Engineer Spotlight: Bryony October
Well known for her earlier work with the Noisettes, Bryony October's story is one of classic hard work and determination to make it in an industry where it's notoriously difficult to get your first break. As a FOH Sound Engineer working with many critically acclaimed acts, her schedule is pretty packed. Fortunately, we were able to catch her in-between tours to find out how things have developed in her career and the industry over recent years.
Historically, you're perhaps best known for your work with the Noisettes, but since then you've been very busy indeed. Can you give us an overview of what you've been up to over the last few years?
Since the latter half of 2012, my main act has been FOXES, but I've also worked with Billy Ocean (FOH and Production Manager), Laura Marling (FOH), Marika Hackman (FOH/TM), and most recently, SOAK (FOH/TM). Taking on joint responsibilities of FOH and touring/production management has kept me really busy, but it's exciting to take on new challenges on tour.
I've read a couple of historic interviews where you explain how you got your break working for The Levellers, and how this led you on a career path to FOH sound. With the benefit of hindsight, what do you think is the best way for someone aspiring to work as an audio engineer to break through?
I wrote to their fan club aged 15 and asked if I could go to the Metway (their recording studio and management office/fan club in Brighton) to do my year 9 work experience. I was too embarrassed to post the letter myself, but my mum posted it in secret, and they replied straight away.
I went back every school holiday I could to help pack t-shirts for the fan club and later went on tour with them to sell said t-shirts.
It wasn't long before I got bored of t-shirts and started looking for other ways to help. At first, I bugged the crew to let me help load in the PA, and eventually they let me (under close supervision) mix some of the support acts. Eventually, I was appointed Violin tech but still continued to mix any support acts where possible. I met many of the bands I went on to mix and TM in this early stage of my career. On top of all this, I stuck at school to achieve my A'levels and then went to UNI (while touring), where I worked in the student union on the tech crew — it was a great, low-pressure place to learn.
My advice to any aspiring sound engineer is to get out there and do EVERYTHING you can on tour; let no job be too small, never say no, and don't worry about the money — get the experience. It's hard work, but it can't be about the money. I did t-shirts for Levellers, which led to doing t-shirts for Ash and Travis as well. It wasn't my first choice of job, but it meant I was around big productions and it paid my way through uni. If I was starting again, I would do exactly the same thing. Also consider local crew, at local venues; help everyone everywhere in all warps of tour life. Bug everyone, don't be embarrassed, just get out and do it and don't moan. And also get your driving license ASAP as that has been an essential part of many a tour in the early days for me.
In the past, you've described the challenges of discrimination on the job. Is this something that continues to be a bugbear for women in the audio industry or has the prejudice reduced at all?
Sometimes I have wondered if being a women has stymied my career, and given some previous experiences I'd argue it's had some impact. At this stage, though, it's water off a ducks back, as I've been really successful regardless and l am going to keep doing this for the rest of my career either way. I've been fortunate so far, but I've also, worked really hard, and I'm never out of work.
In many ways, I'd rather not dwell on any prejudice and instead focus on the job at hand. I worry that the more we make a spectacle of women in this industry, the more attention it draws to the idea that it's somehow surprising. There are numerous 'sound girl' forums and groups online, but no one would consider creating a group based on a sound engineers sexuality or race, so why should we single out gender?
At the same time, however, I don't see any real increase in the number of women working in the live music industry in technical jobs, so it's good to encourage women and reassure them that there is work for those who want it. It's not a lifestyle conducive to relationships or motherhood and the feeling that you're walking into a boys club a lot of the time would definitely put a lot of young people off male or female. I try to find a balance between retaining my femininity and being "one of the boys". At the end of the day, it's best not to make an issue of it; be nice to everyone, but stand your ground without making it about your gender. Don't be afraid to ask for help and appreciate that you can't please everyone. When all is said and done, I'm keen to encourage all young people to get involved, whether they're girls or boys!
We often find sound engineers have particular types of shows they enjoy working more than others; for example, some are big stadium show fanatics, whereas other engineers prefer festivals. What's your favourite type of event to mix and why?
FOXES just finished supporting Coldplay around a mix of arenas and stadiums in America. It was my first experience of an actual stadium tour, although I've mixed a few one-offs and also did monitors for Tim Burgess of the Charlatans on the Rolling Stones tour back in 2003. I definitely preferred mixing the Coldplay stadium shows over the arenas; personally, I find arena touring rather "groundhog day" as a lot of them look identical and the acoustics are very challenging.
Hands down, though, I love mixing festivals the most. There is nothing like the buzz of the band walking out on stage when you haven't heard the system. I miss the old days of dialling it all into an analogue board and hoping for the best; it was an incredible adrenaline rush.
What is your favourite venue or space you've worked at to date?
I absolutely love Vicar Street in Dublin. I've had what i consider to be two of my top three sounding shows in there with Laura and an Irish folk singer called Cara Dillon — it really suits acoustic music. I've also seen many a Christy Moore gig in there; it's just the perfect atmosphere. Noisettes have played there too, but the atmosphere didn't quite translate with amplified music; it's definitely a place for folkies.
This summer I've done some amazing venues in America with SOAK supporting Lumineers - the classics, like Red Rocks Amphitheatre (no one told me about the wind factor) and the stunning Chicago Theatre. The first night of Coldplay in the 88k capacity MetLife Stadium was another recent highlight; I'd never used the Digico SD7 before and we had no soundcheck — massive buzz!
Your portfolio of acts spreads diversely from the high-energy punk ethic of a group like The Noisettes to more laid back acoustic offerings like Marika Hackman. More recently your work with FOXES ventures into the realms of polished pop. How do you approach each artist differently from genre to genre?
I've been really lucky to work with some incredible and varied acts. I think the most important thing is to work with the source sound and not try to change what the band or artist is trying to do musically. I get very involved with helping the band sound the best it can at source and then the rest looks after itself. Saying this, working one-on-one with Marika from the very start of her career has given us an incredible bond, and we worked a lot on adding different types of delay and reverb effects to her solo stuff for that extra dimension.
Moving more into the technical realm, what would say is the most challenging aspect of FOH sound in 2016, and how has your job changed over the last 10 – 15 years?
In terms of changes, it's really about the revolution of mixing consoles from analogue to digital. It's much harder to walk up to any old digital board as the basic principles can be very different from board-to-board. With analogue, you knew where to begin, as apart from layout, it was all the same structure. I think the most challenging aspect is to accept that you can't know every single new console straight away and that it often takes some digging around to get the most out of any given console.
Also, the increased use of plugins has opened up a whole new side to refined mixing — it gives engineers with some studio background a distinct advantage where they have had time to tweak and learn the subtle nuances they offer that you don't necessarily hear in a live situation. PA systems have definitely improved in the last 10-15 years too which makes large venues — like stadiums — more of a joy to work in.
For those not so technical, can you explain the challenges for example in working indoors vs. outdoors?
Outdoors is often easier as you're not battling with lots of reflective surfaces which bounce the sound around and reduce the fidelity like you would find indoors. But the downside is you are at the mercy of the weather. If the wind blows, you can't stop the high end being thrown about all over the place.
If you could pick one audio tip as your number one piece of advice, what would it be?
Use your ears, not your eyes.
Lastly (and we would ask this) what's your favourite Shure mic?
Hmm, this is a tough one. The KSM9 is a hit with every single artist I've ever tried it on, so it's now my go-to vocal mic. It has all the clarity and fidelity of a high-end condenser mic but a tight enough pick up pattern to avoid all the usual disadvantages of using a condenser on stage.
Listen to Bryony's Playlist
Check out the Shure Spotify page to hear Bryony's playlist featuring her career highlights to-date.