Welcome to Women in Audio, a new series for the HARMAN Professional Solutions Insights blog, in which we will highlight some of the exceptional women in the professional audio industry. According to Women’s Audio Mission, women constitute only five percent of those creating the “sounds and media” in our lives. At HARMAN and throughout the industry, however, women’s artistry, technical brilliance and business acumen impact much of the work we do. We look forward to celebrating some their achievements with you.
In our debut installment, I’d like to introduce the multitalented Becky Pell. A native of Yorkshire, England, Becky spends much of her time touring the world while incorporating her three passions—mixing monitors, yoga and writing.
Becky has served as a monitor engineer for artists such as A-ha, Il Divo, Muse, Westlife, Anastacia, Sarah Brightman, Natalie Imbruglia and others as well as a monitor tech for Kylie Minogue, Black Crowes and Travis. Each year, Becky also oversees the main stagemonitors at the Glastonbury Festival in England. While on the road, she frequently teaches yoga to the artists and crew, helping them stay calm, focused and balanced. When not on the road, Becky leads workshops, retreats and courses in yoga and meditation
I recently spoke with Becky as she and her husband, Australian front of house engineer Chris Pyne, were packing to move back to Australia from London. She told me that two weeks after the move, she would return to England to start a tour with Anastacia, who she has worked with for eight years.
Becky first set her sights on a career in tour sound as a pre-teen, although her interest in yoga didn’t blossom until a couple decades later. “Being a sound engineer was all I wanted to do from the age of 12, when I went to my first gig. I saw the band A-ha and happened to sit behind the front of house engineer,” she said. “I found I had a very visceral reaction to music. I loved the way it had such power to affect emotions, and that really inspired me. I realized there was a whole industry, and you could have a job working in it. As I learned more, I discovered there was a thing such as a monitor engineer as well as a front of house engineer. From that first show, the spark was lit. Down the line, I actually wound up spending five years as a monitor engineer for A-ha. It was a really nice full circle.”
“From quite early on, I liked how monitor engineers, who are responsible for what artists hear on stage, are involved at the hub of the action, have that relationship with the band and are quite closely involved with the performance. I was drawn toward blending a people experience with the creativity of mixing sound,” said Becky.
As soon as she was old enough, Becky enrolled in the School of Audio Engineering (now the SAE Institute) in London and commuted 160-miles each way twice a week from Manchester for classes. When the School of Sound Recording (SSR) opened in Manchester, even though the program wasn’t focused on live sound engineering, she immediately transferred.
“It was all very studio based,” she said, “but still seemed like a foot in the door and taught me the basics of theory.” After graduating, Becky worked in a couple of studios, “making the tea and sweeping the floor.” She wrote to numerous listings in the then industry bible, “The White Book,” but didn’t receive a single reply.
“One day, I spotted an ad for a sound company in London. RG Jones Sound Engineering was looking for an engineer. I knew I was under qualified, but applied anyway. They invited me in for an interview and offered me a position as an apprentice,” she said. A week later, she started and stayed for five years. “By then, I had started to mix monitors a lot, went freelance and got into touring more.”
One day, when Becky was in her early 30s and living in Australia, she spontaneously took a yoga class that was included in her gym membership. “It was just like that first A-ha gig. I fell in love with yoga in the same way I fell in love with being a sound engineer. It was very much a bolt of lightening in both cases. I knew I wanted to have yoga as a big part of my life.”
These days, Becky teaches yoga on almost every tour she goes on and has recently qualified as a yoga therapist. “I generally teach an hour class either before or after soundcheck for the band or artist or whoever wants to be involved. It gives people an opportunity to do something productive and good for themselves during the working day,” she said. “It also bonds people and keeps the positive vibes up, which is a great thing. For my own personal practice, it’s incredibly beneficial. I also generally do an hour-long practice in the morning before I load in. It keeps me centered, balanced and patient. It’s a really vital part of my routine.”
Teaching yoga, like mixing monitors, involves a high level of trust between Becky and the artists with whom she works. “My aim on stage is to create a comfortable audio environment and a good working relationship,” she said. “It’s the same in the yoga class. I want people to feel comfortable with me, comfortable in that space and, ultimately, comfortable in their own bodies and minds. It’s quite interrelated.”
I was curious how Becky cultivates those kinds of relationships with artists. “It’s all about being open, professional and making sure they know you’ve got their back,” she said. “As a monitor engineer, you’re kind of an avatar for that person’s mix. You’re trying to give them what they need, so they can forget about the technicalities and give their best performance.”
“Working with a new artist, it’s important to get off on the right foot, right from the start,” she said. “You’ve got to go in being friendly and confident, and find out what they want. It’s really a two-way street. It’s important to really talk to them, to understand what they’re used to hearing.”
“When you first start out, it’s important to have a conversation about what instruments they tend to pitch to. Typically, with a singer, they like a lot of keys or piano, but other singers prefer more guitar,” said Becky. “It’s what they need to find their way in the music. Then, it’s learning if they like a very full mix or something more stripped down and simple. Of course, there are always tweaks in the early days of working together, so there’s a lot of reliance on sign language. It’s easier when you’ve been working with a particular artist for a while. Once you get used to hearing what they like, you instinctively know what they need.”
Between tours and yoga retreats, Becky enjoys writing. She maintains her Rock ‘n’ Roll Yogi blog, is a regular contributor to SoundGirls, a comprehensive website for women in audio and music production, and is putting the final touches on two books—a yoga book for children and a self-help book.
When asked if she has any advice for people first entering the business of tour sound, Becky said, “If you’re thinking of getting into this industry, and it really lights you up, I would say go for it, but be prepared to have a thick skin. Take some knockbacks, and when you have a few doors slammed in your face, don’t give up. Keep pushing through, because it’s a fantastic way to earn a living. You make some great friends, get to work with something you love and travel the world. Be prepared, though; it is hard work. You’re not going to waltz out of college and be mixing a big band any time soon. There’s a lot of groundwork you have to cover that being at college doesn’t teach. The only way is to get involved and work your way up. There are trucks to be loaded, cables to be cleaned and floors to be swept. It’s not glamorous; it’s hard work. But if you really want to get further up the ladder, it’s worth it, because you get to learn the industry inside out.”
Reflecting on her years on the road, Becky said, “I’m really very lucky. I have three great ways of spending time on my career—three ways that don’t feel like work at all!”
Many thanks to Becky for the insights into her multifaceted professional life. Are you a woman who balances professional audio work with other career goals? Share your story in the comments.