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Alesia Hendley – From Live Sound to AV & IT

Make Audio Work for You – Don’t Work for Audio.

Alesia Hendley’s introduction to audio started with a traditional path. She learned about sound at her dad’s church in Connecticut and decided to study audio at a trade school in Texas after her family moved there. Even though the program was focused on music production, her career focus at the time was still live sound. 

Alesia recognized she needed to get her hands on live soundboards. “When I was in school, I got to work with SSL consoles and it was amazing, but I knew those boards weren’t at venues. I couldn’t walk into these places saying, ‘I’m an audio engineer, but I have no experience with the consoles you have.’” She kept note of boards she saw at local venues, searched the Guitar Center stores in the area to see what consoles they had, and got some hands-on time at the store. “One of my classmates actually had a job at a Guitar Center. I’d go in and get some work in. We were bouncing ideas off of each other and improving together.”

While in school, Alesia created a music label and a publishing company, but it was a major challenge to make a business out of it.“Everybody’s doing their own thing. I was an audio engineer with nobody to record,” She said. I’m not making any money here. So what the hell am I gonna do?”

She tried a few avenues for freelance gigs, saying yes to everything (including sound for hotel events and church services). She applied and got an interview for a part-time job opening at a multipurpose facility, even though she needed full-time work. “The technical manager should have never gave me his card because I kept calling him and was like, ‘I’ll take anything. I’ll take four hours a week. I’ll do whatever.’ That’s how I started. They brought me on part-time, and I just kept building up the hours. They saw what I can do. Six months later, I was full-time.”

The facility was a stadium, arena, and conference center for the school’s district’s major events (such as plays, football games, proms, and graduations). She started seeing audio outside the “traditional” box she had learned it in. She explains, “When I started exploring the other components of AV, I found all of these spaces and verticals need audio. Even though it’s not just me running front of house, I can still be a part of creating this overall experience, which is what I love about audio anyway. When you’re behind that board at front of house and you’re doing a gig whether it’s a band or a play, it’s just a rush. So I wanted to fill that rush, no matter what part of the experience I was in.”

Alesia recognized a major need related to audio: people who also understood IT and networks. “All these digital consoles – it’s all connected to a network. The network goes down, and nobody on our AV team knows how to fix it. We had to call the IT team of the school district, which was a language barrier because traditional IT doesn’t really like to play with our AV stuff. They don’t want the AV stuff on their network. So, the IT team had a learning curve as well.” She realized, “If I don’t learn networking, I’m going to be out of a job in this AV thing sooner or later.” Alesia took a risk, and applied to Access Network, a company she had been interested in for some time. “It’s basically an IT company, but everybody that works for this company is an AV person. They’ve been an integrator in some form or fashion.”

She landed a job. “What we do is we design networks for AV solutions. Everything lives on the network. About 85 to 90% of what we do is in the home because our clients are people who have home studios or have smart homes. The other 10% of what we do is on the commercial side, where you’re in those corporate environments, where there are Dante, Shure ceiling microphones. So it’s been very, very exciting to constantly pivot but let audio lead me through all of these different roles.”

She finds her company is welcoming to diversity. “Don’t get me wrong – I’m still surrounded by men because we’re in technology, but there’s more discussion of being diverse. They’re more open and more welcome, instead of you running into the knucklehead behind the console that doesn’t want to move aside because he’s front of house – he’s the sound guy.”

Alesia still has “traditional” audio in her life, including a podcast about a personal interest, digital signage. “I’m still creating. I host it, I create all the content for it, I do all the recording. Me and my team, we do the editing. We created the intros and outros. I still have a home studio, because now I can afford to invest in a home studio.”

On Pivoting out of Live Sound

It was a bunch of soul searching. It did take some time. I stayed in my facility job for an additional two and a half years. It takes time to really do that kind of soul searching and figuring out what is the next step to help you pivot.

Of course, I miss running front of house, but my pivot was for education. I needed to learn about a network. I didn’t want to just go join a random IT company, and they weren’t going to hire me because I have no IT background. I needed to get with a company that understands that IT needs to talk to the gear that I love. 

I started off with Dante. That was my first touchpoint with audio or AV on a network. When I transitioned to this company, the education continued to roll in with this company. They paid for a lot of training. The education came within that package.

Bringing AV, IT and Audio Together

I’m a SoundGirl at heart. I love audio. I love everything about it. But what I realized is I had to look at the bigger scope of this experience that I loved creating. That led me up to the point where I’m at now, doing the IT side of this AV/audio lifestyle.

I have people ask me all the time, ‘Do you miss running front of house? You do nothing with audio now.’ You can look at it that way, or you can look at it: I’m the person who’s orchestrating the sound that people experience. They need the network that I’ve designed. Without it, it’s not going to work. So, it’s about perception. Change the perception of it and try to look at it in a different sense that’s more positive versus ‘I’m losing something.’

At the end of the day, you’re not pressing the physical console buttons, but you’re pressing the overall button. Without you, it doesn’t exist. That’s a huge button, like, the biggest button on the console. You’re still creating this experience. 

Honestly, so many people don’t even know this exists. I had to randomly find it. This is years and years of time being put in to do something that is different.

On how AV work is creative

My work is still creative because of the things that create the experience. It needs us. It doesn’t exist without us. Yes, I would love to be mixing for whoever my favorite artists at the time or running Front of House. That is more creative, and that is more goosebumpy. But my focus was, where’s the industry going? If we don’t learn how to pivot, then we’re stuck in these positions. I was an audio engineer with a studio background, but there was no money in that vertical for me. There’s nothing wrong with doing what you love, but you have to have a balance of creativity and money flow.

Advice

Make audio work for you – don’t work for audio.

We all have the odds against us. Don’t let it dumb down your greatness. Just realize that the odds are there, work three times harder, get gritty and find ways to freakin make it work. Keep knocking down the door as much as you can, like, keep kicking it open until something happens.

Don’t just latch on to the microphone or the soundboard. Explore what these things lead to, or what they create. There’s just so much opportunity. At one point, I felt like I didn’t fit into SoundGirls anymore. I’m not mixing music. I’m not doing this stuff, so maybe I’m not a sound girl. Then I was like, wait a second – You’re pulling the strings here. You’re doing sound, just in a different perspective, in a different way, and it works.

Figure out your little milestones. You can have a goal, but what are your realistic goals in between? And if you focus on that, you’ll find your career path and you’ll grow a lot faster – instead of stumbling into it like many of us have done.

None of this happens overnight. I hated loads and load-outs, but I don’t regret one bit of it. I got a little muscle on my arm. I learned how to hold my own. I learned from people who had been in the business for 20 years. That groundwork is what matters the most, so don’t run from it. Don’t be like, ‘I hate load-ins and load-outs. Stick with it for a while and see what happens. 

More on Alesia

Alesia’s website: https://www.thesmoothfactor.com

Alesia’s Blog for SoundGirls 

Sound & Communications Articles

Alesia’s Podcast Interviews


 

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Profiles of Women in Audio

Ask the Experts – Music Editors for Film & TV

 

There is a lot of music work that happens behind the scenes in post-production of a film or tv show. Music editors can wear a lot of hats beyond just editing music tracks in a DAW – working with picture editors and directors/filmmakers to find the right musical mood for a scene, coordinating with music supervisors to find the perfect song, being a liaison between directors and composers, attending recording/scoring sessions, and attending the final mix on the dub stage.

Being a music editor takes having a range of skills from music, audio/sound, tv/film, communication/interpersonal, and more. How do you get started as a music editor, and how do you make a career out of it? We will be exploring this and the questions you have for our experts about music editing for film and tv.

March 6, 2021 at 11 AM PST

Register and Post Your Questions

Moderated by April Tucker

April Tucker is a re-recording mixer for television and film in Los Angeles. She is a “Jane of all trades” in post-production sound and has worked in every role of the process from music editor to sound supervisor. She is currently writing a textbook for Routledge about career paths in the audio industry, and the skills needed to survive early in your career.

Panelists

Jillinda Palmer has a decade of experience as a music editor. Her credits include Deadwood: The Movie, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Diary of a Future President (Disney+). Jillinda is also an experienced sound designer and dialog editor, singer/songwriter and performer.

Jillinda has received one Primetime Emmy Nomination, one Primetime Emmy Honor, and 2 Golden Reel Nominations for music editing. Working as a music editor enables Jillinda to apply her fundamental knowledge of music along with her editorial expertise to enhance her clients’ original intent.


Poppy Kavanagh has been operating within the music industry as a musician, music editor, DJ, and audio engineer. Poppy started out working for Ilan Eshkeri and Steve Mclaughlin where she learnt about the art of film music. She then sidestepped to work as an assistant engineer at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove Studios. It was there that she discovered the world of Music Editing. Poppy has worked with a wide range of artists including Ian Brown, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, Tim Wheeler, KT Tunstall, Ilan Eshkeri and Steve Price. In 2019 Poppy was nominated for a primetime Emmy award for her music editing work on HBO’s Leaving Neverland.


Shari Johanson is a NYC-based music editor who has been working in the film and television industry for nearly 30 years. Most recently she has collaborated with Robin Wright on her Directorial debut film LAND. Some other Directors she has worked with are Cary Fukanaga, Paul Schrader, Kevin Smith and Milos Forman. Shari has worked with composers such as R.E.M, Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, Dave Arnold, Carter Burwell and most recently Jonathan Zalben on Disney+ ON POINTE, as well as TIME FOR THREE and Ben Solee on LAND.

Shari won a Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel Award for Best Music Editing for her work on the film HIGH FIDELITY, and was also nominated for Showtime’s BILLIONS, as well as for the Netflix limited series MANIAC.

Additional credits include the Oscar – and Golden-Globe-winning biopic I, TONYA; the HBO sensation BAD EDUCATION; the Emmy-winning hit series TRUE DETECTIVE S1; the Netflix original series MARCO POLO; as well as John Tururro’s JESUS ROLLS. Shari is about to embark on the continuation of BILLIONS S5. Full list of credits


Del Spiva is a multi Emmy-nominated music editor whose credits include The Defiant Ones, Genius, and A Quiet Place Part II. His upcoming film credits include Coming 2 America and Top Gun: Maverick. Prior to music editing, Del worked as an assistant sound editor for films.

 

 

 

 

 

Ethel Gabriel the First of the 5%

 

Ethel Gabriel (1921-2021) may be one of the most prolific recording industry professionals you’ve never heard of. Ethel was the first woman record producer for a major record label, and one of the first women in the world to work in A&R. She had a 4-decade career at RCA starting with an entry-level job and rising up to being an executive in the company.

During her career, Ethel produced over 5,000 records – some original recordings and some repackaged – by nearly every artist on the RCA roster (including Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton). Ethel was the woman in A&R to receive an RIAA Gold Record in 1959, and the first woman to win a Grammy for Best Historical Album (1982).

Ethel was willing to take risks, such as producing the first digitally-remastered album or working with artists who brought new types of music to the mainstream. Her credits include everything from mambo to easy listening to rap.

Ethel’s Background

Ethel was born in 1921 in Pennsylvania. She started her own dance band at age 13 (called “En and Her Royal Men”) where Ethel played trombone. She originally wanted to go to college for forestry (at the encouragement of her father) but women were not allowed into the program. She decided to attend Temple University (Philadelphia, PA) and study music education.

A relative helped Ethel get a job at RCA’s record plant (in Camden, New Jersey) to help pay for tuition and expenses. Ethel’s first job included tasks like putting labels on records. She was promoted to record tester where she had to listen to one out of every 500 records pressed for quality. She learned every note of the big hits since Ethel had to listen to them over and over.

Ethel was allowed to visit the nearby RCA recording studios. She brought her trombone with her, playing with major artists for fun between sessions. She also learned how recording sessions worked. Ethel was secretary to the manager of A&R at the time, Herman Diaz, Jr. Ethel got to produce her first recording session (with bandleader Elliot Laurence) when Diaz called in sick and asked her to do it.

In 1955, Ethel convinced her boss, Manie Sacks, to sign Perez Prado to RCA’s label. She produced his record, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, which became a worldwide hit and helped bring the mambo craze to the US.

She was with RCA during the creation of their Nashville studios, the signing of Elvis, and their transition from mono to stereo.

Through Ethel’s career, she was willing to take risks and experiment with new technology or music. In 1959, Ethel launched Living Strings, a series on RCA Camden’s label that ran for 22 years.

In 1961, she produced Ray Martin and his Orchestra Dynamica, the first release using RCA’s “Stereo Action.” In 1976, she was executive producer of Caruso,’s A Legendary Performer, the first digitally-remastered album. The technology used by Soundstream Inc (lead by Thomas Stockham) has gone on to be widely used in audio and photography restoration and Stockham’s work on the Caruso album was the basis for a 1975 scientific paper. In 1975, Ethel gave a chance to then-unknown producer Warren Schatz, who produced RCA’s first disco album, Disco-Soul by The Brothers.

Ethel managed RCA’s Camden label (designed for budget records) starting in 1961. Camden was struggling when she took over and went on to become a multi-million dollar label under Ethel’s watch. Some of RCA’s major artists even asked to be released on the Camden line over the flagship RCA label because of Camden’s success.

Ethel received two RIAA Platinum records and 15 Gold records (over 10 million record sales total) during her career with numbers still growing. Many of these were repackages or re-releases where Ethel put her expert eyes (and ears) on song selection and label redesign. One album she re-packaged, Elvis’ Christmas Album, was the first Elvis record to reach Diamond (10 million sales). Ethel said of creating special packages (in Billboard Magazine Sept 5, 1981), “It’s like second nature to me. The secret is that you know the market you’re trying to reach. You can’t contrive a special record. It has to be genuine and full of integrity because people know the difference.” Ethel re-issued albums for nearly every RCA artist (including the Legendary Performer series, RCA Pure Gold economy line, and the Bluebird Complete series).

Towards the end of her time at RCA, Ethel asked the company to fund a women’s group for lectures and seminars. She wanted to help women learn to become executives. Ethel said she felt like a mother to some of the women she mentored (Ethel was married but did not have children). She wanted to teach skills like how to network, how to dress or behave. Ethel also became involved with Women in Music, one of very few groups available to women in the music industry at the time. In 1990, Ethel publicly spoke out against the “boys club” in a Letter to the Editor of Billboard Magazine (Oct 6). She said, “Yes, there are ‘record women’ in the industry – and they have ears, too!”

Ethel also worked with many artists and ensembles in the studio during her career including Chet Atkins, Caterina Valenti, Marty Gold, Los Indios Tabajaras, Teresa Brewer and hundreds of recordings under the Living series. She said of working with artists, “There are times to ‘harness’ artists and times to ‘push.’” Ethel said her most helpful qualifications to do the job were “her knowledge and love of music and her ability to make difficult decisions and hold to them.” (Cincinnati Enquirer August 18, 1983)

Ethel was not promoted to Vice President at RCA until 1982, over 40 years into her career. Many colleagues said it was long overdue. The following year, she won a Grammy for Best Historical Album (for co-producing The Dorsey/Sinatra Sessions). After leaving RCA, Ethel remained in the industry where she worked as president and vice president to smaller record labels.

Ethel’s story is being captured in a documentary film about her life and career, called LIVING SOUND. Production on the film started in 2019, when Gabriel was 97 years old. The documentary began (with the aide of SoundGirls) through uncovering archival materials and conducting interviews with Ethel.

For more about LIVING SOUND visit livingsoundfilm.com.  SoundGirls also has a scholarship in Ethel’s honor: the Ethel Gabriel Scholarship.

The SoundGirls Podcast – Caroline Losneck and April Tucker: Living Sound the Ethel Gabriel Documentary Team

 

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Profiles of Women in Audio

 

Audiologists and Hearing Tests

Hearing tests aren’t a common topic of conversation between audio professionals. But why? You’d think in an industry where our careers depend on hearing (and we do educate about hearing loss) we may want to get our ears checked periodically. A lot of us probably don’t do it because we think our hearing is fine. And tests are basic – most audiologists only test up to 8kHz which is fairly limited for audio engineers. But how many of us don’t get tested cause we’re scared? What if we actually have a hearing problem? Is it better to just not know?

I went to see Dr. Julie Glick of Musician’s Hearing Solutions after a couple of weeks of tinnitus and muffling in one ear that wasn’t going away (my first hearing test in 20 years). Her specialty is musicians and audio industry professionals and what caught my attention about her practice is that she does hearing tests up to 20kHz.

The hearing test process

Before she could conduct a hearing test, Dr. Glick had to clean my ears. She used a lighted “curette,” which looks like a clear crochet needle that lights up to see in the ear canal. The process was far from pleasant but necessary if you have bad wax buildup. The results were immediately noticeable. The muffling completely went away and while the tinnitus was still there, it was less noticeable against the noise floor of the room, which I couldn’t hear well before.

The hearing test was performed in an isolated booth in her office. The test itself is very simple: press a button when you hear a long beep. Each beep starts out at a noticeable level then drops a few dB until you can’t hear it anymore. Then, the beep changes to a different frequency. Dr. Glick does all the testing by computer so the button pushing is registered within the software to help correlate the results.

She also did a Tympanometry test, which checks how well the eardrum moves. A small probe is put in the ear and then the ears are given a puff of air. It’s easy and painless.

Test Results

We were immediately able to look at the results: My hearing was within normal range – but what is considered “normal” includes some loss. It’s sort of like acoustically tuning a room where a room could be called “flat” but its frequency response isn’t truly flat.

But there was a surprise when we looked at the Audiogram results: there was a noticeable difference between my ears. My right ear, the one I was concerned about, performed better than my left ear at high frequencies (8-12k). I knew immediately why: I played the violin for 15 years. I had a loud, high-frequency instrument inches away from my left ear for hours every day. I’ve probably had that discrepancy throughout my audio career.

Here’s a generic example of an audiogram to see what one looks like:

Sample Audiogram up to 8kHz

What do the results mean?

I asked Dr. Glick to help explain how any hearing loss (even if it’s considered within the “normal” range) would affect the work of an audio engineer or mixer. Frequencies like 12-16k are crucial for tasks like de-essing and noise reduction. I assumed a hearing curve is like an EQ curve (or a room curve) – that you have to compensate even when you’re mixing at nominal levels. But, that is actually incorrect.

The scale used to measure loudness outside the ear is dB SPL but hearing is on a scale of dB HL, or Hearing Level. The dB HL scale is based on the SPL scale but with a curve applied. The way Dr. Neil Bausman explains dB HL, “Our ears do not hear equally well at all frequencies. If our ears heard all frequencies of sound equally well, then we wouldn’t need the HL scale.” (His article is great for more detail!)

What the audiogram is showing is the level (HL) where the frequency completely disappears for you. This makes sense based on how a hearing test occurs because there is a threshold where a tone is played and you won’t hear it. So, if you’re mixing at a nominal level (like a reference level of 85 dB SPL) your hearing will always be “flat” – unless you have severe hearing damage at some frequencies. With normal to moderate hearing loss, it’s only when you drop to low-level mixing where you might not hear some of those frequencies. But, it doesn’t make sense to do detail EQ or de-essing work at a low level. It’s something to be aware of but doesn’t necessarily need to change how you work.

This video explains audiograms well:

SoundGirls Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon

On May 26th, 2019, a group of SoundGirls met online to discuss the ins and outs of Wikipedia.  Myself and April Tucker led the talk, and while initial attendance was small, I could see a growing interest among the SoundGirls community.  Much of what was covered was an expansion of the previous articles I had written. I began with the ethos of the online encyclopedia, and quickly progressed to a step-by-step instruction of how to edit Wikipedia pages.  April focused on tips and tricks that make Wikipedia even easier to navigate. I admit, I learned many new techniques from this talk.

If you missed the Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon event, we have you covered, starting at the 2-hour mark.

 

 

Furthermore, the best way to start editing Wikipedia is to create an account there. Wikipedia was made for everyone, and there are tasks for every editing level. I have a page available specifically for those SoundGirls starting their editing journey with guides and links.  My Talk Page is also available for specific questions, and I check it regularly.

SoundGirls have an opportunity to spread awareness through Wikipedia, but it takes all of us.  Every little edit, no matter how small, adds up. Similar to Geena Davis’ crusade of “If She Can See It She Can Be It,” let us build towards gender parity.

User Page

Talk Page

Editing Sound Girls into Wikipedia

Editing SoundGirls into Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

The Ethel Gabriel Scholarship

Applications for 2021 will open on June 1, 2021.

We are proud to recognize Ethel’s contributions to the music industry and for paving the way for future generations of women working in music production.

In honor of Ethel Gabriel, SoundGirls will be awarding two $500 scholarships to members pursuing a career in the recording arts. These scholarships will be awarded in August 2021 and can be used for educational training and university programs. The scholarships are open to all members of SoundGirls.

SoundGirls is currently in production on a new documentary about Ethel Gabriel’s career and impact. For more info visit EthelGabrieldoc.com

WHO IS ELIGIBLE?

Any member of SoundGirls that is attending or plans to attend educational programs in Professional Audio. There is no age requirement and includes college programs, trade schools, seminars, and workshops. Applications are open to all genders and non-conforming genders.

HOW TO APPLY

The application includes two short essay questions:

  1. Why you are applying for this scholarship;
  2. How has Ethel Gabriel inspired you? (400-600 words, please.)
  3. Application opens June 1, 2021 – Apply Here

DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSION

The essay submission deadline is 12:00 midnight EDT July 30, 2021. The scholarships will be awarded in August 2021, and paid to scholarship winners. Scholarship winners will be required to send proof of enrollment in the educational program to SoundGirls or scholarship money must be returned.

SELECTION PROCESS & NOTIFICATION

The SoundGirls Board will review essays and will notify the winners via email.

ADDITIONAL DETAILS

The scholarship funds awarded can be used for educational programs related to professional audio. Scholarships are non-renewable. You will need to submit proof of enrollment in a program.

QUESTIONS?

Any questions on the scholarship essay can be directed to soundgirls@soundgirls.org.


About Ethel Gabriel

Photo: Democrat & Chronicle Dec. 13, 2013

Photo: Democrat & Chronicle Dec. 13, 2013

Ethel Gabriel may be one of the most prolific music producers you’ve never heard of. Ethel had a 4-decade career at RCA starting with an entry-level job and rising up to become the first female record producer for a major record label and an executive role in A&R.

During her career, Ethel produced over 5,000 records and worked with a wide variety of artists on RCA’s roster including Elvis Presley. Ethel was willing to take risks – such as producing the first digitally-remastered album or working with artists who brought new types of music to the mainstream. Her credits include everything from mambo to easy listening to rap.

Ethel’s Background

Ethel was born in 1921 in Pennsylvania. She started her own dance band at age 13 (called “En and Her Royal Men”) where Ethel played trombone. She originally wanted to go to college for forestry (at the encouragement of her father) but women were not allowed into the program. She decided to attend Temple University (Philadelphia, PA) and study music education.

A relative helped Ethel get a job at RCA’s record plant (in Camden, New Jersey) to help pay for tuition and expenses. Ethel’s first job included tasks like putting labels on records. She was promoted to record tester where she had to listen to one out of every 500 records pressed for quality. She learned every note of the big hits since Ethel had to listen to them over and over.

Ethel would hang out at the nearby RCA recording studios (and brought her trombone with her to play between sessions). She got to play with some major artists for fun and also learn how the engineers and producers worked. She also spent a lot of time in the studio as secretary to the manager of A&R at the time, Herman Diaz, Jr. Ethel got to produce her first session (with bandleader Elliot Laurence) when Diaz called in sick and asked her to do it.

In 1955, Ethel convinced her boss, Manie Sacks, to sign Perez Prado to RCA’s label. She produced his record, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, which became a worldwide hit and helped bring the mambo craze to the US.

She was with RCA during the creation of their Nashville studios, the signing of Elvis, and their transition from mono to stereo.

Through Ethel’s career, she was willing to take risks and experiment with new technology or music. In 1959, Ethel launched Living Strings, a series on RCA Camden’s label that ran for 22 years.

In 1961, she produced Ray Martin and his Orchestra Dynamica, the first release using RCA’s “Stereo Action.” In 1976, she was executive producer of Caruso,’s A Legendary Performer, the first digitally-remastered album. The technology used by Soundstream Inc (lead by Thomas Stockham) has gone on to be widely used in audio and photography restoration and Stockham’s work on the Caruso album was the basis for a 1975 scientific paper. In 1975, Ethel gave a chance to then-unknown producer Warren Schatz, who produced RCA’s first disco album, Disco-Soul by The Brothers.

Ethel also helmed RCA’s Camden label (designed for budget records). Camden was struggling when she took over in 1961 and had a sales volume increase of 100% over two years. Camden went on to become a multi-million dollar label under Ethel’s watch. Some of RCA’s major artists even asked to be released on the Camden line over the flagship RCA label because of Camden’s success.

During her career, Ethel received two RIAA Platinum records and 15 Gold records (over 10 million record sales) and her albums continue to sell. Many of these were repackages or re-releases where Ethel put her expert eyes (and ears) on song selection and label redesign. One album she re-packaged, Elvis’ Christmas Album, was the first Elvis record to reach Diamond (10 million sales). Ethel said of creating special packages (in Billboard Magazine Sept 5, 1981), “It’s like second nature to me. The secret is that you know the market you’re trying to reach. You can’t contrive a special record. It has to be genuine and full of integrity because people know the difference.” Ethel re-issued albums for nearly every RCA artist (including the Legendary Performer series, RCA Pure Gold economy line, and the Bluebird Complete series).

Towards the end of her time at RCA, Ethel asked the company to fund a women’s group for lectures and seminars. She wanted to help women learn to become executives. Ethel said she felt like a mother to some of the women she mentored (Ethel was married but did not have children). She wanted to teach skills like how to network, how to dress or behave. Ethel also became involved with Women in Music, one of very few groups available to women in the music industry at the time. In 1990, Ethel publicly spoke out against the “boys club” in a Letter to the Editor of Billboard Magazine (Oct 6). She said, “Yes, there are ‘record women’ in the industry – and they have ears, too!”

Ethel also worked with many artists and ensembles in the studio during her career including Chet Atkins, Caterina Valenti, Marty Gold, Los Indios Tabajaras, Teresa Brewer and the entire Living series recordings. She said of working with artists, “There are times to ‘harness’ artists and times to ‘push.’” Ethel said her most helpful qualifications to do the job were “her knowledge and love of music and her ability to make difficult decisions and hold to them.” (Cincinnati Enquirer August 18, 1983)

Ethel was not promoted to Vice President at RCA until 1982, over 40 years into her career. Many colleagues said it was long overdue. The following year, she won a Grammy for Best Historical Album (for co-producing The Dorsey/Sinatra Sessions). After leaving RCA, Ethel remained in the industry where she worked as president and vice president to smaller record labels.

 

 

Career Paths in Film and TV Sound: Stories of Tenacity

This past fall, I took part in a panel put together by SoundGirls, and hosted by Sony Studios, called Career Paths in Film and TV Sound. SoundGirls, if you haven’t heard of them, is an amazing non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire and empower the next generation of women in audio. Furthermore, they strive to create a supportive community for women in audio and music production, providing the tools, knowledge, and support to further their careers. Despite their women-focused mission, SoundGirls is not only for women. In fact, their membership is open to anyone with a desire and drive to succeed in professional audio, and their membership is currently 65% women and 35% men. They put on a lot of really amazing events, so no matter who you are, you should check them out.

Before I tell you all of the awesomeness that happened during this panel, let me get something out of the way. I know that the internet is a dark place where unanswered questions sometimes fester. So, I’m going to tell you all of the things that this panel wasn’t—just so we’re all clear. It wasn’t a gripe-fest about all of the trials and tribulations that we faced while being part of the 5% of the audio workforce which is comprised of women. It wasn’t a “safe space” to get really girly and gab about our kids, boyfriends, or spouses. It absolutely WAS NOT a chance to prop up some ladies who are at the top of their lady game, but not quite cutting it out there in the real world of pro audio.

No, this was a kickass panel with audio professionals from all different backgrounds, with all different backstories and insights, who are at the top of their game. We talked about what drew us to the sound profession in the first place. We talked about working our way up with unerring drive and determination from the machine room, the tape vault, the intern desk. We talked about staying all night to observe mixers and read manuals. This was a panel about tenacity. And it just happened to be led by women.


The Panelists

Let me introduce you to the audio professionals involved.

Onnalee Blank

During the panel, Onnalee told her personal story of being a professional ballerina with the New York City Ballet. She was injured and had to turn to a new career. She brought the same tenacity of spirit that took her to the top of the ballet world to her career in sound. She began assisting Rick Ruben, moved on to work with Johnny Cash and Danny Elfman, and she is currently a re-recording mixer at Formosa. She has mixed Girls, Black Sails, and Game of Thrones. She has won five CAS Awards and four Emmys, not to mention her countless other nominations.

Karol Urban

Karol was legally blind as a child, until the age of five, when she underwent an operation to correct her vision. While her sight was impaired, sound was a huge part of how she identified the world around her. She spoke about being a young sound-focused student in the south, who got her start in front of house. She went on to undergraduate school for post-production sound. Karol is the re-recording mixer for Grey’s Anatomy, New Girl, Scandal, among numerous other television series and films. Shortly after this panel, she was elected as the President of the Cinema Audio Society.

April Tucker

April is truly a “Jill of all trades” as the moderator, Anne Marie Slack, pointed out. She currently works as a supervising sound editor, re-recording mixer, foley mixer, ADR mixer, and music editor. April thought that she wanted to be a classical violinist, but soon realized that she was more passionate when behind the console as a scoring mixer. After receiving her master’s degree, April moved to LA and posted Craig’s List ad to meet other audio professionals, and those connections have brought her contractor work in every facet of the industry of post-production sound. She has worked as the re-recording mixer on The Bachelor, music editor on Transparent, and ADR mixer on Conspiracy.

Kate Finan (me!)

My passions as a student were clarinet, math, and physics. When planning my future, I assumed I would have to choose between my interests. But, then I was inspired by a fellow student who went to college for sound recording technology. As soon as I found out that I could get a bachelor of science degree in sound from within a music conservatory, I was hooked. After college, I moved to LA and never looked back. As you all know, I now own Boom Box Post with Jeff and work as a supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer on several animated television series.


Watch the Panel


Listen to it in Podcast form from Tonebenders

Just in case you’re more of a podcast person, check out the panel on Tonebenders. This edited-down version starts with a special interview with April Tucker who gives context to the conversation by first discussing all of the amazing things that the SoundGirls organization has on its docket.

 

Helen Oakley Dance

“I wasn’t a trained musician. But I did have ears and that’s what’s important.”

Catherine Basie, Hugues Panassie, Count Basie, Helen Oakley Dance, and Stanley Dance. Paris, 1956. From the Papers of Stanley Dance and Helen Oakley Dance Collection (Photographer unknown)

Helen Oakley Dance (born Helen Oakley) was the earliest female jazz record producer (and perhaps the earliest known female record producer of any genre). She was instrumental in the early days of jazz in America – writing about it, producing it (including many recordings with Duke Ellington), promoting it, and connecting artists with each other.

Helen was born in Toronto in 1913 to a wealthy Canadian family. Her great-grandfather started Joseph Simpson Knitting and Yarn Mills in 1865 and her father, John Oakley, was managing director of the company. Growing up, she wasn’t a musician (her parents weren’t musical) but her family would receive a batch of twelve records every month from the big record stores and they could decide which to keep. Helen was drawn to records the rest of her family wasn’t – the jazz ones (artists like Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five). In an interview with Monk Rowe, Helen said, “That’s all I wanted to know about and hear. I didn’t know what the instruments were or what I was listening to but I always knew what I was listening to.” She attended the University of Toronto and completed her schooling at Les Fougeres in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Meeting Duke Ellington

Helen realized living in Canada that jazz music wasn’t coming there. She was going to have to go to the music was and the closest place was Detroit. She moved in 1933 (with her family’s blessing) with the goal to be a jazz singer. While in Detroit, Helen saw Duke Ellington play a show at the Fox Theater (Helen had all his records). Helen forged a note from a music critic to Duke that said Duke would like Helen and he should invite her for afternoon tea. He invited her to tea the next day. When Helen saw Duke had the letter on his mirror, she fessed up to forging it. Duke suspected it but was still amused and the two became fast friends. In an interview with Mark Tucker Helen said of Duke, “I was family and for the rest of my life and as long as he lived I was family and that was the greatest thing to ever happen to me.”

Chicago Years

Helen moved to Chicago in 1934 where she was a freelance music journalist. She wrote a regular column for Downbeat (a small publication at the time) where she could write about whatever she wanted or what she was listening to. At the time, there were jazz critics writing abroad but none in the US. She (with Squirrel Ashcroft) helped organize performances of jazz performers like Billie Holiday. She helped put on the first jazz concert in Chicago (where the audience was sitting and listening and not with a dance floor): Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, and Teddy Wilson. It was also significant because it was an interracial trio playing publicly which was unheard of at the time. Helen helped persuade Benny to hire Teddy Wilson, who was a black pianist.

Duke Ellington, Chick Webb & Artie Shaw at a jam session (Brunswick Recording Studio, March 14, 1937). Helen is in the white dress and she arranged this jam session. From Jazzhouse.org

Helen stayed in touch with Duke and went with the band to Duke’s shows when he was in the region. Helen said she was Duke’s “protege” and the band manager “always had me under his wing,” (M. Tucker interview). In those days, as she described it, the band liked having someone in the front who was into what they were doing. She attended all their rehearsals, recording dates and also produced some recordings with Duke. Helen produced recording sessions with other artists such as Paul Mares and Charles Lavere. They were recording to vinyl so the recordings were three minutes max. The tempo of the song would determine some of the structure of the song (if there was time for two choruses, for example). The studio shook when the “L” train would come by so they would lose takes over it.

When asked how she went from wanting to record to actually doing it, Helen said, “I don’t really know. I just did. I went up in the studios and set up a time.” (Rowe interview) “You had to promote yourself. You just talked yourself into jobs,” Helen said to Mark Tucker.

January 1935 recording organized by Helen. Features Paul Mares, Santo Pecora, Omer Simeon, Jess Stacy, Marvin Saxbe, Pat Pattison, George Wettling.

New York

She moved to New York after Duke recommended her to Irving Mills (Duke’s manager at the time). According to Jim Prohaska,

After discussing his plans for a recording company, he insisted that Helen come back to New York with him. She agreed, as Irving had suggested that she should help arrange talent and organize recording sessions for him once the venture was finalized. He wanted her to visit his offices plus check out the music scene in New York first hand. Her short visit extended ultimately into a permanent stay. She initially assisted Mills in pleading his case during meetings with lawyers and investors. Once the legal issues were completed, and Master Records became a reality, Helen became a formal part of the company by the end of 1936. (Prohaska)

Irving had two record labels, Master and Variety. Master was more commercial recordings (which Helen wasn’t as interested in) so Mills had her produce the small group records for Variety. Helen decided who to hire and who to put together for recordings. “I very often was in the control room but most of the time would be in there with the band. They would say, ‘if she’s smiling that’s it – she’s ok.’” (Rowe interview).

Helen produced Duke Ellington’s small band recordings (with Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard, Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams). She said Duke would go into sessions with nothing prepared. She watched him compose Solitude in twelve minutes while the studio was busy with another session.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJiXBHhm_LQ

“Later on I produced them, you know. I produced his whole band once. But on my own things, I hired the guys and told them what I wanted them to play, and stood in the control room, and decided whether it was happening or not. And if it wasn’t happening, I’d have a good idea why it wasn’t, and what we should do.” (M. Tucker interview)

Helen speaking about producing (first 2 minutes)

Variety recordings sold for 35 cents (or 3 for $1.00) whereas Master label sold for 75 cents.

Variety issued 170 recordings from December 1936 – September 1937. The label collapsed shortly after (due to competition and inability to get distribution in Europe). Some of the Variety recordings were reissued on the label Vocalion (later revived as Okeh, a subsidiary of Columbia Records). Helen continued producing sessions for Mills (for release on the ARC label). Jazz collection Jim Prohaska writes:

“As for the material released during the short nine month existence for both labels, the recordings selected by Irving Mills and Helen Oakley allow us a wonderful glance at some of the finest jazz musicians of the period. I daresay that without Mills foresight and Oakley’s sense for quality talent, some great music would have been lost.”

In addition to doing A&R and operations for Mills, Helen was involved in the local jazz scene connecting people and helping planning events. When Benny Goodman played Carnegie Hall in 1938, she was one of the main organizers of the event. It was the first jazz concert at the event and is still considered one of the most significant concerts in jazz or popular music history.

Military Service

In 1942, Helen’s brother Rupert was killed in duty (during World War II), and as she put it, “my career in jazz ended.” Helen volunteered for the Women’s Army Corps and her sister, Cynthia, joined the Canadian Army. Helen was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, which later became the CIA. In Helen’s obituary (written by her son, Francis):

“She assisted in the disposition of US undercover operatives and radio technicians being sent to occupied countries. In December 1943, she rendezvoused in the recently declared open city of Rome with her sister, now Captain Cynthia Oakley, who headed the debarkation in Italy of the first female contingent. This event was featured worldwide on Pathe news. Helen was relocated to US headquarters in Leghorn, where renegade German soldiers were trained as spies. In March 1945 she was reassigned to act as an undercover courier between Paris and Berne after Germany’s surrender. These orders were quickly cancelled after President Truman’s edict disbanding the OSS.”

Post War

Helen returned to New York in 1946 to a very different jazz scene (big band swing had gone out of favor to bebop). She married Stanley Dance, a jazz music writer and music producer who she had met in 1937 at a recording session. They had four children and the two were married over 50 years. They worked together on writing assignments and stayed current in the jazz scene but their income came from other family businesses. They lived in England for some years but sold the businesses in 1959 so they could relocate to Connecticut and pursue their jazz interests in the US (and nearby New York). Helen was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s (locally and nationally).

Stanley and Helen’s contributions to jazz were recognized at the highest level. They were invited to state dinners at the White House with Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Clinton. Stanley won a Grammy for best liner notes and had five additional nominations. Helen published a book in 1987, “”Stormy Monday: the T-Bone Walker Story,” which was inducted to the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001.

A collection with eight decades of Helen and Stanley’s writing, interviews and photos and sound recordings was donated to The Yale Music Library (The Helen Oakley Dance and Stanley Dance Papers). Stanley passed away in 1999 and Helen in 2001.

Citations:

  1. Dance, Helen Oakley, interview by Mark Tucker. January 9, 1987, Oral History of American Music Collections Guide: Duke Ellington.
  2. Dance, Helen Oakley, interview by Monk Rowe. February 12, 1998, Hamilton College Jazz Archive.
  3. Prohaska, Jim “Irving Mills, Record Producer: The Master and Variety Record Labels

Further Reading:

 

Mary Shipman Howard

Mary Shipman Howard was one of the earliest known female recording engineers and one of the earliest women studio owners (in the 1940s). Mary worked with great musicians and composers of the era such as Glenn Miller, Arturo Toscanini, Charles Ives, and Samuel Barber.

From Audio Record Feb. 1948

Mary was born in 1911 in Hartford, Connecticut to an affluent family who supported the local arts. She played viola but got arthritis at an early age. In an interview with Vivian Perlis (part of the OHAM Charles Ives collection), Mary said, “Since I always loved acoustical, mechanical things – the process of translating a sound wave into an electrical impulse and back into sound – I got really into recording.” Mary was intrigued by records, and she bought a recording machine and started learning about record cutting on her own.

NBC Years

NBC Symphony Orchestra 1944

She came to New York in 1940 and applied for an engineering job at NBC. At the time, women weren’t allowed in the union, so Mary was hired as a secretary. When NBC became short on staff during World Word II, the union decided to let women engineer. Mary was the only woman at the NBC studios for around six months, but it didn’t take her long to make a name as a master recording engineer.

Her first assignment was Glenn Miller, whose music she liked even though she had a classical music background. She was assigned to recording sessions for Toscanini at RCA. There was a union deal between NBC and RCA which required an NBC studio engineer to be at RCA Victor. Mary couldn’t work, but the RCA Victor engineer couldn’t work without her there. Mary said (in her Perlis interview) she “didn’t do anything except sit with my eyes falling out of my head, and my ears dropping off.” Mary worked with Toscanini for eight years.

Mary Howard Recordings

Mary Howard Recordings record; Photo from Discogs

While Mary was at NBC (around 1945-46), she started a small studio in the same building she lived in called “Mary Howard Recordings.” It was three blocks from NBC (37 East 49th Street), and she worked at the studio part-time. She left NBC after the war (because of the long hours). But, by then, she found her studio was in high demand. She told Perlis, “I had all the best Ampex equipment, and I was the first private person ever to own a Scully lathe. Nobody else could afford it. I couldn’t afford it, either, but I got a loan from the bank. It was wonderful fun while it lasted, and the most fun were the people who suddenly, by word of mouth only, came to have me make recordings for them.” Time Magazine even did an article about Mary and her studio in 1947.

One of Mary’s clients was composer Charles Ives who asked her to do all his recordings of rehearsals and broadcasts. Ives would get letters from people asking how to interpret his music, and he would send them a recording instead of explaining it on the phone (part of Mary’s job was labeling and sometimes mailing). Mary had other clients who recorded for personal use or came to the studio for late-night listening sessions (like William Schumann and Alan Hovhaness).

In 1947, Mary started releasing her own commercial recordings under the MHR label. Artists included The Herman Chittison Trio, Ethel Waters, Lucille Turner, and Dale Belmont.

Over time, her studio grew to have multiple engineers and additional staff. Donald Plunkett, an engineer who worked at Mary’s studio, described her in an interview (with Susan Schmidt Horning):

Mary was very unique. She was a musician who understood musicians and understood a good deal about recording and how to marry the two – both the personalities of the musicians and the temperament of recording equipment.

Musicians are few and far between in our business . . . She had two portable recording lathes and a station wagon and did a lot of recording of prominent musicians.

https://www.lathetrolls.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=2585

Van Eps Cutting Head

Mary was featured in Audio Record Magazine in 1948. At the time, some of the studio’s recording equipment included Van Eps lathe, Allied Cutting lathe, Presto 1-D Heads, and Langevin 101-A Amplifiers (the preamps and program amps were Langevin). 

When asked what they do to ensure good recordings, Mary showed her technical expertise and a strong understanding of audio:

“We are of the opinion that a compact, consolidated recording and control room, combined adjacent to and visible to the studio is the best method of recording. With this setup a recording technician can actually ‘ride gain’ but what is more important can see what actual level is imposed on the disc. We feel that the term ‘riding gain’ is a poor description of the operation involved. The more dynamics achieved in a fidelity recording, even if the frequency response is limited, the more the sound originating in the studio will be approximated. We feel that too much emphasis can be put on the word ‘fidelity’ and that some of the pre-emphasized and over emphasized high frequencies often result in a sound unpleasing to the ear, which after all is the final judge.

Recording information about cutting characteristics, recording head designs, styli and quality of response equipment is easily obtained. These all enter into the final results. Unfortunately, the interest and ingenuity of the recordist has often been overlooked. Recording is not a dull craft at all if engaged in all its technical phases. There seems to be a prevalence in large organizations for specialization – cutting technicians, studio technicians, maintenance, etc – which often results in poor recording because of lack of interest or information in all phases of the recording operation. If interest and enthusiasm were carried all the way through the recording organization, and management, perhaps time might be found to raise the general recording standards in America. We have tried to incorporate these methods in our operation and have had success… or some such thing.”

Leaving the Business

Mary closed the studio in 1955 when she grew tired of being in the city. She tried to split time in and out of New York, but it eventually seemed silly. She wanted to spend time outdoors, garden, and “try to make weekends meet.” (Perlis interview) She married Edwin Pickhardt (date unknown) and changed her name to Mary Howard Pickhardt.

Dog Breeder

American Kennel Gazette Dec 1963; Ch. Sabbaday Echo Best of Breed

American Kennel Gazette Dec 1963; Ch. Sabbaday Echo Best of Breed

After her recording career, Mary became a breeder of pugs under the name Sabbaday Kennels (named after the street her home was on in Connecticut). Her pug, Ch. Sabbaday Echo, won best of breed in 1963. Mary was recognized by her colleagues for her commitment to the breed (including helping give the national pug exposure).

Ch. Sabbaday Echo. Photo by Evelyn M. Shafer; Courtesy of AKC Library and Archives

She was active with the Pug Dog Club of America and Mary (and her husband) were respected judges at dog shows across the US. Sylvia Sidney, a stage and screen actor who owned and showed pugs said in the New York Times, “Mary was probably the best breeder and exhibitor of pugs on the Eastern seaboard.” Sylvia mentioned one of Mary’s dogs was on the cover of the American Kennel Gazette (likely the December 1963 issue; the pug on the cover was not identified).

In a tribute by the Pug Dog Club of America after her death, it was said Mary “was a tremendous supporter of all Pug clubs, an outstanding judge of Pugs and a woman of great courage.”

Mary died in 1976 (at age 65). She had a son, Arthur Shipman Howard, and four grandchildren.

Select References

  1. Plunkett, Don Interview by Susan Schmidt Horning. 09 Feb. 1999. Lexington, KY: Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries. 
  2. The War Gave Mary Howard Her Big Chance to Make Good in Recording; She Did – And How! Feb. 1948. Audio Record (by Audio Devices, Inc.)
  3. Pickhardt, Mary Shipman Interview by Vivian Perlis. (Washington, CT; Sep 24, 1969). Oral History of American Music Collections Guide: Charles Ives, Yale University Library.