Women in Audio: An interview with Ari, Brizi, Chelsea, Erica, and Ying
Senior User Experience Designer
Audio Characterization Engineer, Hardware Development ＆ Operations team
In 2019, Sonos Soundboard advisor Emily Lazar became the first female mastering engineer in history to win a Grammy for album engineering in the non-classical category. Women are hugely underrepresented in the industry—they make up only 7% of the members of the Audio Engineering Society, an international professional organization for audio engineers—but talented women have been producing music for decades.
The Women@Sonos employee resource group interviewed five women whose passion for audio has shaped their journey so far. No matter how you identify, if you’ve been thinking about nurturing an interest in audio, whether professionally, or as a fun new hobby (your musician friends need you!), take a few minutes to learn from these fascinating women who are happy to answer your questions, and help you get started!
What is your focus at Sonos today?
Brizi Coetzer: Most of my day to day is acoustic modeling in a software package called COMSOL. My background is in room acoustics - so I’m mainly interested in how acoustic transducers interact with the environment around them. Understanding how the room interacts with the product helps us to predict what users are likely to experience so we can refine the design before we actually build the product.
Erica Marano: I run Beta tests, mostly on the app. I work pretty closely with the software teams responsible for the Sonos app. I'm deploying software to groups of about 500 testers at a time, getting them bang on it and break it, and then I report back to fix it before things go to GA (General Availability)!
Ying Chen: I work on the Audio Processing team which designs and tests the Digital Sound Processing (DSP) algorithms that make Sonos speakers sound great, so I do a lot of QA (Quality Assurance) work, primarily for software features— everything from new filters, mic processing, all of the DSP blocks, line in, all of the decoders for all of the formats, and all of the automation tests. It’s a lot of stuff!
Ari Lacenski: I just joined Sonos recently, and I’m working on the Playback Control team. For the last month I’ve just been getting familiar with the app and how it’s built. I mostly work in Kotlin and Java and I’m hoping to get a little bit into iOS and C++.
Chelsea Weiss: My functional area is stress-testing and manually verifying the software that works with the hardware. The industry calls it ‘embedded’ firmware. This can range from Linux modules to some user-facing functions like capacitive touch sensors on the tops of the physical speakers.
How did you get started in audio?
Brizi Coetzer: I grew up in South Africa, and I was very fortunate to have some really influential teachers throughout my life. I spent crazy hours at the music department and tried to play as many instruments as the school would let me. I couldn’t get enough of it! In Grade 12 I had to decide what I wanted to study and all I wanted to do was film scoring. I emailed a professor asking "how do I get into film scoring?" and he connected me to a film scorer in LA, who told me "Don’t do it. You’ll never make it. You have to be in the top 0.01% or you’ll end up on the street." He totally threw me off! Instead, I decided to do engineering. A couple of years into my first job an old professor contacted me to say he was developing a Masters program in Music Technology, the first in the country, and he wanted me to be his first student. I jumped at the opportunity to finally combine engineering and music. My final project was to record, produce, mix, and master a commercially available album. I lucked out in finding a coworker that was looking for a recording engineer for his album. Turns out he was a cantor in a Jewish Temple who had partnered with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra to write scores to all the cantorial chants and they just needed someone to record, mix and master it. Having to produce something of that calibre required really long hours in the studio, and mixing late into the night. I loved it though, and I learned so much!
Erica Marano: As with many of us, I was involved with music from when I was very young. I was a punk kid with all my friends who were in garage bands growing up and I always wanted to be a part of it. I tried to play the drums, I tried to play guitar, and I was just terrible—I could not hang. I kind of got into audio accidentally because of an elective I took in high school. When I was away at summer camp, I was booted out of the class I wanted to take, so my mom had to pick something for me. She picked music technology and I was pissed! I thought it would be terrible. Then I ended up taking it two additional times after that. I would record my friends' bands after school, then work on mix during class. I clearly fell in love with it at that point and ended up going to college for music and sound recording. I got super into the culture of being in a recording studio with a band. After college, I would pop in and out of my friends' recording studios and lend a hand here and there, but I realized pretty quickly that living that life as an audio engineer in recording studios was not going to happen like I had imagined it. You had to get extremely lucky and be willing to give up your entire life to be able to be a successful audio engineer in that field, and I was just not super willing to do that. So, that’s how I ended up finding Sonos.
Ying Chen: I play piano and clarinet and dabble in other instruments—that was kind of my musical intro in life. I grew up in New York City and there’s this interesting music program for children called Music Memory. You’re required to learn a bunch of classical music from different eras. Then they gather everyone in Lincoln Center and play three-second segments of pieces and you’re supposed to be able to identify them. My family immigrated to this country when I was very young and I didn’t speak English. I actually learned to speak English primarily through hip hop and rap music. In college, the only non-male professor I had, and probably the most impactful one I had, was my DSP (digital signal processing) professor. I didn’t know what I wanted to study within electrical engineering and I had this amazing DSP professor. I loved that class so much that I took every class in the department.
Ari Lacenski: I have the good fortune to be the daughter of an electrical engineer. Dad’s hobby was speaker building. I have this formative memory in his workshop; he built a simple speaker circuit and showed me how to use an oscilloscope to measure the sine wave that the speaker was producing, and that memory's just lodged in my head. I play hand drums and guitar. I’ve struggled a lot with feelings of perfectionism and obligation in my life. I think I’ve gone towards music-making and music recording as ways of dealing with feelings of being lost or uncertain in what I want to do next. I’m working on a project now with my partner. He had a bunch of songs that he had written and not recorded, and at that time I didn’t know anything about GarageBand, but I thought, I can probably learn, I bet that’s something we can do together. He’s standing holding his guitar and singing, and I’ve contributed my Blue snowball microphone and computer. That’s my current project. It’s really changed all my previous beliefs about how to record and why to record.
Chelsea Weiss: My mom was the singer in a band before I was born. As a young child, I had wondered how they got music from the stage to the radio. Well, since then, music has been my sort of "north star" and frankly, I was never certain where that would take me, but I had a feeling it would take me somewhere great. In college I was lucky to have professors who worked in the music industry either at one time in their career, or their contract mandated it while they taught. Because of networking, I was able to land my first "big girl job" right out of college in Boston working as a news/broadcast audio engineer and "go-fer". It’s a long story and I’d love to tell it in more detail someday, but ultimately it has been a weird meandering series of events surrounded by this unwavering obsession with sound. (Ask anyone close to me, they’ll agree it’s an obsession.)
It can be challenging to be in the minority in a STEM field. What were your strategies to push through that?
Brizi Coetzer: Initially in my career I struggled with the age gap between myself and those supervising me. It was as if they had no idea how to talk to a young engineer, let alone a female one. So they just left me alone. As such it was more of a challenge to get people to take me seriously. My name also isn't clearly male or female, so I'd often be referred to as Sir, Mister or He over email. I guess the general assumption was that engineers were male! At one stage, I left the engineering field for a few years and worked in an environment where women were more evenly represented and it did wonders for my confidence. When I went back to engineering (this time in an area of interest that I was passionate about, Acoustics) I tried to bring that sense of confidence and positive outlook with me. I realised how important it is to be both self-confident and passionate about what you’re doing when you’re working in a minority space where your advocates may be few!
Erica Marano: Being the only female, and one of the few underclassmen who participated in extracurriculars, definitely singled me out. When I attended my first Audio Engineering Society meeting, one of the guys literally said out loud, "Is that a girl? Are you lost?" which began my short saga of being talked down to by men a few years older than myself. What allowed me to ultimately push through was self confidence and not holding back when providing "feedback" on how I expected to be treated.
Ying Chen: I think the most difficult challenge is finding "my voice". Finding the confidence to speak up in regards to having an opinion, voicing concerns, and simply having a respected voice at the table. My strategy is just to channel another persona in those situations and that in itself is calming. Sometimes you just need to find an isolated corner to scream extremely positive, explicit, reaffirming statements.
Ari Lacenski: I can think of two times when I was in the room and asked a question and some guy ridiculed me, essentially, for admitting that I didn't know something. I have also been sexually harassed at work in a previous role at another company. My manager handled it in a way that was professional and supportive of me. Even with his support, those experiences were unnerving and they probably did dissuade me from leaning further into what I was doing at the time. "Ask questions" and "don't give up" are good guideposts, but I'm going to add that if you do experience detraction or harassment, take some time to fully take in how it affected you. When you've done that, try to remember that your interest is real and worthwhile, and move towards a more supportive workplace or creative scene.
Chelsea Weiss: Studying, I knew I was in the minority the first day I walked into class. I was once told "I’d never make it in the industry because I was bossy and lacked diplomacy" and that other students thought I was bossy. Professionally, it was a challenge to convince others I had a place in the industry. I stopped working in broadcast audio because of a production manager who questioned everything I did on every production, but never did it to the other (male) engineers who worked there. Although it was never said out loud, the tension was often felt. Ignoring the issue doesn’t change it, and it takes some level of confidence to know you have a place exactly where you are. (And trust me, you do!) By the way, that professor? I took his words as a challenge. Guess I got the last laugh.
What advice do you have for someone just starting out?
Brizi Coetzer: Believe in yourself! Everybody knows nothing at the start, but if you tell yourself that others know more than you, or are better than you, you’ll cripple your own efforts. If you believe you’re doing the best you can, and your offering is as unique as you are, then the barrier to start is removed. Get out there, meet people, ask questions and dont be afraid to fail. I think brain training can make a huge difference to overcoming mental hurdles women in STEM often face. Two books I'd recommend are "The Perfect You" or "Switch On Your Brain" by Dr. Caroline Leaf. Never stop exploring what you’re passionate about!
Erica Marano: I find that starting in audio is like trying to drink from a fire hydrant, so I recommend sticking to a few trusted publications or forums. I loved reading TapeOp magazine, because their articles go into creative ways to record, which was much more interesting to me than memorizing industry standards.
Ying Chen: There are infinite ways to get started. It depends on what your interests in audio encompass, but a good place to start is to just ask questions. People are your best resources, although I acknowledge that not everyone has access to such individuals. I would just open GarageBand/the audio recorder on your phone and start recording. If you’re more interested in processing and math, I'd start with reading, then move into doing a personal project. "Discrete-time Signal Processing Book" by Alan V. Oppenheim and Ronald W. Schafer is a pretty great introductory book to DSP.
Ari Lacenski: It’s frustrating to start making clips only to lose track of them. I recommend finding a level of organization that works for you. For me, I use Google Drive and I move clips that I want to use to a synced folder. This is easy with Google Drive or iCloud. I know someone who uses Evernote. For GarageBand projects, I work on an external hard drive where I can keep both old versions and the latest one. Whichever phone or computer you use, take the time to make your creative notes easy to find later.
Chelsea Weiss: First, don't let anyone convince you that you don’t belong. This is hugely important. Second, it’s important to know that you don’t need to be a musical prodigy to get into audio. To get started, you can search for forums on social media, find classes, etc. One of my favorite online forums is Hey Audio Student on Facebook. It is a great way to network, learn, and ask for advice from engineers from all over the world, with varying degrees of expertise and opinions. I also want to include an organization that has incredible resources from women in audio: Women’s Audio Mission. And finally, you don't need industry-standard anything to start. Getting a copy of some free or inexpensive software is easy today, and there are lots of options. (A quick Google search and I found this: 10 Best Free Music Recording Software - 2020.) Give yourself the opportunity to learn first, and be patient with the process. No one is an expert overnight. Oh! I do want to suggest one of my favorite books Zen and the Art of Mixing, which has a philosophical and theoretical approach to what it is to mix and record.
Are you interested in supporting women in audio?