FOH engineer Rik Dowding
Europe - Playing live in support of her 10th studio album, I Inside the Old Year Dying, avant-rock artist PJ Harvey played a string of sold-out dates at carefully chosen venues. As a close-knit touring family working with one of the industry’s most talented musicians, her engineers required audio solutions from a supplier that understood the calibre of detail needed on her production.
Monitor engineer Magali Couturier has been with PJ Harvey for some years now, and has exact expectations from her vendor, including knowing that dedication comes from the top. “I first met [Skan director] Chris Fitch at Glastonbury in the ‘90s, it was the first time I’d seen a ‘boss’ that was so ‘hands-on’. He really cares about the human experience around him,” she says.
“He’s very approachable, and he understands what we go through as engineers, which is why I think he also understands the type of audio tech we need for PJ’s tours,” she adds, acknowledging the help she receives from Skan’s Finlay Watt.
“With this band, it's a very personal type of work, and we need a tech that can be discreet, yet efficient, and not “roadie-like”, so Finlay is a great fit for us.”
In terms of her mix, Couturier defines her work as creating a “delicate balance”, that is as close to the recordings as possible while embracing the mystery and complexity of the live performances, and the secrets of each room.
“Polly has a lot of effects that change from song to song, so it can be very complex to mix. It's not like you make a sound, and that works for the whole show. It can go from atmospheric to something very rocky or folky,” she says. “And that balance may change from venue to venue too, where a small detail may bring a song to life or to sleep. This gig is extremely rewarding as a monitor engineer, you really become a part of the performance and the creative, live process. Working with musicians like those we have in her band is why I do this job. Nobody is doing the things that she and they can do together. It’s art.”
Couturier has been working on some major changes since the previous tour; PJ and her band now use Sennheiser 2000 Series IEMs, with Ultimate Ears UE11s.
“The 10-piece band used to be on wedges and has now switched to in-ear monitors. The reason for this is that the stage would look better, there wouldn’t be black boxes scattered around and the musicians would be freer to move around,” she explains. “The transition was an interesting journey, given the type of music they play and that none of them had used IEMs before, but thankfully, we made it! Even though it’s quite unorthodox; none of them use in-ears in the same way. Polly wants to hear the record, so my aim with her mix is to make it as close to her records as possible,” explains Couturier.
She does so via a Yamaha PM7 with an RPIO Stage Rack, another new equipment choice for this campaign, and one she’s happy to have made.
She continues: “I think the PM7 is a great-sounding desk. I use everything internally, with the addition of an external pedal board. I don't get caught up in being overly technical, I like my desk to be intuitive, and to mix with my ears, not my brain.”
Each new album delivers a fresh concept and a new sound, and at FOH, engineer Rik Dowding describes this outing as “very folky and mysterious, a bit dark and romantic”. He is caretaking for long-time FOH mixer Howard 'Head' Bullivant, who has worked with PJ since her early demo days. “Head very kindly asked me to fill in on this tour, which is an absolute honour,” he says.
This switch has created a complete overhaul at FOH: Dowding was originally going to mix these shows on an analogue classic, the Midas H3000, as per Head’s rider.
“Gradually, I was getting reports from Magali about the channel count, which was rising. Eventually, we had 48 channels, and I couldn't do that on an analogue desk and put all my effects in there too, so we made the decision to go with a DiGiCo console, which was the best decision in this instance,” he confirms.
From Skan’s inventory, Dowding has opted for an SD10 with 32Bit SD Rack on stage and an SD Mini at FOH to connect the outboard. The band were initially worried about losing warmth with the switch from an analogue console, so Dowding specified some tube-based outboard.
For outboard, he employs a Transient Designer TD4, Tube-Tech LCA-2B, Summit DCL-200, Summit TLA-100, Rupert Neve Portico II Master Buss Compressor and an Empirical Labs EL8-X Distressor from Skan, along with FX including an Eventide H3000, Bricasti M7 Reverb, Yamaha SPX2000 and Lake LM 44 for system EQ. He also utilises some of his own favourite units such as the Rupert Neve 5045 Primary Source Enhancer 5045, a Roland RE-20 Space Echo Pedal and an Empirical Labs EL7 Fatso Jr.
The tour is led by production manager Tecwyn Beint, who comments on Skan’s delivery: “It’s always a pleasure working with Skan; their attention to detail and backup is always great. If anything does need to be swapped out, which is very rare, they deal with any situation extremely efficiently. I look forward to working with Chris Fitch and his team again very soon.” PJ Harvey’s 26-date tour played to audiences in venues across 11 countries.

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