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The following reflection has nothing to do with microphone placement, compression, EQ or gain structure. It's about a negotiated culture that doesn't exist in the studio, a dictatorial culture that predominates in the studio  – and about the quality and the feeling of experiencing that firsthand.




I undertook a major recording project this semester – over many weeks, if you include the pre-production (which I do), and over even more weeks if you include the post-production ruminations (which I very much do). I've thought about what happened during the tracking session a lot - I figure, if reflective practice isn't a student's obligation to themselves, why study at all?

I tried to push this project in a more "real world direction" (supposedly something VMIT [not the real name of the university] are all about) by jumping up at the first chance to arrange an artist booking (which is to say making the call on the way home from the course orientation), and thus at least getting to take on a true leadership role for pre-production. The artists I invited in were THE METAL BAND WHO WILL NOT BE NAMED – a groovy, chunky metal band, steered by Tradiedude [not his real name] and Microdrummer [not his real name]. If you follow Aussie metal at all, you'd know Tradiedude and Microdrummer are both recently ex-Unnamed Band #1 (warning: promotional copy that will make you want to poke your own eyes out), and Tradiedude was long-time guitarist with Unnamed Band #2. While Tradiedude would never talk himself up like this, objectively that's getting an award winning musician in the studio on a student project – with Unnamed Band #2, Tradiedude was honoured with Best Band & Best Album Kerrap! Australian Heavy Metal Awards for Unnamed Album. From VMIT's perspective, that should count for something.

Obviously – setting aside those formal Rah-Rahs – Tradiedude's involvement was key to me personally. I though it was one legit situation where I could do something materially supportive for him, by recording his band. He would in turn be supporting me, by collaborating on a piece for my production folio. We've really not hit a comfortable place with supporting each others creative lives – which I won't get into here, but we both know we need to work at it. This project was important on more than one level to me. I cared about the project. I believe in the band. I was taking the whole thing pretty seriously.

THE METAL BAND WHO WILL NOT BE NAMED have been jamming for 10 years, but have never recorded – don't even have one song on MySpace – so it seemed to be a good idea to get that process started for them. They were in audition-mode with singers, and may or may not have found their permanent vocalist by the studio date – but there was a Plan B with a fill-in vocalist, and getting the rest of the band tracked still seemed like a worthy goal and great experience – they are heavier and different from any other group I've recorded.

This was a group assignment. Which is fundamantally flawed at the mixing stage (more on that later), and you can attribute this to over-enrollment of students for the available facilities. Every student had the opportunity to get in early and organize a band to record before classes commenced. In theory, students attached themselves to another student's project because they either didn't know any bands, or had not taken the initiative to do something about it. My group initially consisted of four students, including myself. One of these students fell away from the project before the studio booking. One simply didn't show up. The other did show up. For the purpose of this reflection, I'll call him "Wilbur" [you guessed it - not his real name].

I had my own set of objectives for the project: what I wanted to get out of the experience. It wasn't anything fancy, but I had hoped to achieve the following:

  • To practice working as a music producer in a study environment (where there is no record label or expensive studio booking hanging over one's head).

  • To create one presentable folio piece that I could link to publicly as an example of my work.

  • To establish and develop a mutually respectful relationship with the artists, as equals in a creative endeavour.

  • To foster positive word-of-mouth reports of my creativity, communication style, and professional approach in the studio.


(A girl can dream...)


So, I had THE METAL BAND WHO WILL NOT BE NAMED booked in. The times were locked in. The band knew where they had to be, and when. My supervisor for this subject, Mr Cockblock [not his real name!], was advised when we were booked in. "Wilbur" knew when we were booked in. The two students who didn’t even show up knew when we were booked in. Everyone had been Cc'd into all emails, and the communication was detailed and clear.

Or so I thought...

The night before the booking, at about 11.55pm-ish - Mr Cockblock sent out an email – Cc’d to the band – expressing how disappointed he was not to have received a phone call confirming the booking. He then changed the booking time to half an hour later.

I was upset about this, for the following reasons:

  • I’d done all the work wrangling the session, and there actually wasn’t any reason to phone Mr. Cockblock, because he’d been included in every single email communiqué.

  • It undermined the authority and professionalism I was trying to establish – I was treating the project as a job, and taking a role equivalent to what a “managing editor” does in publishing. By introducing the idea that there was this phone call owed (to confirm what was already confirmed), it made me appear to be doing less than I ought to be – when I’d covered the bases pretty well.

  • I felt it could have hurt my credibility with the artist I’d booked – having to contact everyone after 12am on the eve before the booking, to change our start time, made me look unorganised and incompetent.

  • We'd been EXPLICITLY told in class by Mr Cockblock, that phone contact was to be reserved for "emergency situations only" – if I'd been told a phone confirmation of our booking was required, in addition to a double email confirmation, I'd have gladly provided one.

It didn't set the greatest vibe or comfort zone for the project. I felt like I'd have to repair any poor perceptions, and it wasn't the positive place I'd have liked to have proceeded from.

Anyway, we were now booked for 10am. Tradiedude and I met Microdrummer outside the Creative Media Building. We met "Wilbur" at the door as we were unpacking Microdrummer's kit. We phoned Mr Cockblock's mobile to be let into the building, and started ferrying the equipment through the first floor foyer, down a corridor, to VMIT Studio 1.

As we were just getting the last things moved into the studio, Mr Cockblock dropped a comment aimed at the band I’d brought in – “Now, I’ll be assessing these guys, so if you see them slacking off or doing anything wrong, you let me know.”
I said something in a deliberately exaggerated "school-marm-ish" tone to try and damage control his comment, and rescue my status as a partner in the project, “Now you guys better watch out and behave yourselves.”
Mr Cockblock immediately shot this down with, “Not the musicians – the musicians can do whatever they want.”

What was he thinking? How careless was he being with my working relationship with the band I’d brought in?

In terms of my objective "to establish and develop a mutually respectful relationship with the artists, as equals in a creative endeavour" we may as well have packed up and called it a day. There was no chance of me being an equal in the project - that damaging statement exploded any kind of artistic democracy.

With amazing economy of words, Mr Cockblock created an inner circle of the project – himself and the artists  – and I was pushed to the outer. He engendered the notion that the artists were not entering into a creative partnership with me. He placed them in a hierarchially higher context, a supervisory inner-circle. He placed himself in that same circle. I was excluded from, and undervalued in my own project.

I was gobsmacked.

It is how you might expect a Year 8 metal-work teacher to have acted… at Heathmont High… in the 1970s.

The band weren’t brought into the studio to oversee me as a “slacker” or a “wrong-doer” – Mr Cockblock did not support me in establishing a rapport and ongoing work relationship with the band. This has not fostered a good relationship with these artists – I do not feel that they regard me more seriously as a creative professional since this project. How could I establish that kind of relationship with them, once that dynamic had been undermined?

It wasn't the hellish indignity I've been through in the production field in another environment – I've been treated far worse, and with far less respect and understanding – but I wasn't happy with the situation. And because I have been through a really hard time whilst studying, I was just at a total loss as to what I could do or say to rescue the project and restore the equilibrium.

Mr Cockblock established a primitive pecking order in the studio. I have a theory that this behaviour stems from the “boys club culture” of having an older male teacher, overseeing a studentry of predominantly younger male students. The teacher very frequently establishes his dominance of the group by verbally “roughing up” the students, so that they know who’s in charge. Those students then take their cues from the teacher, and verbally rough up each other, to establish a pecking order amongst themselves.

Personally, I find it interesting in a Gorillas In The Mist way, so long as I don't have to directly participate in it. But therein lies the problem.

It might be OK for groups of men to function like that, but there are different implications between men and women in professional social interaction; a man treating a woman like that can be interpreted differently by the other men in the group. I feel I lose much more respect from other men when they witness this. I feel exhausted by it, because I have to work so much harder in the first place to establish a baseline amount of respect and serious consideration. Worse than a backwards step, it feels like running in quicksand. It is an incredible energy drain.

I don’t think this opening comment from our supervisor, influenced "Wilbur" (the other student) in a positive way; he then tried to establish himself in a pecking order over me in the studio. He did so by being sexist, because I guess that was the obvious difference between us. (Other than my being awesome.)

Once Mr Cockblock had left the studio for the control room, I was taking a mental inventory of the mics Mr Cockblock had selected from the kit for our session – I was feeling unsettled that I had not been included in a consultation on what mics I might have wanted to use – Mr Cockblock had seen me come in the week before and take an inventory of the studio for exactly that reason. If you are not making your own microphone selections for your own recording something is seriously wrong.

Here is the version of the studio inventory I researched before going into the studio:

In The Control Room

In the Studio (Recording Room)


  • LEEM Direct Box Passive DI (2)

  • Behringer Stereo DI (1)

  • Behringer Ultra DI (2)

  • Splitter Boxes (2)

  • Fully Enclosed Cans (7)



So I'm looking at the mics that have been laid out, and thinking about our set-up, and "Wilbur" asks me what I’m doing.

I say, “I’m just having a look at what mics we have out for which instruments, and thinking about the order in which we should set them up.”
"Wilbur" says, “Don't be so full on. You can start setting up that mic... Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to push a woman into working.”

(Wow.)

Tradiedude slipped out of the room at that point, but he heard "Wilbur" say that – and he asked me later, “So, did you strangle him?”
And I said, “No, I didn’t even really tell him off – I’m so hesitant to get into those issues after what I’ve been through. Besides, it’s not my job to educate him.

I asked Tradiedude what he thought of it, and he said, “That was just sexist.”

I knew it was no-frills sexism, but I’ve become so censored whilst studying in a studio context, and so unsure of how to negotiate my way through in the boys club culture, where I once would have told a guy off for that sort of thing, now I have to go away and really think about it – I’m scared of risking the articulation, because I’ve been so alienated for doing so before.

It's difficult to explain how stressful this is. It feels very intense. It feels like trying to make an impression on minds made of stone.

Just in case you thought my day had hit rock bottom, read on...

We tracked the drums. "Wilbur" and I attended to the menial studio tasks. Mr Cockblock acted as the engineer and producer. Yes, he was the teacher, and it was not his project - but guess what - he is not really a teacher! He is a producer/engineer collecting a paycheque for teaching, and just doing what he would do if the university studio was his studio. There is a terrible unaware culture in production, where one is supposed to feel grateful for just being in the room with a producer, and the accquisition of engineering chops is supposed to happen by osmosis. You know, bullshit.

We - the students - were relegated to "assistant" status by virtue of what we actually got to do. After the bass had been tracked, the bassist Gavin [not his real name] went out for lunch. When he got back, he called my mobile to be let into the building. As we were walking back to the studio, he said, “We’re getting a rough mix at the end of today from Mr Cockblock – maybe you can get one too, if we’ve got time.”
I responded, “But I’m mixing the project.”

His response to that was silent, dismissive. I felt he was overlooking my role, and was not valuing me on the project. As far as he was concerned, I was just the sweet little nobody who let him in the door after he went out for lunch.

At this point I am stunned that I have been pushed out of the roles of producer, tracking engineer, and now mix engineer. What was I? I was studio receptionist. (Kill me now.)

This feeling was confirmed, when while I was out of the control room but within earshot, Gavin asked Mr Cockblock if he could obtain a copy of the multi-track recording, so he could mix it himself in Cubase or Nuendo. Instead of advocating my role on the project, and saying, “Now, you’ve been lucky enough to have one of our talented students bring you into the studio to record your band – and of course she’s mixing this project.” – Well, instead of that, Mr Cockblock volunteered me to render each track as audio, and provide Gavin with the files to do his own mix.

Again, I wasn’t valued on the project. I was pushed to the outer. I was excluded. And I was feeling betrayed.

I spent the rest of the day dry-eyed, with my feelings buttoned-down; I didn’t burst into tears at this treatment, I remained congenial and positive so that I could get the tick in the book to pass a subject I need – but I could have burst into tears. Except gender cliche.

I couldn’t believe Gavin could be so incredibly rude, and I’m appalled Mr Cockblock didn’t pull him up on it. Instead, they were networking with each other. That wasn’t what either of them were there to do!

Tradiedude told me that in the control room, while I was out packing away mics, Mr Cockblock had said to the band, “I keep telling the students to align themselves with talented musicians.”

The irony of it all - this session was supposed to be about that. It was supposed to be a chance to have some of that alignment occur. But I didn’t get a chance to really work with them. The other side of the coin is, that the band just sat there all a-flutter thinking something like, “Woot! I’m talented! An 8-ARIA-Award-winning-dude says I’m talented! Squee!”

This is what Tradiedude was thinking – I know, because I asked him.

Not one of them said, “Well, we think Talie’s really talented herself. We’re rapt she asked us into the studio. We’re thrilled to be working with her. Would you mind standing aside so we can work with her?”

There is no way Microdrummer tootled off after our session, to his evening session with Generic Unnamed Other Producer, and talked me up, “Oh, I’ve been in the studio all day with Talie. She’s really cool, really knows her shit, she is so good to work with.”

Why would he? He’d seen me function as an assistant. I didn’t get a creative role, I didn’t get a leadership role, I didn’t get to establish credentials or rapport. I didn't make a single decision of substance.

For six weeks afterward, the band were on the phone to one another talking about how cool it was to work with Mr Cockblock, how much he knew his shit, how good he was. It was his project. He networked so successfully with the band I brought in, that while in the studio they asked him how much it’d cost to book him professionally.

I was told, “If one day you can get as good as Mr Cockblock, maybe we’ll work with you.”

How did this project run so far off the rails, that I'm having to compete with my own teacher for future work?

I was also told, "That "Wilbur" is a real goose – he made you look great."

Looking great compared to "a goose" is not really a worthy comparison, and is of no value to my career development.

I can’t link to the recording as an example of my work – the band will tell you Mr Cockblock recorded it. AND HE DID!

I didn’t get to establish a mutually-respectful relationship with he band, as equals in the studio. I don’t get any vibe from Gavin or Microdrummer that they take me seriously in a musical context.

There will not be any amazing flow on of word of mouth drumming up future business – for my monkey-like chasing of microphone leads across the floor didn’t warrant it.

This was what I took time out of my life to study?!!

It’s not called the Diploma of Music Industry (Assistant Engineering), is it?

At the end of the day, Mr Cockblock shook my hand and said, “Well done.”

But I didn’t do anything in this session that a trained monkey couldn’t have done. It wasn’t my project. I don’t see how I can even be assessed for it, since the teacher took the role of producer/engineer, which I thought I’d be occupying. I acted as an unpaid volunteer assistant, running leads and setting up microphones, which I didn’t even choose. The project is supposed to be 70% of my grade for a subject. The subject is called ‘Apply Music Knowledge & Artistic Judgement’ which implies that the student would HAVE to make some creative decisions. But the teacher dominated the creative and directorial decisions - I didn’t get input on anything beyond a minute tweak of EQ, and deciding which line was shoved into which socket in the multicore. How can you even assess that? It's true that I was attentive, and polite, and eager to engage in the smallest task - but, I've worked in arts event management for years. I already have those generic industry skills.

I’m not worried about discussing this in my blog being some kind of “publicity faux pas” – I’m not building a career on empty words (or poorly assembled words). I’m more likely to at least be respected for being frustrated with this stream of music education, and being able to intelligently analyse and articulate why. And yes, some smashing of ones forehead against the keyboard in frustration. fgfghghf fdg fgfghfghj Progress can grow out of dissent.

In my opinion the ad hoc, insubstantial tutorials on EQ and Compression that Mr Cockblock gave in the session, ought to have been imparted in earlier tutorials before I brought a band into the studio to work with. Working on the recording should have been a practice run for occupying a producer role. Why should I be throwing away an opportunity to nurture an industry relationship?

Part of the problem is a lack of pedagogy surrounding music production – pedagogy as in the art and the science of teaching (insert discipline here). As an art medium, recorded music is very new – compared with music performance, or writing, or sculpture. When I go for my singing lesson, my teacher is teaching me to sing, but he is also a student himself – he is a very committed student of the pedagogy of the teaching of singing. He has taken workshops with famous teachers, he reads books about the teaching of singing – drawn from centuries of different schools of thought. He devotes a great deal of time and energy to thinking about how to teach singing, and he has a Canon of literature to support his development as a teacher.

While there are books about Music Production, there really isn’t a literature about the teaching of music production. The practice hasn’t been going on long enough for the method of it’s teaching to have a Canon. The pedagogy hasn’t evolved that far.

But that dovetails onto the other problem, which is the boys club culture, and the way the discipline is deliberately shrouded in mystery.  Most music producers are so secretive about their techniques, they impart them only to a favoured mentor (if at all), and that relationship is founded on the conventions of this boys club culture.

Here’s an example:

In the evening, "Wilbur" fell asleep on the couch in the control room, which is falling asleep on the job – pretty pathetic. Mr Cockblock told me to sneak up an inch away from his face, and ask him, “Would you like a little blankey?”

And I did it.

It humiliated "Wilbur". Everyone had a big old chuckle at him. OK, it was sort of funny, but it was also mean. I understand the lesson about a work ethic, which Mr Cockblock was trying to impart to that student – "Wilbur" needed a kick to the pants. But I shouldn’t have been the one to administer it.

I'm actually loosing sleep over it, for reasons a little larger than the obvious meaness.

I’m surrounded by the boys club culture, and the pressure to adopt the ways of the boys club is tremendous. You pick up these modalities without realising it at first. It's hard to get perspective on it, when you're swimming in it.

That comment – “Would you like a little blankey?” – I didn’t feel comfortable with it, it didn’t really hold with my values – but this is how engulfed I am by the boys club. I became a part of it. Mr Cockblock gave me this moment to establish a pecking order with this other student, boys club culture style, and I did so. I was the "good student", rubbing the bad students nose into their own poop, stinky, poop.

And if I was a different person, I could keep on rolling along with the boys club communication rules, and it would bring me a kind of advancement (at least until I hit the glass ceiling).

There is a phenomenon of women entering “male preserves” – and thinking they are going to be changing things by going in there, but instead being changed by it themselves.

I didn't originate that observation – I borrow it from Germaine Greer:

"The notion of equality takes the male status quo as the condition to which women aspire. Men live and work in a frighteningly unfree and tyrannical society... As soon as a woman enters a  male preserve... she finds herself in an alien and repellent world which changes her fundamentally even as she is struggling to exert the smallest influence on it. As these masculine realms have been constructed to withstand outsiders and have grown stronger and more effective in doing so over many generations, they are virtually incapable of transformation. Aspirants to rank in such groups have to learn the ropes and then bounce their rivals on to them."
That might seem like a rather grand quote to use regarding audio engineering, instead of politics or law, but the most professional female live sound technician I know – an VMIT graduate – she told me, “You become neuter to do the job. You have no gender.”

Men have a word for that – when it happens to men, they call it “emasculation” – and they HATE it. They rise up in their own defense, if they feel that their identity as a man is under threat. That identity is precious to them. And our culture has defined the word as:

emasculate |iˈmaskyəˌlāt|
verb [ trans. ]
make (a person, idea, or piece of legislation) weaker or less effective : our winner-take-all elections emasculate fringe parties like neo-Nazis.
• [usu. as adj. ] ( emasculated) deprive (a man) of his male role or identity : he feels emasculated because he cannot control his sons' behavior.
• archaic castrate (a man or male animal).
• Botany remove the anthers from a flower.

There is no word for “efemination” – to lose ones identity as a woman, to be made weaker or less effective. That word doesn’t exist. Instead, we have to tangle with this one:

effeminate |iˈfemənət|
adjective
(of a man) having or showing characteristics regarded as typical of a woman; unmanly.

Both words are about the loss of male identity.

If we don’t even have a word for the loss of female identity in our entire culture, how could there be a theory for guarding against it in studio practice? My concern is that there is no concept of female identity in music production at all, and there is no place reserved in education for a discourse on it.

Now because I don’t want to become a woman-shaped neuter-thing (or a woman-shaped man), because I want to be me, I have to figure out some way of participating in these arts practices, without being engulfed by the boys club behaviour. I want to communicate my own way. I want to hold onto my own values. I don’t want to be defined by boys club conventions, to adopt the communication style, even though it is so quick to use – it's rapid fire communication, because it’s waving the flags everyone is already holding – it seems more convenient, so deceptively clear, deceptively simple.

My sense of personal integrity and artistic integrity are not bundled separately, and I don’t think you can make great art if you let yourself be transformed by a dominant culture, and swept away from your own values.

I’ve talked to Tradiedude about this, and I was so relieved that he was open to listening to me. He said I blew him away by how articulate and succinct I am. That all I’ve said is true, that he could see these things happening – that these are the things most people see happening, but they just let it slide, because that’s their coping mechanism. He also said I’m too intelligent for my own good sometimes – or for audio engineering – not too intelligent to do it, but to fit in with the culture and do it. How guys find it threatening to have these things talked about. How Mr Cockblock isn’t going to want to hear this – because even though he probably sees himself as progressive, and he has the ideal of equality in mind, that on a grass roots level he probably hasn’t had to think about the day-to-day social reality of it, think about it for hours ever day, for  months and years, and and internalize awareness, and come up with new ways of communicating – and even if he doesn’t take it personally, I am still challenging the way things are.

I don't know. Maybe Mr Cockblock will be totally open to his own growth as an educator, and welcome the feedback. That would be nice. I want awareness integrated into a pedagogy for the discipline. As a student, I cannot effect that very much. It's up to the teachers to "get it". For that to happen, they have to care about it; these issues have to be seen as important, central issues within the discipline, by those in a position to effect change.

I owe it to myself as an artist, to critique these cultural practices when I feel excluded by them. I felt completely undervalued and excluded from my own recording project.  It was a wasted opportunity for growth and advancement and the forging of musical allies. To use some technical industry jargon: that sucked.

I’ve become so censored. I’m frightened of the consequences of having a voice. I’ve witnessed such a ruckus that can follow talking about these kinds of issues, a brutal, defensive status quo tumbling down upon my head, tonnes of bricks and centuries of patriarchy. Do I have to worry about defamation, when I critique a little TAFE assignment? I mean, I *could* change the teachers name to something bogus, but why should I have to? [This was revised and all names were changed except my own.] There’s nothing in this reflective piece of writing that deals with anything secret or confidential. It’s stuff that happened in the studio while working on an assignment. Am I not entitled to critique it?

As messy and imperfect as this reflective piece of writing is - it articulates things I cannot find anyone talking about - I guess someone has to sound these things out first.

In certain rooms, a woman with a voice is the end of life as we know it.

So, tell me again – how is that a bad thing?

What’s the point of all this? It’s decompression, with no excuses or apologies. If a heap of hellish experiences won’t kill my enthusiasm, a bunch of mediocre ones won’t either. No, wait – that's whistling in the dark. Stack up enough mediocre experiences, and be surrounded by enough ignorance – that will totally kill my enthusiasm. My verve is depleted. I’m not fixating on this project - I'm moving forward to the next learning thing, and the next real world thing – but I do think it’s crucial to reflect on these experiences, and document them, and have a dialogue about them. The freedom to do that is a HUGE part of the not-having-your-enthusiasm-killed deal. Allowed to be deflated. Allowed to bounce back. And my voice – I'm trying so hard to remember I'm entitled to have one.