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Taming of the Shrill

January 1, 2002

Although the harmonica can be played sweetly, it's not intrinsically a sweet-sounding instrument. Rather, it ranks high on the list of potentially annoying musical instruments — right up there with the violin. I learned that as a child when I became serious about practicing the harmonica. If I took out my harp, my friends scattered. I might as well have been carrying a weapon.

Then again, as those who frequent open-mic and amateur nights know, an amplified harmonica in the wrong hands practically is a weapon — it can clear a room in a hurry. No, this instrument's sweetness must be coaxed out. Perhaps that is not so surprising, considering that the harmonica is constructed of tiny metal reeds sandwiched between copper plates and tin covers. Throw in a gutful of wind, and you have a surefire recipe for a bright, piercing tone.

Not unexpectedly, some mics don't take well to the harmonica's shriller timbres. That's one reason ceramic- and crystal-element mics such as the Shure “Bullet” and the Astatic JT 30 are popular among blues-harp players: their severely limited frequency response, especially on the high end, really warms up the sound. Even a beginning player can readily produce a round, fat (albeit distorted) tone when armed with a Bullet mic patched through a tube amp.

But this column is not a tutorial about recording blues harp. The task there, after all, is essentially the same as for recording an electric guitar: you mic the amp rather than the player. (For really cool tips on recording amps, see “Recording Musician: Recording Electric Guitar” in the October 1999 issue.) The focus here is on recording acoustic or unamplified harp, specifically diatonic and chromatic models. That may sound like a breeze to the uninitiated, but it's not always so straightforward. I've been playing diatonic harmonica for more than 30 years and have racked up countless hours recording the instrument, both live and in the studio. Of the many instruments I've learned to record, the harmonica has proved to be one of the more difficult to capture satisfactorily.

Besides tackling the main task of taming the instrument's naturally penetrating tone, the recordist should also be prepared to work with the instrument's broad range of tones and dynamics. Accomplished players will use not only their tongues, throats, jaws, and breaths to shape and color the sound but also their hands, sometimes fully enclosing the instrument. Vibrato and tremolo are both common, as are note bends, wah effects (similar to those produced by a muted trumpet), and other manipulations. The engineer may also have to deal with various incidental sounds — grunts, gasping breaths, air leakage from the nose, and so on. But perhaps the biggest challenge is the not-so-accomplished player, the aforementioned weapon wielder, particularly if he or she hasn't learned to temper the harmonica's native bite to produce a smoother, more musical tone.

There's no right way to record harmonica; different players have different sounds and approaches, and what works for one may not work for the next. So to broaden the scope of this piece beyond my own experience, I interviewed four of the finest and most recorded harmonica players on the scene today: jazz master Jean “Toots” Thielemans (www.tootsthielemans.com), pop giant and harmonica manufacturer Lee Oskar (www.leeoskar.com), multigenre maestro Norton Buffalo (www.norton-buffalo.com), and bluegrass sensation Mike Stevens (www.mikestevensmusic.com). Check out their Web sites, especially if you aren't familiar with their work. They are consummate musicians and masters of the harmonica, and their respective recording and performing credits, awards, and other distinctions are enough to make your head swim.

THE BALL ROLLING

Faithful capture is the general idea when recording any acoustic instrument. First, have the musician play the part while you listen carefully to the sound of the harmonica in the room. That will give you a sense of the player's abilities as well as the overall tone he or she produces. The ten-hole diatonic harmonica comes in several brands and models. Different brands can sound quite different from one another, and materials and quality of construction can also affect the tone. A harmonica with a wooden comb, for example, may sound warmer than one with a plastic comb, and a cheap harmonica may sound thinner (and leak more air) than a pricier model.

Another thing to determine up front is whether the player will record open mic (that is, next to the microphone with the mic mounted on a stand) or handheld (while holding the mic). Generally, the former provides a more natural tone; the latter, because it requires cupping the mic and harmonica together, largely closes off the sound from room ambience and, depending on the mic, increases bass response due to the proximity effect (both potentially helpful things, by the way).

Thielemans always holds his mic, so the room has little or no effect on his recorded sound. If you are recording open mic, however, the acoustics of the space can have a considerable effect on the sound of the tracks you record. Although nearly anything can be made to work — my studio is quite small and acoustically dead, yet the harmonica tracks I've recorded in it sound just fine — I usually prefer a medium to large wood-paneled room with a hardwood or tile floor and a spacious but not cavernous sound. In other words, I want a room that adds favorably to the harmonica's tone, thus inspiring me to play. Stevens concurs: “I like a room with a high ceiling and a bit of reflection — you don't want it too dry. Basically, the room should let the harmonica sound natural while adding some ambience to the sound.”

The distance from the instrument to the mic also figures into the equation: the farther back it is, the more the acoustics of the space affect the sound. High-frequency capture tends to diminish with increased distance from the mic, and the tone becomes more diffuse (something classical-music players often appreciate). That is useful to know if you're having a problem with the harmonica sounding overly bright or strident and you don't have another mic (or player) at your disposal. Foam-rubber windscreens and pop filters can also help reduce troublesome highs in such cases. Once, to quell the edge of a particularly bright condenser mic, I fitted the mic with a windscreen and two pop filters. That noticeably altered the high-end response, and though I still wasn't in love with the sound, I was at least able to get some usable tracks.

IT'S THE MIC, STUPID

The better the player and the smoother and warmer his or her tone, the more leeway you will have with microphone selection. Nevertheless, few mics really excel at recording harmonica. In general, seek those that downplay the instrument's reedy highs and bolster its warmer timbres. “Harmonica can be very bright and thin sounding if you use the wrong mic,” says Oskar. “What I listen for is a nice, open, really warm yet transparent sound. The mic has to sound natural and be capable of capturing all the tone, the breath, everything, but without sounding harsh.”

“I can walk up to a mic and pretty much instantly tell whether it's going to be good or bad for harmonica just by talking into it,” says Stevens. “As soon as I hit one that emphasizes the chest frequencies — those really low animal sounds — that's the mic I want. What I like in a mic is lots of fat low end, the mids [1 to 5 kHz] kind of scooped out, and a very extended but smooth top end, just to give it some air. Even a bad mic equalized like that can sound pretty decent.”

The four players I talked with expressed different tastes in mics. Buffalo has used a Neumann U 87 to record most of his acoustic harmonica work to date. “I've also used U 67s, and generally, I like them better, but 87s are a lot more available,” he adds. “The 67 is a tube mic, so it sounds a little warmer. But that added warmth can also bring out more of the breathiness, which can be a problem in some cases.”

Although also a longtime fan of Neumann mics, Oskar's current favorite for open-mic recording is the BLUE Bottle (a high-end hand-built tube mic) fitted with the BLUE B7 (classic cardioid) capsule. “It's an absolutely incredible mic,” he says. “[It's] extremely clear sounding and right in your face.” For handheld recording (as well as for playing live), Oskar uses the beyerdynamic M 160, a ribbon mic. “The ribbon component is probably the best thing for recording harmonica. It's similar to a reed structurally, the way it moves, and it's very warm sounding.”

Of course, high-end mics aren't always the ticket. Thielemans, no stranger to the best studios in the world, has many times encountered engineers determined to use their finest, most expensive microphones to capture his beautiful tone on the chromatic harmonica. His favorite mic, though, is the Shure SM58. “What's important is not hi-fi but my-fi,” says Thielemans. “I've tried everything, and the SM58 is what works best for me.”

Thielemans has no problem with the engineer equalizing the harmonica track so it better fits the mix. His manager, Dirk Godts, has picked up the basic EQ curves that are sometimes required to get Thielemans's sound in live situations. “I almost always reduce the really high frequencies a bit, because the instrument is already so sharp sounding that it doesn't need them,” Godts says. “Then I add some mids to give the instrument a bit of belly, and I also cut the very lowest frequencies.”

DOWN TO THE WIRE

Of the players I talked with, Stevens was clearly the gear nut — he even specified his favorite mic preamps (the Telefunken V76 and “Great River preamps with the output transformers”). For condensers, he suggests “anything with the Neumann M7 capsule.” That includes, naturally, certain Neumann mics such as the tube models U 47 and M 147. But it also includes some models from Microtech Gefell, among which Stevens recommends the MT 711S. I reviewed that mic several years ago and proclaimed it “the best-sounding solid-state condenser I've ever used on harmonica” (see “Attack of the Cardioids” in the September 1998 issue).

For dynamics, Stevens favors the Sennheiser 441 (one of my favorites), the Shure Beta 58, and the Audix OM-7. “The Beta 58 is an old standby that always seems to work well,” he says. “[The OM-7 is] great for handheld recording when you need something really clean. It has almost no proximity effect, so you can cup it and get no bass boosting.” Stevens also suggests the Electro-Voice PL6, a discontinued cardioid, which he also uses handheld.

Like Oskar, Stevens is enthusiastic about ribbon mics. He particularly likes vintage models such as the Shure 330 “Unitron” and the RCA 44BX, “as long as it's in good shape,” he says. Additional ribbon picks are the Coles 4038 and the Royer R-121. “The Royer is one of my favorite mics at the moment,” Stevens says. “It can be a bit dark, but it sounds really great, especially if you have a good-sounding room to record in: the figure-8 pattern causes it to pick up a lot of room.”

After talking with Stevens, I spent a day in the studio doing some comparison testing. I own a Royer R-121 but had never used it for harmonica. Curious about some of Stevens's other comments, I set up the R-121, the Microtech Gefell 711, a Sennheiser 441, a Shure SM58 and a Shure Beta 58. I recorded several harmonica tracks and examined the results. The R-121 tracks were indeed dark but natural sounding, without a hint of high-end grit. Of the three other dynamics, the 441 is my favorite. It is unrivaled for capturing punchy, hornlike sounds from the diatonic harp. The tone is round, smooth, and solid, with lots of meat on low chucka-chucka rhythm parts and fully present yet nongrating highs.

For my tastes, the SM58 and Beta 58 work better handheld than open, predominantly because of the proximity effect, which helps fatten the tone. Either way, though, they sound a tad covered and even somewhat compressed as compared with the (much more expensive) Sennheiser 441. Of the two Shure mics, I prefer the Beta 58 on harp because of its smoother highs and overall warmer sound.

Although it's not something the engineer ordinarily has any say about, it's worth noting that the pitch range or key of the harmonica can also play a role in mic selection. In general, the higher the pitch of the harp (or the section of the harp being played), the more likely I am to use a dynamic mic, particularly a ribbon. On the other hand, low-tuned harmonicas or low-chord rhythm parts may benefit from the additional high-end response a condenser mic can provide.

POSITION ON THE MATTER

For close, open-mic-style recording, mic placement is critical. The trick is to minimize extraneous noise by positioning the mic directly in line with the sound coming from the instrument. Watch and listen to the player to make that determination.

When Buffalo recorded his first solo album, Lovin' in the Valley of the Moon (Capitol Records, 1977), the engineer hung the mic above him in the manner frequently used for recording singers. “The breathing and grunting noises coming out of my nose were almost louder than the harmonica,” he recalls. “Being a bit green about recording at the time, I didn't know how to deal with that. We ended up putting masking tape across my nose to keep the breathing out!” That experience led Buffalo to question where the instrument sound was primarily issuing from. “After realizing it came out more from the bottom of my hands, I lowered the mic so the diaphragm was aiming up from beneath my hands. That position gets rid of most of the nose sound, and it allows me to work the mic very close.”

Buffalo relates an interesting tip about using pop filters: “I find that U 87s tend to close down with too much humidity, so during the winter or anytime it's moist or rainy out (or humid like in the South), I'll put up a pop filter to help spare the mic. But when it's dry, you can play close on an 87 with no problem — and the way I play, the closer I get, the more beautiful and warm the tone is.”

DOUBLE WHAMMIES

A useful technique I often employ is double miking. I position two different-sounding microphones, typically one dynamic and one condenser, side by side as close together as possible, with the diaphragms in the same plane (see Fig. 1). Each signal is routed to its own track, and the two levels are closely matched. The player directs his or her performance to the center of the two mics from about six inches back so that the mics hear the instrument equally. The result is two distinct tracks that can be blended to taste during mixdown, typically in lieu of any EQ.

Oskar offers a different way to lay down two simultaneous tracks. “Sometimes I'll hold the beyerdynamic M 160 in my hands and play into the BLUE Bottle mic at the same time,” he says. “That way I get the body from the handheld mic and some presence and room sound from the condenser. Later I can blend the two tracks however I want.”

Stevens offers another, more involved double-whammy technique: “I split the signal coming from the mic and send one half to one track and the other to a really fast, clean power amp and a great speaker — a reference monitor, for example. The monitor is turned up in the room so I can hear it and miked from about 10 to 20 inches back. The second mic signal is sent to another track, which gives you two tracks to mix together. It sounds wonderful; you get a totally acoustic sound that's as big as a house” (see Fig. 2).

Stevens discovered another cool trick by accident on a session for which he had to switch back and forth between amplified harp (miked with a Shure Bullet) and acoustic harp. “When it came time for the acoustic stuff, I turned down the volume pot on the Bullet, but I didn't have time to set it down. As I cupped the Bullet and played acoustically into the other mic, a U 47, I got this unbelievably sweet sound. Now, on certain sessions, I'll actually put the Bullet in my hands like that — unplugged — just to shape the tone as I record acoustically.”

AN OPEN EAR

Stevens volunteers the following advice about the best type of headphones to use when recording harmonica: “I recommend open-ear rather than isolation-type phones. With isolation phones, you can sometimes hear the sound of the harp radiating up through your jaw, which freaks out a lot of harp players and tends to make them play flat. Open-ear-type phones let you hear yourself in the room, which makes it easier to stay in tune.”

If you don't have access to open-ear phones, Oskar recommends the old one headphone on, one headphone off trick. “When using great mics, the sound can sometimes be so overwhelming that it's easy to overplay,” he says. “In that case, it really helps to be able to hear yourself rather than just what's coming through the mic.”


Brian Knave is a former Knockout. Special thanks to Jean “Toots” Thielemans, Lee Oskar, Norton Buffalo, Mike Stevens, Skipper Wise, Tom McCauley, Karl Winkler, Reggie Marshall, Dirk Godts, Myles Boisen, and Marshall Lamm.

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