Terry Becker: Blooming Where Planted
By Mark Small
MP&E Associate Professor Terry Becker
Associate Professor of Music Production and Engineering Terry Becker has grown accustomed to change in her life. Her father was a military man during her childhood, and her family moved every few years. The lessons gained from that experience - learning to make friends quickly and adapting to new situations - have enabled her to bloom wherever planted. When she came to Berklee four years ago, she was embarking on her third career following stints as a professional dancer and a Grammy-winning recording engineer. Becker began her professional life as a ballet and jazz dancer and had worked with several companies and as a chorus dancer doing commercials and TV specials (among other things) before shifting gears. "I decided to quit dancing even though it was all that I'd done for the previous 20 years of my life," she said. "I loved taking classes, teaching, and choreographing, but I finally decided performing wasn't my thing."
Living in Los Angeles at the time (circa 1974), Becker saw a magazine ad about a recording engineering course that piqued her interest. She spent the last bit of her savings to enroll in an intense summer recording engineering program, and ultimately, had no regrets. "I loved the work," she said. "For the next year, I made it my business to hang around the studios to learn my craft. I didn't have a clue about what I was getting into!"
When she felt she knew enough to look for a job, she came up against an unexpected hurdle. "In the 1970s, the recording business was really male-dominated. It hadn't occurred to me that women didn't do this for a living. Looking for a job as an assistant engineer, I went to nearly 100 interviews but didn't get hired. Once I realized that it might have something to do with being a woman, I made an effort to contact all the woman engineers that I could. At that time, I could find only six in the entire country. I called each one, and they all said the same thing: 'You don't want to do this: It wreaks havoc on your social life, the hours are unbelievably long, and you won't get the gigs that you deserve because you are a woman.' At that point in my life, someone telling me not to do something was probably the best way to get me to do it. So I pushed ahead."
Becker took a job at a studio in Aspen, Colorado, where she learned a great deal and worked on some good projects. "We recorded John Denver and a lot of other musicians such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who were in Aspen at the time," she recalled. "We even did some classical things for the Aspen Music Festival." After two years in the Rockies, she got a call from Village Recorder in Los Angeles, asking if she was still interested in a job there. The timing was perfect, putting her in the right place at the right time. "It was a great decision," she said. "I ended up working at Village in their heyday with Steely Dan, Tom Scott, Wayne Shorter, and many other acts."
After gaining experience, confidence, and contacts, Becker decided to become an independent engineer. One of her first big projects - the Kansas album Point of No Return which included the massive hit "Dust in the Wind" - was both a highlight and a heartbreak. "It was an extremely rich opportunity, but it was a big disappointment to be listed in the credits as merely an assistant engineer when I had recorded and mixed the entire album. I was devastated."
Becker pressed on and was hired to work on projects for Pure Prairie League (with a young Vince Gill), Bonnie Raitt, the Crusaders, Jackson Browne, the Manhattan Transfer, and many others. Ironically, one of her most notable achievements came after she'd made the decision to change career paths again. She received a Grammy award for her work on the Taj Mahal album Shoutin' in Key, which was named Best Contemporary Blues album for 2000. "I had recorded the album the year before I came to Berklee, and then it sat on the shelf. The mix was finished after I had moved here, but I received a Grammy for engineering it."
When Becker was looking for a new direction, famed producer Ed Cherney told her about a job offering at Berklee. "Ed was doing a visiting- artist clinic here when Carl Beatty told him the MP&E Department was looking for a new faculty member," said Becker. "I got the job. Coming here was one of the best decisions I ever made. I don't think I'd want to work in the studio full time again; I've done that. I was able to contribute to many musical projects, and I love the music I did."
At Berklee, Becker teaches basic and advanced recording, mixing, a remix class, and an introduction to surround-sound mixing. She is mindful that her students face different challenges than she did.
"I was fortunate to work in a very exciting period when we saw more collaborative efforts than we see today," she says. "That's one of the best things about making music, and I hope it never goes away. Technology is changing at breakneck speed, and recording gear is so inexpensive that more people are putting music out. However, I don't know whether this means that there is more good music coming out than before. Many projects don't have the benefit of great production or engineering. The music industry model is changing and our graduates are dealing with a new set of rules. I wish them all luck in the world and hope they will make contributions to the legacy of contemporary music."