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Bryony October: riding the faders for Noisettes

Bryony October, 30, has already been working in the music industry for fifteen years; and now she's mixing FOH full time for UK pop act Noisettes. October talks to Paul Watson about her route into live sound; and how some engineers struggle to understand why ‘a girl’ is doing their job…

Bryony October, 30, has already been working in the music industry for fifteen years. Her first unexpected break came at just 15 when she started working for The Levellers fan club; and since then, she’s never looked back. Fresh from a trip to Malawi mixing FOH for UK pop act Noisettes, of which she’s very much part of the furniture, October talks to Paul Watson about her route into live sound; and how some engineers struggle to understand why ‘a girl’ is doing their job… How does it feel having a cooler name than any rock band? [laughs] Thanks! I mean, I think it’s done me a favour actually. People not only remember me because I’m a girl, but because I’ve got such an unusual name as well, so… You don’t see many female FOH engineers; how did you get into it? And has it been difficult? It all began when I was fifteen. I was a huge Levellers fan; this was in 1995. They were a huge band, so I wrote to their fan club and wanted to say ‘can I come on work experience?’ But I was too embarrassed to send the letter because they’d think I was stupid for asking that, so my mum nicked the letter and posted it without telling me and sure enough within a few days I got a response saying ‘yeah sure, you can come down this week for work experience’; so I did. My Uncle happened to live in Brighton – and I was living in Cambridgeshire at the time, so I went down for a week and that was it. I had a fantastic time with them and then every school holiday I was down at my Uncle’s in Brighton, just literally packing T-Shirts into envelopes to send off or photocopying. So, when it came around to them doing their next tour they were doing two nights in Cambridge Corn Exchange and had a day off before, so they said ‘you should come and have three days with us experiencing what it’s like to be on tour’, so I went and did that; and I was like ‘this is it – I want to be on tour.’ I didn’t know what I was going do, but I had to get out there. So you were hooked from the word go then? Yeah; and I was a huge fan. I played a lot of instruments – I was never a very good musician, but I played violin and piano; and I was in the orchestra at school. But performing wasn’t something that really did it for me; I was more interested in behind the scenes and how it went together and stuff. While I was doing work with The Levellers I was still at school. I was the assistant merch seller; and the main guy suddenly had someone to boss around. I mean, I had to go to the PA and lights truck at nine in the morning to make sure no-one stole any boxes; those boxes were, like, a thousand quid a box – just full of t-shirts, so I found myself just sitting on boxes for the first couple of days watching this hive of activity thinking ‘there must be something more I can do!’ So I started to try and see where I could help out elsewhere. I spoke to the sound and PA guys; and they were quite encouraging. And then you went to University? Yeah. And as soon as I got there, they wanted people to join the tech crew. I did an A-Level in music and there was a technology module in there, but there wasn’t a teacher for it so it was a bit vague so I hadn’t got a grasp of it. I’d done the music A-Level no problem, but the technology part of it hadn’t really appealed to me. Then there was a recruitment for the union tech crew which I went down to because I thought ‘well I’ve been around all this kind of stuff for a few years now with The Levellers, let’s see if I can actually do it properly’; and I got into the tech crew no problem. I just started hauling and lugging gear. They had this amazing big Turbosound PA, Soundcraft desks – and no bands! Just two channels and a DJ three nights a week! What a waste… Exactly. And they had all the microphones too; we got taught which ones to use, like the Shure SM91 for the kick and so on; then I got really into it, and I was only four or five weeks into university and wasn’t particularly enjoying the course. I had three fairly good academic A-Levels and I was being pushed to go to Oxbridge and do Law or History or something, but I knew I wanted to tour from that first experience with the levellers when I was sixteen. What was your family’s reaction to that? Well, the first three days I spent with them when they were playing in Cambridge, my mum was phoning the tour manager all the time and really annoying him: ‘what’s going on? what’s she doing?’ [laughs] But I’ve always been quite feisty; and I know what I want to do. Anyway, at university I got really into the tech crew work and they got us to do a kind of test; I had to set up a little system for a DJ in a hall or a different bar, so really really quickly I was fully au fait with the system. Within three or four weeks of starting University I was like ‘right, I’m on fire now; I’m going to be a sound engineer!’ And when did you first work FOH? Around the same time as I was doing the merch for The Levellers. I was asked to do merch for Ash as well so I spent the whole of my University year on tour with the bands. The first time I ever did a FOH gig was at Ryde Ice Rink in the Isle of Wight and there were two support bands for The Levellers; and I told The Levellers sound engineer that I’d learned to do bits of sound stuff properly at university, so he said ‘well you can mix the support band then’; and that was a band called The Fish Brothers. There I was in a three-thousand-capacity Ice Arena behind a Yamaha PM4000 desk! So you were thrown in at the deep end then? I was completely thrown in at the deep end! But I was really up for that challenge. And it went alright? Yeah, basically I got really frustrated at University at the fact that we only had DJs in so I went and got a job at ULU, because the University I was at was part of the University of London; it’s called Royal Holloway but it’s in Surrey. So I got a job as a low level crew person for when they had all the bands come in; and basically that got me a little more band work and systems PA kind of stuff; and I met an amazing Welsh band called Murry The Hump. They said they needed someone to come and do sound for them on tour; and I said I’d do it for free if they’d just take me on tour with them because they’d just signed a small indie deal. You were still doing the merch at this stage? Yeah, still doing The Levellers stuff and Ash as well; I did some stuff with Travis too. I just wanted to immerse myself in touring basically. So, Murry The Hump got invited to John Peel’s house for his Christmas Party, and while I was there, I saw the bass player in that band I first mixed with The Levellers, The Fish Brothers. He was there with his girlfriend, who was John Peel’s daughter, and he said ‘so you’re doing sound now? I’ve got a band called Clearlake and I’m not very happy with the sound engineer’. He wanted somebody young that wasn’t going to put ‘their sound’ on his band, so he asked me to come and give it a try. Sounds like a twist of fate… Yeah. And my first gig for them was in the Leicester Charlotte which is a renowned terrible venue for sound; and I got the job for that and that saw me through and I got a lot of work touring as their sound engineer. It got me proper on the ground; and it was a bit of a shock after doing a big theatre tour with your own PA system, catering and buses, but we travelled round in a van with mattresses and really roughed it, but it was great. You must have come across some difficult male sound engineers on your travels? I won’t take any of that stuff; if someone’s funny, I’m funny back to them – so I’ve never let it get to me. I just got on with it really… Has it happened much? I think it probably did, but I sort of shut myself off and say ‘I won’t let this be a current issue’; and I just get on with it. In some ways I think it’s done me favours; sometimes you even get treated a bit more kindly, you know, they’re like ‘oh, I get to work with a girl today; that’s a bit different!’ But on the other hand there have definitely been comments, particularly in America. The first time I went to America with Clearlake there was a sound booth – about two foot wide with a desk in it; and the guy kept leaning over and constantly making comments. I just said ‘look will you let me get on with it?’ and he was like ‘no, no I wouldn’t be doing that if I were you’, and so on. I managed to get rid of him; eventually I just elbowed him out the way, but then at the end I remember he came up to me and said ‘I’m really sorry I’ve never worked with a female sound engineer – I didn’t think you could possibly know what you were doing.’ And that’s the only real occasion where I’ve had a major issue. There are definitely times when you get patronised though… You’ve been touring with Noisettes pretty constantly haven’t you? Well, we’ve not stopped properly in over a year; and we’ve been to America five times. And that tour was a small club tour, right? Yeah. A lot of promotional TV stuff; and some showcases. They were three-hundred- to five-hundred-capacity venues; and all of them were sold out, so it was great. You acquired a Soundcraft Vi6 since I spoke to you last… Yeah. It’s the only digital desk that I feel one-hundred-percent in control of; and you’re able to see everything the whole of the time. It obviously sounds great; and it has great Lexicon effects, which I find a nightmare to deal with on a strip as it’s difficult to sort the parameters, but on the Vi6 it’s really, really straightforward. I have had fantastic sounding gigs on that desk; I did V Festival with Noisettes on the second stage and we were on at 3pm in the afternoon; and the whole festival pretty much was watching us. It was the most amazing response; and my sound, because I had the Vi6, was just perfect. Do you have any favourite miking techniques? I always position my overhead mics under the cymbals because I’m not looking for an overhead drum sound; I’m looking for cymbals basically, so it’s more isolated underneath. I use an old Shure BETA57 on the top of the snare and a new BETA57A underneath – I like that combination; and I always use two DIs on the bass: one for the clean cabinet and one for the dirty one. I know you have a close relationship with Shingai [Shoniwa, Noisettes lead singer]; does it help having a female in tow when you’re on the road? [laughs] Yeah, and Shingai’s great. We always room-up on tour; us girls have got to stick together! She’s also an amazing vocalist. The whole crew is like one big family to be honest, and I’m proud to call myself part of it; we’re all similar ages and I think that really helps too.