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By Toni Venditti
Becky Pell is a successful audio engineer, yoga teacher and writer living in London with her Australian husband – FOH engineer Chris Pyne, who she met while they were touring together with Kylie Minogue. Originally from Northern England, Becky moved to London for work when she was 20. She’s had a varied career working as a monitor tech for Black Crowes, Travis and Kylie Minogue for a long time before moving behind the desk to mix monitors for Aha, Muse, Anastacia, Il Divo, Westlife, Sarah Brightman, Natalie Imbruglia, and Take That. Currently Becky is working with Shane Filan, Gary Barlow and Anastacia.
Her love for the industry began when Becky attended her first gig at the age of 12. She scored a seat behind the FOH desk and her view of the show and the activity involved to put on a show of that calibre fascinated her – she didn’t know whether to watch the engineer or the band. It was here that she realised there could be a career for her that looked way more fun than a proper job! That was it for Becky, from that day she was determined to be a sound engineer.
After Becky finished school she attended the School of Audio Engineering in London initially and was commuting 350km each way 3 times a week until the School of Sound Recording opened in Manchester and she was able to transfer closer to home. They taught her about the physics of sound and how to navigate her way around a desk, but she says she is not sure how much actual knowledge it gave her other than demonstrating to prospective employers how serious she was about her career and education. To get experience and work, Becky wrote to everyone audio-related in The White Book (the pre-internet industry bible) without results although she did pick up some unpaid backstage work at the Glastonbury festival which just helped to fuel the fire in her belly!
Eventually she saw an ad in a performing arts paper, The Stage, for a sound engineer at a South London PA company – R G Jones Sound Engineering. While being under-qualified she thought she would give it a go anyway so she applied. Becky’s luck shone through because at the time they were also looking for a junior/apprentice. Simon Honywill and John Carroll decided to give her a go and she moved to London a week later. Her career started with cleaning a lot of cables, loading a lot of trucks, and eventually she was allowed to start getting her hands on the gear. Becky says this was a fantastic starting point for her giving her the basic grounding and she would recommend that route to anyone wanting to really learn their chops. She was with R G Jones for five years learning the ropes and getting to know a lot of people in the business before going freelance. Her first tour was as Monitor Tech with the Black Crowes.
Becky has met a lot of great people along the way who are happy to help and teach interested people – Fred ‘Gumby’ Jackson – monitors for Bruce Springsteen pretty much taught her how to mix monitors, and Rod Matheson taught her about mixing techniques showing her his style of observing and listening to build a mix which was both musical and functional, and his relaxed but efficient communication with the band. From her husband Chris – she learnt a lot about EQing drums saying “He creates some of the best sounding drums I’ve ever heard so I shamelessly stole his techniques!”
There are many others who have shared their knowledge with her over the years and she is very grateful to them all. Becky likes to give back so last year she presented a half-day talk at a music college about life in the live music industry, and has kept in touch with some of the students offering advice and help, and like ‘Gumby”, Becky is always happy to have a young, keen tech working with her who’s up for learning the ropes.
Becky has had very little trouble being a woman in the business although she remembers one odious creep in the early days who told her she would never make it if she didn’t learn to open her legs. She found it really satisfying meeting him years later – having very much made it without having his recommendation! Becky has found she’s been quickly accepted by male crews by giving as good as she got and pulling her weight. Becky says “If you go around having a chip on your shoulder about being ‘different’, it will bite you on the arse. If you just forget about it and concentrate on being a valuable part of the team you won’t go too far wrong. As my mum has always said, ‘you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar”. Becky has earnt respect by being professional, reliable, friendly and helpful, and doing the best she can in every situation.
Working with an impressive roster of A level artists I asked Becky what she thought made a great audio engineer. She explains that while FOH and monitor engineers are different beasts – both need to be organised, work methodically and logically, and have trained ears to pick out different sounds in a mix and frequencies within that. They should be knowledgeable about the gear they’re using and be able to get around it fast (especially monitors) and most importantly – not be a stress-head.
Great communication is essential – you earn the artist’s trust and they feel safe with you. “Often they are feeling very exposed up there during a performance and they’re relying on you to give them a comfortable audio environment so they can relax and give their best performance. And you have to be able to deal with 6 different people talking to you at once”! One of Becky’s attributes is that she is good at maintaining a calm atmosphere on stage and being patient with ‘challenging’ artists. Her strength is blending the technical and analytical with the creative and intuitive.
When touring, Becky really enjoys using a Digico desk saying “they’re so versatile and intuitive to get around and they sound good”. She uses her own IEM (Ultimate Ears moulds) and will use UE18s for musicians and UE11s for singers. Her last purchase was an RF scanner (TTi Thurly Thandbar Instruments from http://www.aimtti.com), which is an invaluable tool and comes in pretty handy as the spectrum gets sold off and finding frequencies for clear IEM and mic channels can be difficult.
Becky’s most favourite gig was 2 sold out nights at the biggest stadium in Europe on Westlife’s farewell tour and her worst gig moment was when she fell into a very full and smelly portaloo at Glastonbury festival (I giggled!).
Becky has great advice for anyone starting out:
· Get a pension and set up a direct debit so you don’t even think about the money going out of your account
· Don’t go crazy when you see a nice big bank balance after a tour, because you don’t know how long it might have to last you, and the tax man will want some of it
· Try and save some of those lump sums for an investment like property.
“Oh, and cigarettes and drugs are a GIGANTIC waste of money – take it from me, you WILL look back and think – I wish I could have all that money I spent on killing myself, back”!
Becky is also a successful blogger. When we spoke about helping some women realise that it’s their ability and attitude that’s gets the gig or not, Becky had recently written a blog all about that very subject http://rocknrollyogi.com/?p=791
Touring worldwide and yoga are Becky’s life. Being a successful yoga teacher Becky also teaches while on the road, with whichever band she is touring with. Usually they’ll find there’s a bit of free time after soundcheck for one of Becky’s yoga classes. You can check her out on her website: http://rocknrollyogi.com
(UPDATED: The first version of this story had an error in the first par)
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