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’95 percent of recording engineers are male’: Start Together Studios starts programme for women and nonbinary in music

Studio owner Rocky O’Reilly tells PSNEurope about the facility and what sparked the new initiative

Belfast-based Start Together Studios recently launched a new programme of workshops and masterclasses for female and nonbinary musicians and engineers to gain skill-training and hands-on recording experience in a professional studio environment. Here, studio owner Rocky O’Reilly tells PSNEurope about the history of the facility and what lead to the launch of its new initiative…

Belfast is my home city. It has a past. I reached adulthood a few years into the peace process. Smiles beamed at me from the news on television. Politicians held hands and lifted them high together. Right then anyone could be anyone and do anything they wished. Time has proven this to be true in principle, yet sometimes lacking in reality. My obsession with music took me from being a ill-fitting teenager in a small, backwards village on the edge of town, to a room full of music lovers in the city’s famous Ulster Hall. From there to festivals and tours across Europe. Next over to bars, clubs, theatres and studios all over the USA. The doors that music has opened and the people it’s introduced me to continue to amaze me every day.

I returned to Belfast in 2007 to record my band’s second album. I was full of enthusiasm. This was my home city. This time I wanted to make a difference. I needed my own sanctuary, a bubble in which to feel free to experiment as a musician and a producer.

Soon after I completed the album, I opened a studio to the world called Start Together. The aim was to be a creatively encouraging, musician-led wonderland of sonic possibilities. We would be free from rules and elitist attitudes that all too often had overshadowed studio experiences for our peers at that time.

Today, my hideaway has become a three studio commercial facility. It offers musicians and producers unique sounding spaces filled with instruments, amplifiers, FX and an ever-growing collection of recording equipment. We have served more than a thousand projects with artists from all over the world.

As the studio progressed and evolved it was incredibly important to me to engage with the community surrounding us. We collaborated with local council on some youth workshops, writing and producing a song with young people from Belfast who could occasionally be found hurling stones across the road at each other.

The song was called Making Changes. It really summed up everything about the kids’ attitude, drive and ambition. This was also true for us at the studio.

From there we widened our workshops, focusing our energy at different times on under 18s, the long term unemployed, metal music, hip hop and urban, disability-action, the elderly and many others groups throughout our 12 years so far. The projects were the hard work of many amazing organisations, using our facilities and skills to inspire and encourage people that music and audio can make the world a better place and that positive action can be the first step to changing a situation that feels unfulfilling or unfair.

This year we feel excited to offer a workshop for another group of our peers that we feel we can help to encourage, inspire and mobilise: female and non-binary engineers and producers.

Last year, I was introduced to Sophie Arscott. She became our studio manager, event planner and community project coordinator. We discussed the attitudes towards women in the music and recording industries. She experienced first hand the outdated yet still present attitude of a number of artists, engineers, managers and promoters.

Anyone who believes they haven’t witnessed sexism and misogyny in the recording industry is either blissfully unaware or lying to themselves. It’s rife, it’s ugly and it’s really unnecessary.

There’s little good in retelling the countless incidents of unfair, rude, ignorant treating and bullying I’ve witnessed while working in music. For me, it’s much more constructive to positively engage with those who have been treated badly.

We’ve had many conversations with artists and friends who have expressed desires to learn more about recording techniques and music production, but feel collective experiences in courses or studio environments have found themselves pushed to the back of the group, spoken over or ignored.

This year, we as a studio are collaborating with Help Musicians NI and Women in Music to deliver a programme training female and non-binary participants the basics of studio recording with active, hands-on experience in producing and mixing music. As with every project the aim is to bring together a collective of people with a similar goal and help them to achieve their aims and to evolve as a confident, excited group.

I often read that 95 percent of recording engineers are male. I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that in 12 years of running a studio every engineer has been male, three out of 300 work experience students have been female or non-binary. Some of the attitudes we’ve heard in the control room have shocked and saddened us.

With a total of over 900 bookable studio days per year, we feel that 10 days is a tiny offering to help focus a group of talented, ambitious people to hopefully help them start to achieve some of their audio dreams. While there have been some outraged middle-aged men on recording forums hammering their keyboards to death in the self-righteous crusade of pointing out the sexism or the “PC world gone mad”, we will be here in Belfast in a studio full of excited, adventurous audio fans all creating new art.