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“Keepers of the Streak” Is Totally Cool, Whether or Not You’re All About Football

As readers of my blog know, just before the end of 2014, I did a couple of recording sessions for an ESPN documentary called “Keepers of the Streak.” To my surprise, the show, which I watched last night from start to finish, turned out to be a very cool piece about four very accomplished photographers who’ve collectively photographed every Superbowl from the start. The music included a lot of nice stuff that I didn’t know about when I recorded my own parts, and most of my favorite harmonica cues from the sessions ended up in the final cut, with the harp positioned nicely up front in the mix. I enjoyed every minute of it, which is saying a lot, because I’m not really a bigtime football fan. (Beyonce won the SuperBowl last year, right? I wish I’d seen that…)
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Pumping Up the Organ Tones with the iStomp

Digitech RPs have a very nice single-line pitch shifter, and a very nice rotary speaker effect too. If you could use them both at once, which you can’t do on a single RP, you’d get some decent simple organ tones. (You can actually get decent organ tones with a rotary speaker alone, but a pitch shifter helps a lot.) But if you really want to emulate the sound of a Hammond organ, you need multi-timbral pitch shifting–the kind you get with an ElectroHarmonix POG or HOG, where you have multiple independent pitch-shifted lines running in parallel. Unfortunately, a HOG or POG costs $300 and up, and it takes up a pretty big chunk of space at your feet, too.

I decided last week to check out a promising alternative: the Digitech iStomp, an interesting device that’s essentially a reconfigurable stompbox. I bought my iStomp from used for about $60 shipped, a savings of close to 50% compared to buying new.
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Keepers of the Streak Part 2

I reported on this blog not long ago about a session I did for an ESPN movie called “Keepers of the Streak.” I spent Christmas in Idaho, and not long after I arrived there I got a call for a second session for this movie. The composer, Brian Keane, specifically asked if I could do acoustic tracks, and mentioned that he wanted something along the line of Toots Thielemans, meaning of course some cool-toned chromatic harp.

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RP355 or RP360XP?

With the new possibility that Digitech will retire the RP355, it’s important to ask again whether it’s better to get an RP355 or an RP360XP. Here’s my current thinking on the topic.
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Is Digitech Phasing Out the RP355?

I noticed something interesting in the last few days. First, the price of new Digitech RP255s has dropped to about $100. That’s a pretty good deal on a pretty capable device. Second, RP355s are listed as discontinued at Sweetwater, Musicians Friend, etc. etc. Put it together, and you’ve got to ask: is Digitech quietly phasing out the RP355?
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More RP355 Loop Jams–This Time, Rock

Here are a couple of new cuts from the same sessions that produced “On the Road Again” and the funky loop jam. “Dawn Like Thunder” is a slow, peaceful piece with some beautiful counterpoint. The patch I use to play it has an LFO modulating pitch–basically, flipping back and forth rapidly between a note and the octave below–with the level of the LFO, i.e. the volume of the effect, under expression pedal control. “Heavy Rock LFO” starts with a very hard-edged line played with the same patch as “Dawn Like Thunder,” and it’s soon joined by even hard-edged stuff.


Dawn Like Thunder composed and performed by Richard Hunter. Copyright 2014 Richard Hunter. all rights reserved

Heavy Rock LFO composed and performed by Richard Hunter. Copyright 2014 Richard Hunter. all rights reserved

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“On The Road Again” with the RP355

The piece attached to this post is a segment from a performance I put together using the Digitech RP355 loaded with my patch set for Digitech RP, plus the RP355’s builtin looper. The sounds include beatboxed percussion (run through a patch with heavy vibrato and delay), a double octave down patch with a wah wah set to low-pass the frequencies, a tenor sax octave-down patch, and a kind of psycho organ patch with heavy vibrato (the same one I beatboxed through, if I recall). All the sounds were created by me, and in most cases are versions of the patches in my patch set for Digitech RP that I customized for a particular song.

The Canned Heat version of “On the Road Again” that features Al Wilson on harmonica is a great classic from every point of view. I think it’s pointless to recreate it, but this arrangement borrows the spare, sombre tone of the original. The harmonica is a Big River harp tuned to a Dorian Minor scale (3 and 7 draw reeds lowered 1/2 step) in second position (G minor, in this case; the original key of the harp is C). Wilson used a harp with the draw 7 reed lowered 1/2 step, and I think it was a great choice, which I why I use it too. (Note: since this piece was published, I’ve been advised that Wilson tuned the draw 6 reed up half a step, as opposed to lowering the draw 7 reed 1/2 step. Either approach yields the desired effect to a point. Tuning the draw 6 reed up offers less in terms of harmonization opportunities than tuning the draw 7 reed down.)

In performance, I build these lines from the bottom up: beatbox, bass, tenor. It’s a big sound. Like I said in my previous post about jamming some funk on the RP355, I intend to do more of this.

You can hear a dog howling along with the music near the end. Dogs seem to find harmonica very howl-worthy. I don’t know if they’re enjoying it or not. I’m enjoying it, and that’s sufficient justification. The dog can always leave the room if she likes.

On the Road Again Richard Hunter, harmonicas and vocals

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The RP355 Has A Looper, And I’ve Seen It In Action

I’m in Idaho as I write this, and my rig in Idaho consists of a Digitech RP355, an Audix Fireball, and a Peavey KB2 amp. I was jamming on that rig a day or so ago, and I remembered that the RP355 has a looper. It’s not much of a looper–it only has 20 seconds of loop time, the ergonomics aren’t tops, and it won’t drop the latest layer of the loop in and out on command like the JamMan Stereo–but it does what it does, and I used it to make the piece you hear below.

Digitech RP355–not Digitech’s latest, but it still sounds great
DigiTech RP355 Guitar Multi-Effects Pedal with USB

There are four layers in this loop. All the sounds used in the layers were created by me. The first layer is a beatboxed percussion part; the second is a double-octave-down bass part; the third is a tenor sax-ish lick that fills out the low midrange; and finally, a patch that’s designed to emulate a slide guitar, with a lot of distortion, and a whammy effect that drops the pitch by a whole step under footpedal control.

This basic configuration of sounds–beatboxed percussion, low bass, tenor sax, and some kind of lead and/or midrange ryhthm or pad–works very well for a wide range of loops, and I’m gradually developing a repertoire for it, as well as sets of sounds that fulfill these functions in different ways that represent different styles. For example, the set of patches that I use for “Key to the Highway” includes a bass, an organ sound with rotating speaker, and an amped Chicago-style harp, all very traditional and appropriate for blues. Some of my rock sound sets include much less traditional versions of these elements, for example, a patch in which an LFO rapidly shifts the pitch of the note back and forth between unaltered and an octave down, in the same role as the organ sound in the other set.

The performance was recorded via a Zoom H4, using the H4’s internal mics, from a distance of about 4 feet away. There’s more of the room sound in the recording than I’d like, but it’s plenty good enough for now.

Check out this loop, and stay tuned for more.

“Funky RP355 Loop”by Richard Hunter, copyright 2014, all rights reserved

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Why is Harmonica Not a Foundational Instrument? Because You Can’t Sing While You Play It

There are a few instruments–or roles, perhaps–that you hear in just about every band that’s playing anything related to roots or any popular style. Something is making a bass line. Something is percussively pounding out a rhythm. Something is playing chords or adding color above the bass and percussion–maybe more than one thing. Above all, someone is singing. And it’s that, not the limitations of the harmonica, that make it a non-foundational instrument–that is, not an instrument that must be present in any band.

If you play any kind of bass, drums, keyboards, or guitar, you’ve got a foundational instrument. Something’s got to play the role your instrument plays in the band. With modern electronics (like, of course, a Digitech RP device and my patch set), you can actually play any of those roles with a harmonica or two (or seventy-five, if you want to play a lot of different stuff–you need some pretty specific instruments to fill certain roles on certain songs). What you can’t do with a harmonica is sing at the same time.

The mouth can sing AND play, just not both at once

The mouth can sing AND play, just not both at once

I suppose “foundational” also implies something lower-pitched than most harmonicas–something that has some bass in the tone. That used to be a problem for harmonica, but it’s not anymore, with pitch-shifting electronics like a Digitech RP with my patch set, and low-pitched harmonicas like the Hohner Thunderbird and various Seydels and Suzukis available. Pitching the harmonica down also helps keep it out of the way of the vocal. And in modern popular music–including most genres that are popular enough to support more than a few artists, not just “pop” music–the human voice dominates. If you play bass, guitar, keys, or drums, you can sing while you play, because it’s your hands and feet that do the playing, not your mouth and your lungs.

But if the harp player sings, you’ll only hear the harp between vocals, which means it can’t fill a role in the foundation. I suppose that the looper is the device that solves the problem, but it introduces other problems. With a looper, a harmonica player can create a foundation and sing over it. That solves the problem of putting the harp in the foundation. However, it makes it harder to play with others; a lot of musicians find it difficult to stay in sync with a loop. If you have a full band playing to a loop, everybody needs a click feed to stay in sync, so the setup gets more complex. And a looper isn’t native to traditional styles, just about by definition.

That's my JamMan Stereo looper--the blue box at center-right.

That’s my JamMan Stereo looper–the blue box at center-right.

Another option is to find a band that wants the harp in the foundation, and never mind the singing. In that case the harp is really defining the sound of the band. That’s the story of Magic Dick with the J. Geils band. He didn’t have to sing with the band; the rest of them had that covered. His first great contribution was to put the harp right into the rhythm section. And the sound of the band was different from any other as a result.

It’s possible now, with non-standard tunings and various FX, to go well beyond what was possible with a traditional amped rig in 1971. In other words, the harp can now take on an even wider range of roles in the band, moving deeper into the various roles in the rhythm section (and farther in front on the lead). Assuming that said harp is not in the hands of a person whose primary role is singing.

Anyway, harp players have a big choice to make. They can sing more and put the instrument down more frequently, or they can play more and be more integral to the sound of the band. Not a simple choice; great opportunities on both sides. Time to be awesome, I guess, one way or the other. Or both. I’m reminded that Little Walter had plenty of instrumentals in his repertoire. So perhaps the key is in fact to embrace the limitation. We can do everything–just not all at once.

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Why We Make Big Cool Sounds for Harp Players: History is On Our Side

There was a recent discussion on Harp-L of FX, which I found revealing of all sorts of things. It’s chronicled here, and be warned: gotta lotta words. (The boldface emphases I put on certain lines in that discussion were added by me, and were not present in the initial conversation. However, I thought it a good idea to break up all that text once in a while, and highlighting some of the big messages seems like a good way to do it.)
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