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How I recorded the big harmonicas that light up “Make the Noise”

Sometimes it takes years to write a song. I wrote the first draft of some of the lyrics to “Make the Noise,” the leadoff song on my record “The Lucky One,” 15 or so years ago for a piece called “In the Time of Your Life” (as per Aram Saroyan: In the time of your life, live). When I began work on this record, I reviewed more or less all the lyrics I’d written, and I kept coming back to “In the Time of Your Life.” The lyrics were about life and–death. Kind of a bummer, that. On reflection, telling people to hurry up and live cause they’re all gonna die doesn’t seem likely to inspire a lot of cheer, unless grim determination qualifies as cheer. And it seems likely that people who feel good, as opposed to grimly determined, when they hear a song are likelier to want to hear said song again.

The setup in the studio when I recorded “Make the Noise”

So I decided to take those lyrics and make them all about living. “In the time of your life” began with these words:
Fact/We all die young/Compared to earth and sky and sun

In “Make the Noise” those lyrics become the chorus, and they’re a lot happier:
Compared to earth/and sky and sun/you and I are always young

Just as true as the previous version, and a lot more cheerful about the overall outlook going forward, don’t you think?
Check this song out on CDBaby before you read about the harmonica parts. Use the player below; it’s the first song on the record.

The History of the Harmonica in 4 minutes

Musically, “Make the Noise” is something of an autobiography. The groove at the beginning has echoes of the Doors, one of my earliest rock influences, with a harmonica horn section punching out riffs to move it along and a vibrating lead harp adding fervor and mystery. The solo goes to a Bo Diddley groove, an explicit reference to early rock, with a harmonica sound and attack that’s all about amped up blues (plus a little pitch-shifting modern twist); and the piece goes out on an extended jam with the harmonica horns and the bluesy solo harp making a chugging, pulsing bed for the vibrating lead. 1952, meet 2017. As Faulkner said, the past isn’t past.

Lots of harmonica color on this track, and as per usual for this record, some of these harp sounds have never appeared on any record before. (Anyone who’s purchased my patch set for Digitech RP500 can use these sounds in their own pieces once I release the full set of sounds I used on this record, of course, which I’ll get to as soon as I finish my write-ups on the songs.)

Digitech RP500: It’s on every harp track on “The Lucky One”

How I recorded “Make The Noise”

The rhythm section for “Make the Noise”—Mike Brenner on lap steel, Mark Schreiber on drums, and John Cunningham on bass
—was recorded live in the studio while I sang a dummy vocal and played the amped-up blues harp sound that you hear on the first solo and a chugging rhythm part at the end. I wanted to do that solo with the band playing behind me to get the vibe of real people playing music together, reacting to each others’ ideas in real time. (You know, jamming.) I used a very tough, even harsh sound on that first solo, and if I were to do it over I might back off the distortion a little—but I ultimately kept the solo because it was true to the moment, and true to the spirit of the song. “Make the Noise,” indeed. Noise is naïve, isn’t it?

That harp track was recorded with a Seydel Session Steel in A, played in 2nd position, with a handheld Audix Fireball V mic plugged into a Digitech RP500 running my patch set, with the RP’s stereo XLR audio outputs going straight to the recording console. (In other words, harmonica aside, I used exactly the same rig on this piece that I used on almost every other harp track on “The Lucky One.”) The modern twist is that I put a whammy effect, with a pitch shift of a major 2nd down, on the RP500 patch I used on the track, which allowed me to pitch-shift between E major and D major chords—y’know, the chords you need to play a Bo Diddley riff.

Most of the song is in E minor; the solo is in E major, and the chorus that follows it uses an E major chord in its C-D-E sequence, as opposed to the C-D-E minor sequence that’s heard in all the other choruses. To me it feels like the sun coming up when that Bo Diddley groove ends with C-D-E, and the harp line reflects that glorious feeling.
At the end, the A harp is playing over an E minor chord, and I was careful to play partial chords on the 1 and 2 inhale reeds, meaning the 5th and root of the chord, no third, in order to preserve the minor tonality while chugging away on the A harp, with a little bit of whammy thrown in to keep the harmony moving between E and D. Traditional blues and—not.

5th position carries the horns and lead

When I began laying down the harp overdubs for “Make The Noise,” I knew that I wanted a big, deep horn section. (Like I said elsewhere, the influence of Morphine is all over this record.) The first track I overdubbed was a harmonica pitch-shifted down two octaves to emulate a baritone saxophone playing a simple, punchy riff on the verses, and long notes on the roots of the chords on the chorus. Then I recorded a harmonica pitch-shifted down one octave to emulate a tenor sax playing the same line. I was instantly in love with the sound. 40 years ago I used to listen to King Curtis and envy the powerful blasts he could generate on the low notes of a tenor sax. Now I’ve got a pitch shifter, and I envy no more.

Both those tracks were recorded on a Suzuki Manji in the key of C, played in 5th position (i.e. root = E, tonality is minor). I used the same harp with an RP500 sound that included a vibropan effect for a deep, psychotic vibration that makes the harp jump straight out of the mix. That sound is used to play long tones that add texture and emotion in the intro and on every chorus, to play fills on the verses, to play E minor chords behind the blues harp solo, and to play a little bit of chug and a pair of high-flying solos, one after the other, on the E minor outro. Both solos were improvised in one continuous pass, and I felt inspired when I played that take. I don’t really use 5th position all that often—I’d usually rather just use a Natural Minor harp in 2nd position, which is the same mode—but I’m glad I did this time. Thinking through the lines in 5th position forced me to come up with some new ideas, and when I listen to the solo now I hear very, very different phrasing than is usual for me.

I seem to recall that every overdub I did on this song was a first take. It was a moment’s inspiration to select each of the sounds I used, and the parts came together instantly in my mind and in combination with each other. I didn’t write anything down—I just played the lines, listened, and moved on to the next. Sometimes it works like that. I don’t suppose it would have if I hadn’t had years of looping harmonica parts to teach me what sounds work together.

I played the tracks for my wife and she said “don’t add a thing.” True that. It’s a good thing to know when to stop. When the thing is sounding really, really good is about the right time to stop.

Plenty of colors means at least two harp players for live performance

The harmonica arrangement on “Make the Noise” has a lot of depth and color. There are four harmonica tracks, but two of them are playing the same lines an octave apart (i.e. the low horn lines), and a single player could do those using either a pair of Digitech RPs connected via an ABY pedal (to split the mic signal) or with a multi-voice pitch shifter like the Electro-Harmonix POG or HOG. Ideally you’d then have one more player doing the blues harp parts in 2nd position, and a third playing the vibrating parts in 5th position.

If you’ve only got two players, I’d put one on the low harmonica parts, and one on the 5th position parts, with the player on the low parts switching to the blues harp sound on the solo, where the low parts aren’t as important. Alternatively, the player using the vibrating sound could switch to the blues harp sound on the solo while the low harps carry on.

If you’ve only got one player, play the vibrating sound everywhere but the Bo Diddley groove, where you can rock out with the amped up blues sound. It won’t be my arrangement, but it’ll still be fun.

But hey! I set this arrangement up to show off a bunch of harp sounds. So get your friends together and work it out. It’s time for harp players to put more harmonicas on stage, innit? Make all those sounds work for you, man. 21st century harmonica has entered the building.

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