There are many jobs involved in large-scale touring — and established front-of-house mixer Bryony October has pretty much done them all.
Times have changed since the career path for a would-be sound engineer began with a stint as a roadie, which, with luck, led to a spot of knob twiddling on a primitive mixer through to, well, who could tell? If the band you were working for went on to stardom and international tours and you went with them, the sky was the limit. Today, by contrast, the aspiring engineer is quite likely to have gone through some form of academic training before starting out on his or her career. It’s a different approach that is not without its merits, but there is still room for people with determination and ability to get to the top without making their way there via the classroom. Take Bryony October as a case in point. She’s one of the highest-rated live-sound engineers in the UK and has worked with a long list of major artists. She toured as a PA tech with James Morrison, Morcheeba, Embrace, Katherine Jenkins and Snow Patrol, working her way up as both tour manager and front-of-house engineer, and for the last 20 years has mixed for Laura Marling, Noisettes, Foxes, Billy Ocean and now Katie Melua and British female country duo Ward Thomas.
Her route into this career began at school. “At the age of 15 I got Year 10 work experience with the Levellers at their fan club, and kept going back to help out in all my school holidays from then on. I started officially touring with them in the late ’90s, around the time of my ‘A’ Levels, and through university as merch seller. Very early into selling merch, I’d started helping out with building PA and other audio setups, as I wanted to get stuck in and help with the sharp end of the gig, rather than be stuck selling T-shirts.
“I actually took one of the first ever ‘A’ Levels in music technology, but did miserably at it because they didn’t really have anyone to teach such a subject back then, so at 18 I thought I was hopeless at anything technical — but once I got to uni I joined the union technical crew and found my technical calling. Once I had some of the rudiments of how a mixing desk worked, from doing mainly DJs at the student union, I was then very encouraged by the Levellers’ crew to help out on tour, and they would let me mix the support acts that came through, if they didn’t have an engineer. I also got work through the Levellers selling merch for Ash and Travis during uni, so I was around big-level touring a lot and tried to help out with everything from catering to backline to PA, as well on these various tours. I think I’ve done every job except lighting, because I hate ladders!
“In 2000 the Levellers made me their violin backline tech because I could also play violin and I could emergency re-string violins super-fast. Also, from doing sound, I knew my way around signal flow and wiring up effects rigs, which is a big part of the violin setup and sound.
“Through mixing the Levellers’ support acts I started to get offered work on small tours as dual tour manager/FOH engineer, working with bands such as Clearlake, the Crocketts (later the Crimea), the Delays and Captain. I also toured as a PA tech with James Morrison, Morcheeba, Embrace, Katherine Jenkins and Snow Patrol.”
Bryony remains sceptical about the idea that formal education alone can equip someone for a career mixing live sound. “Personally, even now with the abundance of courses available, I still wouldn’t recommend anyone do a degree in anything related to the live music industry. I don’t think you can learn how to do any aspect of live touring unless you are out there doing it, because the skill is coping with variables. Anyone can learn technical protocol and how a compressor works, but it invariably goes out the window every day depending on any number of other issues. The trick is being able to do it without a compressor. The job, for at least the first few years, is glorified damage limitation a lot of the time, especially when you are working your way up. You can’t possibly recreate that in a classroom in any realistic way. I tell anyone who wants to be a live sound engineer, lighting designer or tour manager, even if they are studying it, to go and join the local crew at their nearest decent-level venue, and volunteer at their nearest club-level venue. I really don’t think the ‘book’ route can ever apply in the live arena, because by the time you have enough time in the day to apply all the academic detail you have learned about, you’ll have been doing it enough years to have worked it out for yourself.”
And although the industry may be changing, women are still chronically under-represented in live sound, especially at the higher levels. “The majority of my work these days is with female-fronted bands or female artists,” she says. “I get offered a lot of TM roles as well as FOH, but I have moved more and more to only mix FOH, as that is my real passion and where I feel there is a huge glass ceiling still hanging over women in the live-music industry. I’m really determined to smash it but at the same time I think the more of an issue is made about it, the more of an issue it becomes, so you have to be really careful and just get on with it without bringing gender into it.
“You only have to look at the tiny number of female FOH engineers out there working at any kind of meaningful level across the world to know it’s still a huge issue. I feel like I am hammering a massive glass ceiling on a daily basis. I couldn’t name more than two or three other engineers working at a consistently high level at FOH, ie. touring their own consoles or PA with acts that are self-sustaining. I feel like women do get more of a look-in on monitors and could name you a good few more female monitor engineers and tour managers, and also more and more production managers coming into the fore, but it still seems to be an issue at FOH. I’ve definitely missed out on some big tours because the artist or management turned their nose up at the idea of a woman mixing them (not mentioning any names). On the flip side I almost exclusively work for female-fronted acts these days because there is more demand from them for female crew, or from managers of young up-and-coming female artists, where it’s simply a more comfortable scenario when touring one-on-one.”
Starting out in the 1990s meant that Bryony’s career has followed the widespread shift from analogue to digital mixing. “I was actually very lucky in terms of learning curve, because the Levellers were one of the first bands to take out a very early digital mixer that Soundcraft made,” she explains. “I had my hands on that mixing the support act on that tour, and then again in 2004, when the Avid Profile came out, I was mixing the support on the Manic Street Preachers tour, which was one of the first tours after McCartney, who I believe was first to use that console. I also remember working many times in the Astoria 2 [in London] where they had an early VI6, too. As a result, the learning curve wasn’t too bad, as I was working at a high enough level where I was given a lot of opportunities to get my head around the concept and operation of such new technology and embrace it as an inevitable development. I feel like I was really learning and developing at the very same time live consoles were making this huge transition, which puts me at a distinct advantage compared to those who were grounded in analogue for hundreds of years, or who only ever worked on digital.
“The biggest benefit I’ve found personally with my artists is the fact I can carry a tiny console packed with awesome stuff in a Peli case around the States or Europe when they have had to move into smaller venues, maybe, and we’ve been able to keep them on in-ears, keep the sound and especially the effects consistent, not be spending hours and hours each day rebuilding the mixes, where otherwise we would be battling with house consoles in various states of repair or huge variations in the quality and amount of outboard. All of which takes up valuable time the band would prefer to use for soundchecking or developing new music on the stage.”
In the studio world, many engineers still swear by the sound of analogue. Is that not the case in the live domain? “For audiences, I think the real gain is the improvement of PA systems and the amazing-sounding line-array systems we have today, more so than the advent of digital consoles.” However, she admits: “There aren’t many engineers of any standing out there that would turn you down if you offered them a full top-of-the-range analogue console and outboard setup for at least a show or two.”
But digital does, Bryony admits, have its down sides. “My biggest lamentation is losing that festival buzz where you dial something in from scratch on an analogue console and the band walk out on stage and you haven’t heard a note through the PA until the first song starts. Nothing can beat that rush of adrenaline, and it kind of feels like cheating a bit these days.
“Glitchy digital multicores or stagebox interface cards have been the bane of my life this year, and had me wishing for the analogue days, when you lost one channel at a time rather than a whole gig, even if it’s just momentarily. I had an incident recently where the stagebox card failed on me as the band started their headline performance, and we ended up having to get the monitor engineer to make a FOH mix, such was the seriousness of the issue.
“I definitely miss physical outboard and being able to physically grab hold of it and keep my eyes on it operating and metering all at once. I always say I’ll do a full analogue tour again one day and take an XL4 and racks of gear before I’m done with this touring life!”
Almost by definition, live audio engineering can be a fraught business, which may be one of its charms, and most engineers have some challenges they never forget.
“Probably one of the most challenging and yet rewarding experiences came about because of the familiar story of lack of time and money going into an extremely high-pressure situation. I’ve worked with the singer Foxes since 2012, and she got booked for the Coldplay US stadium tour as support with about three weeks’ notice back in 2016. The budget was extremely tight and our monitor engineer wasn’t available. We had been touring Soundcraft consoles all year and were not set up in any way for the DiGiCo SD7s that would present themselves 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 at the same time as building my FOH mix.
“It was a big risk but I knew, having experienced being on stadium tours before, that we would not get any soundcheck time for sure on the first day, if at all on the tour, so I had to make something meaningful in the space of a day’s rehearsal. We hired a DiGiCo SD7 console, like they were going to be using for FOH — which, thankfully was also the monitor console — and I set about building and then rehearsing a combined FOH and monitor file for the band. They are all on in-ears, so it required some delicacy, but I knew the band very well at this stage and they had taken a long time to settle into having a separate monitor engineer when we got to that stage. Having had me mix from FOH for such a long time, they liked the very live sound they got with me just setting their mixes and leaving it to concentrate on FOH.
“I went into the hire company to set up the desk file the day before, which was a lifesaver, time wise, and spent a good 12 hours swearing at the SD7, wondering how anyone with remotely chunky fingers (mine are fairy-like compared with most blokes) ever got anywhere, until I remembered I had a touchscreen 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, then going into a 100,000-capacity gig and handing the monitor file over to a complete stranger, but I was so determined and it was incredibly important 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 the way their sound works, but also keeping things as simple as possible. 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 absolutely 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 by this point and 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, and then it was a case of hoping for the best when we arrived on site the next day at the first Coldplay show. Not ideal!
“Thankfully, on the day 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 absolutely packing it about the state of the desk files on a console I had learned in the previous two days. It was akin to the old analogue festival days I was reminiscing over earlier. 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!”
One of Bryony’s major challenges must, surely, have been her work with Katie Melua, notably the experience of getting the sound right when Ms Melua was working with the 24-piece Gori Women’s Choir.
“I was recommended to Katie by Ethan Johns’ studio engineer, Dom Monks. We all toured together on Ethan’s first tour as a solo artist where I was mixing the support act, Marika Hackman (who is one of my all-time favourite artists and anyone who reads this should immediately go and check her out!). I was really nervous about working with Dom and Ethan as I am a huge fan of their work on some of my favourite records from Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams and Laura Marling, and I felt like if ever my lack of formal training was going to be exposed it was now, but it transpired I was actually able to be a real help to Dom in areas that didn’t translate so much from the studio, like the way you EQ a room and the kind of mics I had chosen for live use. We had a really great tour working together and it was a great honour to be recommended by him for the job with Katie.
“Katie was an absolute joy to work with. She’s more engaged with the importance of how things sound than any other artist I’ve ever worked with and she took endless time and care over working and experimenting with me and all the musicians in the band. I was really lucky because I was asked to go in with her and the band at the very start of rehearsals with just a completely stripped-back setup, making room recordings as they jammed new material out. So I heard everything in its absolute rawest form before transferring over to the full production rehearsal setup. It meant I could come at it with a true overall picture of the sound she was looking for, rather than hearing everything split through 40-odd channels and putting it back together that way. It meant I had a really organic starting point from which to approach mixing it once we got it into production rehearsals. The luxury of time! Her voice is simply beautiful and I took enormous care with getting the right balance of vocal effects and processing. Similarly, the whole sound needed a really delicate and subtle approach so I treated it as such in the way I EQ’d and processed it, relying more upon the right mics and positioning than trying to really change the source sounds to suit me.”
Almost as an aside, it’s worth mentioning here that Bryony, a noted fan and long-time user of Shure mics, chose to use DPAs when working with Katie Melua. “I’m a huge fan of DPA’s d:facto vocal mic, and tend to use that with most of my artists now,” she says, “although I always work directly with singers, giving them a chance to listen to a range of mics when we first start working together so that it’s a mutual decision. DPA’s other mics were particularly suited to Katie’s music due to its extremely delicate and dynamic nature, which called for lots of condensers on the drum kit to capture the most subtle percussive nuances, yet also coping with the more traditional harder-hit songs, and of course we had the choir, which is where DPA’s d:screet mics really came into their own. That said, I’m a huge fan of Shure’s KSM vocal mic and the vast majority of my mics on other full-band setups are always Shure. It was just particularly with Katie where the dynamic is quite different that DPA have come in especially useful.
“The 24-piece Gori Women’s Choir only joined us for the biggest show on the recent tour, at the 10,000-capacity Black Sea Arena. It was most definitely a challenge. Aside from the initial ‘wows’ and ‘really?!’ when I was introduced as the FOH engineer, the PA installation involved a bit of wrangling, with a good proportion of the boxes being aimed at the ceiling and being immovable, so we had to switch a few of those off for starters! Then there was the question of the choir and channels. The venue only had a limited-size stagebox, which we were maxing out, and before I came on board, the monitor engineer had sent a stereo mix of the choir up to FOH. This really wasn’t working for me in soundcheck, as the arena was extremely reverberant and the gain was too high on the mics, which was causing feedback. I needed the gain significantly lower than the monitor engineer had it, because the whole choir were on in-ears, so I had to wrangle eight channels out of an exhausted stagebox to make it work by sacrificing some other channels that were of less importance in this instance. It made all the difference to have this control and solved the problem immediately. In future I would probably put even more mics in front of the choir.”
Our discussion inevitably moves further down the chain, from microphones to mixing, and in particular Bryony’s must-have gear. “Soundcraft have been extremely good to me. I was lucky enough to be photographed as part of their advertising campaign for the VI6 and they have given me new consoles to test out on the road. Having transitioned from analogue to digital, the VI format has always felt the most natural surface for me as you can basically see what you’re doing across all channels, which is something you can’t really do on any other digital console. I absolutely swear by the built-in BSS 901 multiband compressor plug-in, which again you can see metering on your channel strip at all times, and the onboard Lexicon effects are second to none. I’ve not traditionally been hugely into plug-ins, having come from such an analogue background, but I’ve been embracing their Real-Time rack more recently and getting good results from some effect and compressor plug-ins.
“As I say, I’m a huge fan of the BSS 901, and I used them a lot in analogue outboard format so it’s great to have them back and, crucially, be able to see them metering at all times no matter what page you’re on. I have an equivalent XTA D2 dynamic EQ, which I use when I haven’t got my Soundcraft console. I also have an ancient [Roland] SDE-3000 delay unit, which I bought in its original box for £48 in 2001, and which I still drag out with me as much as possible.”
The quality of live sound has undergone a revolution in the past decade or so, but there can still be issues. “I try not to be too judgemental, because you can never be sure what the engineer is up against in terms of the source sound, demands from the artist, or other limitations of the venue, musicians, or any of the other seemingly unlimited variables. There are such a huge number of factors at play that are out of the engineer’s ultimate control.
“I do believe very strongly that part of the job of an FOH engineer is working directly with the band members on source sound, because unless you get that right you don’t have a hope, and I don’t know if all engineers realise how forthright you sometimes need to be on that front. You are like the fifth member of the band in some ways. I don’t think there is ever an excuse not to get the vocal high in the mix — that can be a major bugbear of mine. Bass guitars also trouble me a great deal. You have to work really hard every day with the room and then the bassist or bass tech to get the tone right between that and the kick drum, so that the bass player’s parts are decipherable as opposed to just low-end rumble. I think engineers get a bit lazy with that sometimes and just go for huge bass as opposed to tone and notes.
“I’m really wary of over-reliance on plug-ins, a lot of which I feel are a bit ‘emperor’s new clothes’, because live sound is just not subtle enough to hear the nuances of a lot of these very sophisticated pieces of software. There will always be a bit of ego associated with having lots of toys, they just come in virtual format these days. I’ve seen absolute disasters where the gain structure of the entire mix is reliant on plug-ins and the console has just sat down. Having come from an analogue background where outboard was always somewhat limited I’m definitely a less-is-more kind of gal. My philosophy is very much that if you’ve set the PA up properly and the source sound is good, and the right mic is put in the right place, you shouldn’t need to mess around too much.”