Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Harp Mics

(This post is all about old microphones and harmonica playing so if this isn't your niche sorry for the bore, but read along and fill up on some random fact potpourri.)

Since the band has been on our two week break from shows I have had a lot of time to focus on my electric tone. The problem with people who play blues harp is that finding that perfect electric tone is a terrible cyclical process. You find a new amp, mic, pedal, or other electronic and pore over it for days, weeks, and months. You might even find a friend or a music shop where you can try out this tasty new gadget and see how it fits in with your sound. The day comes where you feel you know enough to spend enough and a new member of the chain comes home. After a handful of gigs or jam sessions the new thing breaks in and slowly slips into your now more robust tone. A few days later a tickle forms in the back of your head and the cycle begins anew. It feels at times like you will never find that perfect fit and that's probably the truth. There will always be a cool new gadget around the corner advertised to really fatten up that bottom end or bring out that old nasty Chicago crunch. At least we will never get bored with our hobby.

Through the years of playing I have amassed a collection of harp mics. These are some of the quickest ways to switch around your tone and thanks to ebay won't kill your budget. Also as you amass your microphone army it becomes a fun hobby. (Or an obsession to some) Each one of my mics lying around is a reminder of a certain point or memory in the time line of my playing. Also it's good to hold on to your old mics because as you progress you'll notice that some old mics sound a lot better with that new amp, pre amp, pedal or playing style you just picked up. Things change and it is always fun to have something around the house to remind you of how much that is true.

A random collection

Here's a brief overview of some of the mics I went through and have.
I started with a generic Shure Green Bullet 520DX. These are great starter bullet mics. My cons with this mic were its weight, feedback issues with some amps, and a personal funny feeling playing with bullet mics in general once I tried some others. It has a great acoustic tone which is good for bluegrass and the likes, but it has a hard time crunching up with the blues. Kasey Klepfer of Texas Renegade plays with one and gets a good sound out of it, but it's just not my kind of mic. Next up to bat was a vintage Aiwa mic which I liked a bunch, but it was too brittle to really ever play with except for at home. It had great bottom end tone and low low feedback issues but it was made in the sixties and time hates solders and rubber gaskets. I played with random P.A. stick mics along the way and really liked the shape of the mics over bullets. Out of all the current production stick mics I used I always liked the Shure Sm-57 the most. Jason Ricci and I believe John Popper both play with modified ones and that is about all the endorsement you need. It had a great frequency response and good all around sound to it. Personally they were great through a D.I. box with some pedals to fatten it up. Using an amp would have probably brought some feedback issues without a feedback buster or other helper gadget. After that I played with a Hohner bluesblaster for about ten minutes and returned it. This was my only return, but a good decision. It had a thin sound and wasn't worth the bloated price. The next was a Shaker Madcat microphone and it was one of my favorites. (I'm playing with it in the picture at the top of the page) It has an ergonomic design somewhat like a lavaliere mic. The element sat in your cupped hand and on the other side a volume pot stuck out of your threaded fingers. I have a lot of fun playing this mic because you can do a lot to change the sound while playing by adjusting the acoustics of your hands. In the end though the element was too small to hold a good full tone and I got the itch to move on. That brings us to what I'm playing with these days. It's a vintage Shure 545s unidyne II with the pistol grip. This is my favorite so far with very few drawbacks. There is little feedback and a ton of volume. The tone is very full and it distorts well in a hard cup. Without cupping the mic you get a very clean acoustic sound to your playing which really helps me switch between the blues songs and the more acoustic country harp songs just by fiddling with stance and my hands. One piece of advice is to buy back-up everything if you own a vintage piece of equipment and expect to play with it. My 545 uses a four pin XLR cable which is no longer in production and of course when we were playing in Lubbock at The Blue Light it decided to self destruct.

My current favorite mic in my bag.

Another thing to remember when considering harp mic is what you're playing through. Some mics are finicky about what they get plugged into. There is a world of difference for my mic when played through my amp compared to a direct line to the P.A. system. Sometimes certain amps just don't want to play nice with certain mics. When I first got my Hohner Hoodoo Box amp I plugged in my Green Bullet. I thought the amp was broken at first. I had to almost full crank the knobs to get a sound and sadly that sound was all feedback. eventually I got it all tweaked to work, but soon after realized that the pair just weren't going to work out together.

The best advice that is always drilled into any discussion about improving harp tone is always the same. It doesn't matter what you're playing through if you suck. So keep playing and wood shedding and that tone will come with much more ease once you plug in.


  1. What a terrific post! Very informative! I read it all the way through and enjoyed it very much.

  2. By the way, I don't know if you work on your harps or not, but if you're interested, I could do some tuning, repairs, etc in exchange for that green bullet you're not so fond of.

    let me know. HarmonicaNews@Gmail.com

  3. Cool collection you have there, Blue.