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Mix Regional Bay Area: Women’s Audio Mission Moves Into Bigger, Better Studio

After spending several years at an 850-square-foot space on Bryant Street in San Francisco’s Mission district, Women’s Audio Mission has moved into new—and much, much improved—digs in the city’s Central Market/SOMA district on Natoma Street. That might sound simple, but the process was anything but. “The biggest challenge obviously was purchasing the property,” says Terri Winston, founder and executive director of WAM. “We had 30 days to raise more than $350,000 to secure this property in pretty much the worst real estate market. It was pretty unprecendented.”

While WAM has moved out of the Mission, its mission remains the same: to aid the advancement of women in music production and the recording arts. What started as a club 12 years ago at City College of San Francisco—where Winston was a tenured professor and director of the Sound Recording Arts Program—has turned into a successful nonprofit and the only professional studio in the world built and entirely run by women. Some of WAM’s credits include multiple projects from Kronos Quartet, work on a Grammy-winning album by Angelique Kidjo, an interview with Salman Rushdie for NPR, work on the soundtrack to the Academy Award-nominated film Dirty Wars, and an NPR top 50 album by Vietnamese composer Van-Anh Vo.

But it’s not easy getting a loan as a nonprofit. They aren’t eligible for small-business loans, and by definition they don’t have collateral or large pools of money in reserves. Getting the loan for the space was, according to Winston, “The most complicated real estate transaction of the century. Our financial history is good. We are small, but we are very fiscally responsible; we’ve never had a deficit. And our reporting is really good. So all of that helped.”

But even before they could get a loan, WAM needed to find a space—a search that began two years ago. “We knew our lease was up, and we hated that space we were in. For two years I was looking for another site, and I couldn’t find anything. We were just going to lease something.

“We would go and look at large spaces where we could do a build out, and a tech company would just walk in and write a check right there on the spot, for twice the amount we offered. We couldn’t compete with that.”

Finally, in July 2014 Winston got a call from the Northern California Community Loan Fund with news that a property just came on the market—the former recording studio SF Soundworks. Winston immediately checked out the property, and she loved it. “The space was going to be turned into offices, so I thought, ‘We have to get this, we have to figure this out.’”

So how does a small nonprofit secure a million-dollar property in the heart of San Francisco? With a little help from friends, of course. 

Winston worked with a special team led by Northern California Community Loan Fund (a nonprofit lender), as well as support from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Community Arts Stabilization Trust, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Walter & Elise Haas Fund, and The Ray and DagmarDolby Family Fund and Dolby Labs (both of which have become advisors to WAM) to secure the new space. At 2,300 square feet, the new studio is nearly triple the space they had on Bryant Street.

And because they are a nonprofit, they had to do an extreme environmental report before they could get the loan. “I was sweating bullets waiting for the report to come back,” Winston says. “Luckily, there’s nothing on this whole entire block that’s bad. No buried gas tanks or anything.”

According to Winston, move in and wiring took about four months to complete. “About 2,500 feet [850 pounds] of donated Belden cable was laid, with 5,600 crimp/solder points. Our biggest issue was detangling and removing an enormous amount of Cat-5 cable that was left behind and was clogging all the audio troughs. We wanted to isolate our data cabling from our mic lines. The infrastructure left behind hadn’t done that.”

While there is still some work to be done, WAM is set up and ready to go in its new home. There’s the main Studio A, which has a new 48-channel, ASP8024 console from Audient; a drum/amp room; a B room; iso booth, Foley pits; and a mic closet and office space. Winston says they plan on combining two current rooms to make one big live/tracking space. Industry supporters have generously outfitted the new studio with the latest gear, including the Audient ASP console, a Pro Tools HDX system with 32 channels of I/O from Avid, a pair of HD-1 High Definition monitors from Meyer Sound, a Bottle mic from Blue Microphones, a pair of C414 mics from AKG, a 531 optical de-esser from XQP, a DT 25 Tube Modeling Amp and JVX-69 Modeling Guitar from Line 6, and Ableton Live licenses with a new Ableton Push controller. WAM also has Barefoot MicroMain 27s, Millennia HV-3R, Great River MP-2NV, A Designs and BAE mic pre’s and microphones from AEA, Mojave, Shure, Earthworks and Shure

WAM currently teaches approximately 300 adults and 650 middle-school students a year, with programs running anywhere from 6 to 18 weeks. Having this new space has been transformative for the nonprofit. “We were able to increase staff by 54 percent, and will be able to serve an additional 300 women and girls every year for a total of 1,200 women and girls every year, which makes a much deeper impact,” Winston says. “It also allows us to fully book studio sessions without impacting our training programs. This will make us much more self-sustaining.” In addition to being a teaching facility, WAM also books sessions just like any other studio.

Classes for adults include Introduction to Audio Production & Recording, Live Sound Reinforcement, and Anatomy of a Mix; classes for kids include the Girls on the Mic program, which is an afterschool and summer program that introduces technology to girls ages 8 to 18 through music production and recording. The adult classes take place at the studio, while interns travel to local schools to conduct the classes for middle school students.

For Girls on the Mic, program coordinator Kelley Coyne starts students out with podcasts, so they can get used to hearing their own voices. “Some kids don’t like being the lead singer, though,” Coyne says. “Some kids love being at the board engineering, and that’s what they want to do.” Winston adds, “They think, ‘I can be part of this cool creative thing doing something else. I don’t have to be the lead singer.’”

“Before I got into sound, I was a teacher,” Coyne says. “It’s exciting for me because I was not aware of the sound engineering career path as a teenager. I loved music, but my best classes were in technology and math. Sound engineering was an obvious fit for me, which I found out later, but I’m really happy I have that experience to share with girls and show them that, with a career in sound engineering, you can have the best of both worlds.”

Teachers have also been very supportive of the program. “They recognize the valuable skills being taught behind our seemingly light activities,” Coyne says. “For one hour a week, we’re teaching science and technology to girls, and they’re having fun and are engaged because it’s taught through performing their favorite songs and making noise with their friends.

“In one of my last classes, I had a student say, ‘Miss Kelley, I should really be an audio engineer because it’s really easy,’” Coyne laughs. “I was like, ‘Yeah, you should!’”

Coyne says she brings the equipment for the different projects every week to the schools. She has a mobile rig with items such as laptops with Pro Tools, 4-track recorders, and small synthesizers.

“I got a card from a class recently, and some of the students had written things like, ‘Thanks for giving me confidence in my music skills.’ It was great,” Coyne says.

Along with Winston and Coyne, WAM employs Development Director Lopa Pal, Development and Communications Associate Noelle Duncan, and staff engineers Laura Dean and Jenny Thornburg, as well as six interns. 

To raise money, Winston says she writes at least 2,000 plus pages of grants a year and spends a lot of her time making connections to get donations for WAM. “There are some pieces [of gear] in here that are mine, but everything other single thing here is a donation,” Winston says. “More than $200,000 worth of gear has been donated by manufacturers.”

WAM is currently in the middle of a $2 million campaign to help raise funds to completely pay off the studio space. “We are about a third of the way toward our goal,” Winston says.