Get ready, Elon: The Femgineers are coming

The second annual Leading Women in Audio Conference, celebrating the art of audio engineering and led by female music industry professionals, will be held Feb. 28-29.

Seniors Natalie Sakoi and Jessica Burchett exchange a gleeful, knowing look before they exclaim the words in unison:

“The Femgineers!”

Seniors Jessica Burchett, left, and Natalie Sakoi are co-chairs of the Leading Women in Audio Steering Committee.

The music production and recording arts majors raise their fists and laugh, not just because it’s a fun word to say. (Go on, say it. You’ll see.)

It’s not even because Femgineers, the name of Appalachian State University’s unofficial club of female music production majors, perfectly fits the ethos of Elon’s Leading Women in Audio Conference — the conference that Sakoi and Burchett are steering into its second year on Elon’s campus.

It’s because the fact that App State’s Femgineers will land on Elon’s campus to join dozens of students and professionals at the women-led, female-focused audio engineering conference on Feb. 28-29 offers proof that the conference Sakoi and Burchett launched as co-chairs in 2019 has achieved its goal.

Leading Women in Audio has now become a statewide resource for student and professional engineers.

“I’ve never experienced anything like it in my career. The conference in general is incredibly important because it’s helping to normalize the idea that the audio and music industry is place for both men and women. Of course a woman can be successful engineer. It’s normal now.”

— Michel Holbrook, audio engineer at Trailblazer Studios

“Last year was successful, and we were presenting it predominantly for our own students,” Burchett said. “Walking through (Arts West) and having women leading in those spaces was really rewarding. We love our faculty, but we have no women faculty in music production. What I liked so much: we had women in a variety of roles. Seeing these incredible recording and mixing engineers from so many different avenues strengthened my connections within the program – to students and faculty.”

All of last year’s presenters are returning this year, along with additional speakers and a series of sessions that will take a song through the recording, mixing and mastering process over the course of two days.

Appearing at the conference will be:

  • Marcella Araica, from Dream Asylum Studio, Miami, Fla.
  • Anna Frick, Airshow Mastering, Boulder, Colo.
  • Karen Kane, recording engineer and faculty member, UNC-Wilmington, Wilmington, N.C.
  • Michel Holbrook, audio engineer, Trailblazer Studios, Raleigh, N.C.
  • Liz May, owner of SoundLizzard Productions, Winston-Salem, N.C.
  • Tess Mangum Ocaña, founder of Sonic Pie Productions, Durham, N.C.
  • Aurelia Belfield, music supervision, Trailblazer Studios, Raleigh, N.C.

Michel Holbrook, returning for the conference’s second year, believes LWIA is the only all-female conference in the industry. She found success not just in interacting with students, but also in the opportunity to network with female colleagues. She’s kept in touch with several participants since last year.

Michel Holbrook

“I’ve never experienced anything like it in my career,” Holbrook said. “The conference in general is incredibly important because it’s helping to normalize the idea that the audio and music industry is place for both men and women. Of course a woman can be successful engineer. It’s normal now.”

Engineered sound and music are in more outlets and venues than ever before. Every pop or hip-hop earworm requires a skilled engineer to make you hear the sounds — in just that way — to lodge their way into your brain. Every live concert, every symphony or ensemble performance, has at least one person coordinating the levels of sound washing over the audience. Every TV or streaming show is accompanied by a score or incidental music, sound effects and recorded speech that’s then edited. Ditto that for every commercial.

Yet, only around 5 percent of audio engineers are women.

LWIA began as Music Lecturer Fred Johnson’s idea a few years ago. After decades in the business, he saw exceptional work by female colleagues — yet saw too few of them in the industry. He began making regional contacts with female engineers and entrepreneurs and won a Fund for Excellence grant from Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, to organize a conference around female producers and engineers.

“What I liked so much: We had women in a variety of roles. Seeing these incredible recording and mixing engineers from so many different avenues strengthened my connections within the program – to students and faculty.”

— Jessica Burchett ’20

He hoped the conference would encourage female students and teach male students how to be allies and advocates in the business.

Holbrook said the focus on male advocacy and awareness is one of the things she appreciates most about the conference.

Mostly, LWIA is about the art and skill of engineering. The presenters with successful careers, sharp instincts and decades of experience just happen to women.

Holbrook plans to focus on the transferability of sound engineering skills. Her career began engineering live sound the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Playmakers Repertory Co. theatrical productions. Now a senior audio mixer with 12 years of experience at Trailblazer Studios, she primarily crafts audio for TV shows and documentary films for broadcast.

“If you have the fundamentals of audio and the physics of sound, you can transfer those skills pretty easily,” Holbrook said. “The skills that students are investing in now are marketable outside of the music industry. I want them to know they have options if they decide to pivot their careers.”

Tess Mangum Ocaña

Tess Mangum Ocaña, who also presented last year, founded Sonic Pie Productions in 2013, building her own concert and event production company after years of directing lineups at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. Sonic Pie has presented or assisted with regional live music festivals across North Carolina, including MerleFest and the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Ocaña describes Sonic Pie’s concert management and production work as “the end of the train,” after the recording and engineering has been completed. She calls herself “a curator and presenter of live music,” building venues from the ground up. Ocaña will speak about the business-side of being an entrepreneur.

“Follow your instincts. Be brave enough to develop the confidence to follow it,” Ocaña said. “To me, I didn’t want to live in L.A. and New York. I didn’t want to have to move in order to have job in the industry. This conference shows attendees: If you want to stay in North Carolina and have a career, you can stay here.”

Marcella Araica

Whether student sound technicians at LWIA plan to travel to entertainment hubs or stick to North Carolina’s music scene, they will hear from one of the most successful mainstream music engineers in the business. Marcella Araica, of Dream Asylum Studio in Miami, has mixed and co-written hits for Madonna, P!nk, Britney Spears and Missy Elliott, among many others.

Inviting and arranging for such a big name — a “headliner” of sorts, as they say in the biz — was a real get for the student team behind LWIA. Johnson wanted students to have experience working with career professionals and those with a certain amount of celebrity attached to them. Students made the phone calls, sometimes with butterflies, and arranged the scheduling and line-up, he said.

“I just found the dates,” Johnson said. “The students ran this. They did all the work.”

“The amount of work that we put into It,” Sakoi said, “I know no matter what happens, this conference is going to be a good thing.”

Included in that work were ideas to expand the conference’s reach. Kicking off the conference will be session for area high school students led by Elon’s Music Production and Recording Arts program.

Initiating the conversations, scheduling the talent, and planning the flow of this year’s conference taught the LWIA team how to manage big events and led to an increased confidence in their abilities, they said.

“We’ve established ourselves as leading women in our own program,” Burchett said. “I’m pretty sure I’m (Elon’s) first woman lead engineer. I would like to work as a studio engineer. One thing I’m carrying with me is that I co-chaired this conference. It emphasizes this is something I care about and will speak out about. I’m not going to tolerate a biased situation.”

Members of the Leading Women in Audio Steering Committee meet in McEwen Hall to plan the conference.

Burchett and Sakoi reflected on the changes in society over the last few years, the increase of conversations around equality for women and for minorities, the #metoo movement, and of the heterosexual, cis-gendered men increasingly supportive of those conversations.

“The world is opening up to the possibilities of those discussions,” Sakoi said.

“It’s given me a sense of empowerment that I didn’t know I was missing. It’s even changed my classwork. I have more confidence to speak up now,” Sakoi said.

“You’re a leading woman in audio,” Burchett exclaimed affectionately.  “You are what a leading woman in audio looks like!”