The Sound of Big Finish: interview with Robert Harvey

Music and sound maestro Robert T Harvey kindly spared some of his time to give some insight into the world of a composer and sound designer, and discussed some of his work with Big Finish. It’s a fascinating read…

Interview with Robert T Harvey

Robert, first thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions

Thanks for asking! Always happy to give something back to our fantastic community.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first get into music? Did you learn an instrument at school, did you study?

I first got into music the same way everyone else does. Mostly listening to Queen records, stuff Mum & Dad listen too. Brian May got me into guitar really. I took lessons very early on (about aged 5-6) but quickly put it down as kids do. Didn’t pick up an instrument properly until secondary school where I learnt trumpet and trombone at age 11. I still use these instruments today. I really got into the guitar at about age 14 when I wanted to be cool. Which is a really silly reason to pick up an instrument, but it worked for me. I was self-taught up until about age 16 when I flunked my A levels and only really had one option, which was go to college and learn music.

During this time I was listening to mostly metal and rock music… But I did frequently attend classical concerts and I got really into Bhangra music and Indian classical music when I was 13-14. I joined my father in his mid-life crisis as he got into Hindu religion and paganism…  I had quite supportive parents who sort of didn’t know what to do with me so let me follow my interest. If you met them you wouldn’t know how weird they are… they were very helpful in learning about different cultures which is something that goes hand in hand with music.

I didn’t start properly studying until I was 16 where I attended the now defunct course at West Kent College Tonbridge. Here we were given training and contextual studies in pretty much every popular musical genre. Going in I was just playing guitar but when I left I was a proficient upright bass player, brass player and electric guitar and bass player.

 It was a six-year course all in all and without it I can safely say I wouldn’t even be close to the job I’m doing now. We had some absolutely world class tutors there. To name a few: Phill Scragg who’d played with Robert Plant, Chris Newland who played on “Hot hot hot” and recently with James Brown’s alto man Maceo Parker. The singing tutor (Dave Migden) and the drum tutor (James Sedge) had both played on the same stage as James Brown. Niko Ramsden played guitar on Tubular Bells and we had other just top-class tutors throughout.

So, we had these world class musicians just letting us absorb everything… Having not had the breadth of musical knowledge going in, I certainly did going out. After completing my degree. I was playing a ton, I had about nine bands on the go from a King Crimson tribute band (link here) to a Big sixteen-piece Swing Jazz band for which I was a member of the rhythm section. I also taught for two years upon graduating which paid the bills.

Following all this I was picking up all sort of instruments. Post degree I have learnt the piano, violin, flute and whistles along with hand drums etc. My shtick is that if I can’t find a player I learn to play it. It keeps production values up and allows me to broaden my horizons.

That all sounds amazing, and thanks for providing a link to you in action: Thing Kcrimson – Larks Tongues In Aspic Part IV – Rob Solo.

It’s all very impressive and shows a lot of dedication over many years. Did you go straight into music production / sound design from university?

Not straight away. Part of the course was learning how to use the tech. During my time at Uni I was also working in a studio recording bands. The production and tech side of things came from there. I do believe if you’re getting into music now you need to be good at the tech. Upon leaving I started a job over at Audio Sorcery which is where I actually met you [I was there for some of the recording of The Omega Factor volume 1]!

And are you a composer, sound designer, engineer or all of the above?

These days the industry is such that you need to be both engineer and cape wearing music wizard. Film scores get signed off based upon the composer’s demos, so they have to be good. Working at big finish, you’re essentially never out of the demo stage as we don’t leave the home studio to go and record an orchestra… You have to know how to get a good sound and understand the drama enough to edit dialogue, put on sound and then finally write the score and still have it sound like one piece of work.

And how did you get into working for Big Finish? What was the first thing you produced?

As I mentioned, I worked at Audio Sorcery up until recently. Big Finish use that studio to record Tom Baker for the 4th Doctor main range stories among others. He’s part of the family down there and comes to us with any and all recording needs including live streaming. I was engineering those sessions and heard they were looking for sound designers. Decided I’d give it a go! I hadn’t ever done it before if I’m completely honest. I just sort of blagged it and it came off! Fake it till you make it… Don’t tell Nick Briggs!

The first ever thing I did for BF was an extras edit. I then got given a short trip called Black Dog read by the ever wonder Louise Jameson. Following that it was two seasons of The New Countermeasures.

Here’s a chicken and egg question – what comes first, the sound design or the music? Which do you prefer?

Always sound first. The production cycle demands the fx be in place before the music. The sound totem pole goes like this: Dialogue > SFX > Music. So long as you keep to this you’ll be fine.

In terms of technology, what’s in your studio?

I use all sorts. DAW (digital audio work station) wise I use Logic X but you could use anything. I use Omnisphere a lot, Spitfire Audio Orchestral libraries and I record myself a ton playing the many instruments.

And what’s your process? How do you get ideas and turn them into final product? How closely do you work with the director?

Depends on the director; I’ll use Scott Handcock as an example here. Typically Scott trusts me to pull the rabbit out of the hat with the music and I’ve got a good idea of what he wants sound wise. My first job with Scott was Torchwood where he’d give me a long list of notes. Over the couple of years we’ve been working together that list gets shorter with each job. We sort of know how it’s supposed to sound and what gaps need to go where etc. Good working relationships are important! It’s a long process where you try stuff, and it either works or doesn’t. Usually if you’ve been doing it for a while you know what works before you implement it.

Ideas wise it’s usually the writer who has the overarching plan for things. My ideas with regards to sound tend to be “how can I realise the writer’s intention”. With music it’s “do I need to pull the feeling a certain way”.

The director has to sign everything off so if it doesn’t get a tick, it doesn’t get used!

What was the trickiest piece of music / sound you’ve done so far for Big Finish, and what made it so?

It’s got to be Torchwood Cascade… That was an absolute pain to get right. Scott wrote and directed that and marked each FX note in the script. It was peppered with them! It was my job to realise them and figure out how I was going to implement them. If you haven’t heard it and want an experience I would recommend Torchwood Cascade.

And your favourite?

So far my favourite is the unreleased Blind Terror Gods of Frost. Mostly because it’s a really strong bit of writing/acting and I’ve been able to really exercise my weirdness on it. It’s a genre unto itself and I really hope there’s a season 2!

Without giving away any secrets, can you say anything about your current project?

I can, it’s The War Master: The Master of Callous written by the wonderful James Goss and Guy Adams. I’m pulling double shifts on it on SFX and music. It’s really something special that one. I love Derek Jacobi in all things and getting to listen to him play The Master is the best thing ever.

That all sounds very intriguing. Robert, thanks very much for your time, it’s been fascinating!

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