Women in Pro Audio: Bryony October Women in Pro Audio: Bryony October...
“I love the feeling of mixing live music. Let’s face it; we are getting paid to facilitate the audience dancing and filling the room with oxytocin and euphoria. What’s better than that?” – Bryony October
When talking about strong women in the pro audio industry, you may have heard of one exceptional female in the biz. And if you haven’t—well—read on and get to know her because she’s breaking glass ceilings and disrupting the paradigm of being a new mom in this industry.
Having toured the world for the best part of 25 years as a freelance FOH Sound Engineer and Tour Manager, Bryony October currently mixes FOH for multi-platinum-selling artist Katie Melua, Grammy award-winning pop sensation Foxes, and the number one female country duo in the UK, Ward Thomas. Which she has proudly pointed out as, “All female-fronted acts!” She started touring at 15 years old, selling merchandise for her favorite band in the 90s, the Levellers.
Before the completely connected social media and internet-world days, Bryony reached out to her favorite band the old school way via snail mail. “I always wanted to be a scriptwriter when I was a kid; I was a total movie buff. But music started to take over in my mid-teens, and I wrote to my favorite band to do schoolwork experience at their fan club. Back when fan clubs got you a magazine, exclusive releases, t-shirts, etc. The Levellers had a recording studio complex that also housed their fan club offices in Brighton, where my Uncle lived. I didn’t expect them to reply to my request for work experience, though! In fact, I was so embarrassed about asking that I wouldn’t post the letter so my mum did it in secret and sure enough they wrote back and invited me down for a week! I knew from that moment on that I had to work in the music industry.
“My heart had always been in live music. I was an avid hoarder of bootleg tapes recorded at concerts because I loved the nuances of live performances compared to the studio recordings. So, I guess it was a natural draw to end up in the live industry. Off the back of my work experience, I ultimately got a job with the Levellers as the assistant merchandise seller, where I was thrown into the world of touring, and I instantly LOVED it. I thought I wanted to be a Tour Manager as I didn’t have any technical skills, but I was very organized. However, I quickly got bored during the days waiting to set up on tour, so I ended up helping with the PA load in and set up.”
After Bryony showed a lot of interest, “or rather I nagged them so much to teach me,” the band’s FOH engineer eventually started letting her mix the supporting acts coming through. From there on out, it was history—and fate.
The Tough Parts
While tour life has incredible moments, Bryony gets honest about the more complicated parts of working in pro audio. A refreshing transparent description of the struggles, she probably speaks for a lot of FOH engineers, not just the women. “I think relentless hours far away from home and always saying yes to work above everything else probably wasn’t the healthiest way to spend my 20s and 30s. Probably the most significant struggles are the compromises you have to make in your home life: missing important events, not being able to commit to friendships or relationships, or trying to and then failing because you’re away. But you simply have to put in the time to get anywhere in this industry. Saying this, I’ve had the time of my life in the process, and I don’t regret anything.”
“I also think the lack of formality of employment is a huge issue, especially now post COVID. I think the live world is still the wild west of work where you are totally vulnerable and unprotected as a freelancer working directly for an artist. You can be hired and fired on a whim, and a tour can get canceled with no notice leaving you high and dry financially. It makes for a very unhealthy working environment and pits people against each other. There are obviously some benefits to such flexibility, and there isn’t an easy answer, especially at a grassroots level, but I think there is no excuse for established artists and production companies not to protect their loyal crew members.”
She has a few sage words when it comes to tips for others in the industry. “I’ve learned almost all I know on the job and from talking to or watching/working with other people. I think this is the best way to learn with live sound because anything else won’t prepare you for all the idiosyncrasies of working in an entirely new environment almost every day, regardless of your skill level.”
However, she advises that it’s important to know the fundamentals out on the job. “I’ve also always tried to keep an open mind about equipment, and I wouldn’t consider myself a gear snob or tech-head, but I know what works for me and what I like. I’m still open to trying new things and experimenting rather than sticking with what I know. I would say I’m not very forward-thinking in some respects, though, as I will always love analog consoles above anything digital!” she chuckles.
Bryony also advises future females getting into the industry to “be really clear about the career path you want to take. By all means, work in a few different roles at the very start, but decide which department you want to work in and stick to it.” Hearing about people trying to multi-task by doing lights, sound, video, and tour management, Bryony feels “is a recipe for long-term, low-end work rather than high-end specialism, and it has held me back from working as a TM/FOH. Specialize and stick to your guns, getting as much experience as possible in your chosen field only. By all means, take on merch or something similar to get you on tour in the first place. But once you are getting paid work in your field, stick with that, and push forward. Don’t compromise!”
Bryony personally feels that being a woman in this industry has had its positives and challenges, “I’m certain my gender has worked both ways for me in terms of work. In the past, I know that at some pretty crucial career junctures, I was passed over for work because of reticence from both the artist and management of putting a woman at FOH. But at the same time, I’ve worked with some incredible female artists who wouldn’t have it any other way, and I got the job because they wanted more women on their crew, especially mixing their out-front sound. I think the moral of that story is that it’s tough coming up through the industry no matter what your gender.”
Yet navigating the social aspects of the job can be trickier for women: “It’s easier for guys to hang out, invite each other to the pub, have a laugh over a text, or call each other up after the tour finishes. But that can be awkward for women when they’re in the minority. There are certain unspoken connotations if a guy from the tour messages you to go for dinner or a drink or vice versa if you message them. That can make it a very lonely place for a woman.”
Sometimes the most remarkable memories or achievements come during the highest moments of stress. Some might say that’s what makes it all worth it. For Bryony, she learned how to push through despite the numerous headaches and recounts one show, in particular, that was memorable for all those reasons.
“I had worked with the singer Foxes since 2012, and in 2016, with only three weeks’ notice, she got booked for the Coldplay US stadium tour as support. The budget was extremely tight, and our monitor engineer wasn’t available. We had been touring Soundcraft VI consoles all year and were not set up in any way for the Digico SD7s for this tour. We only had one day’s rehearsal, so it made time (and budgetary) sense that I should set up the band’s in-ears while building my FOH mix. It was a big risk, but I knew, having experienced stadium tours before, that we would not get any soundcheck time on the first day, if at all on tour, so I had to make something meaningful in the space of a day’s rehearsal.
“We got our hands on a Digico SD7 console they would be using for FOH (which was also the monitor console), and I set about building, then rehearsing a combined FOH and monitor file for the band. They were all on in-ears, so it required some delicacy, but I knew the band very well at this stage. They took a long time to settle into having a separate monitor engineer when we got to the stage because, having had me mix from FOH for such a long time, they liked the very live sound they would get with me just setting their mixes, then leaving it to concentrate on FOH.
“I went to set up the desk file the day before, which was a lifesaver time-wise. I had spent a good 12 hours swearing at the SD7, wondering how anyone with remotely chunky fingers (mine are fairy-like compared to most blokes’) ever got anywhere until I remembered I had a touch screen nib on the end of a pen in my bag. (It’s the small things.) It was a real challenge setting up such an unfamiliar console for both FOH and monitors when you are going into a hundred-thousand capacity gig and handing the monitor file over to a complete stranger. But I was so determined, and it was imperative on a professional level that we go into that show looking up together. It was a case of just using everything I knew about the band and how their sound works and keeping things as simple as possible so that someone else could just walk up to it. I think that’s a good rule in all high-pressure situations. The fact that they all trusted me already was a huge bonus.
“The rehearsal was going swimmingly for several hours until the SD7 dual-engine fell over and started doing some quite random things beyond my, at that stage, limited understanding of its brainpower. Alas, it was late on a Sunday. I couldn’t get a hold of anyone for tech support, so again after much swearing, I had no choice but to move on to the rehearsal room Avid console, so we could at least finish the rehearsal. Then it became a case of hoping for the best when we arrived on-site the next day at the first Coldplay show. Not ideal! Thankfully, both files loaded and line checked no problem, so when the band stepped out onto the stage at the MetLife stadium with no more than a line check, everything came together beautifully, and they had the gig of their lives. I also had one of the most awesome live mixing experiences of my life despite being terrified about the state of the desk files on a console I had learned in the previous two days. It was akin to the old analog festival days when you dial in the mix from scratch during a 30-minute changeover, and then the band walks out in front of sixty thousand people, and you’re not entirely sure how the vocals will sound. Hats off to the incredible systems engineers from Wigwam who looked after us on that tour and made all those stadiums sound amazing! All those years of having to mix monitors from FOH finally paid off. I was clearly born to mix in stadiums, though,” Bryony smiles.
Pride and Analog
When asked about her favorite show or proudest moment, Bryony quickly answered and shared her love of analog. “I started mixing in the 90s a few years before the advent of digital consoles, but by the time I had gotten to a level where I was touring with my own console, it was all digital. I always promised myself that—when the right tour came up—I would take an analog desk and racks of a lovely old outboard, but it didn’t happen until 2018. The tour was Katie Melua with the 16-piece Georgian Gori Women’s choir. I have never been so excited or proud to have been a part of such a tour and take out that gear package. It was a brave and bold move as it simply isn’t the thing you do anymore. Many venues don’t have space at FOH, and local crews are not used to handling such a large and heavy console. It is also a completely different mixing experience, and some people would say, much more limited, which it is in a way. I see it as ‘real mixing’ because there are no snapshots or recall, and you have to really listen to what you’re doing instead of pulling out frequencies on a visual display. I had the BEST time, and it was the MOST incredible sound. There were so many positive reviews and endless streams of people complimenting the sound both to me at FOH, on social media to Katie, and the show reviews. Legendary producer William Orbit came to two shows and told Katie that it was in the top ten sonic experiences of his life!”
What a Feeling
Why does she do it? “I love the feeling of mixing live music. Let’s face it; we are getting paid to facilitate the audience dancing and filling the room with oxytocin and euphoria. What’s better than that? I feel so lucky to be a part of helping recorded music, peoples’ favorite songs, take on a whole new dimension in the live sphere. I love the camaraderie and the adventure of going to new places. It has never faded for me in all the years, after all the hours waiting in airports, all the crap food, being too cold or too hot, or tired or wired when you need to sleep. It’s the most fun anyone could ever have in a job, and it absolutely beats working for a living!”
Bryony and her partner, Jake Vernum, welcomed their first child, Jesse, into the world during the early days of the pandemic. “I was eight weeks pregnant when the world shut down. Before then, I was completely torn with the whole baby idea for most of my 30s and leaning very much toward not wanting to be a mother because I couldn’t imagine ever being able to work again. It felt like career suicide, but I told my partner I wanted to try ‘once’ before I turned 40 just so I could say we had tried, and then I could forget about it and get on with my career. But of course, once worked, and Jesse was due on my 40th birthday. I don’t know how I would have gotten through touring while pregnant, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do the mental and physical preparation that has enabled me to embrace motherhood in the way that I have. But likewise, I don’t know how I would have gotten through lockdown if I hadn’t had the baby to focus on. I have done nothing but work for 25 years, so I don’t think I would have fared very well. In terms of the professional effect, it’s tough to decipher whether it’s the baby or the pandemic, but I feel much better equipped for maintaining a work-life balance and saying NO!”
After the quiet days of early babyhood, when tour life started to pick back up, Bryony transitioned to going back on tour, so she had to take baby Jesse with her on a handful of production rehearsals and summer shows with Katie Melua, and then Ward Thomas. When you’re a breastfeeding mom, your body becomes your child’s sole nourishment, and taking your baby everywhere with you becomes necessary. Because the artists were so understanding and wanted Bryony on tour with them, she decided that getting some help from her mother wasn’t a bad idea. “My mum, who has lived through the ‘golden age’ of Glastonbury, jokingly always said how she would love to come on tour with me, so it seemed natural to ask her along to look after Jesse,” Bryony notes. “At first just for a few festivals both in the UK and Europe and subsequently on a full six-week tour, on a tour bus with Ward Thomas headlining, then opening for Tom Jones. Jake and my mum took turns looking after Jesse on the big tour,” she recalls.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think it will ever become the norm to bring your baby on tour. But, I am just seriously lucky that the artists I work with are utterly committed to making it work by helping me continue to tour with a young, breastfeeding child in tow. I think you have to have unique circumstances like mine in that my mum will come on tour with me for free (hats off to her for being that brave in her late 60s), and that my artists support it.”
The Future of Sound
As far as what Bryony sees for her career in the future, “I can’t wait to get my ears and mixing fingers on an L-ISA immersive system! I think this is just the beginning of the future of live sound. I see digital consoles getting bigger and bigger too; it’s already happening, so they will hopefully start to feel a bit more like mixing on an analog console with some of the benefits of digital like snapshots and recording interfaces.”
And when it comes to women in pro audio, she states, “There are so few female FOH engineers and systems techs that I would love to see more. There seem to be a lot more female monitor engineers coming through, which is amazing, but let’s get some more girls out front!”