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‘If there’s a balanced workforce, everybody benefits’: Chatting to this year’s EQL resident engineer Sophie Ackroyd

PSNEurope’s Fiona Hope gets the low-down from 2019’s selected engineer for the EQL Residency at Spotify’s Secret Genius Studios, Sophie Ackroyd, finding out how she landed the gig and what she’s been getting up to in the studio

“To be an audio professional you need to not resist the change that is inevitable and adapt”: Sophie Ackroyd

This year’s chosen engineer for the EQL Residency – a programme for emerging female-identifying producers and engineers created by Spotify and Berklee College of Music – is Sophie Ackroyd. The London residency (there are also two other residencies in Nashville and New York) is located at Spotify’s Secret Genius Studios, hidden within the vast Metropolis Studios complex.

Ackroyd took a rather unconventional route to where she is now. That is, she started off doing an English Literature degree at Oxford University, realising her passion for songwriting and the music industry after working in marketing for a spell, and subsequently pursuing a songwriting course at ICMP. From there, she learned the ropes of audio engineering at various different London studios – Red Bull Studios, Sphere Studios, Battersea Park Studios.

Having made our way through the rabbit hole of Metropolis to the Secret Genius Studios, PSNEurope catches up with Ackroyd about her career to date and experience of the residency so far.

Sitting on a plush velvet sofa cradling a mug of hot tea, she explains that her role is “to be the in-house person at the Secret Genius Studios, and that can be really varied, because everyday it’s somebody different. I never really know what they’re going to need until they walk in the door, so it’s really about thinking on your feet. I’m here to help in whatever way they want. If it’s a non-producing singer/songwriter, it’s more of a producer role. If it’s a producer that already knows their way around the studio, then it’s more of an engineering role.”

She continues, taking us through her day-to-day in the studio: “I usually come in for 10:30am and set up. The studio hours are quite unusual, as I’m used to working in studios where you can go until the early hours of the morning – but it’s quite strictly 11:30am until 8pm. Usually the artist will arrive at 11:30am and we’ll figure out what they need from the session. There are so many amazing toys here, we might mic up the piano or get them on one of the synths. Sometimes it’ll be cutting vocals, sometimes a writing session. It’s always a surprise.”

As for landing such an impressive and competitive gig, Ackroyd details the intensity of the application process: “There were the normal job application questions. I was told I was in the top 30, and then the top three. The interview was on Skype with the board for this residency at Berklee, so I had 15 minutes with about 12 people firing questions at me. They were all amazing women who are super impressive academics in their field at Berklee. I remember preparing all week, thinking of really deep questions about women in audio and they asked me something like ‘What music do you like?’ and I had not thought of that answer and I panicked. I thought I’d messed it all up.”

Spotify’s Secret Genius Studios attracts mainly signed artists, as well as up and coming artists, but recording there is open to applications. However, that doesn’t mean landing a recording session is an easy feat, as Ackroyd relays: “Aaron Buckingham, the songwriting relations manager, receives the applications, but not everyone gets to work here because it’s quite a high level of entry. He also talent scouts in the industry and invites people directly or through their managers. Over the course of my few weeks here already there’s been Nina Nesbitt, Lauren Aquilina, and coming up we have Callum Scott, JP Cooper, etc.”

But how did she go from studying English Literature at the uber-academic Oxford University to becoming the in-house engineer resident at Spotify’s Secret Genius? Ackroyd giggles: “I had a bit of a quarter-life crisis at around 24 after doing quite an academic English degree and some marketing jobs. I had always been musical so I quit my job and enrolled in a one-year songwriting course at ICMP. Not on a whim, I’d been thinking about it for years. I took it as a way to decide whether it was something I wanted to do, and ultimately it was. I hadn’t even realised that what I do currently was a real job, so in terms of opening my eyes to possibilities it was great. Also, to have a year of working on my craft, but the best thing I got out of it was the connections.

“After that I started doing work experience at what was Sphere Studios, and continued there for a couple of years, during which time Sphere Studios moved to LA, but the building continued to be Battersea Park Studios. And that’s really where I learnt a lot about being in a studio.

“That studio closed pretty much the day after Brexit as the owners decided it was too risky to keep. That’s when I started working at Red Bull Studios as an assistant engineer, and their team was really supportive and hands-on. You’ll be thrown into a session and they will trust you to make mistakes. They also had the budget for some amazing equipment, like an SSL desk, so that’s where I learned how to use mixing desks and outboard equipment I hadn’t previously worked with.”

On the subject of studio closures – an alarmingly regular occurence of late – Ackroyd expresses how much the situation saddens her, highlighting the value of traditional studios but also a willingness to move with the times. “I think it’s very, very sad, but that is the way that things are evolving, and to be an audio professional you need to not resist the change that is inevitable and adapt. Streaming is the future of the music industry and I feel that anyone that resists that may be left behind. And I love big studios, they’re my favourite places to work. My favourite thing about them is the community. What you don’t get out of producing in your bedroom is those chats over the coffee machine with someone that’s in the room next door to you. That cross-pollination of talent you get in a big studio, that’s what will die if big studios die.”

With the initial intention of being a songwriter, Ackroyd’s pathway to becoming an audio engineer was antithetical to the standard route. Perhaps, though, that’s exactly what makes her style so unique. “I feel I’ve gone the opposite way of most people,” she claims. “Most people start in studios and go into songwriting, but I started in songwriting and moved into audio. I quickly realised that without any ability to produce your own work, it is very difficult because you’re reliant on other producers to make your vision.”

In terms of getting to grips with the technical side of things, Ackroyd admits she had to alter her mindset. “At the start, I had to get over this resistance of ‘I’m just a songwriter and I don’t know these things’, because as soon as you drop that mentality, you become more capable of learning anything. And really, nothing is difficult, it’s just a case of logic and troubleshooting. I like that it’s using a very different side of the brain to the creative songwriting side, not to say that it isn’t creative, it is. And it’s a never-ending learning process.”

At this point in the conversation, we turn to what she enjoys most about producing, having become quite seasoned in the field over the course of her work at various different studios. Ackroyd has a clear favourite: “I love recording, editing and mixing vocals. I work a lot in pop music, which are very vocal-led tracks. I also like to build a relationship with an artist and get the best possible performance from them.”

And how does she go about getting that best possible performance? “As much as there’s the technical side of knowing what outboard to use,” she states, “the most important thing is your relationship with the artist, and even if you’ve just met them, making them feel welcome and comfortable. And capturing them when they’re relaxed. It’s important to always be recording because it’s often the take when they’re not thinking about it too much that you get the best performance.”

As the recipient of a residency geared towards female-identifying engineers, our conversation naturally drifts into the topic of female-orientated initiatives and their importance in helping women in audio flourish. Ackroyd takes the lead, speaking passionately on the subject: “There simply are not enough women working in audio; the statistics speak for themselves. What these initiatives are doing is redressing that imbalance, because if we just allow things to continue as they are, I don’t think a 50/50 balance would be reached until the 22nd century. To make a better creative environment for everybody, we need to support and recruit women into this side of the industry. And there are so many women doing this already, but perhaps they don’t have the launch pad that they need.

“For me, the reason I came to it so late was because I had no idea that it was a
job that existed, and perhaps that’s partly because of the image that everyone has
in their head of an audio person being a man sitting in front of a mixing desk. That dialogue and those expectations need to change. I think that the creative process will be better if there’s a better gender balance in the room. Female artists particularly will feel more comfortable and I think in any industry, it’s shown that if there’s a balanced workforce, everybody benefits.”