In the dimly lit control room of Frogville Studios, Willa Snow stands at the sound board waiting for the end of a take. The control room has stacks of whirring and blinking indicators for various pieces of equipment. There is a sort of casual chaos alongside a strict schedule the band must adhere to if they want to release their album on time. While some people lie on the couch or nap upstairs in the bunk room, others are patiently recording take after take, trying to get the perfect one. You can’t see the band from the control room unless you’re exceptionally tall, but a talkback mic allows each room to communicate with the other.
Trumpeter extraordinaire William Giaquinto is recording a solo and the air gets a little tense. He’s not content with the previous takes and stops in the middle, annoyed that he isn’t hitting it.
“I feel like my trumpet was clipping on that last take, I was tripping on that instead of think about what I was supposed to be doing,” he says, clearly a little irritated with the whole process.
Snow responds calmly through the talkback mic, “You let me worry about that.”
“Good call,” says Giaquinto. After a few deep breaths, he plays the final take perfectly.
There are piles of jackets and shoes lining the walls so everyone can be prepared for whatever the Santa Fe weather will look like the next time they step out to the porch for a break. Every corner has cases of various instruments waiting their turn. The kitchen is stocked with snacks and energy bars, and there’s rarely a moment when the coffee pot isn’t running. It’s not a messy studio, but it might give someone with a preference for organization a headache. But there’s something more important than keeping things in their place at the moment: the studio time they’ve reserved for recording Tone In Georgia’s next album is nearing its end.
Snow is the Associate Producer for the album, and her energy is palpable. When the band members get tired of doing multiple takes, or trying to problem solve, she knows how to reorient them. In addition to the normal sound engineering duties – setting up mics, recording, cutting – her job is to help the band find the perfect balance. If something doesn’t sound quite right, it’s up to her to provide an outside perspective on what’s missing (or perhaps overpowering). It sometimes requires saying things people don’t like to hear: that they don’t know the complicated parts well enough, or that a sound the band is married to just isn’t working. A good producer knows which battles are worth fighting.
Tone in Georgia is a force of nature – their live shows carry so much energy that even the most dedicated wallflowers start moving (this writer included). The five-member outfit has no designated lead singer, and multiple-part harmonies are part of their signature sound. They go from circus-ska-esque to pseudo-70s rock seamlessly. Their own website finds it hard to decide on a genre and suggests, “something like psychedelic contemporary folk-jazz-grass with a twinge of mariachi on a Broadway bender.” Perhaps the most interesting thing about them is that they are all multi-instrumentalists. The guitarist might switch to clarinet while the trumpet player takes up the bass guitar so the bassist can show off his keyboard skills. The band is also very skilled in the art of entertaining an audience beyond just playing music – you can see that they truly enjoy performing and have a ton of fun doing it. They dance, they laugh, and they inspire the audience to do the same. While watching their show here in Santa Fe, to cap off their album recording sprint, they spoke to the locals like they were a part of their family – and it’s clear that this is almost a second home to them. At the end of their set, they encouraged everyone to sing along with them and for a moment, it felt like the entire room was in Tone in Georgia. Capturing that kind of emotion on an album is one of the challenges many producers have to face, but Snow has happily taken it on for her friends.
“Overall, it’s been an honest pleasure working with these guys,” Snow says. “They’re all friends of mine. I’ve heard all of their music, so it’s just been fun to hang out and experiment and carve out the music and make it sound as good as it should.”
Snow originally attended the Santa Fe University of Art and Design to study songwriting and guitar performance. She’s been writing and performing her own music since she was 14. But during her second year in college, she was required to take a sound engineering course, and fell in love with it.
“I loved the fact that it’s basically physics. Just the fact that you can move a microphone half an inch completely changes the sound. Changing out a microphone, or the way you play – there’s so much that you can do with it. And it’s so challenging and fascinating.”
To become a recording engineer or producer, you generally go through the same process, and many times individuals wear both hats at one point or another. You either teach yourself or get an education, and then spend a few years interning or apprenticing in studios. These positions are hard to find, and usually don’t pay, so you have to be determined and passionate to make it through the first few hoops. You might spend years wrapping cables, setting up microphones, getting coffee, and cleaning before you ever get to stand in front of the all-powerful mixing console. You need a background in the theory of sound, in addition to the practical application, which requires a fairly significant amount of science and mathematics. You’ve also got to be good at communicating and managing egos. It’s a strange combination of talents that you only get with practice.
Upstairs in the bunk room, she talks about the lack of other women in the industry. “We just don’t have that much access to it. Unless I took a class in this, I never would have thought that I would do this sort of thing. I probably never would have figured it out,” she says.
One theory on why there aren’t very many women in the industry is that it requires a workload that would make it difficult to have children. “I think [it’s] complete bullshit,” Snow says, “because, guys want kids too. In 21st century life it’s very difficult to have a family, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do.”
It’s a generally accepted statistic that women make up about 5 percent of the audio engineering industry. And while more girls are participating in STEM classes at a young age, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says women are still underrepresented in many engineering fields. It seems like perhaps young women are exposed to science and engineering but not necessarily given exposure to the entire spectrum of career possibilities.
Snow mentions another female producer who’s working to change all of this. Terri Winston, a San Francisco based recording engineer and professor, started the Women’s Audio Mission. They provide young women and girls with audio engineering after-school programs, camps, and classes. In addition to education, they provide webcasts, studio rentals, and databases for certified producers and engineers. It’s one of a handful of organizations trying to bring more women into audio.
If you ask anyone who knows about the industry to name their top 10 favorite producers, they’re likely going to say a list of men’s names: Steve Albini, Brian Eno, or Rick Rubin. In fact, if you ask anyone to name female producers, they have a hard time coming up with even five names. NME’s list, “50 Of The Greatest Producers Ever” is made up entirely of men. Billboard’s list, “The Top 10 Producers In Music,” is also a boys-only club. These men are talented, but the lack of women on these lists is unacceptable – there are plenty of excellent female producers and engineers, but they rarely get the recognition or opportunities they deserve.
Some say that women coming into the studio is akin to a woman coming into a mancave and messing with all the man’s toys. And that’s fairly accurate – these women aren’t afraid to shake things up. EveAnna Manley owns Manley Laboratories which creates pro audio gear. Composer and writer Tara Rodgers published Pink Noises, a book about 24 female DJs, electronic musicians, and sound artists. WondaGurl, Tokimonsta, and every other woman on this list is creating new, exciting sounds. We don’t hear their names because audio is a boy’s club. But if women like Terri Winston and Willa Snow get their way, we’ll start hearing them more often.
Snow’s advice for young women looking to start a career in audio? “Do it. Just do it. If you’re going to school for it, book as much time as you possibly can in the studio. Stay in there until 3AM. Bring in buddies you want to record.”
She says the most important thing is to just keep practicing. “If there’s an instrument you want to record, find someone and get them in. They can use the time to rehearse, while you use the time to practice recording. And then just start reaching out to studios in your community, letting people know that you’re around to help. Start talking to people and start putting yourself out there.”
Jacob Minter, bassists/keyboardist for Tone in Georgia, says having Snow around is an important ingredient for their first studio-recorded album. “It’s sometimes hard to talk to your bandmates and express your opinion. Being on the outside, and being able to tell someone how to do their part in a way that’s better for the overall sound is really impressive. It’s only going to make things sound better.”
Minter also explained that gender doesn’t have an impact on your ability to produce good music. “If you’ve got a good ear, you’ve got a good ear, and Willa’s just proof of that.”
Adding Snow to the mix wasn’t always a unanimous decision. “To be honest, initially i was kind of reserved and hesitant at having her here, not for any personal reasons, but just because as a band our funds are pretty tight,” says Kory Adams, guitarist. “It’s pretty obvious that we couldn’t have gotten as much done as we have without her being here.”
Wil Splinter, drummer, echoed the budget concerns. “Originally I figured, just having Dave [Badstubner] here will be enough and we’ll be able to get everything done. But I have been proven so, so wrong with that.” Badstubner has been serving as Lead Producer for the album. Because he is also an instructor at SFUAD and performs with his own groups, he’s had to periodically leave the studio, leaving Snow at the helm.
Guitarist and clarinetist Diego Hodge discussed the summer-camp feeling of it all. “We’ve been staying up really late every night, so we’ve been getting a little delirious and weird, but, I think it’s been creating a cool vibe.”
One of these delirious moments was so significant that almost everyone cited it as their favorite. Snow had a hard time telling it between bouts of laughter. After a little bit of drinking and letting off steam, the band decided to do another take – with a twist.
“We were recording ‘Devil’s Leap’ and it was kind of late at night – they were waiting for their trumpet player to fly in.” Badstubner noticed that some of the guys were shirtless, and that might make for good Instagram fodder, which Snow had been documenting.
“I was like, ‘Ok!’ so I get my phone and I walk into the room, and Diego is just in his boxers. I’m very confused, looking at him thinking, ‘Why are you just in your boxers, it’s cold in here!’ Kory is standing at the door, and suddenly he’s yelling at me ‘Willa, get out!’ I look over and I see half a buttcheek and turn immediately beet red. I slammed the door shut and I ran back into the control booth and punched Dave a couple times.”
Snow added, “Although in his defense, he didn’t know they were naked.” She explains that sometimes the biggest issue with working with guys is the difference in sense of humor.
“We totally got the take. We totally nailed it and we all put our clothes on,” Adams recalls. “Then a car rolls up and we all go, ‘Oh fuck, Billy’s here! Okay everyone get back in there! Strip down!’ Then we did a totally superfluous take.”
Splinter also spoke about naked take: “I think that’s the one we used actually. We were so amped on Billy walking in and seeing us naked on our instruments – that was the inspiration for the song, apparently.”
Snow says the naked take didn’t phase her. “It was more like, ‘Oh shit, this is happening right now, someone is naked and I should leave!’”
Most of her friends are men, so these sorts of antics are rarely an issue. “And in terms of sexism in the studio, I’ve been lucky enough to not really have experienced it very much. I’ve always been a kind of person who’s DIY. I’ve always been taking charge of whatever project, and I’ve always had guys work with me.”
Between all the inside jokes and throwbacks to previous days spent in the studio, it’s obvious that the whole group has formed a bond. When I asked Giaquinto about his favorite moments working with Snow, he simply said, “All the dancing. All the random happiness when things are done well.”
Snow says it’s been a challenging learning experience to maintain both the schedule and the atmosphere.
She said at the end of it all, “We’re still just buddies recording an album.”