A man's world? Darryn De La Soul on being a sound engineer
Ruth Rosselson interviews Darryn De La Soul, whose achievements include mixing the sound at the 50th anniversary of the Jodrell Bank observatory, work with Faster than Sound and teaching the live sound diploma for Alchemea
In 25 years of (extensive) gig going, I don't personally remember ever seeing a female sound engineer. I decided to talk to Darryn De La Soul, a sound engineer from London who also happens to be a woman, to find out why and to learn more about this side of the music industry.
"To be honest, I don't think I have ever come across any prejudice against me," says Darryn. I had expected to hear stories of sexism but Darryn says that, in over ten years of working as a sound engineer, her experience has been pretty good. "I've not personally experienced any obstacles and in fact I've always been welcomed" she says. "People are always really positive, saying it's great to have a woman do this. Bands especially love to see girls behind the desks." But if her experience has been so positive, why aren't there more women? "I think the reason largely that there aren't many women is that girls tend not to like being in muddy fields at five o clock in the morning, which I kind of like doing. I think it's also all the circumstances of the actual work -and the fact that you don't get to wear any nice clothes whatsoever- that puts people off." While this theory seems familiar, I can think of plenty of other professions where getting dirty and not being able to dress up hasn't deterred women (nursing, cleaning and catering being just a few examples).
People will walk up to me and say 'oh my god! Do you know what all the buttons do?
Perhaps there are physical reasons that there aren't as many women sound engineers? "Well, the only slight obstacle that can happen in the PA companies - the people who staff the festivals - is how much physical labour that is expected. No one expects you to do anything that you can't, but you are expected to do your share of what you can do, which most women are quite fine with doing, but there are some things which are just too heavy or just too big, which are physically a man's job. But I think that's the only obstacle. I actually think that women can often put obstacles in their own way or often just don't think of it as a possible option for them." Could some female sound engineers be reinforcing the perceptions that the technical side of the industry just isn't female-friendly?
While she says she hasn't come across any prejudice, Darryn says that at gigs, people do seem surprised to see her behind the sound desk. "People will walk up to me and say 'oh my god! Do you know what all the buttons do?' and I say, 'Actually, yes, I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't know what all the buttons do!' It does look very daunting though," she admits. "I think some women tend to not like that kind of thing so much and find it off-putting, but what a sound engineer does in terms of mixing is not rocket science. Anybody can do it but I think that because it's always been so male dominated, women just don't think it's an option."
When everything goes wrong, it's terrifying, but when everything goes right, it's one of the best things in the world
Darryn has tended to stay out of mainstream rock 'n' roll work, but says that it wasn't a particularly deliberate decision to do so. "It's more a result of the choices I made, including a couple of bad ones," she says. "You can never tell with bands. So, I said no to the Scissor Sisters and I said no to Hot Chip before they got big." Those decisions meant that instead Darryn's work has concentrated more on working in venues, looking after smaller tours and "lots and lots of really obscure, but really strange and wonderful electronic music".
For Darryn, one of the best parts of the job is the adrenalin she experiences before doing a gig. "It's all about the adrenalin rush, making something happen against all odds. No matter how smoothly you plan everything, things go wrong. And having to fix things on the spot, making things work, getting the doors open on time, having a rush when the band get on and the crowd loving it. It's also really good fun and it's just a great way to make a living. You're in the world of music, you're in a venue, you're not stuck behind a desk and just seeing a show come together is one of the most satisfying things in the world. When everything goes wrong, it's terrifying, but when everything goes right, it's one of the best things in the world."
Darryn says that the worst thing about her work is hauling up cables covered in beer at five in the morning - not something that most people would say about their jobs! Rude band managers is another down side and learning how to deal with them is as important as working the technical side of the job. "Being a sound engineer is much more than just mixing the band. There are all kinds of other skills required" she explains. "You need to be able to deal with really nervous bands, trying to give them confidence when they don't have any. People might be late or not turn up at all for sound checks." The people side of the job can be as important as the technical aspects, she says.
In the decade that I've been involved, I've seen more and more women
Darryn's proudest achievements are mixing the sound at the fiftieth anniversary of the Jodrell Bank observatory, where a piece was created involving the telescope itself, creating a unique piece of music that Darryn describes as "exquisite and unusual". She's also really proud of her work with Faster than Sound, a collaboration between electronic and classical musicians.
One of the things that I've always wondered about sound engineering is if you have to like the genre of music to be able to work on it. "No" says Darryn emphatically. "In fact, if you only try and work on things you like, you won't have much of a career. You have to be able to adapt. As a jobbing engineer you need to be able to deal with all genres. You have to be able to switch off and look at it for what it is and try and understand what the artist and promoter and nights are trying to achieve. If you hate it, that's tough! You can hate it, but still do it well."
Darryn has moved away from live work and now runs her own agency and teaches, running the live sound diploma for Alchemea in London, reporting that more women are taking her courses. "I think me teaching the course means women come and look at it and see it as an option. They also realise that I've done this for a decade so it might be okay for them to do it too." Darryn thinks that the more visible women are in sound engineering, the more women will be enticed into the industry. "In the decade that I've been involved, I've seen more and more women" she says. "Hopefully, over the next twenty years of gig going, I'll be able to report seeing more and more women behind the sound desk."
Darryn De La Soul's own sound engineer agency can be found at http://www.soulsound.co.uk