Ebonie Smith
Engineer Portraits
Ebonie Smith is an award-winning music producer, audio engineer, and singer-songwriter based in New York City. Currently working as an audio engineer for Atlantic Records, she also is the founder and president of Gender Amplified, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides a community and opportunities to women and non-binary people in music production. Her producer credits span a wide range and include the Hamilton soundtrack, Sturgill Simpson, Janelle Monae, and more.

What first sparked your interest in producing?

I took piano lessons and voice lessons as a kid but I knew I didn't want to sing or be an instrumentalist, even though I did eventually develop those skills as well. I played basketball all through grade school and high school and when I finally got to college I started to explore different classes and different student groups and one particular student group had a remix contest. This student group was called CU records, and I wanted to get involved with them because something about playing all the instruments and getting an opportunity to compose all the elements in a track, something about that inspired me and excited me.

I didn’t know anything about how to do a remix, but when I was a sophomore in high school I signed up for this contest and I was the only girl for this producer remix contest and at that time I hadn’t opened GarageBand or anything, but I knew it did something musical.

So the remix contest was the motivation that I needed to get into that program and try to figure it out and, once I figured out what it did, I didn't sleep after that. I didn't eat after that. I knew that I wanted to find a way to continue to use computers to make tracks and compose and create original ideas and that was the beginning of everything.

I was probably about 18 years old, and after that, I was just off to the races, and I knew that I wanted to be a music producer. I started to acquire as much knowledge through my coursework and also through reading magazines and doing internships as I possibly could about the craft.

What inspired you to start Gender Amplified?

The great thing about Gender Amplified is it started off as a music production senior thesis project. My senior thesis was called Gendered Amplify Women in Technological Innovation in Hip Hop. At the time I was interested in Hip Hop production and was very inspired by the producers working in that field, and I teamed up with Tachelle Wilkes who founded an organization called Femmixx.com. She did lots of profiles on women producers and she spearheaded, directed, and produced a documentary called Lady Beat MakersVol. 1.

I initially wanted to interview Tachelle and some of the women in her collective for my thesis paper which was a hundred page paper that I needed to write to graduate. At Barnard College at Columbia University, they give you a year, and the point of the thesis is to do a full out research project on some subject matter that pertains to your major. I was an Africana studies major, and I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to merge what I had been studying in terms of ethnography, ethnicity, and culture and merge that with what I had become increasingly fascinated with which was music production, making beats, and producing records.

So that was the beginning of everything.

Regarding my interest in women in hip-hop, now we have to go back Tachelle. After we talked a little bit about my thesis and what I was trying to do. She encouraged me to do a conference and I was like OK what would this conference entail? She said you could do panels and workshops and bring some of these women producers to campus to talk about their experiences. Once again this was in 2006. I went to my college advisor Kim Hall, at the time and I wrote up a very quick proposal. I think it was two pages and I said look I am working with this organization called Femmix, and they think we should do this conference. I've drafted a proposal of what it could be and what it could look like. Kim was just so inspired by it and thought it was innovative and came on board to help me to produce it. So while I was working on my thesis which was due in the fall, I was also working on this conference all year pulling together all the activists, speakers, reaching out to deejays and producers.

We did a screening of Lady Beat MakersVol.1. We had Tricia Rose, a foremost authority on hip-hop and culture who wrote an incredible book called Black Noise that influenced my thesis. She came and gave the keynote. We had a panel of women producers; Spinderella from Salt and Pepper came and talked about deejaying and music technology from the perspective of D.J. as producer. 

So that was 2007. It was a year-long process from 2006 to 2007, and after I did the conference the energy was just so inspiring and so dynamic, I knew that I had stumbled across something unique and special. I wanted to continue to do similar events, to serve a community of women producers who so needed each other and needed to communicate and know about one another but also to educate the larger public. I felt very encouraged by my ability even to educate my professors. They were very very surprised about the complexity of this world of women producers that they didn't know anything about.

Interestingly enough last week I met with Kim Hall, my thesis advisor, and this was a real full circle moment. She told me that the Barnard campus is constructing a new building and she lobbied for a recording studio in the school, and she said it's because of the work that we've been doing all these years at Gender Amplified. She said she knew it was such an important thing to have a music studio on campus for our student body which is all female and how that space could serve as a teaching space not just in terms of music production but concerning gender and women's studies.

Gender Amplified still has a lot of work to do not only for women producers but also in terms of educating the larger population about the complexities of gender music production and women's equity in male-dominated spaces, in particular, the audio spaces and the technology spaces.

You’ve worked with so many different genres, do you have a favorite one to produce?

I don't have a favorite genre because good music is good music. I've been very fortunate to work with some incredible artists across genres and what I am more impressed with and excited about is working with artists who are serious about what they do. It's incredible working with artists who are very serious and who have taken their craft and run with it and gotten it is great as they possibly can.

One of my favorite artists that I ever worked with at Atlantic was a young man named Firekid. He's not on the label anymore, but he is a bluegrass artist. We hit it off, and part of why we hit it off was because he is such a dynamic and incredible player and we are both based down in the south. He's from Alabama, and I am from Tennessee, and so we were able to bond over southern roots and southern music. Gospel, Country, and Bluegrass the first trifecta of southern music. That music really, to me is all the same in a lot of ways. Just different in terms of interpretation but a lot of the musicality and a lot of the ideas in the music are very similar songwriting.

So for me working with great artists is its own reward. I don't really care what genre they are assigned to, and the truth is great artists can work across genres. I've done some great hip-hop stuff. Sturgill Simpson was a treat, he's unbelievable. Working with Lin Manuel is amazing and the team of people he works with. Alex Lacamoire who is a genius. Alex composed and produced all the music for Hamilton the musical. He's literally a genius. It is unbelievable watching him work. All the incredible engineers that I've gotten an opportunity to rest at their feet and watch them do what they do. Kelly Clarkson, she's incredible, she can do any kind of music, soul, gospel, pop. She can do everything. Jason Mraz is the sweetest human being but also he can do anything. I can listen to him, just play on his guitar and he's just as good as the record.

So working with artists who are serious about their craft is the thing that I'm really into, genre you know I'm not that attached.

Who’s your dream artist to work with?

Whitney Houston hands down. Now, the question didn’t say dead or alive but that's who I would like to work with. You know I'll never get an opportunity to do it, but I would love that. It would be incredible to have had a chance to work with Whitney Houston. The closest I've ever gotten is working with a few Whitney Houston acapella groups. I had an opportunity get a hold of an acapella recently that I sampled and I played around with and put some production under it, and that was surreal.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in music production? What is one piece of advice they should know?

Well, the first thing is if you don't love it get out. It's hard work, and you should be in it 100 percent for the music because that will be the thing that's going to sustain you. When it's hard, and you get a lot of no's. When you are tired, and you've put in 18 plus hours, your love for the music and your desire to see it done the right way will be the thing that keeps you going. Because it's a very tough business and it's a very tough craft.

I think unlike a lot of types of art, where some people are naturally good at singing or naturally good at athletics, with music production it is rare that a person will just come out of the womb being good. You have to learn it, and it's a very very tough thing to learn. So many different elements physical and digital elements that you have to figure out. So a love of music and a desire to chase the ultimate sound is a thing that's gonna keep you going.

I would like to give a second piece of advice which is this is the music business. For as much as production is about being creative and being an artist is also about protecting your rights. It's about knowing your rights, and it's about negotiating for yourself. So it's great, and it's all fun when everybody is just making music, and it's creative time but creative time will cease, and you will then have to put on your hat as a business person and lobby for yourself. To get the best terms in your contracts and make sure you don't get hustled out of your publishing. Making sure you understand a little bit of something about how to not get hustled after you're out of your master royalties. It's very important to know the business. So taking a course or two or just maybe studying in books or online about the business will take you farther.

You went to NYU and Barnard. What advice would you give to producers in school looking to get the most out of it?

That's an excellent question. I would say have an entrepreneurial approach to your education. If your school doesn't have the course, you need to find a school that does and manage a way to have it work for you through your school. If not you might have to transfer, but you have to take a very entrepreneurial approach to music production education because there are very few schools that are going to be able to give you a complete course offering. You're going to have to do a little bit of piecing it together. At least that was my experience.

So when I went to Columbia Barnard College. I had to find a way to get into the music production courses. Some of those courses had very very long waitlists. And I had to be creative about getting the education I needed. I took a lot of informational interviews with professors to try to get the knowledge even though I couldn't necessarily be in their classes. I had to hustle a bit. When I was at NYU I took a combination of music production classes and I wanted to be in the Clive Davis Department but I was a graduate student at the time, and they didn't have a graduate program. So I got a job in the program. So that's what I mean by taking an entrepreneurial approach. I got a job in the program, and that gave me access to the program, access to the faculty, access to the classes.

So you gotta hustle. There's no school that is gonna give it all to you. You have to know what you're trying to accomplish for yourself and that goal has to be set before you step in the door. After that, you find a way to maximize your coursework and supplement your coursework. With jobs that make sense or internships that makes sense and will allow you to apply what you've been learning in college to an actual career.

Why is this EQL Directory important?

Oh my goodness it is so very important. One of the main reasons that it exists is because it eliminates the excuse for people who say they couldn't find women audio professionals. So that's in and of itself very important.

But it's also important concerning connectivity because women need to know who their peers are. They need to know about the community that is out there for us to work and collaborate with. One of the great things about starting Gender Amplified is all the incredible women that I've come across who are my peers who I would not know if it weren't for the fact that I run Gender Amplified. I've met some of my best friends, closest collaborators, incredible producers and musicians, and women who are just incredible human beings. I think the fewer limits we have on our ability to access one another the better. And so the EQL database allows us a very easy connection point.

I also think that the nature of the physical design of the site is important. Which doesn't include pictures, is very efficient and has links to music and resumes. Something that the industry needs to start looking at is professionalizing the audio world. It needs to be less of a handshake, oh my friend knows this person type of industry. We need to start professionalizing it and upgrading it in a way that says no we are hiring people on the confidence in the conviction we have in their credentials and their resume. We are not looking at pictures, we are not looking at this person knows this person. We are looking very critically at how this person presents themselves in their resume. So, to me, that is an incredible feature on site. 

I've had people even tell me you don't need a resume for this industry and that's sad. You should, one of the things I pride myself in and one reason why I'm being interviewed right now is that of my resume, my production resume, and my engineering resume. So that means something to me. And so look at a database that is taking that very seriously. Trying to shine a light on women who have built up an incredible credit history is something that's also very significant.

And the last thing I'll say about the database is it sends a very important signal to the industry in particular but the world in general because this database is not just centralized to the United States or even the first world. It is an international directory of women, and that is so powerful. Women getting organized, getting on one accord that sends a very very significant message to the world at large.

I'm glad to be a part of that and to have been doing this work for so long and to have an official legitimate place to start to send women producers that I'm coming across. To get them to sign up and join and also a legitimate place to send people who come to me looking for women in audio in production engineering and sound design is just so remarkable. 

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