For International Women’s Day, Attack magazine talked to five women engineers working in the synthesizer industry about the challenges they face. This is the interview with Sandra Sims, designer and engineer at SDS Digital Modular.
Please note that all (c) for this article are with Attack Magazine and created by Adam Douglas. The pictures are (c) Sandra Sims.
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.
For this interview, we spoke to Sandra Sims, the force of nature behind SDS Digital Modular, a Eurorack-focused company that specializes in digital modules.
What is it that you like about synthesizers?
Sandra Sims: The flexibility, especially with modular synthesis, and the control of every element of the soundscape. I guess I’m a bit of a control freak. Being able to put together a sound like creating a new recipe is also intriguing.
How did you get started working with synthesizers?
Long ago, back in the early ’70s when I was about 13, I found a morse code practice oscillator board in the local dump and curiosity led to experimentation with it.
I had some knowledge of batteries and hooking things up so connected a speaker to it and it sent out a lovely tone! Keep in mind that electronic sounds back then were completely alien to most, so it was truly fascinating to hear.
Eventually, I began hooking up other components yanked out of old radios, as trial and error, then switched them in and out with paper clips after building it all into a cereal box. Some of the sounds it made terrified my brother and his friends. Truly alien sounds!
After that, as I learned more, there was always an interest in electronic synth music and in the early ’80s I acquired a Moog synth and some bits and pieces to use it with.
I then worked for 20-odd years as an electronics tech in the commercial and ham radio field and as an engineer as a side job, eventually partnering in a radio sales and service shop as well as doing oilfield-related remote controller design work. I only did any synth design for my own studio as a hobby.
Fast forward to 2016, well after early retirement, I requested to collaborate with a fellow in the US to design a module. This opened up the possibility of designing Eurorack modules myself. The rest is history!
What do you do at your job?
I am the sole designer and engineer at SDS Digital, plus one of the assemblers of modules. I come up with the concept usually myself, although I have collaborated a couple of times, and do all of the software as well.
What is it you like about your job?
Wow! It’s what I have always wanted to do ever since high school, but I think the biggest challenge is the software. It’s a ton of work but I totally enjoy it. The journey of developing a module from an idea to a prototype, then going beyond that idea in discovering more functionality to a final product. I never had kids so perhaps these are my babies.
Is there anything you don’t like?
Logistics. Dealing with shipping and packing. Fortunately, my partner excels at organization and dealing with such matters!
Would you say that the synthesizer industry is a generally accepting place for women?
I would say yes, generally. There’s always that one guy, right? Sometimes I feel like being a female engineer offers some more exposure in the crowd as to many it’s novel. Of course, that spotlight propels one to excel with no compromise.
Have you ever encountered chauvinism in your industry?
In the radio electronics world plenty, but in the music synth world it’s refreshingly absent.
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?
I think one reason modular is so attractive to women is the burden of coming up with a case design that looks different isn’t there, albeit the panel appearance is just as important.
Men want different things than women but the paradigm of modular sets boundaries that can be met without that consideration.
Another is that you’re designing a part of a whole, from the simplest to the most complex of modules, and there’s a lot of opportunity to become really creative without trying to appease the mainstream. The mainstream market is a bit one-sided with standards, expectations and rules set out by pioneers, which were primarily male.