The Lives Of Women Developers In Music
Today, women in the music developer space are gaining exposure as engineers and innovators. Women have always been a part of music technology and its evolution, but their stories are often overlooked. “I remember the first time I heard Squarepusher,” said Laura Escudé. “It was life changing for me. I had no idea that there was anyone that could make anything musical like this. And it was just so beautiful to me because it was so weird and out there and just expressive.”
Escudé, an accomplished violinist, is also a producer and music programmer for touring acts like Kanye West, Jay-Z and The Weeknd. Using a range of tools and skills she’s developed over the years, she’s built an incredible knowledge base about technology’s quickly evolving pace and a deep understanding of how it has impacted her career and the career’s of others.
“Technology’s gotten faster, and laptops have gotten faster, and processors and the software’s gotten more powerful. You have more hard drive space, and the controllers are able to do different functions, and they’re adding on and on.”
Describing how electronic music took over her life after a night at a rave, Escudé’s relationship to technology came over time, in part due to her own self-doubt. “I didn’t really know that I could make music that way at first. Or how to make music that way.”
Gender aside, for most developers starting out, the sentiment is the same. For women in the music space, having the confidence to recognize themselves as creatives is a challenge experienced by many.
Teaching herself Ableton Live and landing a job in tech support at M-Audio in Los Angeles, Escudé remembered her first experience working in a professional music setting.
“This guy was like, ‘Oh you probably only got the job here because they wanted a female to be in the department.’ They just weren’t used to a woman knowing what she was doing in this realm.”
Maryam Khatoon, or Miri Kat as she’s known, is a product designer at Focusrite/Novation and shares a similar experience to Escudé. Khatoon came from a background in games design, and faced what she calls “impostor syndrome” when she transitioned into working in the Music Industry. “I used to feel like I wasn’t good enough. But being constantly challenged is an excellent thing; it can bring out the best in you! It has taught me to face my fears head on. The mindset that females have is that they’re afraid of failure. Now I realize that failing is the only way to learn. So you have to fail, and you have to fail hard, and you have to fail again. I just keep telling myself, ‘I have to do this.’”
Khatoon was drawn to the intersection of technology and music, because the games designers were using software to create synthetic sounds. “And that’s where I got interested in sound design.” Working in the audio industry enabled her as an artist and a designer, by connecting her to a huge network of creatives, industry practices, tools and technologies within the industry. Now she focusses her knowledge and passion outside of work on the hacker/maker community. “I love building things and going to hackathons and demoscenes — an old habit from my games design days. It’s the community aspect of these events that I love the most, but I do think these can benefit from a more diverse crowd. It’s up to all us women working in music tech and other industries to change this imbalance.”
Reading the book Programming for Dummies to teach herself the essential building blocks, Lottie Thomas, a Firmware Engineer at Novation said that “tinkering with technology” from a young age helped with her confidence.
“Playing with computers, building, doing Raspberry Pis, I was always into making,” said Thomas. She also attributes it to a supportive team working in an industry not much older than most of its developers. “We don’t really see women as being any different because the technology is quite young. There’s not a lot of women I work with, there’s about two of us at the moment, but I get the same kind of help, and respect that any other male team member would get, and I’m really grateful for that.”
Regardless of the community in which women in technology work and create, many have developed the disposition of having something to prove. As with Escudé and Khatoon, their complex derives from an inability to comprehend their own potential as designers of the technology we use today. Whether out of necessity, a competitive nature or personal desire, this outlook is ingrained in women working in the music tech world.
“As my confidence grew and as I got bigger and bigger gigs, I think that I just kept trying to prove myself in a way,” said Escudé. “I had to go in there and show, ‘Hey, I know what I’m talking about. I’m the person that you should be speaking to about this.’ Because people would assume I wasn’t the go-to person, or go to some other guy first.”
Pushing past hurdles, women have become an essential part of electronic music’s evolution, and most importantly, what it means to be a creator. Access to technology and ease of use have allowed a wider range of people to produce. As a designer, Khatoon sees this happening with the kind of products in development.
“There are festivals like Superbooth in Berlin, where you see professional producers and professional users, but at the same time, as a designer, we also need to think about all those people sitting on the fence,” she said. “And this is a huge number — people who want to make something, but don’t really know their stuff. That is, in a way, still an untapped market. If you make it easy for them to create something quickly, that’s a win. I am a Livecoder, which is essentially writing code live in front of an audience to generate music and visuals. Engaging with the industry as an artist/performer and taking part in hackathons or doing workshops feeds into my design practice. This engagement results in a wealth of knowledge about creative workflows and user needs for when we are designing products. It’s a full circle.”
With a greater number of people creating, the ‘home producer’ space has become one of saturation. This saturation has had a profound effect on listeners. With an overwhelming number of choices, audiences have developed a system of self-filtering when it comes to choosing an artist or album to listen to. Something Thomas thinks is a good thing. “It means the role of the producer is a little bit harder. It’s a little bit harder to stand out from the crowd, and that probably means we’re going to get better content.”
Evolving past saturation and self-filter is the notion of restraint. Access to all the technology in the world, giving users unlimited abilities, has led to many artists stripping themselves of these choices, and leaving just a few options. This practice of “less is more” pushes producers to work with what they have. Thomas sees this with users saying it’s a new way to push the limits of creativity. “You have this wealth of technology, where you can basically buy and do anything you want. But when you restrict yourself down and say, ‘No I’m only going use this product on this track,’ you can get some really creative things, because you have to find ways of using the technology creatively and cleverly to get the sound you want.”
Escudé sees it in her work on live shows as well, saying “whether it’s using a ton of technology or using very little, it’s about authentically blowing people’s minds with the technology. However, the audience can connect to understand why the artist is doing what they’re doing. Showing technology used in a way that’s never been done before.” For Escudé, Novation’s equipment acts as a malleable tool — letting the user take control of how they create the sounds they want to make. It’s a freedom she appreciates. “I can be improvisational,” she said of the Launchpad. “You’re not locked into being creative in a certain way. You’re sort of looking at a blank slate. You get to come up with your own way to use the tools.”
For a designer of these products, Khatoon works to achieve that. “They say good design is no design. The user shouldn’t feel like they are interfacing with anything, it should just feel natural.” Always working to design new ways for users to make music, Khatoon believes a good product example is Circuit, which blends easily blends experimentation with a sophisticated tool. “It hides a lot of complexity,” she said. “That in a way is the future. Making users feel like they’ve done this, they’ve achieved this; they feel like they have ownership over their creations.”
A producer creating music with tools developed by others requires a distinct inclination towards creativity. But for developers, shaping the look and feel of tools used to create music requires an extra level of creative thinking and skill. “What I love about working in music technology is that we can absolutely combine being creative, and being technical. Focusrite is full of these people that are fantastically skilled in engineering, and we work on groundbreaking technology every day. And they’ll go home and make this amazing, diverse music.”
Escudé remembered a proud moment in her career, working as an artist and a programmer on Kanye West’s 2011 Coachella show. “On my own time I had created these string arrangements for the song, ‘H.A.M’ from Watch the Throne — I didn’t really understand what the song was, but I could hear the string arrangements.” After bringing them to Kanye’s team, it was decided that they would use them for Coachella. Shortly after, she found out her string arrangements would be used for the opening of his upcoming Dark Fantasy tour — a tour she was hired to program.
As art and technology continue to converge in the music technology space, the opportunities for creators are more boundless than ever. For Thomas, as an engineer working to help users create music in new ways, she sees the future in the kind of technologies that help us and understand us.
“We talk about Siri and Google helping us in our life. ‘How can we make our products so they’re not only a tool for the user, but they actually help the user?’ How can we make our technology help achieve what they’re trying to do, even if they don’t quite have the skills for it?”
Khatoon has a similar sentiment when it comes to tools that will help users create. “Anyone who’s got an idea or an inspiration to create something will be able to do it. Even within software, there’s probably going to be a voice interface. You can hum something in, and it creates a tune. Or you can choose the mood, and it creates a soundtrack for you.”
Another aspect driving technology’s progress is the idea of the live show. Escudé, Khatoon, and Thomas all believe music today is about more than just sounds. It’s about live performance. “I’m really interested in the visual side of it — bringing the visual and the sound together,” said Khatoon. “Which is something the industry needs to do more of. In games, they put all of their focus on the visual, and the sound is almost an afterthought. And in music, they do the opposite. Which is shouldn’t be. Because when people are using it, or performing with it, it’s all one thing.”
“With lighting and video and the music, it all comes down to the kind of vibe the artist is trying to convey,” said Escudé, adding to the idea of transforming a space through sights and sounds. From an engineering perspective, Thomas said incorporating these tools into a live show is always a consideration, “People have come up with creative uses for our Launchpads. Clip launch things. I’ve seen people use them to do light shows, to trigger off sound effects on TV, and it’s really cool to see the different ways that people use our products.”
As women and technology continue to grow together, the sounds developed will take on all-encompassing aspect, allowing for more creativity than ever. And with that, the stories of the talented developers, male and female, behind the transformative tools used to create, will begin to unfold.
Words: Andriana Albert
This content is an initiative of Focusrite/Novation, whose ‘Women In Music Technology’ series spotlights women working in behind-the-scenes role. The aim is to inspire the next generation of women in music technology to reduce the gender imbalance in the music industry.