Audio/Video, Blog, Hunter's Effects, Pro Tips & Techniques, Recommended Artists & Recordings, The Lucky One

The Harps and Gear I used on “Orphan Black”

“Orphan Black” is the theme song for the BBC series of the same name (which is about a bunch of clones, in case you didn’t know). The piece was written and produced by Amon Tobin, who (if you’ve heard the original) is pretty deep into electronica. As a theme song, the piece didn’t need to evolve for more than 45 seconds or so, and Tobin’s original has exactly two chords (G major and E b major), which change back and forth every measure for the duration of the piece. In that brief span he delivers two major motifs and a lot of memorable timbre and texture changes.



I was inspired by the simplicity and drama of this piece to record it as a jam with the Lucky One band. We all spent a few minutes watching and listening to the theme on Youtube, then we talked about it for a few minutes and went to work.


My version of the piece is almost two and a half minutes long. I didn’t change the chord structure, so the drama in this version comes from the steady build of harmonica parts, the yearning struggle of the alien-voice lead harmonica as it climbs higher and higher, and the growing intensity in the rhythm section, especially Mark Schreiber’s drums. I added two supporting harmonicas and a Fender Rhodes-style electric piano to the mix, but otherwise the song sounds exactly the way it did when we laid it down in the studio. I think this was our fourth or fifth complete take on this song.


As per previous comment, every harmonica part on this song (and this record) was recorded with an Audix Fireball V mic into a Digitech RP500, and from there straight to the board (in this case via the RP500’s XLR audio outputs).

Digitech RP500: It’s all over “The Lucky One”


Check out the clip


To hear the clip using the player below, hit the forward button (double arrow pointing right) until you get to “Orphan Black,” which is the sixth piece in the set. Then hit play, and enjoy!




How it was done–the harps


The clip begins just after the point in time at which the chromatic harmonica shifts over to the diatonic harmonica that carries the lead from there to the end. This diatonic is a Lee Oskar harp with a standard Richter-tuned draw reed plate from a C harp (i.e., a reed plate that delivers all the notes of a G7 +9 chord) coupled with the blow reed plate from a G natural minor harp, which gives you all the notes of a C minor triad over a three octave range. This setup provides all the notes needed to solo over both G and Eb chords (with the caveat that the ones that are missing–like, for example, a Bb to go with the Eb chord–are pretty easy to get via bending). It also gives us a lot more power in the lead than a chromatic harp can supply. I tried a previous take on this song with the band using the chromatic throughout, and it didn’t have the scream I needed for this piece. I found the diatonic–which I hadn’t remembered until then–in my extended harp kit. (I brought somewhere around 85 harmonicas to this session, including multiple chromatics in different keys and every diatonic I own.) It’s another example of the importance of the esoteric harps in my kit. I may only use some of my harps every five years or so, and that’s exactly when nothing else will do.


The other harps used on the piece include a Hohner CX12 chromatic in the key of C, which briefly plays partial chords on G and Eb to begin the ramp up, and diatonics in the keys of C (to play the G7 chord) and low Eb (to play the Eb major chord). There are other ways to get those chords, of course, but when you’re playing chords over extended periods of time, breath becomes an issue, and I chose these harps so I could play the G7 chords on the in breath, and the Eb chords on the out breath. Because every chord was exactly one measure long, this harp-switching approach to the chords meant relaxed breathing, in and out, for however long it was needed, without stress on the player or the instrument. It also gave me the widest possible range of chord voicings for both chords.


About 40 seconds or so into the piece (just before the beginning of the sample, which is a 30-second slice of the entire piece–sorry, can’t stream the whole piece on a cover song), the chromatic harp plays the note G above middle C in eighth note triplets; then I repeat that motif with the Lee Oskar diatonic, this time with a distortion added to the tone, and the chase is on.


How it was done–the FX


I used two setups on the Digitech RP500 for this piece. One is the patch I used for the supporting harmonicas: a tweed deluxe (cleanish) amp model with a phase shifter effect. I used this patch for a harp part that included tongue-switched alternating octaves on G, and for a part with tongued rhythms on the G7 and Eb chords. I used copies of the first part in places, which I figured is a permissible technique for a 21st century jam. The phase shifter imparts a kind of snaky, slithery sound to the chords that retains the organic breath sound of the harmonica, very appropriate for a piece that began its life deep in the heart of electronica.


The other patch–the one I used for the lead–includes a harder-edged amp model coupled with a pitch shift of an octave up. The final touch here is the addition of the Tube Screamer distortion model. The chromatic harp uses this sound without the distortion to begin the lead. When the diatonic harp arrives, I hit the switch on the RP500 to kick the distortion in, and the temperature increases by at least 50 degrees. The sound is utterly alien, and the higher it goes the more certain we are that we are hearing something very, very different to the norm. I originally developed this sound, without the distortion and with the RP500’s LFO used to create a vibrato, on my arrangement of Michael Nesmith’s “Sunset Sam.” It was pretty clear when we started to play “Orphan Black” in the studio that the vibrato was just getting in the way, so I took it out. I had already programmed the distortion in on a different occasion. It only took a moment to change the sound to make it the centerpiece of this song, and now it’s preserved in my RP500 and on my computer, maybe forever. 21st century rock harp indeed.


The supporting harps for this piece were overdubbed in my home studio using the RP500 as the computer audio interface; the lead harp you hear on this song was recorded live in one pass, playing with the band in the studio. That’s the way I like it (uh huh). Mike Brenner plays one of the two major motifs from the Tobin original, half-notes on the roots and 5ths, throughout the piece. It’s worth noting how much sheer sonic space one note from Mike takes up. That is some phat shit for sure. John Cunningham’s base lays in the whole notes, and the piano (and harp) add in the eighth notes and eighth note triples that take the groove from relaxed to heated, with lots of color and fire from the drums. This was one fun jam.


John, Mark, and Richard


Performing Live


There are only three harmonica tracks on this piece, and two harmonica players using RP500s can easily cover the parts where they count most. One harp player can do the supporting parts–which are all about chords–using the Tweed Deluxe phase shifter patch and standard tuned harps in C and low Eb, playing draw chords on the first and blow chords on the second; the other can handle the leads with the octave-up distorted setup. You’ll definitely need to construct the same Lee Oskar major-minor harp that I used for the lead–you can get a Lee Oskar standard tuning in C, another in G Natural Minor, and do the reed plate swaps in 10 minutes. If you use the plates to make two harps instead of just one, your second harp will be a dorian minor in G, where the draw chord is a G minor (7 and 9 too if you like), and the blow chord is a C major triad. I like that tuning a lot. It’s great for lots of blues and rock. Try Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” with that harp and tell me if you feel like using anything else, ever.


If you’ve licensed my RP500 patch set, you’re in luck. I’m going to provide every one of my RP500 licensees with a copy of the patches I used on every song in “The Lucky One.” If not, check out our store if you want these sounds in your own songs.

Audio/Video, Blog, Hunter's Effects, Pro Tips & Techniques, Recommended Artists & Recordings, Recommended Gear, Recorded Performances (live and otherwise), The Lucky One

The harps and gear I used on “Double Lucky”



As a rule, most of the pieces on “The Lucky One” have somewhere between three and five harmonica parts in the mix. “Double Lucky” is an exception, with only two harps, and I think its simplicity makes it a good place to start my series on the instruments and FX used on the record. Don’t worry–we’ll start on the more-complex stuff in the next post in the series.


“Double Lucky” is a Double Blues



“Double Lucky” is one of the hardest-rockin’ tunes on “The Lucky One.” The piece is structured as a double blues (24 bar) form in the key of C, with vamps on C between repetitions of the form. The chord changes on the first half of the form are C/C/C/C/Eb/Eb/C/C/F minor/G7/Eb/Eb. The chord changes on the second half of the form are the same, except the last two measures are on Ab instead of Eb. This form has the same harmonic rhythm (i.e. the timing of the chord changes) as a standard 12-bar blues, but the usual I-IV-V blues structure has the IV chord swapped out for a flat III chord, and the turnarounds are substitutions too. Because the traditional 12-bar blues form is so familiar and strong, the song is still recognizably a blues (and the structure of the lyrics reinforces that impression, with two repeated lines followed by a response line in each verse).


I wrote the double blues form after I finished the lyrics for the piece. (I’m finding lately that it’s a lot easier to write the music when I have the lyrics in hand, but maybe that’s just me.) I came up with the vamp lick–of which I admit that I am truly proud and grateful, ’cause it is one hard-rockin’ riff–a few weeks before the session when I was driving down Packsaddle Road in Tetonia, Idaho, jamming away on a Seydel Session Steel A harp. As soon as I played that lick for the first time, I pulled the car over, took out my iPhone, and recorded it. Before that, the tune consisted of the double blues structure, period. But that vamp upped the energy in the tune by about 5000 percent, and when we heard playback on the first take in the studio it was obvious that it was meant to be. So know how to access the voice recorder in your smart phone, and don’t let those inspirations get away from you!


Two, Count them, two harmonicas

I wanted to play a chorded harmonica part on this song similar to what a rhythm guitar might do, but it’s impossible to play C, Eb, and Ab chords on any single diatonic harmonica. This is where the Digitech RP500, or your favorite pitch shifter, comes in. I set the RP500 up for this song using Gibson GA40 amp and cabinet models for a big, gritty tone, and to that I added a pitch shifter with a shift of a minor 3rd up under footpedal control. (I could have simply used the Mod FX on/off switch on the RP500 to kick the pitch shifter in and out, and assigned the footpedal to something else, but I felt more comfortable using the footpedal.) When I play a C chord (on a Low F Suzuki Manji in this case) and engage the pitch shifter, I get an Eb chord; when I do the same thing on an F chord, the pitch shifter bumps it to Ab. Add octaves on F and G, and every chord in the form is covered.


I used the Low F harp on the vamp sections as well as the double blues. That wasn’t necessarily the original plan, but when we started running down the tune in the studio with the band, it was immediately obvious that a standard (high) F harp didn’t have the sheer power needed for the vamp lick. You can hear the sound of the low F harp on the vamp here.



“Double Lucky” rhythm harp


The only other harmonica used on “Double Lucky” is a Lee Oskar Natural Minor in the key of C, played (like the Low F) in 2nd position. That’s the harp I used on the solo, and it’s processed through the same GA40 patch on the RP500, without the pitch shifter.


You can hear it here, with the rhythm harp, which plays throughout the tune. You can hear the rhtyhm harp play C and Eb chords in this sample, the latter courtesy of the pitch shifter.



“Double Lucky” rhythm and lead harps


Whenever you use two or more harmonicas on a tune, it’s important to give each of them its own space in the mix. (I’ve heard recordings where the artist chose to overdiub two or three harps in the same register with the same amped tone, and it sounds like somebody falling all over himself.) The standard C Natural Minor harp is pitched an octave higher than the Low F, and that gives both harps plenty of space to do their respective things. An alternative would be to apply a different effect to each harp, but that would produce a less-bluesy sound, and I wanted something more traditional in this case. (Granted that neither a Low F or a Natural Minor are exactly traditional–those instruments didn’t exist in 1950, and you certainly never heard either one on a Little Walter recording. But the basic approach to the harps on this song is obviously all about the blues.)


Recording the parts, in studio and at home


Digitech RP500: Two harps, one patch on “Double Lucky”


The Low F rhythm track was recorded live with the band in the studio, using the dual XLR audio outputs from the RP500 direct to the board. The solo was recorded in my home studio, using the RP500 as the audio interface to my computer. I actually recorded a scratch solo in the studio with the band using a standard F harp, but after reviewing it I decided to switch harps for the overdubbed solo. The C Natural Minor is based on an Eb scale, and it’s better suited to the changes in “Double Lucky” than a standard F in 2nd position.



The solo is pretty complex and high-velocity. I recorded the first half in one pass, and the second half phrase by phrase to make sure it was played right, working out the lines as I went along. The mix engineer added some delay to the lead harp to give it that gee-I-like-this-big-ol’-stadium sound, but otherwise the harp parts on this song sound exactly the way they did when I laid the tracks in. That’s one of the really, really great things about recording direct with the RP500: you can be confident that you’ll get EXACTLY the same sound on every part you record with a particular patch, no matter where or when.


Two harp players is enough to do “Double Lucky” live


And that’s the harmonica story on “Double Lucky.” Two harps, one RP500 setup, lotta big tones and drive. It should be obvious at this point that this piece could be played exactly as recorded by a band with two harmonica players, one to play the Low F rhythm part, the other to play the lead. (Ideally the lead harp player can also sing.) So get together with a harmonica-playing buddy and work it out!


And take a minute to drop by CDBaby and hear samples of the rest of the songs on “The Lucky One.”


Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Artists & Recordings, The Lucky One

25 days to the release of “The Lucky One” (Mid-April)

My 21st century rock harmonica record “The Lucky One” has been mixed and mastered, and we’re down to graphics, pressing, and shipping. Graphics will be finished this weekend. After that, it’ll take 5-10 days to make the CDs and another 5-10 days to ship to me, after which I will immediately ship CDs and/or digital downloads to all who contributed to my Indiegogo funding campaign. CDs and digital downloads will also be available from the usual suspects–CDBaby, Amazon, iTunes, etc.–at the same time. So we’re looking at actual records (physical and/or digital) on the street in 25 days or less.


The original plan was to have this project done before Christmas. I promise everyone who’s been waiting that you’ll be glad you did, and I thank you sincerely for your patience.


Get ready to rock!

The Lucky One is coming!

Blog, Hunter's Effects, Pro Tips & Techniques, Recommended Artists & Recordings, The Lucky One

How I Recorded “The Lucky One”

I’m planning to do a series of posts describing the specific sounds and techniques I used to record every song on “The Lucky One,” and I thought I’d start out by laying out the overall process that took this record from idea to finished recording.
Read more

Blog, Hunter's Effects, Hunter's Music, Recommended Artists & Recordings, The Lucky One

Stay tuned for details on the instruments and FX used for “The Lucky One!”

“The Lucky One,” my 21st century rock harmonica record, will be released this month. Once it’s released, I’m going to do a series of posts in which I describe the harmonicas and FX used on the record, track-by-track. In case you were wondering, EVERY harmonica track on this record was recorded with an Audix Fireball V mic through a Digitech RP500 running a customized version of my patch set for Digitech RP500, and straight to the board or computer from the RP500 via the XLR outputs (in the studio with the band) or a USB connection (in my home studio during overdubs). If you own a license for our patch set for Digitech RP500, you’ll get a copy of the patches I used for those tracks, and you’ll be able to try those sounds for yourself. (If not, go get yourself an RP500 and a copy of our patch set.)


In general, the sounds I used on this record break down into a few basic categories:

  • natural, with no FX beyond a little reverb or delay
  • amped-up blues
  • wah and auto-wah
  • wobble (vibrato, rotating speaker, vibro-pan–you know, wobble)
  • pitch shifted (usually down, sometimes up)
  • time-based modulation (chorus, flanging, and so on)

  • I used a number of variations on these basic sound groups to keep everything fresh, but when you get right down to it those are the FX that count, and combining them in various ways produces a lot of different colors.


    Stay tuned to get the full details on how it’s done.

    Blog, Hunter's Effects, Hunter's Music, Recommended Artists & Recordings, The Lucky One

    “The Lucky One” is on target for release this month!

    I haven’t posted much to this blog lately; been too busy behind the scenes getting “The Lucky One” ready for release. At this point the overdubs are done, the mixes are underway, and we’re getting the artwork ready for production. Whew! Lotta stuff. Worth the effort, because the tracks sound amazing.

    The initial band sessions in Philadelphia produced a bunch of tracks that were just crackling with energy, and my goal after that was to keep that energy while filling out the arrangements. In the end, the overdubbed harmonica tracks just rolled into place, most on the first or second take. (I spent more time and takes on some of the solos, because, well, they’re solos.) From the beginning I knew that the vocals would be a challenge for me, and getting those right is what took months of hard labor in a darkened room, all by myself. Like Ringo said: It don’t come easy.

    Now that we’re coming down to the finish line, I feel–joy. Joy that I was lucky enough to come to this place in my life, with the people and resources around me that I needed to do this record. Joy that the vision of 21st century harmonica that I began working on over a decade ago is being realized. Joy every time I hear the music.

    I’m the lucky one.

    Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Artists & Recordings, The Lucky One

    “The Lucky One” is coming soon, but not before Christmas

    I’m nearly finished with vocal and harp overdubs for my record “The Lucky One.” I’d originally thought we’d have the record available for sale (and for distribution to the people who contributed to the Indiegogo fundraiser) by Christmas, but it’s looking more like January now. I apologize for the delay; rest assured that I will deliver the best damn stuff I can, even if it takes another week or two, and the results are worth waiting for.

    I’ll take this opportunity to talk a little about this record. It’s no secret that I’m using layered overdubs with plenty of FX to shape the sound of this record. That’s not new in itself; artists like Scott Albert Johnson and John Popper have used FX very well on recent records, and Filip Jers, among others, created masterpieces on his first CD with overdubbed harps. What’s new is that I’m not simply out to produce new electric harmonica sounds with this work; I’m putting the harmonica into a range of roles in the band that it has rarely, if ever, occupied. Harmonica is traditionally a lead instrument in a rock band; I’m building on the work of Lee Oskar and Magic Dick to put it more deeply into the rhythm and horn sections, guided by the sounds of blues, the band Morphine, and the White Stripes.

    The results are definitely new; these textures have never been present on any record I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a lot of harp records. Most importantly, I imagine that this music can be effectively performed live with a band that includes at least two harmonica players playing through the Digitech RP500 setup I’ve used for all the harmonica tracks.

    Digitech RP500: It's all over "The Lucky One"

    Digitech RP500: It’s all over “The Lucky One”

    And why not? Plenty of rock bands have two guitarists; how about some equal time for harp players? This is not music designed only for the studio; this is music designed to be performed. (By the way, if anyone is interested in being part of some of my performances, please contact me. Qualifications include ability to play diatonic harps in multiple positions, the ability to play chromatic harmonica in multiple keys, and the willingness to use the rig I provide, which of course includes a Digitech RP500 and an Audix Fireball. Practical knowledge of chord structure and theory is essential, like for example knowing what notes are included in an Ab major triad and what scales work against that chord. Ability to read music in this case is deeply respected, but not required. New York/Philly area is tops.)

    If this record goes as planned, it will be as definitive a statement about the role of harmonica in a rock band as my previous CDs, “The Act of Being Free in One Act” and “The Second Act of Free Being,” were for solo harmonica. That’s what I’m shooting for. I know it’s ambitious; the facts are that I’ve been working on this approach for ten years, the concept is fully formed, and I’m too old not to aim high right now. When Mick Jagger said in an interview recently that spending three full days in the studio recording the new Stones blues record was pretty hard on him, I knew exactly what he was talking about; I literally limped out of the studio in Philly after three full days and two nights of blowing my brains out on this record. Like I said: time to aim high.

    Whatever else this record is, it’s not the usual, by design. And it rocks hard. You can check out samples of early rough mixes in the “Updates” section of the Indiegogo campaign for “The Lucky One”. (The campaign is closed, so you can’t make a contribution. If you like what you hear, just buy the download or the CD come January.)

    « Previous PageNext Page »