Interview: British Sea Power FOH engineer Joe Harling

With the band recently performing two widely contrasting shows in one night (October 21st) across the capital, Daniel Gumble caught up with British Sea Power’s long-serving FOH engineer Joe Harling at Camden’s Barfly to discuss the evening’s challenges, as well as his personal audio preferences.

A somewhat hectic evening for all concerned saw the band initially head to a Canary Wharf-based function room, where they performed a rather low-key, seated, semi-acoustic set. This performance, however, was swiftly followed by a riotous, high-octane set at the Camden Barfly, boasting a number of the band’s more abrasive moments.

Reflecting on the key issues surrounding the evening, Harling comments: “The main challenge was physically getting between the 2 gigs in London traffic. Of course, we were limited on soundcheck time etc, but everyone knuckled down and did a great job.

“The two shows were psychologically quite different for the band, as one was a seated semi-acoustic affair in a posh function room in Canary Wharf, and the other was a full-force, punk-rock riot in the sweaty old Barfly. Luckily the booze rider from the first gig helped set the tone for the next one! I hadn’t heard the arrangements for the semi-acoustic gig in advance, so that show was very much done on the fly. However, the room was so reverberant that I was glad to have a lot less sound coming off stage.”

Harling was quick to praise the audio system in place at the Barfly, with a Yamaha LS9 32 channel desk at FOH and a Turbosound Aspect PA system on offer. “I hadn’t been in there for years, but it was definitely better equipped than it used to be. The in-house engineer was really on-the-ball as well, which helped with our manic 2-gigs-in-one-evening schedule.”

As an engineer who has adapted to the various house consoles and systems on offer from venue to venue, Harling has certainly plied his trade on many of the key desks currently operating in the market. “If I’m mixing British Sea Power I almost never get to spec a desk, as the venues generally have their own, and the band don’t have the facilities to carry one,” he explains.”

“However, in general I guess I am a digital convert. I like different aspects of many of them, but I think the Digico’s SD7 and SD8 come closest to doing all the things I want. I’m really into how flexible the bussing is; subgroups can be routed into other subgroups. Furthermore, I like the fact that they provide a generous amount of dynamic EQ and multi-band compression on inputs and outputs as standard.

“I find that dynamic EQ is an amazing creative tool and problem solver for live sound, and I would love to see it as an option on every channel in future digital desks. I carry my XTA D2 dynamic WQ with me whenever I can.”
So, with a band possessing such an expansive and unique sound as British Sea Power, Harling regularly faces the task of balancing the sound onstage with a variety of sound effects both between and during songs. This, however, is an element of the band that Harling seeks to embrace, creating a greater sense of sonic density.

“With British Sea Power there’s obviously a lot of sound coming off stage, and they have instruments with a wide dynamic and tonal range,” he says. “Quite regularly you might find that you have three distorted guitars, lots of keys sounds, an effected cornet, and an effected Viola all playing the same notes, or at least in the same frequency range. In these instances I don’t try to fight for separation, but just go with the band’s wall of sound aesthetic.

Tonight I was using the 4 engines of the LS9 to do ‘Rev-x room’, ‘Rev-x plate’, ‘Dual Pitch’ (doubler effect), and ‘mono-delay’. Sometimes the gig will end up with everything going into an infinite reverb and infinite delay to create a complete nightmare-wall-of-sound, which can be cut at exactly the same time as the lights to create a dramatic effect.”

He continues: “My favourite band is My Bloody Valentine, so I’m not exactly bothered if the gig I’m mixing doesn’t sound like a Simply Red show.”

As one would expect, when creating such a richly textured live sound, micing solutions are absolutely paramount. For this reason, Harling has equipped himself with a specific set of mics to take care of each and every element of the band’s performance.

He elaborates: “I like to carry a selection of mics with me, namely an Audix D6 for kick (sometimes coupled with a 901 or 91), two Beyer 201s for the snare drum, Audio-Technica AT4040s for the main guitars, and, where possible, Sennheiser 935s for the vocals.”

Considering the obvious difficulties that come with performing two sonically contrasting shows in one night, the audio quality on offer at the band’s Barfly gig is genuinely impressive. The aforementioned wall of sound clearly makes its presence felt without crossing over into the category of cacophonous, aimless noise. As well as the obvious time constraints to deal with, Harling’s ability to handle sound on the night without the convenience of a specified FOH system makes his and British Sea Power’s performance an even more impressive achievement.