in Lockdown

Although they have never met in person, Karrie Keyes, Pearl Jam’s Monitor Engineer, and Becky Pell, Monitor Engineer for Westlife have developed a strong bond, thanks in large part to Co-founded by Keyes and fellow Audio Engineer, Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato around seven years ago, the online platform supports women working in professional audio and music production by highlighting their success and providing a place for them to connect, network, and share advice and experiences.

“Our goal was mainly to find other women in audio. We had been working in audio for 20-plus years and we were tired of people saying, ‘I’ve never seen another woman do this’,” commented Keyes. “So, we built a website and found other women, because we knew they existed! We offer support and guidance for people starting out and have amazing women blogging for us. We do workshops and meet ups and it just keeps growing. Now we’re trying to figure out what we can do for our community in this time of need.”

Keyes and Pell met online when Pell started blogging for the website and, while they haven’t been able to arrange an in-person meet-up yet thanks to their usually hectic touring schedules, the pair are united by their desire to promote women in the industry.

“I didn’t realise there were many other women doing this,” Pell commented. “It’s fantastic to have this place where we can come together and support each other. It was hugely inspiring to me, and a bit of a fangirl moment,” she said of meeting Keyes. “Pearl Jam is one of my favourite bands, so to discover that the Monitor Engineer was a woman was really exciting!” A 30-year veteran of the Pearl Jam touring crew, Keyes’ biggest tip to any engineer is to be nice to your support bands. “Pearl Jam was my support band when I was out on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” she recalled. “I was asked if I would mix Pearl Jam for a 30-minute slot by the road manager. I said yes and we’ve been together since then. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Pell added that the job of a Monitor Engineer is 50% technology and 50% psychology. When she started working with Westlife, technology was starting to come into its own, but was not as refined as it is today.

“In their earlier days, the screaming level coming out from the audience was just nuts, like any boy band – very young girls with high-pitched voices,” she described. “Technology has improved and progressed since then, and the band have honed their craft. I can make them much more comfortable on stage now; they can hear themselves and actually enjoy the performance thanks to the improvements in technology.”

However, just as important as the technology is trust. “It’s everything,” Pell added. “The band needs to feel heard. They need to feel that you’ve got their back because they’re totally reliant on you. We all have different ways of doing things and different modes of mixing. With Westlife, the guys just liked the sounds that I made, and we seem to click. So much of it is down to relationships and not assuming that you know what they want. It takes time to build that kind of relationship.”

Both Pearl Jam and Westlife use a mixture of wedges on stage and in-ear monitoring, which makes for a more complicated setup. Both use DiGiCo consoles, with Keye using an SD5 and Pell an SD10, SD5 or SD7, depending on availability in different territories. “The SD5 has been amazing,” said Keyes. “I love the sound and the power it has, and I can set it up however I need it to be. I’ve set mine up pretty much to run as an analogue console. My main job is to pay attention to the band, so I pretty much have everything I need on the surface.”

Pell added: “I like to keep things fairly simple, so I only use additional processing if it’s really necessary. I’m a big fan of getting the gain and EQ right, so I tend to use parametric EQs on the vocals and across all the output mixes. I like the multiband compression and the dynamic EQ that the DiGiCos have onboard these days. The multiband compression is very sensitive and lets me smooth out any slightly barking frequencies or anything when they’re really belting,” she explained.

“The SD7 has been my usual package, but I agree with Karrie about the fact that we’re supposed to be looking at the guys, not at the desk,” she continued. “I love the way you can lay things out however you want and use them – and the fantastic processing power. I find DiGiCos very intuitive to use and you can tailor them to your workflow and the way your mind sees things. That means you can look at that stage, rather than the console.”

This is particularly handy, as both engineers have developed their own short hands with their bands. “Last time we were doing a run of baseball stadiums, Eddie [Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam] invited some baseball players to the show,” reminisced Keyes. “He introduced me to a pitcher, or a catcher, and he was explaining to them that just like they have hand signals, that he and I have signals too!”

The overarching piece of advice both engineers have for when the industry opens  up again is to have a good attitude. “Attitude is everything in this industry,” Keyes shared. “If you go to work, you have a good, gung-ho attitude and work as a team… If you’re generally in a good mood, people are going to want to be around you and continue to work with you.”

She furthered: “It doesn’t matter what age you are and how long you’ve been in the business – if you’re a pain to work with, people aren’t going to want you on the crew,” concluded Pell. “This is particularly important when you’re starting out and you haven’t really got a lot of experience behind you. Normally I’d be saying, ‘go and get your hands dirty and be very proactive in messing with equipment when you get the opportunity,’ but right now, that’s not possible!”

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a massive impact on the industry as a whole, and both Keyes and Pell are feeling the effects. Keyes spent the first month absorbing the situation and letting it sink in.

Now, she’s looking at the logistics of putting on large-scale events: “If the industry were allowed to put on something big, if we didn’t do it in a carefully, well-thought-out way, with all the safety measures in place and there happened to be an outbreak, we’d be shut down for even longer,” she reflected. “We’ll probably start at a smaller level for a while.”

“It’s going to take time,” added Pell. “The longer this goes on, the more joy there is going to be when we get everyone back together and have that shared energy of live music… It’s going to be an emotional experience for all of us when we finally get back into that space.”

This article originally appeared in issue #255 of TPi, which you can read here.