The world of theatre sound design isn't exactly decorated with female engineers, let alone those that have won the critically acclaimed Olivier Award. However, that's exactly what happened to Carolyn Downing, who is as cool as she is smart, is obsessed with the perception of sound, and is a big fan or organic audio. We sit down with her in Covent Garden and order some Sauvignon Blanc.
Although from a gender point of view, Carolyn Downing ‘wouldn’t call herself a feminist’, she admits that she might be getting there, after several awkward situations with male counterparts.
“I think overall, I’ve have been pretty oblivious to it all really; I was young and naïve, and jumped into things, then worried about survival afterwards,” Carolyn admits, with a smile, and a shrug of the shoulders. “I remember once in Germany, I had asked for a lot of kit for experimenting during a rehearsal: mics, speakers, and bits and pieces; and this guy couldn’t grasp that. I had 12 weeks of rehearsals after to come after this, and I said to him, ‘I want to do this because’, and he finished my sentence for me with, ‘Because you’re a woman?’ [laughs] And I’d only met him 10 minutes before! Funny enough, in the end we got on famously, but you have to be brave and come back at them if they give you hassle.”
At just 26, Downing found herself living in Manhattan for three months while co-designing the sound for All My Sons on Broadway, with no significant prior experience – this is not normal. It was a full-on experience for her, and a phenomenal learning curve.
“It was a crazy time... I hadn’t had to tune or organise a system for that kind of space before, so I was reliant on the engineers, because I hadn’t had the technical experience, but I did have the knowledge, but it made me adrift a bit,” she reflects. “But it worked, and was very successful, despite being a complete emtional roller-coaster! I remember the production manager sat me down at the start and said, ‘Look, you will have trouble here because of your gender and your age’. He told it straight, I’ll give him that! In America, it seems they look up to people that have done their time, so to speak; and they don’t like to be responsible, liability wise. I don’t profess to know everything, but I believe people need teams, and I like working with people. What they needed over there was absolute instruction on everything, and I had to go to every dressing room and told them exactly where I wanted every radio mic, which was quite intense. They got uppity with me, so I was the same with them.”
Good for you! At 14, Downing was more keen on getting on stage rather than beyond it, but at 19, she realised she ‘wanted to work’, so went to drama school and did a degree in sound design. But where does her love for audio stem from?
“I honestly don’t know!” she giggles, as the wine arrives (finally). “We had a brand new theatre put in at school, and made a team of us that wanted to look after it, so I had a go at the sound thing, and I trained people on brand new desks, and so on. Then I went to the Royal National Exchange Theatre [in Manchester] and worked with the late Steve Brown. Working there was amazing, and really, I was addicted to the people. Steve made a massive impact in my life, and it went from there really.”
MIXING IT UP
Although there is no logical path to her audio obsession, Carolyn is passionate about technology, and has always enjoyed mixing.
“I don’t like the hours, but the rest is good! I just get excited about sounds; for some reason, I get a thrill from acoustics, and how they change how you perceive things. It’s funny,” she smiles, as the conversation turns to the demise of analogue technology. “I learned on analogue, and for me, gain structure and signal flow are crucial for any sound designer to understand, though I had a strange journey. I did an HND in music technology working with samplers, but as soon as I got to college, it was onto MiniDisc, and then all my fringe type shows were on MiniDisc, so I only started working with QLab and SFX when I finished college. So from a playback point of view, I went through all of that, whereas from a desk point of view, I was on only analogue until I went on tour.”
Her first confrontation with digital technology was a frightening one – but now she embraces all its elements: “It’s the way the world is now,” she admits, “so you could argue, why waste time learning analogue at all these days?”
“I was completely stuck when I first got behind a digital desk; it was horrid, and I felt like a baby,” she laughs, head in hands. “And then something happened... It was like a switch in my brain, and I suddenly got it. The thing is, in theatre, it’s not just about getting a show on, it’s the layers of sound design, and how they react, and it’s also about building a solid communication; that’s why I think everyone should do a show on a MiniDisc. However, some of the older designers that have been in the game say, ‘Nope, let’s move on – analogue is defunct’, which kind of surprised me. [pauses] I don’t think people should go straight onto digital, where you don’t have to think the basic elements through, because I do worry about the whole layer thing – there are important nuggets of information that could be lost.”
In recent productions, Downing has become quite the advocate for TiMax – partly due to its versatility, and partly down to some serious persistence from her colleague and sound engineer, Hamish Bamford!
“I wasn’t sure about TiMax initially, as it felt like the dark horse of the industry, but once I understood what it could do, and I used it, I thought ‘Yes!’ I don’t know why it’s not a real standard, come to think of it. I think for me, though, especially on a frantic show where I know there’s going to be over 200 cues, and it’ll be manic, especially content wise, where I’ll be creating content in the room over three days, I have to have a console! You don’t always want all your eggs in one basket in a theatre environment!”
WEIRD SOUNDS WORK
Downing recently worked on a production at the Royal National Exchange Theatre, using the new TiMax system – and the results were fantastic:
“Steve Brown and Robin [Whittaker, TiMax director] were always good mates, and the theatre always had an old TiMax, as it’s in the round, and it has a really complex speaker system, but when I went before, I always turned TiMax down, but this time I was saying, ‘I really want to use your TiMax’, but they’d eked it out as it was pretty ancient.
“In the end, we did a version of Much Ado About Nothing demoing the new TiMax system; we had these big heads for masks, and a load of lighting whizzing around, and the venue is not only in the round, but it’s a huge stock exchange, so there is this natural 12-second reverb, which is beautiful, so I love doing work there. I did a sequence, and threw the audio around in a way that physically felt like it; and I found it so exciting to give people a serious theatre experience... Not in a nauseating, horrible way, like a theme park - it’s subtle. It’s like using sub bass, or real strange low tones, and I found it very cool.
“I always want to accentuate things, as I am interested in the whole perception of sound, so trying to emulate someone feeling manic, or drunk, or some kind of crazy state of mind is fun: how do we get a whole audience or space to feel like that? How do we get it to feel uber-3D? And with TiMax, I was like, 'WOW!'
So if there is such a thing, what type of sound designer are you, Carolyn?
“Well, I am very interested and excited about using real sounds, and manipulating them, changing people’s perception. I was never a massive fan of electronic synths as a person; I’ve always been into live bands, so the organic nature of those instruments is what it’s all about for me,” she replies. “Then messing around and abstracting real stuff, giving sounds character and voice. At college, we did a big puppetry performance called Night Hunter, which was an adaptation of a 1930s film, with big puppet heads, and I gave each head a sound. There was this evil minister guy who kidnapped people... He was a door! It sounds weird, but it worked; I gave him all of these squeaky sounds, which is the really experimental side of me coming out, and it was great. I like to be natural, but I always investigate... Then I got an old cello, and started scraping strings, and using instruments that wouldn’t normally be used like that, just to be a bit off the wall.”
Although Downing isn’t musical in the strictest sense of the word, that only adds to her flavour and audio personality:
“It never bothered me until the last five years, where people generally assume I must be a composer, and I’m like... No. [laughs] But some people say because I approach sound design in a very different way, if I actually had a framework, perhaps I wouldn’t come up with these ideas. I’m not sure if it’s a style as such, but really, I’m into using sound to make atmosphere, not to a bit of music. When someone wants to work with music, I always feel myself retreating, as someone has already done that, and it’s not a challenge. I want to compose a sound, and although I’ve started to use synth bass sounds, and Ableton, I am always allergic to sounds that don’t have an organic quality to them. But that’s