Ben Harper performing
Photos: Steve Jennings
When I learned that for the latest round of Ben Harper & The Relentless7 dates, front-of-house engineer James Shaw and monitor engineer Ricky Leon were contending with house-supplied gear, I was a bit surprised. A five-piece rock band, dueling electric guitars and a very specific sound—I would have thought that the tour would have been using a sound company to help create consistency from gig to gig. But when Mix caught up with the tour at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater, this proved to be unfounded concern.
Front-of-house engineer James Shaw
Shaw has been in front of numerous desks during this run, but prefers to stay in the analog domain “It’s not so much about the sound of the desk as compared to how smooth it is to mix the show in the moment,” explains Shaw. He doesn’t employ much in the way of effects: standard compression and gating; some reverb on drums and acoustic guitar; delay on vocals; and flanging on vocals for two songs. “Most of the time,” Shaw adds, “I’m doing parallel bus compression of a drum mix, which while easy in the analog world, sometimes takes some thought about delays incurred when in the digital world. It’s a straightforward five-piece rock band, and I try to blend it all together with nothing necessarily on top. Of course, Ben’s vocals need to be intelligible and somewhat on top. The trickiest part would be getting the two electric guitars to be distinguishable from each other. In the studio, panning the guitars can take care of much of this, while live, if you get too extreme with it, then the people off to each side usually miss out on the guitar panned to the opposite side. I get away with what I can and go extreme for some special moments—almost as an effect.”
In Leon’s case, he’s enjoying being presented with numerous types of consoles, providing him with a chance to learn how each board ticks. For effects, he’s using onboard reverb effects for Harper’s in-ears. “I mix everything post-fader, and I split Ben’s vocal mic [a Neumann KMS 105] so that one will be sent to the wedges and the other would be sent to his ear,” he says. “This gives me the chance to EQ differently and compress the vocal to his ear. Ben can be off and on the mic, or he’ll just scream into the mic. Compressing the vocal for his ear really helps me out so that he doesn’t hurt himself and I can concentrate on riding the wedge vocal for everyone else. He only wears his left side of the ear, so I blend the two together. The drummer [Jordan Richardson] likes to have pretty much everything in his mix and loud. He also sings, which makes it a bit more difficult for me because the monitor is right at his head. [Laughs]”
Monitor engineer Ricky Leon
Constant communication with the band onstage is paramount for Leon. “It is very important that I have line of sight at all times,” he explains. “I am a pro when it comes to reading facial expressions and gestures. [Laughs] I thank the guys on the crew because they are also my eyes when one of the bandmembers needs something in their mix.”
Shaw also relies on the crew—specifically, the house system tech—when it comes time to align the house system. At some venues he’ll double-check delay times, and when the system isn’t cooperating, he pulls out some tried-and-true apps: Fuzzy Measure to set delay times and Spectre for coherence and RTA.
While the engineers are finding new gear at each stop, they can simply pop open the mic road case and get straight to work. Harper’s guitar goes through a single 12-inch cabinet with a Sennheiser e 609 mic; all other guitar mics are also e 609s.
For drums, a Shure SM91 goes inside the kick while an Audix D6 is placed on the outside. “Snare top is a bit of an oddity as I’ve been using a Shure KSM9 that we had lying around with good success and hi-hat rejection in hypercardioid mode,” says Shaw. Snare bottom and snare top get Beta 57s, Sennheiser e 604s are on toms, Audix SCX-1 on hi-hat, SM98s on cowbell and agogo bells, and AKG 214s for overheads in a Glyn Johns pattern.
In addition, Shaw pulls out Shure SM87s or Neumann KMS 105s for audience mics as each show is being recorded—at front of house and onstage—with a multitrack recording rig comprising two Alesis HD24s with PreSonus mic pre’s. “We carry our own splitter to send to our recording rig and to feed the locally supplied split to feed house and monitors,” Shaw says.
Both Shaw and Leon are quick to say that if not for having a great crew to work with and a stellar band to mix for, their job could have been a lot more difficult. “We are a tight crew; we take care and help each other out,” enthuses Leon. “I am so grateful to be a part of this camp, and even though I am the youngest and have the least experience, I thank Ben and everyone for giving me this chance.”
“Touring with Ben has been great, both with the Innocent Criminals and the Relentless7,” adds Shaw. “We have done some great shows in some amazing locations throughout the years, and hopefully there is more to come!”