Tour Profile: Ben Harper and Jack Johnson

Nov 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Sarah Benzuly


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When Ben Harper is out on the road, he stays there for quite some time. Currently supporting his latest studio album, Diamonds on the Inside, Harper's 18-month tour will take him from a large nightclub in L.A. to a small theater in Berlin to a blues festival in Byron Bay, Australia. Though he has never had a commercial smash album, his acoustic jam-band-rock sound and continual touring have created a large cult following since the early '90s. In much the same vein, Jack Johnson got his touring chops from opening-act slots on previous Harper tours. This time around, though, the two are co-headliners, sharing the same gear and sound crew. Mix caught up with the show in Berkeley, Calif.'s outdoor amphitheater, the 9,000-seat Greek Theater, toward the end of the summer leg. The band is then off for numerous dates through Europe and then back to the States for a slew of holiday radio shows and a run through the major markets.


It can be a bit strenuous, says monitor engineer Derek Van Ord, to be on your toes for Johnson and then turn around and mix for Harper. But the flipside of this double-duty is that both Van Ord and FOH engineer Michael Pollock (who declined to be interviewed) have been doing sound for the two for many years and have their sound nailed down. “It just kind of happened,” Van Ord says about the logistics in having one sound crew on this tour. “When Ben quit touring for a year-and-a-half, Jack continued touring with Michael. When Ben started touring again, it just made sense [to have both Pollock and Van Ord mix for both acts].” As for Van Ord, who has been working with Harper since 1997, if it had been anyone besides Johnson, he wouldn't have signed on to do monitors for both. “I love Jack's music: Low volume, so I don't get beat up for Ben's show.”

While Van Ord stresses that mixing monitors for Harper and Johnson was challenging, it was alleviated somewhat in the fact that Harper owns most of the rig. “Michael and I got Ben on that early,” reveals Van Ord, “because when we first started touring with him, Ben wanted a very consistent sound, and to do that, you have to have the same gear. So we pushed Ben to start small: buy your vocal microphone and then you have to buy a certain processor. Then, when he's doing things on his own in L.A., he has all of his gear available and he can just put it in a studio and away he goes.”


Since they first came out, Van Ord was using the Midas Heritage H3000 console for Harper and on Weezer's last tour. But on this tour, he made the switch to digital, opting to work with the InnovaSon Grand Live consoles for monitor and FOH because of their space-saving and weight-saving attributes. “With six guys in the band now, it is just so much easier to have it all set. So I'm not carrying big racks of stuff. I can have a compressor on every channel. The console itself is just a control surface and all of the digital conversion is done in the stage box.” In that stage box are eight input cards that run on DOS — “It's kind of clunky, but it's super stable,” says Van Ord — and each input card offers two 266 processors so that every four inputs has its own processor. The stage box has four BNC co-ax outputs that, when used as a matched pair, two go to FOH and two go to monitor, “sort of like a digital split,” Van Ord points out.

“The InnovaSon is a little easier for FOH than for monitors because you can only view a single input or a single mix at one time. So if you have to do a handful of changes at once, it can be a little slow. But once you get used to the whole process, you can actually do it pretty quickly.”

Van Ord comments that by the end of this leg of the tour, the Grand Live was jam-packed, using all of the console's 48 processing channels, 24 outputs and 56 inputs. “I've got 20 output faders and then on the mix box, I have 24 processed outputs for backups and opening bands and other mixes.” As for the vocal chain, Van Ord relays that everything he uses is all built-in onboard with the system.

While Van Ord has switched consoles only twice, he has jumped to four different in-ear manufacturers for Harper: from Shure E1s, to Sensaphonic 2X and Pro4 models, to Future Sonics single-driver models, and currently to Ultimate Ears UE7s and UE5 ambient models. “When I was on tour with Weezer, I started a relationship with Ultimate Ears and I really liked their product and their field support is unparalleled. My goal is, Number One, hearing conservation and then number two, to make everybody happy. We're trying to keep as low of a stage volume as possible; the in-ears have definitely freed me up to not contribute to that stage volume.”

Harper uses a single driver and a pair of wedges, which are Microwedges originally designed by Rat Sound. “They're low-profile, 12-inch with 2-inch co-ax compression drivers that are commercially produced by Radian because they have Radian components.” Newly hired guitar player Marc Ford only uses 15-inch Rat Sound wedges, and bassist Juan Nelson is on one in-ear. Mixes for each of the bandmembers are straightforward: Whatever is further away from where each member is playing onstage is predominately louder in the mix. Harper gets just himself with a little bit of keyboards in his wedges.

Before this tour, Johnson wasn't using in-ears at all. But during the second leg of the summer tour, Johnson approached Van Ord to “try them out.” “I got him using them for a good two weeks,” Van Ord recalls. “He went with a single one, as well, because he's such a soft singer and just to have his vocal be more present. I just use Ben's gear for the drummer [Adam Topol, whose using Shure E1s].” Johnson receives a bit of himself and a little bit from bassist Merlo Podlewski.


Van Ord has had a working relationship with Rat Sound since he first rented from the company in '97, including numerous rentals of the company's Rat trapezoid proprietary cabinets on previous Harper outings. On this tour, he is renting the FOH P.A. (an L-Acoustics V-DOSC and dv-DOSC — a first for this tour) and monitor wedges. “The P.A. is fantastic,” Van Ord enthuses. “You save so much on truck weight, it sounds fantastic and, for me, you don't get all of the noise coming out from the back of the boxes.

“We use anywhere from eight to 12 cabinets with three dv-DOSC boxes underneath and then arrays out for pitfills. We also use the dvs for pitfills, because they are so nice and low-profile that you can just slap them on the stage and nobody sees them.” The system can be enlarged to accommodate larger venues with 36 V-DOSC boxes and at least a dozen dv-DOSC enclosures.

“We're leaving for Europe soon, and the whole P.A. system that we used on the summer tour is right now in a cargo container on a boat heading over to Norway. We figured why break up a good thing?” Van Ord asserts. “The crew that we had was fantastic. So, we thought, ‘Let's keep it consistent. It works, let's go with it.’”

Sarah Benzuly is Mix's associate editor.

Select Gear List

Mics: Shure Beta 98s (Harper's drummer/percussionist Leon Mobley: “Especially with the percussion player; there were so many dog-gone things to mike. He has more channels than half the band!” jokes Van Ord.); Beta 57As (Harper's backup vocals); Shure WH20 headset microphones (Harper's drummer/percussionist); Audix D2 (toms); Audix MTX1 (underheads); Audix D6 and Beta 91 (kick); Beta 57A and e609 (snare); VP88 (overhead)

Beltpacks: Sennheiser SR 3056 U

Outboard Receiver: Sennheiser EK3053 U

Cabinets: Demeter 212, Marshall 410 driven by a Demeter head, custom Rockaforte head

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