In her newest book, She’s at the Controls, Helen Reddington reflects on her own experience as a young musician, surprised to hear of Elton John’s marriage to his sound engineer, Renate Blauel, in 1984. Not because (as was widely known at the time) John was gay, but because his sound engineer was a woman and, despite being five or six years into her own music career at the time, Reddington had never previously heard of a woman sound engineer. Flash forward 35 years to 2019 and Reddington is interviewing a woman who refers to herself as “The only female sound engineer in Britain”. This anecdote highlights in two ways just how little the situation has changed since 1984. For a start, Reddington knows that her interviewee’s description is not an accurate one, because she has already spoken to another British woman sound engineer – Felix Mackintosh – who also appears in She’s at the Controls. Second, her interviewee’s self-description reflects a continuing lack of awareness of women sound engineers within the music industry itself. It was this 2019 interview, along with Reddington’s growing frustration about the high dropout rate of women students from studio training on the various university courses she teaches on, which provided the stimulus for She’s at the Controls.
Having pinpointed and shone a light onto these obstacles, Reddington pins them to the wall, leaving them squirming in the glare of the spotlight she has placed upon them
As with her previously acclaimed, The Lost Women of Rock Music, which relates the experiences of UK punk’s ‘forgotten’ women musicians, Reddington is at her best when she has found a cause that she is absolutely furious about. Not only does her anger fire her rhetoric, it also seems to sharpen her critical faculties, ensuring that absolutely no stone is left unturned when investigating a multifaceted, complex subject. Reddington is forensic in her desire to hunt down the barriers to entry that would-be sound engineers and producers face. There is the apparent lack of role models – it’s hard to name a woman producer with the celebrity profile of Joe Meek and Phil Spector or, more recently, Mark Ronson and Paul Epworth. Then come the barriers of internalised sexism and, as a consequence of women having their confidence constantly undermined, learned helplessness, both of which the author explores in her chapter on music education. And the biggest beast: the work culture of the industry at large. Despite being regularly called out by feminists from the 1970s onwards, the music industry has been slow to change and, Reddington attests, serves to provide “retrogressive havens within which those made uncomfortable by social change and challenges to traditional gender roles can take cover”. As she points out, male-dominated hierarchies within recording studios also do not allow women to progress up the career ladder, which would at least partly explain why so many of her interviewees have set up their own studios. Having pinpointed and shone a light onto these obstacles, Reddington pins them to the wall, leaving them squirming in the glare of the spotlight she has placed upon them. Reddington interviews over 30 women working in “various roles of recording music”, with a number of specialisms, backgrounds and experiences. Her interviewees include relatively big names, such as self producers and musicians-turned-producers Sandie Shaw, Tina Weymouth and Isobel Campbell. They also include perhaps the closest the world has to a well-known woman engineer: Susan Rogers, who worked with Prince between 1983 and 1987, and who has seen her work highlighted and praised in the many tributes to Prince since his death in 2016. Also interviewed are engineer Terrie Harris, who has produced Poly Styrene and worked on live events such as Glastonbury, grime producer Ms Melody and Mandy Parnell, who has worked with Róisín Murphy and Björk.
Reddington also slams “gender ventriloquism”, a phenomenon which might be simply summed up by all of those pop songs about women’s empowerment […] which are often written, produced and engineered by men
While all of these women are interesting and inspiring to read about in their own right, Reddington uses their experiences to examine the interplay of gender and work in the recording studio and academic world. She begins with how these women came to be interested in sound and music in their early years, how they entered the worlds of sound engineering and production, approaches to their work and the areas of specialism that they have developed. Reddington examines the relationships between the women producers and engineers and their clients and colleagues, before discussing the wider context of women and audio recording within an historical narrative. This includes an exploration of the concept of inherent male ‘genius’, power imbalances, strategies against stereotyping and how a combination of isolation, internalised sexism, learned helplessness and outdated teaching methods work against women and girls in music education. It’s here that Reddington also slams “gender ventriloquism”, a phenomenon which might be simply summed up by all of those pop songs about women’s empowerment, such as Beyoncé’s ‘Run The World (Girls)’ which are often written, produced and engineered by men. Producers frequently have a strong degree of influence and agency over female vocalists in particular, and can undermine the singer’s level of agency in the studio. Reddington points to the infamous example of Phil Spector’s treatment of Darlene Love. Reddington highlights the extent to which producers who are men can frequently overwhelm and overpower the wishes of women artists, ensuring that it is their preferred vision of the song that is produced, rather than that of the woman musician they are working with. To balance this, she also asks women producers about their experiences of working with and recording performers who are men, despite this appearing to be a rare situation at present. But perhaps the most powerful and most sobering chapter is Reddington’s forensic dissection of music academia – a world she has been a part of since the early 2000s – both in secondary schools and universities. She relates how music and technology courses are taught and how students react in different teaching environments, depending on gender and the various ways that teachers and students who are men conspire – consciously or otherwise – to exclude these women students. What gives the chapter particular power, however, is Reddington’s clear desire to spotlight solutions to these problems, showcasing strategies she has successfully used to retain women students and provide a safe space for them within music academia. As I have mentioned, the stories told by these producers and engineers are interesting and inspiring in their own right, and it’s definitely worth mentioning that there are positive professional tales within the book alongside, or more often entwined, with the negative. Chantal Epp was able to forge her mutual interests in sound production and cheerleading into a singular but inspiring career. Felix Mackintosh ‘inherited’ a portastudio when the band she played bass in fell apart, thus leading to a career in sound engineering, production and remixing. Susan Rogers has been rightly recognised for her work with Prince. While she is not interviewed for the book, Reddington also regularly mentions the excellent Isa Summers, the ‘Machine’ within Florence + The Machine, and her role in creating the band’s iconic sound. She also gives an elegant salute to Imogen Heap, the musical polymath who, among other things, is also a producer. This is a fantastic book that illuminates an area of the music industry that doesn’t tend to be exposed as often, or as thoroughly, as it needs to be. Hopefully She’s at the Controls will prove to be a useful handbook for aspiring sound engineers and producers, just as it also lays out areas that need to improve, or where there may be trouble in the future. Alongside age-old issues like government cuts to music education and the industry’s failure to highlight women engineers’ and producers’ work, which ensures a lack of visible role models for women seeking to enter the industry, Reddington touches on more recent economic concerns: an over-abundance of music technology graduates and a diminishing number of jobs in studios to satisfy them. In this situation it is to be assumed that those with the sharpest elbows, loudest voices and best connections are the most likely nab these limited jobs. Reddington points out that those she spoke to were the survivors, the ones who made it in an industry that is hostile to women. Had she spoken to those who didn’t make it, who dropped out, who found the sacrifices and hostility too much to take, she may well have had a very different book on her hands. The inequalities faced by the women featured in She’s at the Controls, such as misogynoir and hostility towards women in STEM, are borne from societal prejudices and sharpened in the working environments of sound engineering and production. These problems are bigger than the studios, schools and universities that house them, but that doesn’t let those organisations and environments off the hook when it comes to addressing them. She’s at the Controls is published by Equinox Publishing Ltd and is available for purchase here.
The first image shows a cropped version of the book’s cover design. The cover has a grey background with multicoloured and patterened lines which surround the book’s title. Below is a picture of a wavelength. This image is used with permission from Helen Reddington.