

SA: What is the most memorable show that you’ve ever done sound for? Why?

MC: I loved mixing No Joy at Thalia Hall in Chicago last fall. They have a lush and heavy sound that filled the room beautifully. I feel like all I did was push up the faders and it sounded good. I had a lot of fun mixing Boy Harsher at Brillobox in Pittsburgh, too. It’s a small, difficult room but they have so much dimension to their sound. I danced at the mixing board the entire time.