Blog, Recommended Artists & Recordings

So many records, so little time

In the last couple of months, I have been privileged to acquire a huge stack of harmonica records from some of the best players in the world. Mike Stevens, the mind-boggling Canadian virtuoso, dropped a stack of 5 CDs on me that include styles ranging from bluegrass to rock to African. (Yes, I know there’s more than one style of African music, but I’m not knowledgeable enough about all those styles to name them accurately.) Peter Ruth sent me a couple of CDs; Scott Albert Johnson sent me his latest, which is truly a new, compelling take on rock harmonica. And acoustic harp monster Grant Dermody is about to drop his latest on me. Sheesh. Too many great records, not enough time to review them all at once.

So stay tuned for a batch of reviews coming soon to this site, starting with Scott Albert Johnson’s. By the way, if you like rock music and harmonica, just go out and buy Scott’s record right now. I’ve listened to it about 4 or 5 times straight through, and it’s one of the most original takes on rock harmonica that I’ve heard in years. My formal review will be more detailed than that, but that’s the advice.

Audio/Video, Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Artists & Recordings, Recommended Gear, Recorded Performances (live and otherwise)

Big Shimmering Textures: Comin’ Home Baby Looped Live

I recorded this performance of “Comin’ Home Baby” live, using Lee Oskar natural minor harps in G and F, an Audix Fireball mic, a Digitech RP500 running my patch set, a Digitech JamMan Stereo looper, a Peavey KB2 keyboard amp, and a Zoom H4 to capture the sounds on the night of March 7 2015.

I obviously like this tune a lot–I think this is the third time I’ve posted a live version of it to my site, and I recorded it live in the studio for my first CD, “The Act of Being Free in One Act.” I’m posting another version because I really think the sounds on this one are new and different, and very beautiful. The piece is a good example of how a multiFX device and a looper can produce some striking layers of sound. I wouldn’t mind if I’d played it a little tighter on the groove, but the feeling is strong. The harp sounds include a double octave down, a chorused sound with prominent delay, and a tenor sax sound that’s remarkably accurate in the lower register of the harp.

One technique is worth calling out. On the first 12 bars, I alternate between a bass note and chords. I use two natural minor harps, in G and F, to give me the right bass notes and chords (nice fat minor 7th and 9th voicings). I have the Digitech RP500 set up to shift the pitch between two octaves down and an octave down, and I rock the pedal from toe down to toe up to shift from one to the other, playing the bass notes two octaves down and the chords one octave down. That’s an example of how you can use the RP’s expression pedal to change the sound dramatically. (The RP500 offers lots of ways to change the sound instantly and dramatically. I’ve started programming all the FX for all my patches because I can turn them off and on so easily.) Of course, I could do the same thing by setting up an octave down patch and a double octave down patch side by side on the RP500, and in fact I’ve used that approach on occasion–it’s how I configured the bass layers for my performance of “Early to Bed.” But I think the sound of the pitch sliding by is pretty cool for this song.

It’s fun to compare this version of the piece with the duet I recorded live with Wim Dijkgraaf in a performance in Sao Paolo, Brazil in October 2014. The duet is more about lines, and the looped version is more about textures. Both versions make their respective emotional points.


“Comin’ Home baby” recorded live by Richard Hunter 7 March 2015

Blog, Recommended Gear

The Seydel 1847 is getting to be my favorite harp

I recently blew out the draw 4 reed on my Seydel Session Steel A harp. When I ordered a set of replacement reed plates, I was shipped a set of Seydel 1847 plates by accident. I decided to re-order the Session Steel plates, and also to order all the rest of the parts I needed to assemble an 1847 A harp. All the stuff arrived today, and I now have a Session Steel with new reed plates and a 1847 with new reed plates, both in A.
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Blog, Recommended Gear

Labeling my harps for easy recognition in low light

I’m getting ready to play the Forbes/Inc. Magazine corporate battle of the bands semifinals at Gypsy Sally’s in Washington, DC on Saturday, May 30 with a band called Gartner in the Cloud. It’s going to be fun. Our set includes five tunes, all classic rock. The low tune count notwithstanding, I use five standard-tuned harps in this set: A, C, D, F, and Bb. On one tune, the Buffalo Springfield’s “Mister Soul,” I switch from 3rd position on a D harp (E minor) to second position on a Bb harp (F). It’s a short but busy gig, and one of the things I realized at the last rehearsal is that I really need to be able to find the right harp for a song without my glasses on, in a poorly lit room.
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Blog, Recommended Gear

I just bought a bunch of Manjis, and they’re better than they used to be

I buy harmonicas every so often (because I use harmonicas every day, and they do wear out). A recent sale on Suzuki Manjis in all the popular keys happened to take place at Rockin Ron’s on the very day I decided to buy some. So there you go: need coincides with opportunity. I have eight new Manjis.

The last time I bought a Manji was over a year ago, and something changed in the meantime. Suzuki, perhaps responding to comments by yours truly among others, upgraded the cover plates on the Manjis. Those plates used to be the flimsiest I’d ever seen on a production harmonica. Now they’re stiffer, and opened up at the back end to project more volume.

That’s progress, innit? Anyway, I’m glad to see a good harmonica get better. I’ve always liked the Manjis for their basic responsiveness–if you have to play a line at speed, a Manji is a good place to start. Kudos to Suzuki for making the investment in quality.

Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Gear

Gear Review: Low Priced Amp Modeling: the Vox Stomplab IG

The Vox Stomplab IG is a full-blown multiFX device that includes amp modeling, dynamics processing, a range of FX, delay, and reverb, all in a two-button stompbox design that runs on 4 AA batteries and sells new for under $70. I’ve had good experiences with Vox modeled amps, and I decided to give this box a try, especially because I’m not yet entirely satisfied with any of the battery-powered devices that I use for jam sessions and other situations where setup time is at a premium and AC isn’t always conveniently located, such as the Tech21 Blonde pedal. (I might be satisfied with the Blonde if it had delay and reverb, not to mention a rotary speaker and pitch shifter FX.)


First Impressions: Solid, not Perfect

The IG arrived from Sweetwater Sound last week. The form factor is very nice: smaller than a Digitech RP155, and very lightweight. The overall design could be improved. Yes, it runs on batteries, but to load the batteries you have to remove the rubber feet from the bottom of the device with a screwdriver. Whatever happened to removable battery cover panels? The device’s layout and user interface is fiddly and a bit complicated; most of the controls serve two functions at least, and every function is coded as a 2-digit mnemonic on the display, which means that you either memorize what all those (literally) hundreds of 2-digit codes mean (e.g. a 4×10 speaker cab model is coded as “t3″–that’s easy and intuitive, right?), or keep the manual close by while programming. The same issue applies to the Digitech RP155 (not to the RP250 and up), which only has a two-digit display, but the RP can be programmed using Digitech’s very good Xedit program, which gives you plenty of additional information about every parameter. Alas, the Stomplab has no USB port, so you can’t connect it to a computer for editing, saving, and loading patches. In summary, programming this thing is more difficult than I’d prefer.

The programmable memory is also much less extensive than the RP155’s: 20 user slots instead of 50. However, keeping in mind that I bought the thing for use in jam sessions, where you usually only need a few good sounds at most, that may not be a problem.

In Use: Sounds Good Without Too Much Work

I spent a few hours working with the Stomplab IG over the last couple of days. The architecture of a patch is very similar to the Digitech RPs, with 7 FX in a fixed order. The Stomplab’s fiddly interface is not terrifically helpful to a programmer. Among other things, the setting for any given function only is visible while you’re editing it; if you move away to edit something else, when you come back the parameter you previously edited resets to whatever the current rotary dial position is. That’s a real bummer: you can’t be sure what settings you just created unless you write them down as you go along. I like machines that remember that stuff for me.

Still, in a few hours I’ve managed to produce eleven or twelve good blues-rock amped tones for it, one of which is an uncanny match for a tone that I put together on the Digitech RP500 for the lead harp on my looped arrangement of “Key to the Highway”– a big loud amped sound with a slapback delay. In other words, the Stomplab sounds good, and it’s plenty loud.

Here’s a clip of me playing a groove with all of the sounds I’ve created for the Stomplab, one by one.

Overall: A Great Price For A Device That Makes Some Great Sounds

The Stomplab IG has a lot going for it at its price point of $70: a metal case and two metal footswitches, four bands of EQ on every patch, good FX, including nice delays and spring reverb, a decent pitch shifter, a rotary speaker effect that sounds very good, and a broad selection of good-sounding amp and cabinet models, including plenty of crunchy stuff. I really like the echo models, which have a big fat sound that adds a lot of depth to the harp tone. The most difficult omission to accept is the absence of a USB port and computer backup and restore for single patches and the entire user memory. But the price is amazing considering what’s in the box.

I’m trying to figure out how I can package these sounds for sale, but the fact that an owner can’t just plug the thing into a computer and load my stuff in makes it difficult. Perhaps I can figure out a way to communicate both the sound configurations and the process for setting it up to a Stomplab owner. I hope so; I think this device, with its low price, good sound, and high portability, could help a lot of people figure out that they need an amp modeling device in their kit.

Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Gear, Upcoming Performances

Going Out to Jam with the Zoom G3

I’m traveling to London tonight, and tomorrow (Sunday March 15) I plan to sit in at the Sunday afternoon jam at Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. I’m taking a kit that includes 18 diatonic harmonicas–most of the standard Richter tunings in keys from low F to F, with the rest comprised of Dorian minors, Natural minors, Country, and Melody Makers. It’s what I need to play most of the pieces in my solo repertoire, and it’s a good kit for blues too. I add a C chromatic to the pile and I’m ready for a jam session.

The kit also includes a Zoom G3 running my latest patch set for that device, my refurbished Audix Fireball mic, an XLR cable with a rat-tail transformer, and a long 1/4″ cable to connect the G3 to the PA, which I know from experience at ANBTB is across the stage from where I stand when I play. The G3 runs on batteries, which is the main reason I’m taking it instead of the Digitech RP360XP–it’s a lot faster to set up when you don’t have to find a power outlet.

The last time I played at ANBTB, I had the G3 with only a draft set of patches, plus a different mic, and I couldn’t get comfortable with the gear–too much feedback, for a start. The Fireball mic is easily the most feedback-resistant mic I have ever used, so that eliminates one problem. I’ve completed the G3 patch set since then, so the patches are engineered to be louder and more feedback resistant too. I’m expecting the gear to do its job this time around, which of course makes it more enjoyable for me and everyone else in the room too.

The specific patches I intend to lean on most include the BasmTapEco (Bassman amp with tape echo) and BasmVib (Bassman amp with vibrato). The former is a nice Chicago sound that works well with and without the Tape Echo slapback, and the latter is as close as you can get to an organ sound with the G3, a nice changeup from the basic Chicago sound.

I’ll file a full report on how the gear worked on my return. In the meantime, if you’re in London on Sunday afternoon, drop by Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues.

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