Monday, October 22, 2012

On Women in Sound Design

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Sound Design and its related fields are lacking anything close to a gender balance. The vast majority of designers in MFA programs are men. The vast majority of designers in the freelance world are men. The vast majority of people who work sound on Broadway, work for sound-related companies, work in sound design training programs, or work on the sound crews in regional theaters are men.

It’s a shame.  And we all know it.

So, why aren’t there more women working in sound?

The answer is not because women can’t ‘do’ sound. There are some great women sound designers out there: Janet Kalas, Liz Atkinson, Veronika Vorel, Jana Hoglund, Elisheba Itoop, and the Tony-nominated Cricket Myers all do excellent work (and to my ears, the percentage of women sound designers who are talented is vastly higher than the percentage of men sound designers who are talented).  There are great women working in non-design capacities: Liz Coleman & Bridget O’Connor in NYC and Amy Wedel at Baltimore Center Stage are all highly skilled. There are talented women working in the business side of sound: Ellen Juhlin at Meyer Sound is a constant fixture at conferences and events worldwide (and, of course, let’s not forget Helen Meyer herself!). MFA programs around the country are adding women sound designers to their faculties.  Eileen Smitheimer at U. Delaware, Victoria Delorio at DePaul, and EunJin Cho at Louisiana State are some of the few female sound design professors, but they’re joined in the (academic) gown this year by two exceptional women: Amy Altadonna at UMass-Amherst and Sarah Pickett at Carnegie Mellon University.  Each of these women proves every day that women CAN ‘do’ sound.

The problem is not that there aren’t ANY women who can ‘do’ sound. The problem is that there aren’t ENOUGH women who can ‘do’ sound. The cause for that, I think, is easy to identify: the institutionalized chauvinism inherent in almost every field that could factor in to an interest in sound design.  Consider these various ways that a young person might be first introduced to sound and sound design:

  • Working on stage crews in school or at local music clubs. Stage crews are often male-dominated, and chauvinism is rampant.
  • Composing music. While music performance is much more fairly balanced by gender, composition is still dominated by men.
  • Theater Design, except for costume design, is still a male-dominated field (we have eight design faculty in design at UCI, only two of which are women), and it’s easy for educators to overlook interested students who don’t match their image of what a designer should look like.
  • Science and the scientific mind. Despite early test scores that reflect equal intellectual aptitude in math and science, girls are often left behind in science classes at an astronomical rate. After many years of work by dedicated educators, this trend is starting to change, but there’s still a lot of work to do in this area.

Say you’re a young woman with an aptitude for sound.  In order to discover sound design, you have to thread a gender needle. Maybe you’re good at science, but you have to get through school without giving up. Maybe you’re a bright composer, but you have to have the right opportunities to shine. Maybe you’re technically inclined, but you need to convince the crew chief that you’re not a weakling full of dead weight before you can go near the sound console.

Solve for XX (that’s a chromosome joke…)

If we want to bring more women into sound design, we need to attack on all of these fronts simultaneously, and while none of us can do everything, each of us can help in our own way. At UCI, here’s what we’re doing to promote women in sound:

  • Cultivate undergraduate sound designers of both genders. Our first contact with undergraduate students is usually through a class called Drama 50D: Introduction to Sound Design, and it is usually during that class that undergrad students start to discover sound design. We’re very alert to any and all aptitude for design in the class, and we work very hard to fight against the tendency to focus on men during technical discussions.
  • Graduate student population. Even though our program is still fairly young, we have a strong history of women in our sound design program. In the last four classes to leave UCI, we’ve had three women (Cory Carrillo, Noelle Hoffman, and Beth Lake), all of whom are doing excellent work now that they’ve left UCI. Having a high rate of women in the program has a number of benefits unconnected to the women themselves: 1) a visible plurality of women is another way to indicate to undergraduate students and potential MFA students that women are welcome in our program, and 2) a plurality of women serves as a deterrent for the men in the program (faculty, staff, and students) to accidentally lapse into chauvinist behaviors.
  • Recruiting. Understanding that young women lack the institutionalized support to discover sound design (see the previous section), it’s unsurprising that women are deep in the minority of the application pool. Because of the lack of support that women in sound, science, and/or design often get, we operate under the assumption that the average woman applying to our program has had less experience, mentorship, and encouragement than the average man. That doesn’t mean that she’s any less talented; rather, it just means that on average, she may not appear as strong as the male applicants.  To counter this, when we recruit, we take an extra-close look at female candidates, digging deeper to see if what may appear to be an unqualified candidate is actually a diamond in the rough. (I want to be quite clear here – we do not practice any sort of Affirmative Action, and we would not accept an unqualified woman instead of a qualified man. We simply make an extra effort when reviewing female applicants.).

In Conclusion

Every few months, I have another conversation with a different colleague about women in Sound Design, both professionally and at UCI.  During those conversations, most of what I’ve written here comes up, and I’m happy to have the conversation multiple times to keep the topic at the forefront of our thought. I typically wouldn’t write something like this on the blog; it’s a sensitive subject, and I’m sure I’ve rubbed someone the wrong way. However, we’ve recently started classes for the year, and for the first time since we’ve had a full roster of sound design MFA students, we only have one woman student. The dearth of women is not for lack of trying, but in the last two years, we have not found any women that we thought were ready for UCI Sound. Maybe we’re looking in the wrong places?

At any rate, I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I wanted to take a time to reaffirm our commitment to women in sound design and to confirm that I am looking forward to having more women join us in the future.  If you’re a woman sound designer (or a man, for that matter), and you are interested in UCI Sound, please drop me an email of introduction and let’s talk.

(note: the views expressed above are entirely my own and do not reflect the views of UCI, UCI Drama, or the UCI Sound Program)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Special Guests: Nagel and Frears

Yesterday was a day full of special guests here at UCI.  In Trends in Modern Sound Design, a rotating topics class for all MFA Sound Designers, we welcomed Andrew Nagel. Andrew works with L'Acoustics, a manufacturer of high end loudspeakers. L'Acoustics is based up in Ventura County, so it was an extra-special treat for Andrew to come down and visit with us down in Orange County. He talked with us for three hours about his career path from freelance design through consulting and ending up at L'Acoustics, his thoughts on education versus real-world experience, and some products that L'Acoustics has developed recently as they try to build market share in the theater market. He also invited us up to L'Acoustics in the future, and I'm hoping we're able to make that happen soon!

Mark, Brian, Matt, David, Andrew, Josh, Patricia, Michael, and Stephen

In the afternoon, we inaugurated the new Design Colloquium Series with a talk with Will Frears. Will is a busy theatre & film director, primarily based out of NYC, but he's in town working on Build at The Geffen Playhouse, which is currently in previews.  We invited him down to talk about his career and thoughts on the theatre with our students. We had a good turnout - not only were the designers present, but we had some actors and some undergrad directors. Will spoke for about 90 minutes, answering questions, telling stories, and providing advice to the actors and designers as they start to build their career. He had a lot to say, and we were glad to have him down.

Will Frears (left) talks with Head of Directing Jane Page and Sound Design Student Josh Fehrmann after the Colloquium.
Thanks to both Andrew and Will for taking the time to come down and talk to us!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Rational Acoustics SMAART Training.

Rational Acoustics SMAART Training.
(A.K.A Adventures in Becoming a Better Sound Communist)

As the summer of 2012 slowly came to an end, we at UCI Sound decided to jumpstart our thinking machines by hosting Jamie Anderson from Rational Acoustics for a three day SMAART training class.  Though I have a Louisiana public education, I am not spelling Smaart wrong.  SMAART stands for Sound Measurement Acoustical Analysis Real Time. It is a brilliant piece of measurement software that we use here at UCI to understand and quantify what our systems our doing in the room they are in. Smaart is an industry standard in measurement software and, as we learned, it can serve as a valuable tool for system design and optimization. Over the course of three days we learned a tremendous amount about theory, application, and use of the software.
Day 1 began with an exploration into the fundamentals of sound. This was a wonderful opportunity to review and revisit many of the topics we discussed at the Meyer Seminar earlier in the summer. It is always great to have a refresher and further understanding the physical properties of how sound works.  Jamie broke down the system design timeline into six parts. He also reminded us that often as sound practitioners we are thrown into the creative process at various points along the process.
The six points to good system alignment are
1.                    Concept/Artistic goal- (What are the artistic needs of the piece of art? What story does the system need to help tell?)
2.                    Venue Evaluation/ Modification- Where is the performance taking place? What are the acoustical/physical limitations of the space?
3.                    System Design/Equipment choice- Make sure you have the right equipment for the job.
4.                    Equipment Verification/Installation-Once the equipment is installed verify that it works. SMAART is a great tool for verifying problems within the signal chain.
5.                    System optimization/ Tuning/ Voicing- The process of voicing a system to meet the artistic goals and demands of a production. For example, a rock show might want to have a heightened low end to provide that “punch” to the kick and the bass.  This is where Smaart really excels. Using the various forms of measurements, Smaart gives the designer valuable information that can aid in tuning/ alignment.
6.                    Realization, Use, Adaptation- We have all seen the engineers at FOH constantly looking at their RTA or Transfer Measurements. Because we don’t work in perfect environments the sound is constantly changing. We have to be able to adapt the system to the conditions of the night. Every show is different. Smaart is a great tool to monitor and understand system response during the show. Especially with the use of wireless microphone a system tech could literally walk around with an iPad and capture traces all around the space for reference. The possibilities are endless.

During day one Jaime said that the goal of the training was to become a better “Sound Communist.” We want everyone to get the same show. Yes..... this is impossible, but I feel it is a great thing to strive for.  So, embrace/ strive for equality in your systems. Day one was filled with a ton of information about the Smaart interface and some techniques on getting better measurement data.

Smaart does two forms of measurements. The first is single channel measurement. These measurements are absolute. A spectrum measurement is one type of single channel measurement. For example a mic would go into Smaart and analyze the frequency response of the speaker at that given location in the space. These measurements measure frequency and amplitude. The time domain is excluded.

Smaart also performs dual channel measurements. These measurements help dive into the guts of a system. They can help solve problems within the time domain as well as show the differences in frequency response from what is being sent to what is actually being produced though the air.  The transfer function is a great example of a dual channel measurement.  In this measurement, a reference input signal is compared to a measurement on the output (i.e. direct pink noise from a console is sent into Smaart as a reference and out of the speaker. The second channel would be a microphone measuring that signal out in the house). Smaart then compares the differences of the two signals to formulate a transfer function. The phase response and spectrum response of the data are then graphically represented within Smaart.  What makes this measurement so powerful is it takes the time domain into account. With this information we can decipher the phase response and arrival times of sources. We can even determine the polarity of a speaker using the impulse response.

At the end of day 1 a lot of our minds were blown at the fact that Smaart will easily average numerous traces. This is useful and gives the engineer a better understanding of the average response of a system in a given area. The process of averaging is done by taking multiple traces in a given area; then, within a menu in Smaart, the user can select those individual traces and average them together. A graphical average will appear and show the overall trend of response.  The averaging feature is quite useful in showing any big issues within a system. Going after the big issues is much more effective than going after the small stuff because every seat is different.

Jaime has a great phrase for discussing prioritization: “Rocks, Pebbles, Sand, ……Beer.” In order to be better sound communists, we should tackle the big problems first. Once the big problems are solved, then we can work on the little things if we get the time. Of course, beer must happen after a long day of alignment. Do make time for that.

Day 2

The second day was where we really learned how to utilize Smaart. In the morning, we took many different measurements and put Smaart through its paces. Here at UCI, we often use Smaart for tuning. Jamie showed us many tips and tricks of better navigating the interface. After our measurement calisthenics and lunch we started utilizing Smaart to set crossovers and exploring the impulse response trace.

The Impulse response measurement is a powerful measurement. It is a dual channel IFT measurement that measures amplitude over time. Why is this useful? Well an impulse response can show your arrival times of reflections, other speakers, other drivers, and even polarity.


(Above is an example of an impulse response measurement. The large spike is the first arrival of sound. The smaller spike represents a later arrival.)

Day 3

Day three was a practical application day.  Instead of sitting around and talking theory, we came up with some practical applications for using Smaart. Before we began, Jamie made a point to discuss reference microphones. Thru the whole seminar, we were using various measurement microphones at various price ranges. The lesson we learned was that though these microphones have a difference in frequency response, noise floor, and price, they can still get the job done for measurement. The frequency response curves for every microphone had differences in the high end past 5k. This difference in frequency response is minimal to the difference in response one would get by moving the microphone and inch in any direction. Also, Smaart can import data correction curves to flatten out the response of a microphone. So…in the live environment an $89 microphone will perform quite well for measurement.  Where you do run into problems is that the sensitivity and noise floor of cheaper microphone is often less desirable than the more expensive quality measurement microphones. Yet, as a grad student on a budget, it was comforting to hear that an $89 microphone could get the job done.

The Smaart training seminar was an amazing opportunity that allowed us to further familiarize with the powerful tool. More importantly, we were reminded that the journey to good sound is a constant leaning process. We learned a ton and it was a great way to start off the year. I know all of us will utilize the things we learned for the rest of our careers. A big thanks goes out to Jamie Anderson and all at Rational Acoustics for an amazing three days of learning. This has helped us grow as artist, sound practitioners, and sound communists. Thanks for the fun.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

A year after his passing... a quote that rings true...

It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.   -Steve Jobs  1955-2011