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View from the top: The sound designer (Ben Harrison)

PSNLive presents key industry views on the ups and downs of the live business

Spend too much time listening to bands in the Eighties, and this is what happens to you…

Who are you and what do you do?

Ben Harrison, I’m a sound designer for theatre and live events.

Where do you do it?

All over the world, but predominantly in Europe.

Why do you do it?

From an early age, I was fascinated by sound. My Dad managed a band (The Farm) in Liverpool while I was goring up and I probably spent too much time hanging around rehearsal rooms and mix positions.

I became interested in ‘theatre sound design’ at Wirral Youth Theatre which I joined as a teenager, and was lucky enough to be given pretty much free reign of the equipment and space, where I spent a long time discovering what worked and what didn’t!

I guess that’s more about how it happened rather than why I do it though!

What is your greatest achievement in sound design to date?

I think every ‘first’ along the way, my first west end musical which was a Motown musical called Dancing In The Streets, my first US show which was the tour of Whistle Down The Wind, my first international tour Evita – and the first time my eldest son saw a show and came out telling me ‘That sounded cool, Dad!’ That was Starlight Express.

What is ‘the’ perennial problem you face?

Increasingly it’s becoming vocal fold back on stage. My aim is usually to keep the stage as quiet as possible so that it doesn’t cloud the sound in the auditorium, musical theatre performers are very used to listening to what they need in an onstage mix, and listening to each other. However I’m finding myself working with actors who have crossed over from the music industry and have different techniques and different needs on stage which don’t always sit well with 40 ambient hairline microphones. Of course we’ve developed technical solutions to help us cope with that, but a lot of it is down to the team on the show and how well they communicate with the cast and gain their trust.

What makes life hard for a sound designer?

The need to be everywhere at the same time!

Understandably every producer and director I work with wants my input at points which are critical to them, whether that’s during the rehearsal process, production periods or during the lifetime of a show. Unfortunately it is inevitable that those points sometimes clash with me needing to be elsewhere.

Luckily I have a fantastic team of associates and operators who I trust, and a very understanding partner!

Describe how the job role has changed in the last ten years (PSNEurope first met Ben in 2006 at the opening of Cabaret in the West End).

Technology has moved on an incredible amount since then, in particular the interfaces we use which means I have far more things instantly at my fingertips, but whether the job role itself has changed is arguable. I still have the same goals to achieve but over the past decade I have learnt a lot about how to reach them.

Every show I design throws up new challenges to overcome, which means the learning never stops.

I enjoy working collaboratively, and my aim is that everyone in my team should feel they can bring a suggestion to the table, it’s interesting how different people approach the same problem – as the boss it just means I can take the credit!

What essential qualities does a sound designer need to have?

I think the most important qualities are being personable, and approachable.

Sound design has so much impact on other people’s ability to work. The sound designer has to act an interface, mediator and collaborator between all these people, often converting people’s ideals into a technical form, whilst still having an overall vision for how the show should sound.

I began my career as a ‘Number Two’ looking after radio mics on stage and worked my way up through different roles within sound departments. It means I have a knowledge of what everyone in my team is up against, which I hope means I only ever make reasonable requests of them!

Can you outline the sort of issues that arise in touring productions. Is it just different size rooms?

It’s not just different size rooms but the room is certainly the main thing we have to contend with on touring shows, and not always for the audience.

When I sit down to specify a touring show, I’ll work with the tour list in mind, aiming for a system that is flexible enough to be able to present the show in each venue as it’ll be signed off by the producers on opening night.

I often have to write spec lists months before the first day of rehearsals for a show, which can be difficult, particularly if it’s a new show that will develop and evolve during the rehearsal process.

Out on the road, it’s over to the touring team to make decisions on speaker positions, line array calculations and system set up, which is why I work so closely with my teams making sure they have a complete understanding of what I’m trying to achieve in the first place.

The one thing we can never change is the acoustic properties of an auditorium, and trying to fight against them will never end well. You have to remember that although it might take the sound operator a couple of shows to get used to the venue, this is the venue that this audience see all their shows in.

It’s actually harder to keep things consistent onstage for the cast between venues than anything else. They hear so much of the room back on stage, that it can be really unsettling to go from a dry 600-seat house to a cavernous 4,000 seater.

What’s coming up?

I’m about to go into production for Exposure the Musical – Life through a lens in London, which is a brand new musical with an original contemporary rock score. Then I’m designing the European tour of Million Dollar Quartet before rounding the year off with a couple of pantomimes.

Oh no you’re not!

That’s enough of that.

This is #1 of 10 ‘views from the top’ appearing in PSNLive2016, PSNEurope’s 11th annual analysis of the European live sound industry.