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).
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.
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.