Friday, March 10, 2017

31 Women in Audio: Erica Brenner

Mix Messiah Productions presents: 31 Women in Audio, a series celebrating Women's History Month.

Day 10: Erica Brenner

Today, we speak with Erica Brenner, a classical music producer formerly of Telarc who now runs her own production company, Erica Brenner Productions

Leslie Gaston-Bird: What childhood experiences do you think led you to a love for the field of audio?
Erica Brenner: My mom was a music major, a pianist and a vocalist, and we had classical music on 24 hours a day. I took great pride knowing classical music when I was young. There’s a piece by P.D.Q Bach called the “The Unbegun Symphony” (a parody of Haydn’s "Farewell Symphony") which cobbled together a lot of classical works. Only one of my other friends and I could name all the pieces that were in there – a source of great pride! So I was basically immersed in music growing up.

Later I became a music major. I was a flutist, and I came out to Cleveland and got a job in the Canton Symphony Orchestra. While I was here I met Elaine Martone, who was the director of production at Telarc Records who also played in the CSO. She asked me if I would ever be interested in editing for their record label. I hadn’t thought of the audio industry in any way, shape, or form until that moment. I trained on the job; I didn’t get any real schooling in audio at all. She wanted a classical musician to edit their CDs because she knew a classical musician would understand phrasing. In fact, I was given a lot of freedom to make edit decisions.

LG: Let’s talk about how your role evolved at Telarc.
EB: I was trained almost completely at Telarc. I was the recording work study student while I was a grad student at Yale and did a small amount of razor-blade editing, but otherwise, learned to edit at Telarc on a Sony 3000 digital editor. As I got proficient at editing, I was asked to start producing. In addition to producing, I became the Director of Audio Production, overseeing the scheduling of all audio post-production toward getting the final master to the manufacturer. In the “wheel of production” which involved graphics, the CD booklet notes, audio, visual conception, I took care of making sure “audio spoke” of that wheel delivered on deadline. There were 6 of us working in the audio department, in addition to owners Bob Woods and Jack Renner (the original producer/engineer team at Telarc), and Elaine, who became Exec. VP of Production and oversaw the entire production department. A very well-oiled machine. And then the record industry — as we all know! (laughs) — took a turn, and Telarc was sold to Concord music group. After Telarc was sold, they decided that the production department was no longer needed. So everyone got booted. Now Telarc still releases maybe 3-4 CDs a year, but in our hey day it was 3-4 or more per month!

A few of the guys formed their own company; Elaine and Bob formed their own company; and I formed my own company. And what ended up happening is that we still work together. I am not an audio engineer, I’m a producer, so when someone says they need a recording, I coordinate studio rates, plan schedules and logistics like piano tuning, etc. and manage the session from beginning to end working everybody through the recording process itself, following the score and making sure everything is covered. But I always rely on an engineer to bring the audio expertise. It’s a very collaborative process between engineer, musicians, and myself. I usually prefer to edit my own projects. A lot of producers don’t but I love it. That’s where I started, I have most control over the project, and I can work so closely with musicians to get what they want.

Even though many of us still work together as a team on session, we are now separate business owners and that is a huge difference! Now, I have to do everything: I am my own accountant, my own marketer, my own business analyst. It was quite luxurious at Telarc (at least from my “employee” status at the time) to have so many “departments” that handled everything! I think everybody should have to own their own business coming out of college for a couple of years, whether you are a musician or a doctor, or baker, or anything, just to understand what is needed to do it. I wish I knew then what I know now about being in business. Relationships are huge. And really proactive communication. Communication has been transformed drastically with social media; it’s crucial that people understand the value of proactive communication and keeping relationships committed.

When you find someone who you work well with it makes the process very streamlined. You can talk to someone and push back a little bit. And having the benefit of a partnership was something I valued. I didn’t realize how much I valued it until I lost my working partner, Tom Knab, who recently passed away. Or like Jack Renner and Bob Wood (owners of Telarc): as a producer/engineer team they were masterful. And that’s how I was trained.

LG: What questions do you dislike being asked related to women in audio?
EB: I think this has to do with women in the workplace, not just working in audio, but when I first started going out on sessions I was in my early 30s. I’ve always looked a little younger than I am and I have always been mortified by how many people — even women — would ask me how old I was. We would be having meetings and people would ask, “how old are you? Like, “Do you have any experience?” And I thought, “Would you ask a man this question”? I think [Bob] produced his first album when he was 27 or 28 and I doubt anyone ever asked him how old he was. I would like for all women, when they walk into a room, to be given the same benefit of the doubt as a man would be: that they can handle the task in front of them. That was the experience that I wasn’t very comfortable with.

However, I felt like I worked at a company that valued everyone’s contribution equally. Telarc was a progressive company from that standpoint. Sometimes I'm asked what’s it like to work with so many men. I don’t think I have ever worked with a woman engineer. All the engineers I’ve worked with are men, but I am not directing men, I am directing the product. I have always tried to keep gender out of it.

I feel lucky to work with the engineers that I have. It’s all about the music. It’s about what the artist wants to say. It’s not about me. I try to tell artists that they might hear me over the talkback telling them that things are out of tune, or not quite right, but just know that every time I hear something my thought is, “would the artist like what just happened”? If the answer is “no”, then I have them do it over.

LG: What questions would you prefer to be asked related to women in audio?
EB: For me, any time there’s the ability to have diverse points of view and different voices and perspectives, it is good. I guess I’d say having women and what I consider to be their relatable, empathetic point of view with artists can be a very positive thing in the recording environment. I think my approach, and other women I’ve seen produce, have a certain nurturing style with artists, although it’s not completely gender specific, because Tom Knab exhibited that, so it’s not that men don’t have these quality, but I would say that having different voices is always beneficial. And recording sessions are stressful because they can be very intense.

LG: What female role models do you have, fictional or real?
EB: Well, my mom’s passion and complete immersion in music has always inspired me; Elaine Martone learned how to be a leader among men and she is extremely bright and smart and passionate and committed to what she does. And she has just been somebody who’s always been a role model, and a great friend. And I am always in awe of the strength of Michelle Obama, “When they go low, we go high”!

LG: What upcoming projects are you excited about?
EB: I have been incorporating a lot of video work in my services. In order to pay the bills, you must diversify! I am excited about Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion performed by Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra in Cleveland. It’s a 2 CD set that just came out this week. It’s beautifully recorded by Tom Knab and it’s an amazing performance. I’m extremely proud to say that Tom and I worked on it as our last project together.
You can learn more about Erica Brenner at

-Leslie Gaston-Bird
Owner, Mix Messiah Productions, LLC