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International Women's Day: Pioneering forces in music technology

Honoring women’s outstanding achievements in electronic music and working towards a more inclusive future.

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For International Women’s Day this year, the theme is to inspire inclusion. It’s no secret that there is a significant lack of representation for women and non-binary artists within music technology, with women making up just 5% to 7% of audio engineers and producers.

With such disparity, it makes it all the more important to highlight the trailblazers who helped to introduce new musical innovations, and we’ll take a look at the continued efforts being made by women in the music tech industry to make its future more inclusive.

Wendy Carlos

Wendy Carlos stands as a pivotal figure in the realm of electronic production. Her universally-acclaimed album, "Switched-On Bach'', brought classical compositions to the Moog synthesizer, an instrument she played a key part in developing. The album earned three Grammy awards, making Carlos the first transgender woman to win the award in 1970.

Due in no small part to Carlos’ work, the Moog went on to become one of the most influential new instruments in popular music, used by many artists from The Beatles to Donna Summer on the smash hit “I Feel Love'' in 1977. Her creative range also extended to film scoring, including Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining”, and science fiction adventure film “Tron”.

Wendy Carlos and synthesizers in 1989

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire etched her name in music history through her compositions at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Derbyshire's magnum opus, the original theme for "Doctor Who", stands as a testament to her unparalleled ingenuity in manipulating sounds for television and film.

Cited as inspiring artists like Aphex Twin, Chemical Brothers, and Orbital, her pioneering spirit and experimental ethos not only shaped the sonic landscape of television but also inspired new generations of artists to push the boundaries of composing and creating.

How Delia Derbyshire made the Doctor Who theme

Yoko Shimomura

Japanese video game composer Yoko Shimomura is well-known for her memorable work on the Kingdom Hearts series, Mario & Luigi RPG series, Mana series, and Final Fantasy XV.

Starting at Capcom working on titles including Street Fighter II and moving to Square Enix composing soundtracks to great acclaim, Shimomura developed a distinctive style. Her combination of numerous genres from classical to oriental and industrial, resulted in sonic storytelling that heightened the experience of adventure in gameplay. She currently works as a freelancer, but her legacy goes beyond the games console, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra performing her compositions for Final Fantasy XV at Abbey Road Studios.

Final Fantasy XV performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Pauline Oliveros

American composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros was part of the burgeoning scene of creatives in 1950s San Francisco, where she challenged public perception of music-making and listening with a focus on improvisation, mediation, myth, and ritual in performance and creation.

In 1989, Oliveros coined the term “Deep Listening” and released an album with the same name, highlighting the importance of staying deeply attuned to the nuances and expressiveness of sound. She also founded the Deep Listening Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting the practice of deep listening and exploring the sonic environment.

Suzanne Ciani

Known as “Diva of the Diode'', Suzanne Ciani emerged as a talented composer in the 1970s and 1980s, and is revered for her mastery of the Buchla synthesizer and visionary compositions. Ciani contributed many productions to commercials for brands including the distinctive sound of a bottle of Coca-Cola being opened and poured throughout commercials in the 1970s.

Ciani’s work saw her nominated for Best New Age album at the Grammy awards five times, and in May 2017, Ciani became the first woman to receive a Moog Music Innovation Award at the annual electronic festival Moogfest. She continues to inspire as she performs and tours her work today.

Suzanne Ciani: a masterclass in modular synthesis

Laurie Spiegel

Laurie Spiegel began her pioneering work with early digital synthesizers and computer music systems. A key figure at Bell Laboratories during the 1970s, she developed innovative software such as “Music Mouse – An Intelligent Instrument'', which allowed composers to generate complex compositions using algorithms and interactive interfaces – a function familiar in DAWs today.

This democratized access to sophisticated music-making tools for creators of all backgrounds to explore new sounds. Her seminal work, "The Expanding Universe", released in 1980, showcases her mastery of synthesis and her ability to craft intricate, meditative, and introspective soundscapes.

Finding community for future pioneers

While these are only scratching the surface of the inspiring talents in the industry, there are countless modern initiatives working to level the playing field for women and non-binary individuals within the contemporary music tech landscape and invite more aspiring innovators to pursue a career in the field.

Organizations such as UK-based Saffron Music have long been committed to addressing the gender imbalance within the industry, noting that only 5% of the industry is occupied by women, non-binary and trans people. This statistic underscores the urgent need for initiatives aimed at promoting diversity and inclusivity in the field. Saffron works by providing a space and platform for these underrepresented creators to gain access to production technology, as well as amplifying the voices of marginalized communities through mentoring, talks, and workshops.

In the US, San Francisco-based non-profit organization Women’s Audio Mission (WAM) is dedicated to advancing the achievements of women and gender non-conforming individuals in music technology and digital media production. WAM works towards changing the drastic underrepresentation of women and gender non-conforming individuals, encouraging thousands of women and girls to pursue creative technology studies and careers.

With many of these organizations strongly holding the belief that women’s contributions to creative technology positively expands creative media and should be acknowledged and conveyed in popular culture, we should always be striving to celebrate the work of the pioneers in music and technology, not just today, but every day.

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