Name: Shelly Steffens
Title: Mastering Engineer, Audio Engineer, and Live Sound Engineer
Company or Organization: Mastering Engineer at Chicago Mastering Service.
Artists or projects worked with: I am Technical Director for 3rd Coast International Audio Festival. I tour doing Live Sound and Production Management for Joanna Newsom and Neko Case. I’ve also worked as a touring FOH sound engineer for M. Ward, She and Him, Twin Peaks, Camera Obscura, Dirty Projectors, OkGo, Robin Pecknold, and Iron & Wine. Finally I work locally as a live sound engineer at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
FEMMUSIC: How did you get started in studio production?
SS: I started out getting into studio production in college. I went to school for broadcasting and electronic communication at Marquette University. My friends all played music in college and I ended up recording some of them as practice using an old radio mixing console and a very archaic DAW that we had on campus. I also worked a lot in radio. I had my own radio show throughout college at a station called WMSE in Milwaukee. It is and was a very professional “college” radio station but they also were listener supported so it was a mix between college radio and public radio. They had their own librarian whose full time job was maintaining their vinyl and cd collections. I learned a lot about music and about basic studio audio concepts through working at that radio station. I also played in bands in college. I got myself a cassette 4-track (Tascam) and recorded demos of my bands. I read the manual and got creative with the 4-track machine. I worked with limited cheap microphones-whatever I could make or afford to buy (or fancier mics that I could borrow from friends). Tape Op was just getting started around this time and it was very encouraging to home recording enthusiasts. It made recording audio very accessible for me.
FEMMUSIC: Tell me about mastering. What are you listening for when tracks come to? What are you aiming for when they leave your hands?
SS: At the mastering studio I’m either mastering albums or cutting vinyl masters. When I first get started on a mastering project I listen to see if the project was recorded and mixed well. This means that the dynamic range is in tact; there aren’t any audio dropouts, audio clipping, vocal ticks or heavy sibilance; and that the eq overall sounds balanced. If any of those things aren’t present, then I know what area(s) I’ll need to focus on when mastering the album. If I’m just cutting a vinyl master (meaning the record was already mastered-I just need to cut it onto vinyl) I’m checking for accurate side break information. I also work to make sure the audio sounds identical to the source material I received when cut on the lacquer medium. I am always aiming to create the best possible sounding record for my client. I want to be sure the album will sound good on whatever formats I am mastering for (either vinyl, digital distribution services, or on cd). I’m also looking to maintain a nice dynamic range while keeping the volume competitive in terms of perceived overall loudness.
FEMMUSIC: What challenges do you see for women in studio production?
SS: Audio production is a very competitive industry. This is a challenge for everyone looking to get into the business but it’s particularly challenging for women because there are less of us in the industry overall. It can get especially daunting when there aren’t a ton of female role models that one can turn to for advice. It can also feel extremely lonely when you realize that you are the only woman that has been in the studio/tour bus for days or even weeks on end.
FEMMUSIC: What mentors did you have when learning?
SS: Tape Op magazine, Tom Crawford from WMSE Milwaukee, Rachel Uwa (a friend in Chicago that started a Women In Audio ‘zine when I first moved to the city), any woman I read about or met who played music or worked in the audio industry, my close friend Juliana Armbrust who works in live sound and is pretty fearless, Elliot Dicks, and my bosses at Chicago Mastering Service.
FEMMUSIC: Are women in studio production treated differently than men? How do you see this?
SS: Yes, absolutely women in audio (and just about every field) are treated differently than men. I’ve experienced this directly via men telling me I would never have children or a family working in this career, telling me I’m hearing things “differently” from men, and some refusing to work with me based on my gender. Some days I’m caught off guard by these sorts of comments and I spend a good amount of time thinking about how I should of responded, other days I’m ready for it and I am able to challenge these types of comments in a professional and maybe even humorous way. On a positive note, sometimes my gender offers a unique opportunity to work with artists who prefer to work with women. These are usually the most fun, open minded clients to work with.
FEMMUSIC: What advice do you give to women wanting to go into studio work?
SS: Round out your audio skill set with another skill set as well. The audio industry is ultra competitive and often times you have to take a low paying job to get your foot in the door. If you have another skill set, you can use to that to supplement your income until you are able to work in audio full time. It took me a few years to get to the point were I was able to make a living off working in audio.
FEMMUSIC: What one thing would you change about the music industry?
SS: One thing that I would change about the music industry is I’d like to see more women behind the scenes working in the industry. There are tons of female performers out there, which of course is awesome, but some how this isn’t reflected as much in behind the scenes music industry work. I wish there were more female producers, engineers, techs, tour managers, bus drivers, studio owners, etc. out there.