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AES’s Mariana Lopez on her fight for industry equality and the future of audio education

AES Mariana Lopez is one of the busiest people in the pro audio industry. Daniel Gumble caught up with her to talk audio education and the fight for equality...

There can’t be many people in the pro audio industry with a schedule as heavily stacked as that of Mariana Lopez. In fact, it’s something of an achievement that PSNEurope has even been able to pin her down for an interview given the vast string of duties she’s currently juggling. A sound designer by trade, she is a lecturer in sound production and post production at the University of York, chair of the AES’s (Audio Engineering Society) UK section, a Zumba teacher – part of her commitment to her students’ well being – and a tireless campaigner for gender equality in the audio world. Oh, and she’s also a dab hand at the gothic harp, a talent she has honed via a lifelong passion for medieval music and drama.

With such a vast and varied arsenal of skills at her disposal, it’s little wonder that Lopez has pursued the path she has. Her wealth of expertise has allowed her to indulge her passion for sound design while also educating the next generation of audio pioneers and spearheading initiatives aimed at making the pro audio industry a more inclusive place.

To find out more about her illustrious career to date, PSNEurope sat down with Lopez to talk all things audio education and how she wound up where she is today…

How you did you first become interested in sound?

When I finished high school I studied an undergraduate degree on arts with a specialisation in music, but I would describe it as something similar to musicology. We were thinking about anthropology of music, music history and analysis. During my degree I discovered a passion for medieval music. I had a very good set of lecturers and as such got into playing medieval music; I play the gothic harp and would play in an ensemble with dress ups and everything. When I graduated, the University of York had just opened its department of theatre, film and television. I was going to go to York to do medieval studies but when I was looking at applying I came across this new masters programme in sound design and it really tapped into an interest I didn’t previously have, looking at how to combine sound and music with the moving image. I made the choice to specialise in this, which was a bit scary because most of the people on these courses come from a very strong technical background, which I didn’t have. When I started I found I really loved editing and mixing. It was a steep learning curve because I had done very little of that. I had done an internship editing sound for a podcast for medical doctors about all the different ways you can die! It was slightly depressing, but it did give me some basic editing skills, which I’m very grateful for.

[After the masters degree] I spent a year working to fund a PhD in York on theatre acoustics and medieval drama, basically re-creating soundscapes of the past. My masters project had been on accessibility, which I continue doing now as well. A lot of the research I started doing was about the power of sound to convey meaning. After that I got a job at Anglia Ruskin University working with Rob Toulson in what used used to be called the CoDE Research Institute but is now called Story Lab. I worked there as a research fellow for two and a half years, and then I got a lectureship here in York and that’s what I’m doing now.

What was your experience of those courses?

My undergraduate degree was an amazing experience. I really didn’t like school – I was an excellent student, I had good marks, but I hated the subjects and I always felt like a bit of an outsider. So when I entered my undergraduate degree I found a group of people I could connect to and share a passion for music and sound with. It was an eye-opening experience for me to be around people like that and to discover things I never thought I’d be interested in.

How long have you been a lecturer now?

I taught a it when I was a PhD student. I did teaching for about four years, but as a full-time lecturer it’s been two years.

How high is demand for places on your course?

There is a high demand for masters courses in sound. When you finish your undergraduate degree you have a general idea of how to do a job, but it might be that you were on a programme where you learn a little bit about different things but you don’t have time to really specialise in one. We get students from every type of background, but most of the students who do a masters in sound have found a passion within their undergraduate degree and have found that the one module they did wasn’t enough and that they want to take it further.

How diverse is the pool of students on the course?

It varies from year to year. This year I’ve had a very diverse group of students in terms of where they are coming from, so we’ve had a couple of Latin American students, some students from Spain, Portugal, Greece. It is quite diverse. But it varies. Gender-wise it’s much more complicated. We have a minority of female students, sadly, like most of the audio programmes.

I campaign a lot for gender equality. We do try to make sure that when we promote the programmes and the leadership of the programmes that we reflect the diversity of the students we have. That can involve looking at the images you have on the website. You might have a course with a diversity of students but the photos on the website are all of male students or lecturers. It’s about constant self-monitoring. I give very positive messages about inclusion from day one of the course. The students will be working together and I want it to be a positive environment. 

There have been lots of industry diversity initiatives and campaigns over the past year. Is that starting to produce real change?

Things like this take a long time to take effect.. A lot of campaigns that target university students wouldn’t necessarily affect the admissions, because you have already recruited those students. So you need to start really early during school years. There has been a number of encouraging campaigns, but I find that when you are campaigning for something you tend to be around people who think similarly to you. I sometimes wonder how much of the message feeds through to those outside of that circle.

I support the HeForShe campaign a lot, and I get comments from men and women saying, Well you need a man to come and help you out. That’s not at all what it’s about. It’s about making people realise that equality is for everyone. Minorities are used to doing all the campaigning, and the truth is that that’s very time consuming. What happens to those minorities is that their professional work suffers as a consequence. So your male colleagues might be working and publishing wonderful papers etc, while some of the females are spending more and more of their time campaigning. So HeForShe is about sharing the responsibility.

Tell us about your role with AES?

I’ve been involved with the AES for a few years. The AES funded part of my PhD. When I was a student in York I got involved in the AES York student section as a graduate representative. My greatest contribution started when I moved to Cambridge. The AES had a dormant section there, so I got involved and updated the mailing list, started invited people and I had a diversity agenda. That caught the attention of the AES UK section, which operated very differently to how it does now. So regional chairs weren’t part of the committee like they are now. I then caught the attention of the chair and vice chair so when I moved to York I was asked if I’d be interested in taking the vacant vice chair position. I said yes, and I also took on co-chairing of the north of England region. My decision to get involved in these sorts of societies has always been about being in a position to make a difference. It’s important that if you think you can make a positive difference that you take positions where you can do that, and being part of the AES has allowed me to help improve things.

The north of England events schedule is fantastic – we have events every month, we have been able to advertise HeForShe, we’ve had companies sponsor bursaries so we can offer free memberships to female and non-binary applicants. I wouldn’t have been able
to do any of that without being part of a society like the AES. And as a section we’ve been able to influence other regions in the world by saying, This is what we’re doing, how do you feel about doing this yourself?

It’s also about diversity of topics. We need to provide for people with different interests in audio. For many years I would go to audio events and they would always be about DSP. I would sit there as a sound designer thinking, This is boring. I’d go to various conferences and I always seemed to be in the room where the most boring sessions were happening, and then I realised it’s because a lot of those events were covering the same topics. Not that there was anything wrong with those topics, but I wanted to know what else was going on in the world of audio. When we bring speakers in we always think about the topics we haven’t covered. For example, I was asked to organise an event in Manchester and we’re thinking about covering DJing, because we’ve never covered DJing at the AES. That’s tricky for me because I know nothing about DJing! But I know people who can recommend those who do. It sends the right message about the world of audio; it’s not all about programming or room acoustics.

I also don’t think you should only invite people to speak who are at the very top of their game. Everyone wants to invite the person that’s famous or winning loads of awards or has been working for 40 years.

Yes, they are great and we should be using them, but we should also have people at different stages of their career. You could have someone that is starting out but has lots of interesting things to say. There are people out there doing really exciting work who, because they aren’t famous or winning awards all the time, do not get invited to speak. Generally those people engage really well with audiences.

What advice would you give to audio students?

People often think education should be teaching students about the pressure of a career in audio. I think that’s a really bad idea. You should create a positive environment where people feel they can do their best without destroying themselves. It’s still something that needs awareness as a lot of people still work under the premise that you should be able to cope with everything. I tell my students I don’t want them working 24 hours per day. I want you to take breaks and have a life. I’ve done that before and you realise that your harming yourself in the process. I teach Zumba for wellbeing here. Its free, people can take an hour off and do something that’s nothing to do with work. You’re not going to get better results by just working all day.