For International Women’s Day we talked to five women engineers working in the synthesizer industry about the challenges they face and what keeps them going. This time, we speak with Paula Maddox of Dove Audio.
No matter which way you cut it, engineering is a male-dominated field. This also includes the musical instrument industry. On average, the percentage of women working in engineering fields is below 20%. While this amount has promisingly increased over time, it still remains low in comparison to men.
However, numbers don’t really tell stories, people do. What is it really like for women working in the hardware synthesizer industry, a traditionally male-dominated field? For this year’s International Women’s Day, we talked to five women who design and engineer synthesizers – both traditional and modular – to hear their stories.
This time, we’re speaking with Paula Maddox. Co-founder of Modal Electronics, owner and designer at Dove Audio, and electronics engineer at Space Forge. This is a woman with a long and varied history in engineering, both inside the synthesizer industry and out.
The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Attack Magazine: What is it that you like about synthesizers?
Paula Maddox: As a child, I loved understanding how things worked and got into electronics at an early age (10). In the ‘80s when I was growing up every popular band had synthesizers, so getting into designing them was a way of combining my love of electronics and my love of music.
How did you get started working with synthesizers?
It grew from a passion. I remember making a simple sawtooth oscillator on my kitchen side and being ecstatic about it working. From there I built myself a very simple modular, a simple VCF, VCA, etc., and got in touch with a few people from a mailing list called Synth DIY.
Back in 1999, I chatted with some friends on the mailing list and we all met up, and that became Synth DIY UK. While I don’t organize the event any longer I’m still there every year.
What do you do at your job?
My day job is lead electronics engineer for Space Forge, making returnable, reusable satellites for manufacturing in space. My weekend job was running Dove Audio, where I designed the electronics, hardware and software for my modules.
What is it you like about your job?
My day job is really interesting. I’m always learning and as an engineer, I love learning. Plus, I mean, it’s space, it’s sexy.
Is there anything you don’t like?
There are no synthesizers in my day job. It would be awesome to somehow actually get a synthesizer into space but I don’t think that’s possible.
I do miss creating synthesizers, but with the chip shortages and economy tanking (and other businesses also closing shop sadly) I don’t think it’s viable right now, but who knows what may come in the next 12 months?
[quote align=right text=”In established companies run and/or owned by older white cisgender males…women are seen as inferior to men when it comes to any engineering discipline and electronics and synthesizers are sadly no exception to this.”]
Would you say that the synthesizer industry is a generally accepting place for women?
That depends. The musician side of it, very much so. The business side of it, sadly no. It’s very much an old boys club at the moment, though I am seeing some small changes happening, albeit slowly.
Have you ever encountered chauvinism in your industry?
Yes, women are seen as inferior to men when it comes to any engineering discipline and electronics and synthesizers are sadly no exception to this. This is really only in established companies run and/or owned by older white cisgender males. The younger companies I’ve worked with over the last few years have all been great and really accepting.
[quote align=right text=”Just because someone says “you can’t do that” that doesn’t mean you can’t, it just means they don’t understand or are too narrow-minded.”]
A lot of the women we’re talking to work in the modular synthesizer industry rather than the traditional synth one. Why do you think this is? What was the attraction for you?
Building a poly synth or something of that complexity takes time and money, and sadly investors rarely invest in female-owned and run businesses. Again, it comes down to the old, outdated belief that women can’t hack it, or that they’ll fall in love and want to stay at home and look after the children.
I think if more investors and more businessmen were willing to get past the misogyny and sexism then we’d see more women making big synths and other audio tools.
What interests me in modular? Many things, I’ve always liked old-school Tangerine Dream/Berlin-style music and the sounds you can create. I love the flexibility of a modular system. There is nothing that rivals it.
I also like that I can choose which parts to develop, i.e. I can make three or four different oscillator types and sell those without needing to design a whole poly synth and all the complexities that go with it.
What advice would you give to young women who want to do what you do?
Just because someone says “you can’t do that” that doesn’t mean you can’t, it just means they don’t understand or are too narrow-minded. I was told I had no musical talent at school, yet I’ve been in 10 bands, had two minor record deals and owned a synthesizer company.
I think I proved to them that my passion for music can overcome their lack of vision. Also, believe in yourself, and follow your heart and your passion. When you are passionate about something you shine and so does whatever you are making, selling or doing.
Find Modal Electronics online.
Visit Dove Audio’s website to learn more about the products and stay up to day with when they might return.
Read our other features for IWD. Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3.
Subscribe to Attack to read Part 5 with…
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