Shayna Brown is a woman in the man’s world of audio engineering. But that hasn’t stopped her company, Chez Boom Audio, from quickly becoming the preferred audio studio for some of film and television’s biggest names.
Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, you’re Daniel Craig. You’re Daniel Craig in an immaculate tuxedo, and you’re on a movie set fashioned to look like the casino in Monte Carlo. Martini in hand, you coolly eye what writer Dan Jenkins used to call a “shapely adorable” in a clingy gown.The director calls “Action,” and you’re all set to deliver the line moviegoers throughout the world yearn to hear. “The name is Bond,” you intone, “Ja…” whereupon the actor dressed as the croupier belches. Bad pastrami sandwich for lunch.Take two.“The name is…” and a grip knocks over a spotlight. Really? OK, let’s go again.
“The name is Bond. James…” and your leading lady’s cellphone rings. Son of a … .
What you really want at this moment is to trade in the prop martini you’re holding for a real one, maybe two. But what you really need is Shayna Brown.
Brown is the founder, owner and chief cook and bottle washer at Chez Boom Audio, where she excels in the arcane and exacting art of audio (aka automated) dialogue replacement, or ADR. Besides being devilishly good at an indispensible part of filmmaking, she is also one of the few women in a corner of the industry that is often dominated by male egos and testosterone.
ADR is what, in the old days, was known as looping, or dubbing, which means basically replacing spoken dialogue in a movie or television show. As with the example of poor Mr. Craig, sometimes external noise or other audio clutter can ruin a take. Other times, profanity might be replaced with a milder oath to suit broadcast standards. Or a director might decide after the fact he wants a different emotional tone in a piece of dialogue. This is when Chez Boom gets a phone call.
“Maybe 50 to 80 percent of dialogue in any movie or TV show is redubbed,” Brown explains. “And that’s what I do.” In the old days, dubbing was accomplished with analog tape and actual film. These days—surprise!—the wizardry is accomplished with computers and digital magic.
“The actors come in and watch video of their lips, and they have to match that tone,” she continues. “I record it all, match it to the picture and send it off, usually to LA, where they mix it together [for a finished product]. The actors are here, but the director is usually in Los Angeles. But I can patch to them, and my computer can run their computer. Or the actors might be in LA, and the director is here. So we patch in to them, they run our screen and we listen and record on this end—the other way around.”
The digital world in which Brown works makes the real world irrelevant. “I had one day with [Director] Robert Rodriguez, who was here, and we patched in with actors in LA, New York, Canada and Spain, and some place in London,” she says.
Brown is explaining ADR for dummies, she is seated at the Argosy Dual 15 Workstation console in the sleek, acoustically neutral control room that is her pride and joy. Located in the nondescript building that houses the Tequila Mockingbird recording studio and production complex, Brown’s fiefdom is hers from the ground up. After a long tenure as TM’s audio engineer, she founded Chez Boom with her own savings.
“I didn’t want to owe people,” she says of her pivotal decision to strike out on her own. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I maxed out a couple of credit cards. [But] I think my work quality is next-level and the people coming in are expecting good quality and a beautiful space.”
Oh, yeah, the people. People like Al Pacino, Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, Giancarlo Esposito, Dennis Quaid, Brooklyn Decker: Those people and many more have crossed the Chez Boom threshold.
Since creating Chez Boom as a standalone entity about three years ago, Brown and her four-person staff have worked on films such as 12 Years a Slave, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Danny Collins, True Grit, Fantastic Four, and TV series, including Supernatural, True Detective, Revolution, Once Upon a Time, The Newsroom, American Crime and many more, totaling more than 100 television and movie projects to date, according to the Chez Boom website. That’s in addition to the audio books, with politico Karl Rove and English author Neil Gaiman, to name but two, as well as radio and TV spots, and post-production jobs that account for the balance of Chez Boom’s workload.
Brown is, as Will Ferrell might say, kind of a big deal. “I find myself in the ADR studio constantly,” says Esposito, perhaps best known for his role as Gustavo Fring on Breaking Bad. “I choose always to record at Chez Boom when I’m in Austin. I feel comfortable there and never have to worry about my ability to drop into character. Shay is an original at what she does, a woman that embodies grace and professionalism.”
Her professional chops are only part of the story, of course. She’s also a wife (Last fall, she married Sam Decker, an entrepreneur who’s overseen several tech startups.) and a mom to a 7-year-old son and Decker’s four children from a previous union. And, like any working mom, balance can be an elusive priority. Her twin Facebook pages—one for herself, one for Chez Boom—show a personal life and a professional life running on parallel tracks.
“All the moms I know have these double lives. Our society is not set up to let women be productive in the workplace and be great moms, [so]I’m grateful I get to do this around my son’s schedule,” she says. “I didn’t think my clients would be as respectful of my boundaries with time, but they are. I may tell them I can’t do a session on Tuesday at 3 because I have to be out. I don’t tell them it’s because my son has piano, but that’s what it is. I want to be present.”
“She’s been independent for a long time,” Decker says. “She started college when she was 15. She’s an interesting cross between independent and so loving. Her empathy is off the charts.”
The two met via Facebook, and the first time Decker had a chance to spend one-on-one time with her, Brown was doing a session at Chez Boom in her pajamas. “When I met her for the first time, I was blown away by how fast she was on the computer,” he says. “I would venture to say she’s the fastest audio engineer in Austin, if not nationwide. Plus, her wit is quick. What makes her great is she’s thinking about the experience the client is having. That drive matched to that empathy, that combination is unique.”
Perhaps it’s unique, but not always appreciated. Brown is a rare entity. She says she has only met one other female audio engineer in her time. And she is, on occasion, confronted with clients or colleagues who can’t or won’t concede that a woman can know her way around an audio console.
“It’s just a very male-dominated field,” she says with a shrug. “The stereotype is men with long hair smoking pot and wearing torn jeans, and that’s the engineer type. And I’m not that, and proudly not that. One time, I patched to somebody and I said, ‘Hello, this is Austin. How’s it going?’ And they said, ‘Going well. I’d like to talk to the engineer.’ ”
Brown told the other party that, well, she was indeed the engineer. There was a certain exasperation on the other end of the line.
“No, I’d like to talk to the person running the session,” the caller said.
“Um, that would be me,” Brown reasserted.
Exasperation yielded to that patronizing tone that women just can’t get enough of: “Sweetie, do I need to walk you through how to do this?” “By the end of the session, he was falling all over himself,” Brown says. “He realized I knew what I was doing.”
One name-brand actor (“a famous guy” is all she’ll say) simply refused to look Brown in the eye at all or address her directly.
“After the first day, I told my assistant, ‘He’s your job from now on,’ ” she says. “I can’t deal with this amount of rudeness. It just hurts.”
That, she acknowledges, was an extreme example. Pacino, on the other hand, who was in town to do ADR for his movie Danny Collins, was, by Brown’s account, a pro and a gent.
“People here were freaking out,” she says of when Pacino walked through the door. “But he was wonderful. Afterwards, I said, ‘This is totally unprofessional, but do you mind taking a picture? It’s an honor to have you here.’ And he said, ‘It’s an honor to work with someone so good at their job.’ That was nice.”
Brown gained her expertise from the ground up. She’s the daughter of Austin multi-instrumental stalwart Danny Levin, who has played for decades in town with everyone from Asleep at the Wheel to Dale Watson, Eliza Gilkyson, Bob Schneider and many more. Levin home-schooled Brown, her brother and sister (who plays for the Houston Symphony), and Brown grew up as a studio brat, hanging around her father’s sessions. Though she learned piano, she loathed the idea of performing herself.
She began to intern at Tequila Mockingbird and attend the University of Texas at the tender age of 15, and she developed an early affinity for the emerging digital technology of recording.
“Pro Tools [the industry-standard digital audio workstation]had just come out,” she recalls. She and Levin sat together in the studio and puzzled out how the new software worked. “It was bonding for us. It was fun.”
Brown took to it intuitively in the way kids absorb new technology, and she saw a way to indulge her musical instincts without having to go onstage.
Brown worked as an intern or assistant in any studio that would have her, making connections and learning all the while. The old-school engineers and recording artists began to turn to her.
“They’d say, ‘We have this Pro Tools thing. Do you know how to work it?’ Dad’s friends would say, ‘I’ll pay you $100 to come teach me.’ It became my little trick that I could use this thing,” Brown says.
A couple years later, when she was 17, Director Robert Rodriguez set up a fledgling ADR operation at Tequila Mockingbird, and Brown got on board.
“His people showed me how to set up a session and do ADR,” she told a reporter for an audio blog. “He referred other people to me, and that’s how I got into post-production.”
Brown eventually got her college degree—in philosophy, no less.
She recounts one session recording Matthew McConaughey for a commercial, a Don’t Mess With Texas spot.
“I remember saying, ‘I am so sorry, guys, but I have an ethics class in 15 minutes, so I’m going to run to UT and be right back.’ For the rest of the session,” she says, “Matthew would say, ‘All right, Shay. What would Nietzsche say about that take? What would Plato think of our commercial?’ ”
Now, after 20 years in the business, banter with the stars has become second nature. Brown is more focused on growing her business, cramming as much family life as she can manage into every day, pursuing yoga. (She has been a devout practitioner of the Mysore style of Ashtanga yoga for 15 years. “It helps me quiet my mind and prep for the day,” she says.) And she wants to mentor and encourage young girls to join her in the industry.
“Occasionally, there’s a group of high-school students that come through on a field trip and I’ll single out the girls,” Brown says. “ ‘Hey, look around. We need more women in this industry. We need you to step up!’ ”
Cut to a gorgeous afternoon in mid-February. Brown is at her console, clad all in black, waiting for a young actor named Matthew Rudd. Rudd is coming in to dub a fragment of dialogue, literally one line (“Nobody controls the digital space!”) for the TV series American Crime.
Brown welcomes him in, sets him up in the studio and begins to do her digital thing with a post-production coordinator in Los Angeles. Rudd knocks out a dozen quick takes with varying degrees of emphasis. It takes just a few minutes and the process appears seamless to an observer. Like her husband noted, Brown is very quick indeed. Rudd hardly has time to finish his Diet Dr Pepper.
“All good. I think you’re done,” says someone on the line from Los Angeles. “Wow,” Rudd says with a smile. “Let me catch my breath.”
Daniel Craig, Shayna Brown is waiting for your call.