By Marcia Hunt
Jam Jar Studio's Logo. Designed by Lenore Hernandez.
When Ash McMillan was 17, she went to a recording studio in Westchester to record pre-screenings for Purchase’s studio composition program. Although she didn’t even know how to plug in a microphone, she still expressed interest when the recording artist, Jack, asked if she knew anyone looking for an internship at the studio.
Since the internship, the studio has been left vacant because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, she’s the new owner.
“In early November last year, Jack sent me a text and asked if I wanted to open a studio there,” McMillan, a senior studio production and composition major, said. “I didn’t even reply to the text. I screamed to my roommate, called my parents and knocked on my best friend’s door before I even responded. There were a lot of phone calls between me and the studio’s owners before it all became official.”
Jam Jar Studio, which spent much of its vacancy as a storage room, needed extensive renovation. Fortunately, McMillan had resources to make the renovation process easier.
“A lot of the past six months has been very lucky,” said McMillan. “There were so many pieces of gear left in the studio when I got there, the whisper room [a soundproof isolation booth] was already there and I got some of gear on “permanent loan” from the people there before me. The rest of the gear either I already owned, or I got second hand after many negotiations over Reverb.com [a site for buying secondhand music equipment].”
The studio's organ. Photo by Vic Bongiovanni.
Most of the renovations were done by McMillan and her friends, including recently graduated studio production major Will Burger. They spent January deep cleaning, painting, setting up gear and doing construction work.
“Ash and I became close through masterclasses when she mentioned that she was getting a studio space,” said Burger. “I thought that was sick and wanted to be a part of it in some way, so I offered to help build it. It was a lot of manual work, but it was fun.”
Although the pandemic has limited how many people could build the studio and caused many of McMillan’s classes to move online, she doesn’t think she could’ve opened the studio during a conventional school year.
“I’ve been trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m never going to have a normal, in-person college class again; it’s a little depressing,” she said. “But at the same time, there’s no other way I could have set up the studio if my classes weren’t all on Zoom.”
According to McMillan, without her time at Purchase she wouldn’t have been able to cultivate her skills and open her own studio. The lively on-campus music scene allowed her to have plenty of recording opportunities and her professors kept her motivated.
“My professors really push me to be better but in a loving way,” she said. “There’s a lot of times where I doubt my ability to do music and feel like I want to quit. But along the way, having these really supportive adults tell me that I’m doing great was really helpful.”
One of her studio production professors, Jonathan Jetter, hopes all his students will find fulfillment making music, but he’s also transparent about the risks of going into music.
“All of my students are smart, musical and talented,” Jetter said. “I think just reducing the college experience to the technical operation of audio hardware and software cheapens the point of what they’re trying to do. I think it’s incredibly important for students to be aware of the risks they take pursuing an independent, creative future and for their education to focus on preparing for that future. You can do everything right, and still not have a music career.”
“But students have to make peace with that risk and push ahead anyway,” he added.“Then we can start talking about how to get a fulfilling career. And that’s a discussion about the need to take risks and take chances.”
Recording gear at the studio. Photo by Vic Bongiovanni.
McMillan’s not afraid of risk. She never wants to stop taking chances and embracing her mistakes.
“I’m going to continue to mess up often, but the only reason I was able to get where I am is because I’ve messed up one time and learned how to fix it,” she said. “I’m really excited to get out there, keep growing, and keep improving my engineering skills.”
Interestingly, the obstacles she’s faced in the industry have not been caused by her mistakes, or even the pandemic. Rather, she battles with the deep-rooted misogyny of the industry.
According to a 2019 study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 2.6% of music engineers and mixers are female. She’s part of that 2.6%.
When she spoke last semester with The Purchase Beat for the article “The Women of Purchase’s Music Scene", she discussed experiencing misogyny in the industry for as long as she’s been making music.
She’s hesitant to say that things will improve.
“I think the way things have been for me are going to continue that way,” she said. “I started posting videos on TikTok and there are a bunch of rude men in the comments questioning how and why I’m doing things and what my experience is. I don’t even know these people.”
Even so early on in her career, she’s grappled with the best ways to handle misogynistic situations. But sometimes, she says nothing at all.
“I think it’s hard to decide when you just accept things and when you speak out about them,” she said. “It's very tiring to call people out whenever there’s a microaggression or someone being disrespectful. The things they say don’t take away the fact that I’ve accomplished something I’m proud of.”
Jetter, an industry veteran, believes it’s imperative for the music engineering field to become more inclusive.
“The industry isn’t as white and male as it used to be but it’s important that we keep making progress,” he said. “Everyone has an innate human right to be judged on the work that they’re doing. And those of us with a little bit of privilege can use that to help move people along. It’s important that we do that.”
McMillan wants to make Jam Jar Studio a safe space for women and non-binary people in the music industry by being cautious about who she’s working with and choosing primarily female and non-binary artists. In the month that the studio has been opened, she’s recorded masked sessions with Purchase artists Claire Parcells, Becky Crosby, and Julia Klot—the latter two recently released singles recorded at Jam Jar Studio.
McMillan (front) during a recording session on March 13 with Dogs on Shady Lane. Photo via Jam Jar Studio's Instagram.
While McMillan can’t tackle the misogyny of an entire industry, she hopes that Jam Jar Studio can be a start.
“I think this is a success, not just for me but for other women who are going to be coming up in their own engineering careers,” she said. “I’m excited to be a person to tell them that this is where women belong.”