Behind The Screens
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 anything that could make sounds like that in music. It was so weird and out there and extremely expressive in this mechanical way and it blew my mind right open.”
Escudé, an accomplished violinist, is also a producer and artist — performing under the name Alluxe. She has also worked as a performer 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 build 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, laptops have gotten faster, and processors and software has gotten more powerful. There are incredible ways to bridge gaps in technology that weren’t there 10 years ago. One of these areas is the world of audio and video and the powerful ways they can now interact with one another on extremely small systems. Controllers are able to have so many more functions than they used to and new inspiring technology keeps popping up all of the time.”
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 the music that I heard in my head. Or how to make music at all.”
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 said to me, ‘Oh you probably only got the job here because they wanted a female to be in the department.’ That experience started me on this path of constantly trying to prove that I knew what I was doing, which has taken some time to overcome.”
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.”
“Being constantly challenged is an excellent thing; it can bring out the best in you!”
— Maryam Khatoon, Novation
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.
“At first, I felt extreme pressure to immediately show that I knew what I was talking about,” said Escudé. “It’s a really tough crowd out there in the music/tech world and if you show any sign of weakness people can be extremely condescending and dismissive. As my confidence grew and as I got bigger and bigger gigs, I loosened up on feeling like I had to prove myself and began to own my knowledge and strength in a more authentic way.”
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 profrssional 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 and discovering how the audience connects with why the artist is doing what they’re doing. For me it’s about showcasing technology and using it in a way that’s meaningful and unique to the artist’s story.”
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. “I love that I’m not locked into being creative in a certain way. I’m looking at a blank slate and get to come up with my own way to use the tools. Some days it’s more utilitarian like launching specific songs on a tour and others I discover a new way to sequence sounds on the fly when I’m in the studio.”
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 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. “I fell in love with the melodies from the song, ‘H.A.M’ from Watch the Throne and I recorded these string arrangements in my studio and experimented by chopping up loops and mashing up different ones using a controller. I recreated some synth sounds with my violin which brought this interesting futuristic organic element to it.”
After bringing them to Kanye’s team during rehearsals, it was decided that they would use them for Coachella. Then she found out her string arrangements would be used for the opening of every show of his upcoming Dark Fantasy tour — a tour she was on as programmer and vocal effects engineer.
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 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.”
Going back to the notion of restraint, an artist standing on a stage with only a laptop or a microphone has become an antiquated conviction. Instead, infusing technology into a performance is what is pushing creative limits to new heights, expanding on the idea of the musician. Delving into a world of expressive actions meant to engage an audience with more than just a head bob, the future of music is where sound, technology and presentation intersect.
As women and technology continue to grow together, the sounds being developed will take on an 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.