19 Feb Tips for Choosing Harmonica Microphones
So, you want to sound like Little Walter, Carey Bell and Big Walter Horton? Nobody could blame you as they had some of the best recorded sound of all time and it is a tone that fans and players dream of achieving.You’re playing ability is of course very important, but these old blues guys didn't just play a mean harp they were at the forefront of playing amplified blues harmonica and this plays a big part in the magic of the sound. You are going to need one man, a harmonica, a microphone, an amplifier and some basic harmonica skills (and maybe a dollop of good old-fashioned mojo).Take one of those away and it isn’t going to work to make so make sure you are primed and ready with all the necessary items required for the task in hand. In this article we are going to concentrate on just the harmonica. Some blues harp players have used them before and some players haven’t, but it is an essential part of the tools and with a little help to pick the right one, it will stand you in good stead if you plan to take your show to the stage at some point in your career.
Why can I not pick up any old mic to play blues harp?
This is perhaps the most technical question/answer to all harmonica based questions so to try and make it easy,start by thinking of your microphone as a guitar!
Because a harmonica player uses a guitar amp to amplify their sound the microphone must match the impedance of the amp. A guitar amplifier is high impedance, so the harmonica mic must be too. This is also known as HI-Z and generally speaking means the impedance is around 50,000 or 50k ohms. A normal mic is 600 ohms. Big difference eh? So, look out for these things when hunting out a mic. If you were to plug a low impedance mic into a guitar amp you can still achieve some reasonable results but when you plug in a high impedance microphone into the guitar amp that is when the magic happens, and all the tones you hear on all the old recordings become achievable. On the flip side of this, if you were to try and plug a high impedance microphone into a standard vocal PA amplifier this again is a mismatch as a vocal PA is a low impedance output and the result is a very thin and generally unusable tone.
The traditional harmonica microphones seem to be bullet mics, can you tell me about these?
Yes! The bullet mics are so called because of their shape. They were the old American base station taxi style mics. These are HI-Z and so are great for blues harp. The old versions of this mic are getting harder to find like the Astatic JT30 and the Shure 520d but there are modern versions of this mic that are widely known, used and look virtually identical to the originals, they sound pretty good too. As these original bullet mics are hard and expensive to get hold of there are modern versions produce specifically for harmonica. The revamped Shure 520DX and Superlux D112/C harmonica microphones and widely available from good harmonica shops. Bullet mics aren’t for everybody however. For players with smaller hands, holding and achieving an airtight grip is often a problem. Little Walter for one did not use a bullet mic, he used a vintage Monarch MC-24 microphone which is shaped more like a fat pencil!
What other microphone can I use for amplified harp?
There are a handful to choose from not all are new, there is a wide range of vintage mics that tend to be better value than the bullet shaped mics of old. The standard mic shape which is known as a Highball can be used with great results if it is the correct impedance and was the shape used by James Cotton, his particular model being the Shure 585SA. You can use a dual-Z mic which is both high and lo so you can choose the high for a harp mic and the lo if you want to sing through a PA. There are many other vintage microphones too, others by Shure, Voice of Music, Akai, Grundig, Electro Voice, Calrad and Argonne and all in very different shapes. Find one that suits your style, taste and hands if you decide not to go with the bullet mic shape. Some also may have on/off switches that can be useful to help control feedback.
I’m a total beginner, what are the cheaper options?
Sometimes as a beginner harmonica player you are perhaps not keen on splashing the cash, after all playing amplified might not be for you, so there are a couple of cost-effective options if you wish to try. The Robo-Hobo mic has been avery popular choice for over 10 years. For under £30 this little egg shape can give you a great introduction to amplified harp, the sound is actually pretty good and is superb for great for smaller hands. There is also a little mic called the ‘Palm Mic’. This is so small it fits right between the palms of any hand. It is really light and because of the size it allows you to easily produce the Wah Wah sound by shaping your hands. It is perhaps not a good choice for the pro musician but is good way to get off the mark with an inexpensive bit of kit that allows more use of the natural shapes you can make with your hands.
You can buy cost effective mics and still receive very good results but in a world of you get what you pay for,generally speaking the more you pay the better you get.
Are there any tips for holding a mic?
Yes, but only one really. You must get an airtight grip. With an airtight grip your tone will be much fuller, and the volume raise almost half again. Release your grip and you will see these attributes quickly decrease. Most other instruments when amplified just have a microphone close to the instrument for example when you are singing into a mic. For harmonica this will not allow you to reach the full capacity of the tome available to you and is a huge part of the tone you will hear on those old 1950’s recordings.
So, hopefully you know how to go about you harp mic shopping. Pull out your best key diatonic harmonica, find yourself a great mic that suits you, plug into your harp amp and wail till the cows come home.
Good luck harp fans!
If you are looking to see a range of harmonicas take a look at harmonicas for sale or if you are interested in a range of harmonica ideas and gifts including microphones, amplifiers, cases etc take a look at www.honkin-harmonica-shop.co.uk/