Terri Winston closed her eyes, bobbing her head in a rhythmic trance in time with the music cascading from the speakers in front of her. In a nearby glass booth, singer Lia Rose leaned into the microphone, cooing the words to an ethereal song she’d recently penned.
“I thought that was really good,” Winston whispered to Laura Dean, who adjusted a fader on the massive soundboard. “Let me hear it again.”
The intimate, sleek San Francisco recording studio couldn’t seem farther away from its nearby neighbor, the notoriously gritty Sixth Street. As recording studios go, it couldn’t be philosophically farther away from the mainstream recording industry, an industry populated by men.
“There’s less than 5 percent of women working on all the sounds you hear in your life,” said Winston, twisting in an office chair. Those statistics inspired Winston in 2003 to found the Women’s Audio Mission, a recording studio and training program devoted to promoting women in the field.
“We’re the only recording studio in the world built and run entirely by women and girls,” said Winston. A year ago Winston moved the non-profit into a previously existing studio on Natoma Street that had seen artists like Alanis Morissette and Radiohead. Now it bristled with flurries of middle school girls and young women learning crafts like audio engineering, music production and songwriting.
“I think it’s really cool to be able to have more role models,” said engineer Laura Dean, ”and as well as people you get to mentor that are women.” As a professional recording engineer, Dean said she’d experienced the female wasteland of the recording industry.
“You definitely notice when you go to conferences like the AIS conference,” said Dean, “you’re like ‘OK, I’m the only woman here.’”
But Winston is hoping to change that. Resembling a college professor in thick glasses, Winston bounds through the studio with a collected swagger. She grew up the daughter of an electrical engineer – and took up the trade herself – while simultaneously playing in rock bands.
“I come from a household that really didn’t like music,” Winston said. “So I think my rebellion was music.” Winston said the program exposes more than 900 women a year to the innards of a recording studio, hosting young women students from all over the Bay Area.
On a recent evening, a group of 20 middle-school girls gathered in the studio, learning about some of the few women in the recording industry – and taking up instruments and positions on the recording console. A budding engineer counted off the would-be musicians who launched into a cacophony-laden version of an unintelligible pop song. Winston didn’t let even a hint of a deserving grimace escape – instead pointing out that music is merely the gateway to other professions for young women.
“We use music and media to attract women and girls to science and technology,” Winston revealed. “And we use the recording studio as a big carrot.”
A veteran of several acclaimed Bay Area bands, Lia Rose displayed more of the chops of a seasoned singer-songwriter. Rose is among a roster of notable performers including Angelique Kidjo, Salman Rushdie and Kronos Quartet who’ve recorded albums at WAM.
“She’s just chugging away, chop chop chop,” said Rose of Winston’s passion. “Like teaching huge numbers of people, she’s just relentless.”
These days, Winston finds her hands on the fundraising end of the non-profit — rather than the soundboard. But it suits her fine as she slugs away — seeking to change the recording industry one face at a time. She said one of her proudest days was when a former intern recently scored a job at Pixar.
“Sound is incredibly powerful, it’s a really persuasive medium,” Winston said. “And to have fewer than five percent working in that medium — that just means all those perspectives, those ideas, those insights of women aren’t being heard every day.”