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How I recorded “The Road Out of Here”

“The Road Out of Here” is inspired by Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne—I think of “Highway 61 Revisited” by the former and “Redneck Friend” from the latter. In style and to some extent theme (one verse is about lyin’ and cheatin’) it’s some kind of Americana, if we think of Americana as including stuff that’s never been done before, like for example the sounds I used on the harps on this song.

The harmonica arrangement for this piece includes four distinct sound setups on the Digitech RP500, playing a variety of parts and roles as the intensity of the arrangement builds. Two harp players could cover just about every part of this arrangement live, provided neither one of them was singing; once the harp gets going, some kind of harp is going until the very last note.

“The Road Out of Here” is a great piece for understanding what this record is all about, because I bring the harmonica layers in one by one throughout the piece, and you can REALLY hear what each layer is adding to the sound of the band. I said in a previous post on the sounds I used on this record that my favorites tend to fall in certain categories: wah, pitch shifted, wobbly, and so on. I use all of those types of sounds, plus some very traditional amped up blues harp, to get the message across on this very intense piece of message-rock.

Before we go any further, dial up “The Road Out of Here” on the player below (it’s the 9th track on the record), and give it a listen. Then come back here and the notes below will make more sense. I repeat: this song includes at least two sounds that no harmonica has ever made on a record before, and you’re going to get a better idea of what it sounds like from hearing it than you will from reading about it. Really.




Checked it all out? Great. Let’s talk about it.

The Structure of “The Road Out of Here”

“The Road Out of Here” is a 20-bar form; the only chords in the form are I (E), IV (A) and V (B7), but it’s obviously not any kind of standard blues form. The odd-length form is inspired by Dylan, and by my producer Ed Abbiati, both of whom tend to insert phrases of unusual length into their songs. (“It Takes a Lot to Laugh” being the object example in Dylan’s case.) Every iteration of my form is preceded by a 4-8 bar vamp on the tonic chord, which in this case is E, and these vamps are the stage from which I launch each new sound in order. All the harmonica parts are played in second position on a Seydel 1847 in the key of A, and all the harmonica sounds are created with an Audix Fireball V mic into a Digitech RP500 running variations on my patch set for Digitech RP. All but a couple of harp parts were recorded direct to the recording console in the studio via the XLR outputs on the RP500.

Digitech RP500: It’s the whole rig on every harp part on this record

Building the arrangement one harp (and verse) at a time

At the beginning of the piece, the bass and drums are vamping by themselves. They’re joined by a harmonica with a heavy amp model, an octave-down pitch shift, and a wah-wah, sounding like some kind of distorted, amped up tenor sax. I recorded that part in the studio live, playing along with John Cunningham on bass and Mark Schrieber on drums. The first vocal verse has occasional support from that instrument; I especially like the part where the chord changes to A and I do a filter sweep with the wah by breathing out on a chord while I slowly push the footpedal down. In general, the wah-wah allows me to make that sound change constantly, because it makes different overtones resonate as I push down on the pedal.

You can hear that on the second verse, where I’m playing a chunky chorded rhythmic figure using the same sound setup; this part was recorded in the same pass as the figure in the intro. The effect here is to make the rhythm part sound like something deeply organic–a bear growling, maybe. This is another example of how the organic quality of breath in the sound of a harmonica is so attention-grabbing and powerful.

On the vamp before the third verse, I introduce the wobbly sound for this piece: a sweeter amp model with a vibrato effect attached. The overall effect is that of a bright 60s-style combo organ like a Vox or Farfisa. With the organic low-octave wah-wahed chugging going on next to it, it’s a very full sound. This part was recorded via overdub in the studio, immediately following the take in which we recorded the rhythm section.

As per my discussion of “Double Lucky,” putting harmonica layers into different octaves is a very useful way to keep them from jamming themselves and everything else up. On “Double Lucky” I used a Low F harp alongside a harp pitched an octave higher. On this piece, the low-pitched harmonica sound is created electronically. I like the electronic approach especially when you want the resulting sound to be somewhat degraded or distorted, or when you’re planning to add even more FX to the sound. In this case, the added effect is a wah-wah, and beginning with a more distorted, lower-pitched sound helps keep the wah wah from pushing the whole thing into feedback.

Help! It’s Godzilla!

The big explosion happens after the third verse, when we hear the opening riff again, and then the words “floor it,” and Godzilla shows up at the party—or at any rate, the biggest block chords ever heard on a harmonica do. The RP500 setup here is one with a Blackface Deluxe Reverb amp model topped off with plenty of gain and a distortion box, run through a Whammy effect with the depth of the whammy set to a major second. With this setup I can play E, D (by shifting the E chord down a whole step), A, and G (by shifting the A chord down) chords on an A harp as massive power chords, and that’s exactly what I do here. I recorded that part as an overdub right after I finished recording the wobble sound.

The section is topped with Mike Brenner’s skyhigh lap steel licks, and a VERY simple harp line (one note, but lots of expression) played through my standard ChampB patch for the RP500 (and every other RP down to the 250), which consists of a Fender Champ amp model coupled with a Fender Bassman 4×10 cabinet model—in other words, a pretty traditional amped-up blues setup. That part was recorded in my home studio with the RP500 functioning as a USB audio interface to the computer.

Everything chills out after that, then rapidly builds back up to a repeat of the big chorded solo. The piece ends with the chorded harmonica blasting away by itself for a half minute or so. I did that specifically to make the point that on the road out of here, harmonica make big, nasty sounds just like everybody else. I recorded an ending like that in the studio when I recorded the chorded stuff, but I redid it in my home studio in order to extend its length. By using the same patch in my home studio that I used in Philly, I was able to get a perfect match on the sound of the original and overdubbed parts.

In performance: Easy with two harp players

There aren’t many places in this arrangement where more than two harp players are playing at once—the exceptions are at the ends of each of the chorded solos, where a traditional amped blues harp sound comes in on top of the chorded harp and the chugging pitch-shifted wah-wahed harp. The traditional lines consist of one note, sometimes bent, sometimes not, so maybe you could hand it off to one of the occasional harp players in the band. (Every band has one, it seems. Most of them can handle playing one note.) Otherwise, you need one harp player to play all the pitch-shifted single note and chugged stuff, and one to cover the wobble sound and the chorded solo.

In case no one remembers, this harp arrangement was previewed in its entirety on this blog when I put up a recording of me playing this song with a looper. It worked with one musician, sounds even better with six.

The sound of this song is so big and tough that it’s easy to think there’s more happening here than a few big, bold harmonica parts. But that’s what’s happening here. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be two harp players in a band instead of two guitarists. Get your friends, get my sounds, and get going.

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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.

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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, 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.


I recorded “The Lucky One” in two basic stages:
1) With the band in the studio, playing the basic tracks for all the songs.
2) In my home studio, recording harmonica, vocal, piano, and organ parts.


The gear


In February of 2016 I bought a designed-for-purpose music laptop computer by Jim Rosenberry of Studio Cat, with 16 GB of RAM, dual core i7 processor, and a huge screen. I bought this machine specifically so I could work on music anywhere, and it went with me every time I was on the road for more than a week in 2016. Starting in March 2016, working from my home offices in CT and Idaho, I sent frequent rough demos and lyrics of potential selections for the record to my producers Ed Abiatti and Mike Brenner.


I used Cakewalk Sonar running on my laptop and a range of virtual instruments, including VB3 for organ sounds, TruePianos Amber for piano, Lounge Lizard for electric pianos, and Cakewalk Studio Bass to create basic band arrangements for the songs, and recorded harp and vocal roughs over those to produce the demos. (I later used Sonar to record the vocal and harp overdubs on the band tracks.) I used a FocusRite Scarlett 2i2 USB audio interface with an Audio Technica AT4050CM5 large-diaphragm condenser or an ElectroVoice Raven dynamic mic to record vocals, and a Digitech RP500 with an Audix Fireball V mic to record the harp parts.


That collection of instruments and recording gear with that computer was my essential platform throughout the project, and I’m glad to have it. It’s portable (though relatively heavy and bulky for a laptop), and extremely powerful. Using a Digitech RP for my recording interface meant that I could use almost any RP at any location I happened to be at, load the sounds I needed into it from my computer, and be ready to lay down harp tracks. The computer worked very well, with maximum 10 ms latency in recording mode with the RP500 and under 5 ms with the FocusRite.


Preparing for the sessions


We settled on the songs and arrangements in summer 2016, and I made demos of all the songs in Sonar, packaged those with lyric sheets, and distributed the packages to the band about two and a half weeks before the first recording session.


Beginning on September 19 2016, the band—me on harmonica, Mike Brennan on lap steel, John Cunningham on bass, Mark Schreiber on drums, and Peter Rydberg at the recording console–spent 3 full days and 2 nights in Rydberg’s 1935 Studio in Philadelphia recording the songs. The objective was to get great rhythm section performances and some great jams, and we got everything we wanted. I recorded all harmonica tracks using an Audix Fireball V into a Digitech RP500, with the audio output from the RP500 going to the board via stereo XLR.
Rydberg loaded up the raw tracks from those sessions on a solid state hard drive and sent them to me. I loaded them into Sonar, song by song. Then I got a rough mix going, which was really pretty easy because the tracks basically sounded good with everything set at unity level.


Doing the Overdubs


Then I went to work on the harmonica parts. My goal was to imbue these tracks with color, rhythm, and occasional overwhelming virtuosity. I expected the harmonica tracks to fall in place quickly and easily, and they did. After years spent making and analyzing loop recordings, I have a good sense of how to layer harmonica parts so they don’t interfere with each other or clog up the works. Using pitch shifters to move parts up or down an octave helps a lot. Wah wahs and auto-wahs put motion in parts, and so make them stand out in an arrangement. Wobble sounds like vibrato and rotating speaker convey intense emotion, and work well either in foreground or background of an arrangement.


All overdubbed harp parts were recorded into my laptop via an Audix Fireball V mic into a Digitech RP500, which connected to the computer via USB. (Which means that there was only one stage of audio-to-digital conversion on the overdubs.) One very useful feature of this approach is that if I know what patch was active on the RP when I recorded a part, I can duplicate the sound exactly if I need to for another overdub. It’s worth noting that in the mixing and mastering processes, the only effects applied to the harmonica parts were EQ, delay, and/or reverb—the tones sound very much as they did when they were recorded straight from the RP500.


The last step for me was recording the vocals. For this I used an Audio-Technica AT4050CM5 mic into the preamp on a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB audio interface. I recorded in two different rooms in my house, using blankets and pillows pinned to walls and a portable stand-mounted “vocal booth” to cut down on reflections in the room. In the end, the vocal tracks sounded good, without the wrong kinds of room sounds.


To the Mix


I loaded the overdub tracks as 24-bit 44.1 kHz WAV files into Dropbox, which is where Chris Peet, the mix engineer, picked them up. Chris put his mixes on Dropbox for me to download and audition. This was an efficient way to exchange very large files over very large distances, and it made it easy for everyone to respond quickly to changing arrangements. As it happened, I made some snap decisions about replacing solos recorded with the band in the studio with newer takes, and this process made it easy for everyone to do that. As noted above, the new takes were made using the same RP500 setups as the originals, so they slid right into the mixes with little or no adjustment.


Chris also produced rough mixes for Mike Brenner to use with the percussionist and backup singers (Mark Schrieber and No Good Sister, respectively) in producing their overdubs. Mike sent me the rough mixes from those sessions directly so I could comment on the parts almost as they were recorded. Then those parts too were uploaded to Chris, and the final mixes began.


In the end, it took at least two passes to nail the mix on every song. Some songs went through five passes, with one or two passes per day once the process started. All the mixes were wrapped up in a week of elapsed time.
With the mixes approved, the stuff went to mastering at True East in Nashville. We did three passes on the master, and that was it. The music is recorded.


It was close to a year from start to finish. Would’ve gone faster if I hadn’t had anything else to do at the time, but the proof is in the product, and I like this record plenty. Stay tuned for details on every song, coming to you soon via this blog.

Blog, Pro Tips & Techniques, Recommended Gear, The Lucky One

Making the Harps a Little More Grippy

When I recorded with the band in Philadelphia for my upcoming record “The Lucky One,” we had to turn off the air conditioning in the studio every time we did a take, and that room got pretty toasty after a while. On some of the tunes, especially the ones where I was blowing hard for three minutes straight, my hands got sweaty and the harps got slippery. I had to put a lot of energy into just holding on.

That’s not tops. I decided to make my harps grippier. After soliciting advice on that subject on the Harp-L list, I came to the conclusion that 1) no one is commercially offering cover plates with grippy surfaces, and therefore 2) I had to make them myself.

Some of the solutions offered on Harp-L were, to say the least, impractical. (Coat the cover plates with glue and apply sand? Please. I put that thing in my mouth.) Ultimately I decided that the easiest thing to do was to cut some kind of grippy tape to size and apply it to the cover plates at the outer flange.

I found egrips .75 inch wide tape on Amazon.com and ordered a roll. At $40 per roll, it’s not cheap, but one roll is enough to do over 100 diatonic harp cover plates, top and bottom, so if you’ve got plenty of harps it’s cheap enough. So far I’ve treated 28 harps with the stuff, so the price per harp is currently a little over $1.

To fit a harp with the tape, I cut off a 2″ long strip from the roll, then cut that in half lengthwise to make two strips 2″ long by 3/8″ wide. That’s just about the same as a finger’s width, so I can apply it to the plate without worrying about my mouth coming in contact with the tape.

Here’s a picture of a Seydel Session Steel with the tape in place. This harp also has its key spelled out with a 1/2″ tall stick-on label, which I applied so I can see the key of the instrument on a dark stage.

Seydel Session Steel with grip tape

Seydel Session Steel with grip tape

When you’re holding a harp, the tape is invisible to the audience, and when you’re not it looks pretty good, as opposed to looking like an obvious hack. That was important to me. I don’t want other musicians catching a glimpse of the inside of my harp case and thinking “What sort of musician has a box full of that kind of jury-rigged crap?” (My cases, including the cloth 14-piece Seydel case in which I currently carry 19 harps, the aluminum purpose-built one fromcustomharpcases.com., and the 8-piece compact folding case from Suzuki, all look nice, but still.) Once I got the hang of it, it only took a minute or so per harp to cut the tape and fit it. I did all 28 harps in well under an hour.

So my harps are now non-slip, and I can play in a hot room without worrying about the instrument popping out of my hands in a spray of sweat. A small thing, perhaps, but better is better.

From my point of view, I’d rather be able to buy something like this off-the-shelf (ideally, as part of a new harp, rather than an aftermarket add-on) than spend my own time putting it together. But this is a pretty simple, quick mod that’s easy to get right on the first try, so I’ll live with it until harmonica manufacturers realize that it’s better to sell instruments that people can hold on to even when they’re sweating.

Blog, Hunter's Effects, Pro Tips & Techniques, Recommended Gear, Recorded Performances (live and otherwise)

Another day, another (country) session

I took some time off this week from working on the songs and arrangements for my upcoming record, “The Lucky One,” which is set for recording in the third week of September in Philadelphia, to record harmonica parts for Austin TX producer Bobby Flores. (Congratulations Bobby on winning the 2015 Ameripolitan Male Western Swing Award! That’s the style Bobby was playing when I met and jammed with his band years ago in Austin, and it sure was fun.)

Bobby contacted me late last week and sent a couple of mp3s. The music was very interesting: country with more than a touch of rock and roll, and some unusual chord changes for this genre. (When you’re going from F major changes on the verses to C major changes on the chorus to a solo in Bb major in the same song, it’s a little unusual for country.) Bobby told me he was going to send the changes, but he never got around to it. Oh well; that’s why we make the big bucks…

As per usual for this time of year, I’m out in Tetonia, Idaho, far from my home studio in Monroe CT. Not to worry. The laptop Jim Rosenberry built for me is portable and powerful, and it goes where I go. Add a Digitech RP–in this case my RP500, loaded with my patchset for Digitech RP–for an audio interface, plus an Audix Fireball V, and I have everything I need to make great harmonica tracks. The Fireball V is crucial, because it’s the only mic I know of that can produce beautiful acoustic harmonica tracks when it’s hand-held, which is REALLY important when you’re recording in totally crappy rooms like the one I use for recording in Idaho. (The place is essentially a long rectangle with no sound treatment, and it sounds like a cave. There is no way I’m going to let that room sound into a recording.)

Digitech RP500: pretty much all the recording rig I need

Digitech RP500: pretty much all the recording rig I need

FX? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ FX

All those chord changes notwithstanding, country music demands pretty simple harmonica sounds. To put it another way, the first thing I think of in terms of harp sounds for the genre is never a patch with an octave down pitch shift followed by an envelope filter or a flanger. The first thing I did with the RP500 was dial up one of my Direct amp model patches. The Direct amp model basically takes whatever’s at the RP’s input, adds or subtracts gain to the signal, and sends it to the output. When coupled with the Audix Fireball V, the resulting sound is clean, clear, and full–a great harp sound to send to any producer. (Hey, if they decide they hate clean and they want to f— it up, they’ve got all the FX they need on their own computers.) I have no doubt that Bobby is going to add whatever ambience he wants to my sound, so before I recorded I used the RP500’s dedicated footswitches to turn off the reverb and delay, so the only effect running on the RP was the amp modeling.

I set up a new project in Cakewalk Sonar, my DAW, and loaded in the mp3s Bobby sent to me. Then I set up three harp tracks for each of the songs (we’ll call them “Texas” and “Tennessee,” which happen to be the first words in their respective titles) and started recording.

I did three takes on “Texas”, two with an acoustic sound and one with a patch based on a GA40 amp model for a little more grit. The GA40 patch had a LOT of gain dialed in, so I dropped the gain level on the patch down to a much more moderate 34 (as opposed to the original setting of close to 60, which is some pretty crunchy gain) to smooth it out a little. (I did mention that this is country music, right?) Of course, I took off all the FX except amp modeling before I recorded with this patch. For all the takes on “Texas” I used a Manji in C played in second position. I like Manjis for country music; they play fast and sweet, and they’re just the thing for those quick Country lines. The first harp I tried was a Seydel Session Steel in C, but I just couldn’t get the chords to sound sweet enough, so bye bye Session Steel, hello Manji.

Let the Producer Choose

My favorite of those tracks was the second acoustic take, which featured a rippin’ solo, but I sent Bobby separate rough mixes with the acoustic and amped-up takes, and one with both, because I liked the way the rhythm licks sounded when both tracks played together. I used the same Direct model setup to record two acoustic tracks for “Tennessee,” of which I sent Bobby the second. “Tennessee” is the song with all those chord changes, and I ended up using a Manji in F, played in first and second positions, for the verse and chorus, and a Manji in Bb, played in first position, for the solo section.

It took more time to record two takes for “Tennessee” than to record three for “Texas,” because all those chord changes on “Tennessee” demanded a lot of extra attention. But that’s part of the fun, innit? Taking a beast of a song and making it behave?

Get Paid and Wrap it Up

Bobby checked out the rough mixes and liked them. He paid me via Paypal, and I sent a RAR (compressed) archive file containing all the harp tracks, soloed, in the form of 24-bit 44.1 kHz WAV files–a nice high-resolution format that happens to be the RP500’s highest-quality recording mode.

So there you go: another session conducted over the Internet, with the participants separated by a thousand miles or so, collaborating on their own schedules. Of course it would be absolutely tops to be in the room with the producer when the tracks are cut, so we can get double the brain and emotional power working on the song in real time. But I’m still knocked out by the fact that I can collaborate with musicians all over the world, no matter where they, or I, happen to be. How cool is that? And if you take all that for granted, lemme tell you, you weren’t recording in the 1980s, when a basic recording setup with overdubbing capability cost thousands of dollars, and sending a track to a producer the second you finished it was a wishful and seemingly impossible fantasy. (It takes time to box a tape and take it to the post office, and more time for that tape to make its way halfway across the country.) How delightful to live in an era when those fantasies come true.

Audio/Video, Blog, Pro Tips & Techniques, Recommended Artists & Recordings, Recommended Gear, Recorded Performances (live and otherwise)

“Blue Monk” on the Country-Tuned Harp: It’s All About the Chords

I last recorded Thelonius Monk‘s “Blue Monk” (which Monk originally released in recorded form in 1954) for my solo acoustic CD “The Act of Being Free in One Act” in 1994 as part of a medley that included Jimmy Reed’s “Let it Roll” and “Bright Lights, Big City.” That recording was done on a standard-tuned Lee Oskar G harp played in second position.
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Blog, Pro Tips & Techniques

What Works at a Jam Session

I jammed with some friends at a party in Driggs, Idaho on Saturday night (August 24). The musicians I played with weren’t spectacular, or even professionally competent in some ways, but it was a really enjoyable jam session. At some points, the combined sound of the players was truly exciting, to an extent I really hadn’t expected. It made me wonder about the things that make for a good jam. Here are the three things I think of first in that regard.
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Blog, Pro Tips & Techniques

Hohner releases professional quality harmonica service videos aimed at the player

The post below is copied verbatim (with permission) from a message by renowned harmonica player Steve Baker to the Harp-L list. We agree with Steve that it’s important news for harmonica players. His message follows.


Steve Baker



In an unprecedented step for a major harmonica manufacturer, Hohner has released a whole series of professional quality harmonica service videos aimed at the player which have now been uploaded to the links below.

Demonstrated by Gabriela Hand, head of chromatic harmonica manufacture in Trossingen and presented by myself (Steve Baker), these HD videos provide detailed information on many major aspects of harmonica maintenance and also introduce the new Hohner Instant Workshop toolset, designed to enable easy reed replacement in addition to all other maintenance operations covered in the videos. The overall concept is the brainchild of Hohner Service Department head Michael Timler and the official launch will take place at NAMM.

Though primarily dealing with the chromatic harmonica, many of the subjects covered in the videos such as tuning, centering, reed offsetting or reed replacement are applicable to all types of harmonica and will undoubtedly be equally useful for diatonic players. The tools and techniques presented here will also be invaluable for harmonica technicians and may well revolutionize harmonica repair by rendering it accessible to everyman. In an era where more and more commodities are seen as being disposable, it’s a welcome sign that things don’t always have to be throwaway!

Here are the links to the individual videos:

C01 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7Dc3ssh_bM

C02 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDjJIluEX-g

C02.1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ju0FOZcCU4

C03 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8c9MUfhZWJM

C04 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMlGCMwU8Ko

C05 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12cdfpp2Sg0

C06 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9-31j2nPgE

C07 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfC9OPmhyuU

C08 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fVReyQfwA8

C08.1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMj9e853zIM

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