We Can Do It! - EMusician

We Can Do It!

BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER Four top female audio professionals share the secrets of their success.Women who have a passion for audio - living on a steady
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BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIERFour top female audio professionals share the secrets of their success.

Women who have a passion for audio - living on a steady diet of gear magazines and talking technology all day - might seem like a rarity in this industry. In fact, I often wonder where all the other women audio professionals are when I read music technology magazines, flipping through articles about male producers and engineers, opposite ads only rarely showing a woman who looks like she is actually using the gear instead of lying on it in a state of undress. But appearances can be deceiving. Women are out there mixing sound, composing music, and playing around with gear, too - and in ever-increasing numbers.

I set out to talk to some of those women and learn about their careers, how they got started, and whether they encountered any barriers due to their gender. Surprisingly, the glass ceiling wasn't really an issue. All the women I spoke with just went ahead and did want they wanted without worrying about being in the minority. They simply pursued their dreams.

Following are profiles of four successful women in the music industry: Lora Hirschberg, a mixer at Skywalker Sound; Rachel Portman, an Academy Award - winning feature film composer; K.K. Proffitt, co-owner and chief engineer of JamSync, a 5.1 surround facility; and DJ Rap, a DJ, songwriter, and vocalist. These women were kind enough to take time from their busy schedules to discuss their paths to success and share their views on women in the industry.

LORA HIRSCHBERGLora Hirschberg is a rerecording mixer at Skywalker Sound (a division of Lucas Digital Ltd.) in Marin County, California, where she does the final mix for feature films. Her numerous credits include Titus, Titanic, The Horse Whisperer, and One Fine Day. She also assisted in the sound design for Strange Days, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Toys. In 1996 she was nominated for an Emmy for her work as a rerecording mixer on HBO's The Celluloid Closet.

Could you explain what your job entails?

I mix a lot of sound effects. The sound-effects editors will cut all the movie's sound effects, and they'll bring them to me in certain groupings, like the backgrounds, or what is sometimes called ambience; the hard effects - like if there's a fight in the movie, the punches and things getting knocked over; and the Foley, which is footsteps or prop movements. In premixing, I take those sounds, place them across the different speaker channels, decide what's going to be left, center, and right; or if something moves across the screen, I'll pan it that way. But I also have to plan ahead and organize these things in case the director says, "That's a great chin sock, but I don't like the crunch sound there; I want just the face punch." So part of my job is to know what things not to marry together and how to plan for the inevitable throwing away of things, which we often do.

So I'll premix all the sound effects for a couple of weeks, and at the same time the dialog person will premix the dialog. Then in the final mix we bring together all the premixes and the music, and then it becomes this big battle, trying to figure out how all that stuff is going to go together. Our job is to take those elements and balance them out, decide what works and what doesn't, and combine them.

How did you become a film mixer?

I went to film school at NYU, and I was also studying music, so I sort of gravitated toward the audio side of things. I worked in small video post houses in New York, and then I moved out here and I got a job in the machine room - which is basically the back room of a film studio - at Zoetrope. I just learned about mixing by hanging out and seeing how things were done. That's kind of the traditional way people become mixers; they start in the machine rooms.

Are there more women in your field now as opposed to five years ago?

I don't think it's changed that much. There are a lot of women sound editors and a lot of women in editorial and sound design. In the nontechnical jobs, like producing, it's maybe 50/50 men and women, and as you go into the technical jobs, it's like 5 percent women and 95 percent men. I think there are a variety of reasons for that. There are probably a lot more production jobs than there are technical jobs. In this country, there are only about 200 people who do my job on the feature film level, so it's still a small percentage that are women. I think a lot more women are coming out of recording schools, but many of them go into music. I think many people don't know that you can work in the film industry and have a good audio career.

Have you had the chance to mentor anyone?

I wish I could do more of that. A couple of years ago Leslie Jones [scoring mixer at Skywalker] and I had a seminar where we got a bunch of applications from women in recording schools and film schools, and set up a two-week program where they just sort of shadowed people at Skywalker. I wanted [them]to know that they could come here and apply for a job, because I think a lot of people just don't see it as a possibility - or they don't even know that those jobs exist. They don't know that you can be a maintenance engineer on a film stage or a transfer operator or a machine room operator. These are all really good, high-paying, interesting jobs. You get to play with a lot of gear and work on good projects. So we had a group of about ten women, and it was a success. I think we hired one of the women - she was a USC grad - and another one applied to ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] and got hired. So those kinds of programs work, but we just haven't had the time to keep it up, and I'm really hoping we can do it again next year.

Have you encountered any sexism in your job?

No. It's not worthwhile to think about gender roles in our generation the same way [older people did]. I'd say that regarding the glass ceiling and people giving you attitude and all that stuff, you get that from people a little older than you. You don't get it from your peers. Traditionally, the perception of mixers has been that you want some powerful, authority-type person to be doing the job, and then when people see some little woman, sometimes that kind of shatters the myth, and I think that's fine. Maybe some of the older guys don't like that, because that's part of their image - "Well, only people like me can do this" - but it's not true.

Do you have any advice for women who want to follow in your footsteps?

I would say that probably the best advice is, just don't give up. If that's the job you want, you should just go ahead and get that job. Don't give up. When I started out, people said, "You really don't want to do this, because you're not going to get to, and why don't you do that . . . there are a lot more jobs in that field. . . ." You don't need to listen to that. If it's the thing you want to do, you'll be good at it. And I think it's important to know what it is you want to do. Look around and [find out] what jobs there are. Try and make personal connections with people. The odds are, if you like movie sound, you should contact people who do movie sound and say, "I like this job. Is there anything you can do to give me some advice as to where I should start?" And probably ten of them will say no, and one of them will say, "Yeah, why don't you call that guy, or why don't you do that or think about this," or that kind of thing. And just keep after it. I don't think people brush people off because they're rude; I think that they're all just very busy. But if you ask an intelligent question, you'll get a useful answer.

RACHEL PORTMANBorn in England and educated in classical music at Oxford, composer Rachel Portman was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score (Emma, 1996). Her other credits include The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Cider House Rules (for which she was an Academy Award nominee), Beloved, Marvin's Room, and The Joy Luck Club.

How did you get your start scoring films?

In America I think there's more of a "composer's industry" that women need to break into, whereas I never studied film composition; I just sort of wormed my way into it with a lot of luck, a lot of persistence, and an incredible amount of ambition. I remember when I very first started working as a television composer in England doing films for the BBC and thinking, "Oh, when I go to do an interview, they probably won't treat me as seriously as they would a man, so I'm going to just make sure they know that I'm really competent and that I'm really efficient." But apart from that, I've never really paid any attention to the fact that I'm a woman, and I think it's probably been quite a good thing, because I want people to think of me as a composer, not as a female composer.

What is your scoring process? I understand you hardly ever use synthesizers or electronic instruments.

I write in a big studio room, but it doesn't contain any machinery except for a DAT recorder, a microphone, a TV, something for me to watch the film on, and a great big grand piano. That's it. I don't work on a computer of any sort. I'm not at all against using electronic instruments for sounds, I just am naturally more curious about acoustic instruments and oddball combinations.

When I'm scoring, I tend to go through a film and watch it many, many times. And then I just make myself start writing music for it. By that time, I know where I think music should be, and I sort of pinpoint the different scenes. Then I go through the film from beginning to end, trying to do a first draft of the whole score. And then I might hit on a theme that I know I can make work, that feels right for the film. I begin to work quite quickly once I have a theme - I might need four themes or something, you never know; on a big film like Bagger Vance, I had about five different melodies in there, some of which were related to each other. When I have enough material, I play it for the director - all prerecorded, lined up to the film, but on piano - and I tell [the director] exactly the instrumentation. And with [the director's] comments in mind I carry on, so I tend to be continually adjusting the whole score until the end, as opposed to starting at cue 1 and 1 and writing the main title and going through like that. But it's very, very simple the way I work. Also, when I'm scoring - when we're actually on the scoring stage - 95 percent of the time I don't use click tracks, so the players aren't wearing [headphones]. I find that that makes it much more musical, because the players aren't playing to a beat and they can completely hear the instrument that they're playing, and it gives the performance a real fluidity.

How do you overcome creative challenges?

I just try and - this is something that you get from experience - really focus when I am working, not to just sort of wait for inspiration and think, "Oh, you know, I'm going to have to go out for a walk," but to stay there all day. And just keep trying from different edges, from different angles. Because eventually you're going to crack it quicker that way. So just put the hours in. It's always hard at the beginning - there are all sorts of games that your mind plays on everything, on every single job that you do. You have negativity creeping in, and you're thinking, "Oh no, I can't do it," and stuff like that. I'm always frightened of not coming up with a theme. And eventually I just have to trust that I will, and I always have so far.

Do you have any advice for other women who want to become composers?

Don't ever give up if it feels right that you're doing it. I've had many, many lean years with nothing, when I'd just have 18 months and one tiny, tiny job and then nothing for another 18 months. And if you know in your bones that this is what you need to do, just hang in there because it will come. Just keep trying different doors. That's what I did. And it does take time. The other thing is - for people who are really beginning - is to start on small things. Don't try to go to big things straight away, because big things are scary. And it's the best way to grow anyway, to work on smaller projects and then gradually, as you learn to orchestrate - if you do indeed orchestrate yourself - go from smaller projects to bigger projects.

K.K. PROFFITTK.K. Proffitt is the chief engineer and co-owner of JamSync, a 5.1 surround facility in Nashville. Along with mixing, mastering, music editing, and producing, she also does beta testing on products for such manufacturers as Digidesign, Dolby, Drawmer, Kind of Loud Technologies, Lexicon, and Waves.

Could you explain some of the aspects of your job?

We do a lot of digital encoding - Dolby Digital encoding. Much of what we do is for corporate clients. We do 5.1 mixes for people who make HDTV equipment; and we did audio sweetening for Tim McGraw's "Something Like That," which went number one twice on CMT [Country Music Television]. We're doing 5.1 effects, and we've gotten into trade-marking and intellectual property. We're actively looking to license certain libraries to upmix and to remix for 5.1, and we're doing a sound effects library in 5.1.

How did you get your start in audio?

I went to graduate school in experimental psychology, which is really where I started to learn about audio, strangely enough. Then, in the early '80s, MIDI was starting, and I was crazy about it. I had one of the first SBX-80 SMPTE machines from Roland. I started working as a consultant on these projects where people didn't want to read the manual. So I would be called in at two in the morning to help producers plug all the stuff together, or do a takedown when the drummer couldn't play in time - I'd sync up the SMPTE and we'd sample the drums. In 1986 I went to Northeastern and got a degree in software programming. I bought my first 24-track Otari MTR-90 III in 1991, and I bought a fairly good board, an Amek TAC Magnum with 36 channels, 72 inputs - which is still around if anyone wants to buy it - and about that time [Tascam] DA-88s came out. I dropped all this money for analog, and digital was starting to happen. Then I met [partner] Joel Silverman, and we built this studio.

How has it been for you as a woman in your field? Has it improved in the past five years?

I think it still sucks. When I was younger, I never became an assistant, because most assistants when I was growing up were just girlfriends of these guys. I realized pretty quickly that I was not going to be mentored by anybody. I also realized pretty quickly that nobody needed me, and nobody wanted me, if I didn't have any way to make money for them. That's the name of the game in this business: If you can bring money into a studio, everybody wants you. But if you just come in and say, "Oh, I want to be mentored; I want you to need me," which is a curious attitude among a lot of people that I meet these days, you're bound to fail. People hired me because I had a skill. It wasn't because I said, "Gee, I just wanna come and make coffee . . . I'll run your errands and I'll sweep your floors . . . and maybe I'll get to become a famous producer some day!" That may be true for men, and maybe for some women, but from my point of view, that is a fantasy. It's a cruel fantasy. It gets a lot of free work for people who are established.

As a beta tester for Drawmer and Kind of Loud Technologies, do you have any favored plug-ins?

I don't want to put one manufacturer over any others; they're all useful. The VST stuff is good, the DUY and WAVES plugs are great - they all have their uses. Even plugs that one might not think are so interesting - some of the more mundane Digi plugs - still have their uses. I use them all the time in conjunction with other plugs to change the sound a bit. There's no one plug-in I reach for. If I don't like a vocal . . . like I didn't like a vocal yesterday, and I went through every stinking EQ I have. I think I wound up just using part of the vocal with part of the EQ, bussing it out to different strips, having different parts be in different EQs and stuff. Once you have as many plugs as I have, you don't care if it's real-world emulation or not; you really start thinking about, "Well, for this program material, does this thing work?" I would like for something to really do a great Pultec like I used to use way back, 20 years ago - I don't know if Bomb Factory does Pultecs or not - but I haven't seen the old Pultec EQP-1A in plug-in emulation yet. There may be one out there, but I haven't got it yet. That was a cool thing.

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

Making new stuff. Making stuff sound better. I once had a rap group [in the studio], and I said to them, "Well, you know, this drum sound, the snare . . . it's obvious that you were overdriving the input to your board. And I can help you with that. I can sample . . ." This guy looked me square in the face and said, "Don't mess with my stuff. I like just how it sounds. You leave it alone, put it together, make it sound like it is, but better." This is the way he liked his sound. Some people like certain things, and that's the point of what they're doing. It's like those paintings where they just squirt paint and step in it; that is the art for them. It's the same thing with music. You're not a critic if you're an engineer. You're an engineer, and your job is to make the client happy. And make it sound better - not only the way you think it sounds better, but the way they think it sounds better. That's the gig.

Any advice for women who want to become engineers?

Work for a manufacturer who does matching funds and go get a degree from MIT. Women, if they want to get ahead, have to take math. Because you're going be a secretary in the music industry or a promoter unless you know the math. Everything requires it. Everything. You also have to know how to read charts. You also have to understand statistics, physics, and stuff like that. You don't have to be a genius at it, but you have to be able to look at a chart in an AES journal and know what they're talking about. Audio engineering school is great - it's a trade school.

But I'll tell you, people who are really successful and really stick around in the music business and in audio engineering, they have done more than just learned stuff from books - they have been in studios and they have also been innovative in accomplishing something. You have to start thinking about what you can do that's different, that makes you a valuable commodity. For me, it was being able to do takedown. I was known as The Chick Who Can Put All of the Cheap Japanese Crap Together. That was my title. [Laughs.] That was my thing. And even today, that comes in very handy.

DJ RAPDJ Rap (aka Charissa Saverio) is one of the world's leading female DJs on the hard-core, jungle, and drum 'n' bass scenes, known for such successful singles as "Ambience - The Adored," "Bang the Party," and "Spiritual Aura." A songwriter and vocalist as well as producer and mixer, she was signed to Higher Ground/Columbia in 1997 and released her debut major-label album Learning Curve in 1999. Based in England, she also runs her own label, Proper Talent.

What inspired you to become a DJ?

Pretty much most people start deejaying first and making tunes afterward, but for me it was the other way around, so it was always about making music. One night while I was out raving, I saw these two DJs and it just blew me away. The thought didn't even occur to me, "I wonder if there is any other female thing," because I just presumed there was; I just thought, "Oh, this looks like so much fun, I want to do it." What inspired me to start deejaying was I'd made my first record ["Ambience - The Adored"] and wanted to promote it as best I could. Then when I started to do it, I realized that there were a couple of female DJs around, but they were getting a pretty crap deal.

Did you network with them?

Quite a few female DJs were just starting out - I was the first female DJ to say, "I'm playing with the boys," because up until that point those girls were always put in the back room; they always played with girls and got little to no money. And I come along, and I think, "What the f superscript *** is this? I'm not having this; I'm good and I can rock it." My goal was always to be among the top DJs. I believe strongly if you have a vision of where you think you should be, you'll get there. Anyone can do anything they want; it depends on how determined they are and how brave they are. I made a point of not being paranoid and jealous about my thing, because I wanted to encourage any other female who comes along. But women are much more competitive and much more territorial.

Your song "Bad Girl," off Learning Curve, has the lyric "That glass ceiling should be radically erased."

Definitely the glass ceiling should be broken. People like Madonna are breaking it all the time, setting new boundaries, but she's doing it in a very provocative, sexual way and that kind of offends me. Let's do it in a way where our brains speak for us. I am trying to break real barriers, not by going on about it but by just doing it.

What is your production process?

I'll write a track, maybe just on the guitar or the piano - just basic production, nothing complicated, no production at all. You do a song and you think it's great, wonderful - and then you listen to it like a month later, and you think, "It's really not that good." So what's the point in spending all that time producing it? Make sure the song is great, the words are great, the melody's fantastic, it all flows, because if it works acoustically, then it will work whatever you do with it. Then when I think the song's good, I leave it alone for a little while; maybe come back to it in a couple of weeks, remix it again, then start to work on the production. If after three months I think the song is still really good, then I'll actually start to produce it - [adding] hats, getting the right snares, and layering. I layer a lot of strings. I tend to remix and regurgitate my work constantly. On my jungle stuff I do every single thing myself. My first album I comixed, coproduced, and wrote the whole thing.

What are your current goals?

Just to do a great [new] album. I'm taking acting lessons at the moment, and I am learning to take some time off. I'm interested in breaking into new territory, I don't want to carry on doing the same thing. So every time I work with someone like Brian [Transeau, also known on the DJ scene as BT] or Liquid Todd, we're not doing what they normally do, we're not doing what I normally do; it's more like, "Let's fuse and make something new." That's what's exciting; no one can stay the same. It would be boring. You can't just think you can make jungle forever and that's it. It's not going anywhere. Make some new forms.

What advice do you have for women who want to follow in your footsteps?

Do not worry about how good you look - obviously it's a bonus - but what's more important is that your music comes from you and it really is you. Be as good as you can on the decks. Be all about the music, be all about the crowd. And get all that without being a "ho." You have to maintain credibility, you have to have respect, you have to be good, and you have to not play on the fact that you're female. But use your femininity when you have to.

Any final thoughts?

You don't need all the elaborate equipment I've spent ten years getting. I have a portable studio, I have a Mac with a sampler inside it, and I use [Steinberg's] Cubase and [Emagic's] Logic with it. I have a little keyboard that I take away with me - really, you can do a hell of a lot just inside a laptop. I have all the audio plug-ins, a little microphone, and a Kawai 70, and I can do a tune on a plane with that. All of the equipment in the world means nothing if you can't write songs, if you can't make music.