Pro Tips & Techniques

Tom Ball’s Advice on Getting a Clean Harmonica Sound

Tom Ball is one of the top acoustic harmonica players working today, as visitors to our Pro Pages know well. Tom posted this message to the Harp-L list recently; it’s re-posted here with Tom’s permission. (Don’t ask what we had to do to get it . . .) If you want a clean sound off a PA, here’s yer Bible.

Regarding the search for a "clean sound":


I agree that the best option is a good vocal mic played (from about 6 inches away) through the PA (not through an amp.) In general, you may have to goose the EQ on your PA so that you have a little more bottom, a little less top, and some reverb.

I’ve found that if I’m feeding back I’m probably playing too close to the mic, or the PA’s simply too loud. If I’m 6 inches away from the mic and still feeding back, it’s time to experiment with
the speaker placement and/or turn down (or reposition) the monitor(s.)

Here’s another couple of mic options:

1. If your PA accepts high impedence phone jacks, then rather than using a low impedence Shure (like a 57 or 58,) you might try to locate a Shure SM-54. Believe it or not, these are excellent mics! They don’t make them anymore, but used ones pop up pretty regularly in stores and on eBay. I used one of these in performance for over 22 years before finally upgrading just a few months ago, and I still use it for noisy gigs. They are workhorses. As you can imagine, over the course of 22 years of gigging it’s been dropped, run over, spat upon, fallen in snow, filled with dirt, soaked with beer, and generally tortured in all manner of inhumane ways, yet it keeps on ticking… sounds fine, too. In addition I have the habit of turning it off and then on again after every song, so that I can talk to Kenny… (Hmmm… let’s see… 3,500 gigs, times maybe 30 songs per gig, means that I’ve flipped that off/on switch over 200,000 times and it ain’t broke yet.)

2. What I finally upgraded to is an AKG C535EB. A bit pricey (lists at about $370 but can be had WAY cheaper.) Outstanding; used as a vocal mic by both K.D. Lang and Sting amongst others. Very happy with it in almost every respect — loud, crystal clear, excellent sounding and never seems to feed back. Great frequency response! But (and this is a big but) it’s a condenser mic requiring phantom-power, which means there’s no off/on switch; and you can’t install an off/on switch because it would make a very loud snap noise every time it was turned off and on, due to there being an actual flow of power through the line. S0… since it’s "on" all the time, and since it is very omnidirectional, it picks up all kinds of ambient noise — crowd noise, belching, motorcycles driving by, Kenny and I discussing the girl in the third row, etc. Means that I can’t use it at noisy gigs, but it works just beautifully at quiet concerts. And it’s also a superb vocal mic, a very good recording mic, as well as the best sounding acoustic guitar mic I’ve heard (outside of Neumanns or some other $2000+ tube mics.)

Thanks, Tom!

Comments

3 Responses to “Tom Ball’s Advice on Getting a Clean Harmonica Sound”

  1. Thomas says:

    I play pop melodies and spent a lot of time getting a good clean sound. Here’s some of what I have learned: 1. There’s no such thing as an amplified sound that is not “colored” to some degree. 2. If you ever did hear 100% “clean” tone, you would probably not like it. I discovered that a little reverb and delay add depth, ambiance, presence, etc. What you really want to aim for is a broad frequency spectrum, as little distortion as possible, and just enough reverb and delay to make a difference without being obvious (you know you have the right amount when you can just notice subtle differences as they are turned on/off – then maybe just a tiny bit more). 3. Use a stereo mic (Rode NT4 is outstanding), a mixer that has a tube pre-amp (yes, even if you are performing solo and have only a single sound source), and at least two separate speakers that you can place some distance apart (active speakers or stage monitors are great) Add stereo “spring” reverb to both of the stereo channels, but add just a very short delay to just one channel, then use the mixer to feed a little of the right to the left, and a little of the left to the right. Try various eq and panning settings (not necessarily the same on both sides) 4. Play around with the various inputs/outputs, as well as different attenuation levels. The whole idea here is that certain sounds will enhance each other, and certain ones will detract from each other, all depending greatly on the frequency and timing. This will all take considerable time to get everything right, but once you finally do…it’s pure sonic bliss!

  2. Thomas says:

    Oh, I almost forgot…If you have a feedback problem and you’ve tried repositioning mic/speakers, turning down the gain/volume, adjusting EQ, etc….Thick carpet on the floor (even part of the floor) will go a long way toward reducing feedback. Then maybe some acoustic treatment to the walls and ceiling as well. Replace “harder” and “smoother” surfaces with “softer”,more “textured” surfaces.

  3. Richard Hunter says:

    Greta stuff Thomas, thanks!

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