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The Spin Interview - with Ben Harrison
Sound designer Ben Harrison has a string of impressive credits to his name, the most recent being the spectacular UK tour of Starlight Express.
The Spin caught up with Ben just before Starlight Express opened at the Alhambra Theatre & Studio in Bradford, following its successful premiere at the New Wimbledon Theatre, near London, in May. Ben speaks about his approach to sound design, while giving us some insights into his preferred choice of hardware and the more significant technology developments.


Quick-start career
Ben's experience the theatre industry began at the Liverpool Playhouse, where he started work as a sound technician at the age of 16, in parallel with his first A-level year at school. Although a career path via university had been expected, Ben quickly decided theatre was a more attractive option and left school. He remained at the Playhouse for around a year, before working on numerous tours across the next five or six years – initially as Sound No. 2, Sound No. 1 and latterly as Production Sound Engineer.

By 2002, Ben wanted to put down some roots, and secured the position of Head of Sound at the Leicester Haymarket, which he counts as his first significant step towards a career in Sound Design, and where he stayed before going completely freelance in 2007. Since then, Ben has amassed a long list of credits as sound designer encompassing corporate events, drama and West End musicals, as well as numerous touring musicals:

"The majority of the musical tours I've designed for have been produced by Bill Kenwright Ltd., who continue to be one of my main clients. These productions have been handled by Orbital Sound, and my relationship with Orbital has built up steadily across the last ten years – they know the theatre industry inside out, and always provide excellent support at every level."

The Spin asked Ben about his approach to sound design, and he commented:

"My ethos is really just to keep things as simple as possible. It might sound a clichι, but it is the main thought behind each design. And if I look back at the rigs I've taken out over the last few years, they're surprisingly simple. By the nature of the work, sound designers don't get much chance to work with each other, so it's difficult to know how one project compares to another. I like to keep the rigs straightforward, and avoid unnecessary complications, relying primarily on the correct choice of microphone and loudspeaker to get the type of sound and level of quality I'm aiming for – getting the start and end points of the signal chain right means you shouldn't have to do too much to the sound along the way. I therefore try to keep the amount of processing to a minimum.

Technology that's made a difference
Across his career, Ben has obviously witnessed a number of technology developments – new products arriving on the market that have made a difference. He picked out a handful of products that have had the most significant impact on his own work:

"I'd focus on the Yamaha PM1D as probably the single most important product development. It's still my mixing console of choice and, to date, it's the only console that I can really put my trust in. The sheer scale of its capability is very difficult to replace, particularly the number of inputs and outputs that it can handle. On the new Starlight Express, the PM1D is absolutely bursting at the seams, but we have managed to get the whole show on the one console and, for a touring production, that's a massive advantage.

"The other major technology advances have been in show control and sound effects playback systems. Some people can no doubt remember minidisks being the main playback medium, but when I first started in theatre, all my effects were on quarter-inch tape! I could spend hours cutting and splicing, and even a relatively small change could take a long while to fix. We've come a long way since then, but I'm still surprised at how many directors haven't quite caught up with the fact that we can now do things more or less instantly. Some of the functions that have been incorporated into CSC, for example, mean we can instantly choose new start points, set loop points or manipulate the effect in a number of ways, and all with the director sitting beside you, anxious to hear the finished result – whereas before it meant spending time back at the studio, perhaps with several attempts before everyone was happy."


Designing Starlight
Ben's sound design for the touring production of Starlight Express required a high degree of inherent flexibility to cope with the variety of venues, which have to accommodate the show's thrust stage. Ben outlined the main points of the design:

"The proscenium rig is based on d&b audiotechnik Q1 line arrays, and we're also carrying a large number of d&b Q7 point-source speakers, to help solve any problems we may encounter with prosc sizes and sight lines. We also have a centre hang of d&b audiotechnik T-Series, which I'd previously used on Soul Sister, the Tina Turner musical that's about to come into the West End, as well as both the Scrooge and Joseph tours. One of the great things about the T-Series line array is its nice wide coverage, which can reach across the whole auditorium, and I've found this very effective at pulling the vocal image out of the proscenium system and into the centre – in my view, it does this more effectively than a point-source system. We're using d&b E8s as front fills, as these were the largest speaker we were comfortable using fixed to the front of the stage. Starlight is an extremely dynamic show, with a lot of the numbers re-orchestrated for this new production to give them a more contemporary high-energy dance feel. We needed a very big sound, and the E8s contribute a lot to that.

"We have d&b audiotechnik E5 and E6 loudspeakers for the delays, which is giving the production engineers some options when they arrive at a theatre. As it's a tour, we don't have guaranteed rigging positions, and where an E6 might prove too heavy, an E5 can be deployed in its place. For the surround system, we have over 30 d&b E0 speakers – these go into each venue to help with the sound effects, especially during the race sequences, which employ 3D video footage. The original London production used a racetrack built around the auditorium, but this would have been impractical to rebuild in every venue for the tour. The entire show is still performed on rollerskates, much of it at high speed, and we're having to use windshields on the head-mics due to the speed of the mics through the air! 3D glasses are given to the audience when they arrive, with the Voice of Control – the little boy that the audience never sees – announcing when to put them on. Surround sound is essential, to make these sequences as convincing as possible, and the sound effects replay is using a CSC Show Control system – four racks of CSC in fact – with this system also triggering playback of the 3D videos. Starlight is a spectacular show, and necessitated a lot of integration across all departments for its success, with CSC a definite case in point.

"The tour's schedule includes playing at some pretty big theatres, and Dan Samson is working with me as both associate sound designer and production sound engineer. Dan and I worked together on the international tour of Evita, involving huge venues across Europe, with this experience proving very useful on Starlight. Dan was instrumental in the sound effects and show control concepts, which included an iPad app being specially developed to control the CSC system. I'll leave him to tell you about that side of the design."


To read Dan Samson's take on the Starlight story, please see the article CSC maximises Starlight Expression
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"I'd focus on the Yamaha PM1D as probably the single most important product development. It's still my mixing console of choice and, to date, it's the only console that I can really put my trust in. The sheer scale of its capability is very difficult to replace, particularly the number of inputs and outputs that it can handle. On the new Starlight Express, the PM1D is absolutely bursting at the seams, but we have managed to get the whole show on the one console and, for a touring production, that's a massive advantage."