Beryl Ritchie

Mastering/cutting engineer in the record industry;

Born: March 3, 1942; Died: May 27, 2013.

Tubular Bells is a significant record for many reasons, not least its vital role in the foundation of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. For Beryl Ritchie, who has died aged 71, it had a far more personal resonance; it was the first album she mastered solo, cutting the grooves into the blank lacquer that would eventually be copied and played on millions of record players around the world.

Born in Ardrossan, the young Beryl was something of a tomboy compared with her five sisters, and loved helping her father tinker with cars. Although he had hoped she might become an engineer, her first job after leaving school was in a record shop near her home town. The bright lights of London beckoned, but her father let her join an elder sister there only after she secured a job. It was in the stockroom of a Bond Street record shop.

Soon afterwards, she started working in the stockroom at Decca Records, which in turn led to a backroom job at the company’s West Hampstead recording studios and cutting rooms. It was here that she persuaded one of the engineers to show her how the master discs were cut. From the start, she sensed it was the ideal job for her, and it quickly became apparent that she had an innate understanding of cutting the sound as accurately as possible into the limited space available on 12″ or 7″ discs.

As a result, she became the first female cutting engineer among only a dozen or so at the time based in the UK during the 1970s. Working in-house for CBS (now part of Sony Music Entertainment), she honed her understanding of the vinyl medium to accurately recreate the work of numerous bands and producers. Although she naturally enjoyed some more than others, she took real pride in having cut both Tubular Bells—a challenging album given its track lengths, wide dynamic range and unusual collection of instruments—and the debut album of The Clash.

Another first during her career was cutting CBS’s first 12″ single, Anita Ward’s million-selling Ring My Bell. She also cut albums for musicians as varied as Abba and the Rolling Stones; however, she was not one to regularly sign her work in the space between the groove and the label; doing so on Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now was a relative rarity, as she didn’t like to risk ruining her work.

Very much a woman in a man’s world, she certainly faced discrimination, not least when it came to pay. As she explained to Richard Coles for a 2012 edition of BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live, she was eventually forced to take her employers to court, having seen too many of “the boys” she had trained up being paid double her salary. She stayed with the company—not least because she couldn’t think of what else she could do—but in part it was because she needed the money, having by then bought her widowed mother a small house in Kilmarnock.

A greater threat to her career came with the rise of the compact disc during the 1980s and 1990s. She adapted and latterly worked in CD editing but, while accepting the format’s brilliance for reproducing classical music, was never as happy with what she called the coldness of digital reproduction. Although happily retired by the time of the Radio 4 interview, she was pleased by the resurgence of interest in vinyl among both young bands and music fans.

She lived in Fitzrovia, central London, with her partner Jayne for almost 20 years. She is survived by Jayne and her five sisters.

First published by The Herald, 3 August 2013.


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