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(Credits: Far Out / Grimes / Bjork / Andrea De Santis)

Music

10 trailblazing female music producers and engineers

The music industry has always been overwhelming male, and you only have to look at the average festival line-up to see the imbalance in action. However, in a study by USC Annenberg that analysed the most popular songs between 2012-2018, it was found that only 2.1% of producers are women.

You may think that in the more typically progressively worlds of indie, experimental, and punk the number of women working behind the scenes may be higher, but it still disproportionally low. In an interview with sound engineer Mandy Parnell, she discussed the lack of women in the audio industry, stating that “we do have a few more females coming out, but it’s taken a long time”.

Virtually every list of the best producers of all time features little to no women, and, instead, names such as George Martin, Rick Rubin, Quincy Jones, and Martin Hannett appear almost every time. These men have undoubtedly earnt their places on such lists, but there are plenty of women who have made equally as important contributions to music that aren’t given the recognition they deserve. Can you name many female producers without a quick Google search?

The lack of non-white female producers and engineers in the alternative scene is even more prominent due to the overwhelmingly white male industry that prevails. Changes need to be made to make the audio industry a less intimidating and hostile environment for women. Find listed below ten pioneering women whose production and engineering skills are behind some incredibly groundbreaking pieces of music.

10 trailblazing female music producers and engineers:

SOPHIE

In January 2021, it was announced that the revolutionary musician and producer SOPHIE had tragically passed away. Aged just 34, SOPHIE left behind a pioneering and hugely influential catalogue of music that has shaped the landscape of current pop music, namely popularising the hyper-pop genre. In 2019, SOPHIE became one of the first openly transgender women to be nominated for a Grammy.

The Scottish musician, who collaborated alongside artists such as Charli XCX, A.G Cook, Madonna, Vince Staples, and Kim Petras had a unique talent for creating synthetic sounds that resembled “latex, balloons, bubbles, metal, plastic, [and] elastic”. SOPHIE’s debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES is a tour-de-force in electronic production, with standout tracks such as ‘Ponyboy’ and ‘Faceshopping’ containing hyper-feminine vocals contrasted with harsh distorted sounds crashing with industrial heaviness.

Grimes

The peculiar personal life of Grimes (from dating Elon Musk and naming their child X Æ A-12, or claiming to have only eaten spaghetti for two years straight) has often overshadowed her incredible body of work as a producer. She produces all of her own music, which is a unique blend of genres such as pop, rock, and electronica, however, influences can be heard as far as medieval music, folk, hip-hop, and house. Her incredible third album Visions, released in 2012, has helped to pave the way for electro-pop, despite being created within just nine days wherein the musician did not eat or sleep.

The result is a groundbreaking collection of songs that mix dreamy reverberating vocals diffusing over cosmic electronic beats and synthetic soundscapes, equally fit for consumption in outer space and our digital world. Much of Grime’s work has found its way onto best of the decade lists, with ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Genesis’ often named as some of the greatest songs of 2012 by publications such as Pitchfork and Rolling Stone.

Sylvia Massy

Sylvia Massy made a name for herself as one of music’s most impressive and prolific engineers/producers at a time when women were rarely given the chance. Since the 1980s, Massy has worked with a vast list of artists, such as Johnny Cash, Tool, Foo Fighters, Patti Smith and Prince, proving herself to be capable at working with a variety of genres. Massy worked out of the iconic Sound City Studio during the 1990s, which was home to her vintage Neve 8038 soundboard console alongside more specialised equipment that has helped to produce some of rock’s most memorable tracks.

Massy is known for her unpredictable and creative methods of discovering sounds. While working with Tool on their album Undertow, she decided to smash up some old pianos with sledgehammers and shotguns in order to get some interesting sounds. You can even watch her experiment with using pickles and lightbulbs to enhance the feedback on a guitar while working with The Melvins.

Björk

Icelandic musical icon Björk has released nine studio albums since 1993 alongside multiple soundtrack albums, compilations, and remix albums. However, the singer has also produced lots of her own songs, which include some of her biggest tracks, such as ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, ‘Army of Me’, ‘I Miss You’, and ‘Hyperballad’. Björk’s influence on music is tenfold, what with her often emotional and intimate lyrical themes, paired with intense vocal performances backed by a unique sonic palette that combines classical arrangements with pop, jazz, and electronic influence.

The multi-disciplined musician has won countless awards for her work and has 15 Grammy nominations to her name. Her influence can be seen in the work of groundbreaking producers and musicians all the way from Radiohead to SOPHIE. Björk remains one of music’s most influential and experimental figureheads, most recently working on a tenth studio album set for release in the near future.

Spellling

Chrystia ‘Tia’ Cabral has been making music since 2015, however, she released her first album as Spellling in 2017. Cabral is an impressive artist – taking producing, mixing, writing and recording into her own hands. The result is a highly personal and beautiful mixture of sounds and storytelling that sit largely within the art-pop genre. However, it would be reductive to box Spellling into anything – her music traverses jazz, chamber psych, experimental pop, neo-soul, and R&B – all accompanying Cabral’s richly luxurious voice.

Having produced all of her albums to date, the musician has proved herself plenty capable of experimenting with a variety of sounds that evoke anything from “60s lounge pop” to darkwave synth music, with many even drawing comparisons of Cabral’s vocal delivery to both Kate Bush and Marilyn Monroe. After facing sexism and racism studying philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, Cabral has certainly found the perfect medium to express herself in the form of her music, often incorporating commentary on social themes within her haunting melodies and unique compositions of gothic guitars and throbbing drums.

Susan Rogers

A personal interest in recording music led Susan Rogers to study the mechanics of becoming a maintenance tech in order to get closer to working in studios. After training to be a tape-machine technician and MCI console, she eventually landed at job at Rudy Records (Graham Nash and David Crosby’s studio) as a maintenance tech. Here she gained experience as an assistant engineer, and by 1983 she had moved to Minneapolis to work with Prince.

From then Roger’s career only grew larger, and she ended up having engineering credits on a host of Prince albums such as Purple Rain and Sign o’ the Times. Furthermore, she has worked to produce, engineer, or mix the work of other hugely successful artists such as Talking Heads’ David Byrne, trip-hop genius Tricky, and the late Selena, whose posthumously released final album was co-produced by Rogers.

Catherine Marks

Despite her classical training as a pianist, Catherine Marks has been working non-stop in the indie scene as a producer, engineer, and audio mixer since 2005. After meeting Mark Ellis, (better known as Flood) one of the most prolific post-punk and alt-rock producers, she moved to London in 2005 to train under his supervision as an assistant engineer. Marks has engineering credits on two PJ Harvey albums: White Chalk and Let England Shake, which were mainly produced by Flood. Since then, she has worked with Alan Moulder as an engineer and mixer, which saw her gain credits on products by indie legends such as Foals, Death Cab for Cutie and The Killers.

She has continued to work with up and coming indie rock artists that have helped to shape the current British scene. In 2016 she worked with Wolf Alice, which earned her a Grammy nomination for their song ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’, which was up for Best Rock Performance. She has also worked with The Amazons, Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, The Wombats, and The Mysterines – all of which have become large names in the UK indie scene.

Linda Perry

Starting her musical career as the lead singer of 4 Non Blondes, who famously had a hit single with the song ‘What’s Up?’, Linda Perry has since become one of music’s most prolific producers. Perry was approached by Pink in 2000, who was seeking assistance on production and songwriting. The lead singer-turned-producer co-wrote and produced much of Pink’s second album, which led to countless more writing and production opportunities.

Since then, Perry has worked with a mixture of pop and rock artists, such as Hole, (as well as Courtney Love on solo projects), Joan Jett, Gwen Stefani, Celine Dion, Dolly Parton, and Ringo Starr. Her work as a producer and engineer is prolific – with her skills behind some of the most iconic and successful pop hits of the past 20 years, such as ‘What You Waiting For?’ by Gwen Stefani and ‘Beautiful’ by Christina Aguilera. Perry’s work has been irrefutably influential over the pop music we know today.

Olga Fitzroy

Whilst studying for a Tonmeister degree at the University of Surrey, Berlin-born Olga Fitzroy took on an internship at Associated Independent Recording (AIR) Studios in London. From there she successfully secured a job at AIR as a recording and mix engineer. This has led her to work with some of music’s biggest names, such as Paul McCartney for the 2006 album Love, and Dave Grohl. More collaborators include Matt Bellamy of Muse, Hans Zimmer, and George Michael.

Furthermore, Fitzroy has also worked on mixing music for the 2012 Olympics, and more recently the soundtracks for The Crown and series 11 and 12 of Doctor Who. Not only does the engineer have an impressive list of musical credits, she also founded Parental Pay Equality alongside co-founding the campaign group Pregnant Then Elected. She even stood as a Labour parliamentary candidate for Croydon South in 2019, however she was unsuccessful.

Mandy Parnell

With over 30 years of experience, Mandy Parnell is a leading engineer in the world of electronica, experimental, and alternative music. She founded the Black Saloon Studios in London where she works as a senior mastering engineer. Parnell is behind some of the most influential electronic and ambient tracks ever made, with clients including Björk, Aphex Twin, UNKLE, Brian Eno, Sigur Ros, Fatboy Slim and Kelly Lee Owens. She has even worked with artists who fall more traditionally into the indie genre, such as Slaves, Glass Animals and The Horrors, as well as folk artist Vashti Bunyan.

In 2015, Parnell won the Mastering Engineer of the Year accolade at the MPG Awards after being shortlisted the previous year. Describing herself as having a “passion for sound” and always being more interested in the finished product rather than wanting to actually be a musician. She has also discussed her experience of being a woman getting starting in a male-dominated industry, stating that “it was tough, especially at The Exchange. We were renowned for electronic music and cutting really loud records. I’d often get challenged: “Well, do you know how to cut a loud record?”