Years ago I got an email from a college teacher in San Francisco stating that she was planning to start up a program to encourage and foster women in music production and the recording arts. Soon she had the San Francisco-based non profit Women's Audio Mission up and running, and we began a partnership of having the WAM gang come set up our "pot luck" studios at the TapeOpCons for several years. As Executive Director, Terri Winston has done an amazing job with WAM, and to help spread the word, I thought it was high time to phone her up and talk about her career and WAM's future.
I didn't know you have a BS in Electrical Engineering. Was that before you started playing music? How does that tie together in your life?
I was playing music while I was in college for EE. My father's an engineer, so it kind of runs in the family. I was a musician, and then my band got signed. That's the first time I was in a real recording studio — I didn't know they existed.
You were playing music and you got an EE degree, but you never put the two together?
Obviously I knew there were studios, but I didn't know how you got into them or worked in them. They didn't talk about audio gear when you were studying electrical engineering. It was more about defense at that time. It was the Reagan era! What can you control to blow something up?
Were you thinking about going into the electrical engineering field?
I got into it because I was really good at math. I was around it my whole life. I had a natural affinity for it. I got a scholarship — that was part of it. I really wanted to do music, but for some reason it wasn't an option in my family. You had to make a living. But I was in bands at the same time I was doing that, and then I got signed and actually got to go into a real studio. The shining moment for me was when we were working with Lenny Kaye [producer and Patti Smith Group member]. He was the first person who put it together for me. I was trying to hide the EE [degree]. Lenny was like, "What a minute, you're a EE! You should totally be doing this engineer thing. You were made for this." He was a huge inspiration to me. He was producing us and he was a joy to be around.
What was the name of the band?
I was in a band called Her Majesty the Baby. We got signed to several major labels and it would always fall apart — a decent band, but we kind of failed. But it was a lot of fun, and I got to do a lot of cool stuff. I'm glad I had the opportunity.
So, you had a parallel path of musician and engineer.
After my band started spending a lot of time in the studio, none of us were very happy with the results. We didn't have a lot of time in the studio and we were doing something with layers that was kind of intricate. We didn't have the language to explain what we wanted. When we worked with Lenny that was a different story — that was great. Finally the band was like, "Terri, Lenny says you can do this." We were multitracking after that a lot — once we could afford the equipment. It kind of just grew from there. Lee Paiva and I built a studio with our advance money when we were in Her Majesty the Baby — a big learning process.
How did you learn some of the technical stuff? Obviously you were familiar with electronics, but that doesn't necessarily mean you understand recording gear.
I was sitting at a console, feeling like I didn't even know what it was. But once I was given the schematics, it made sense to me. It also helped watching someone else do it. I came at it from a weird angle, but it made sense. Having the technical part to latch onto was really helpful.
You did start working professionally in studios at the same time as your band was going. You also had a private studio as well. How did that work out?
We had a private studio underneath my singer's house. I worked a bit in the Boston area, but it was mostly freelance jobs — one project to the next. I also worked in England for several years.
How did that come about?
I was working with a management company called MainMan, which managed David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. They were managing me as a solo artist, and also wanted me to act as a producer for some of their bands. If I'd just been going over there to produce, I think it would have been fine. But because [they were]also managing me as an artist, it got messy. I went over there to produce a band called Vyvyan and another band called Sugar Coma. Tony DeFries [MainMan's head] was signing a bunch of bands at the same time, and they were all young. I did that for about a year. I came home and decided that was not such a good path for me. I realized I didn't want to do that everyday. That's how I got into teaching. I needed to make a living! I came back, and City College [of San Francisco] had an opportunity for repair and design work. I went in and designed a recording studio there, and the Department Chair asked if I would teach there. They asked me to go full time. I wasn't looking for it, but it all fell together.
If you hadn't had the EE degree, you probably couldn't be doing that.
If I didn't have the degree, I wouldn't be able to teach there. Everything I've done, I haven't necessarily lined up. I follow things I like. I do what's interesting at the time, and I keep doing it!
Were you nervous about teaching? I've taught workshops before, and sometimes I feel like, "What the hell do I know?"
I'd taught college math. I was familiar with the college format, but of course I was nervous. Once I figured out what they wanted to know, it became easier.
Was there already a set syllabus when you began the job?
There was. Someone else had been teaching it prior, so it wasn't like I had to start from scratch. It was in a broadcasting department, and we already had the radio classes, so it was easy to make it lean towards recording. I set up a two-year degree. We got the program accredited. It was a great experience. It's been full ever since word got out. We can only accommodate so many people.
How many students go through there?
In this program, 150.
One of the things I found when I started to teach was that it made me go home and study. Sometimes they'd catch me when I couldn't fully explain something. Have you run into that?
Yes. I think it's the best way to learn. I've grown so much. It's really an art form. I'm really into learning what the best way is to teach, to present something. What I've been doing lately is pointing out how physics relates to nature and real life — for instance, relating audio to a light bulb or a flashlight. It's been super interesting. I learn stuff every day. There's always some little bit that you didn't have your head fully wrapped around.
Have you seen students go on to do stuff?
It's really great to help change someone's life. I've seen kids who were in trouble, and being in the program was all they had. To get them all the way through the program and to a job or internship is amazing. I'm really excited about that. They need job skills.
Do you point out that it's a wider field than producing records?
Yes. I found that hard to teach. I found it hard to say, "You're not going to walk out the door and be a producer." You have to find a kind way to say that. There are lots of other really interesting ways to make a living with this information. We placed a woman at Barefoot Sound [Suzanne Elliot] who actually built WAM's monitors. We've placed people with Tracy Chapman. One tours and records her live shows, and the other is in the studio. There are students from WAM and City College working in studios all over San Francisco. We've got people working in post and working on movies. It always makes me happy.
Do you teach a bit about how to interact with folks and how to succeed?
Yes, it's built into the program, and I'm known as the hard-ass. I was just over at San Francisco State University, and a couple of my students were working there. They'd graduated from City College and had decided to go for the four-year program. San Francisco State said they were the nicest, most polite students. I was so proud that they'd nailed it. They'll get jobs from being that way. People don't like to teach it because it's really exhausting. Yet somebody needs to let them know right from wrong. It's a service job.
How did the Women's Audio Mission evolve?
That was another happy accident! I was teaching at the college and kept getting asked, "Why are there so few women in this field?" It didn't occur to me that there weren't that many women in the field. [laughter] I was in it — I was in the middle of it. I didn't think about the gender politics of it at all. I realized that I needed to have an answer for that. I also realized that when I was in Electrical Engineering, that there were a lot more women there than in audio. I thought that was interesting. It happens to girls when they are young and they continue to move away from fields like this. I think young girls have to get over that hump. I've found they love it when they're given access to that environment.
What does the Women's Audio Mission do?
There are five programs. One is training for women; that happens in our studio. There's training for middle and high school girls — a program called Girls on the Mic. We have WAM Corps, which is our job placement program. It also applies to our recording studio, because it provides low-cost recording services to local (or not), independent artists. It's $150 a day, and we have really great equipment in here. We're basically getting women credit on things that are recorded here. It's not just cheap studio time — you have to use our engineers. There's no getting around it. The whole point is to help women learn engineering. Our latest project is called Sound Channel. It provides college-level online training materials and allows us to provide information that we can't incorporate in the onsite classes. If someone really has an interest, there's a lot of science and projects to follow up on in the online materials.
I know you've had people donate equipment to WAM.
I'm going to forget to thank someone! Everything at the studio has been donated. It's a myth that the industry is not supportive — we've received so much support. Geoff Daking was the first. He just walked up and handed me a mic pre and a compressor. He's like. "I want you to have this." I was blown away. Everything happened really quickly after that. I've done a lot of refurbishing of consoles; I'm on my second one for WAM. I don't know many non-profit directors that are knee-deep in solder! It helps keep the costs down that I'm able to refurb everything.
It's funny that you might have perceived that there's a resistance to women being in audio — there's less than 5% in the field — but I don't think there is a resistance.
I agree with you on that. There's always an asshole somewhere. You can go anywhere and someone will give you a hard time. Of course there are people who are sexist, but it also happened to me when I wasn't in audio. You can focus on that, or you can do what you need to do and move on. We gravitate towards people who are happy to be in the industry. There are tons of nice people in this business. You can spot the rotten apples a mile away and you just stay away from them!
Are there full-time people working for WAM?
That's our new development. We just hired someone to be fulltime because I was missing opportunities. Luckily we got Sarah Jones, the former editor-in- chief of Mix Magazine. We're really lucky that we have her on board. She's tied into other parts of the industry that I'm not involved in. That way we cover all the bases. And she's nicer than I am!
What do you see in the future for WAM?
The main thing is that we have not been able to serve our non-local members. We have over 850 worldwide and we get requests for training from all over the world. Sound Channel (the online aspect of our mission) is going to help. And we can video conference our meetings now. We have members from England, Italy and all over the country. We're also doing lunches once a month at the studio — people can drop by or chat via video. It's great for the social aspect.
Do you think part of the thing that's effective with WAM is getting people together?
Yes, definitely. They can help each other more than I can help them! People ask when we're going to open a chapter in New York. I can't even think about that! But we're working on it. The online aspect is huge, though I don't believe you can fully train online. You still have to come and do the hands-on stuff.
For someone reading this article, what would be a way to get involved?
Become a member, join us on Facebook or come visit us at an AES conference! We're always looking to collaborate with schools too. This whole web thing, the video conferencing, is a great way to get that done easily. We can talk to a bunch of students remotely. The studio is great if there are women who want to come in and take a look, or bands that want to play. Indie bands love it here!
How about you? Have you been able to work on any records in the last few years? You're obviously busy!
I've been focusing on WAM, but I've been working on a film soundtrack for a movie called Opal. I'm producing a band called Lona in the Wolf, and I'm working with a Ghanaian-American artist named Akosua — it's kind of a folk-jazz project.
Do you have a home studio set up these days?
I actually have a pretty good set up, and I'm wondering how long I should let it sit there. I've been doing so much work on the soundtrack — I might have to bring it all over to WAM. Why do it at home when I can do the projects with the WAM interns and students? They want the experience. It's going to be great for my interns. I'm going to be hands off and let people learn. I want them to step up, and they're super excited about it. r