Different mics produce very different sounds, as the samples here show, and no mic by itself can do the best possible job on everything that a harmonica player might want to play. But a harmonica player can cover an amazing range of material and performance situations with 2 or 3 mics, at a total cost of less than $300.
Let’s assume a harmonica player who sings and plays harmonica with a country band and a Chicago blues band, and does occasional rock gigs. This harmonica player needs the following to make the right sounds:
1) A clean vocal mic
2) A clean harmonica mic for the country band
3) A bullet-type mic for the Chicago blues band
Note that if you’re only playing one genre, like Chicago Blues, you might get by very well with one mic. But if you’re playing a lot of different styles, you probably want something that makes it easy to get the sounds that go with each style.
So. We’re looking for 3 mics. Here they are.
A clean vocal mic
Industry standard is the Shure SM58. The thing is built to last, customer service is legendary, the sound is great for vocals, and it costs less than $100. What’s not to like?
A clean harmonica mic for the country band
The best clean harp mic I know of under $200 is the Audix Fireball V, and a lot of more expensive mics don’t sound any better. Great for recording as well as live work. Very low feedback and high volume, very little proximity (increased bass) effect, which also makes it good for rock, especially if you have something in the signal path to dirty it up (like a Digitech RP running my patch set). I used a Digitech RP500 with an Audix Fireball V to record every harp part on my record “The Lucky One”–and it sure sounds good to me.
Make sure to get the Fireball V model, which has a builtin volume control and more bass response. About $125.
A bullet-type mic for the Chicago blues band
When you’re playing blues, it really helps to have a mic that distorts when you’re playing right up against it, and for that you need a bullet type mic. Bullet-type mics also have a frequency response that tops out around 6 kHz, which is a good thing for amped blues harp–plenty of midrange honk and not too much high end screech. The Bottle o’ Blues ($60) is a very good blues mic for the money, a little low on output compared to $100 bullet mics, but you can compensate for that by turning up the amp. An upgraded choice at over $100 is a Shaker harp mic; I like their Dynamic for playing through my Digitech RP, and they’ve got a wide range of harp mics at around $100-150. Brendan Power and Peter “Madcat” Ruth have both said nice things about their Shaker Madcat mics on various harp forums, and the Shaker MadDog is designed to function like a Shaker Madcat with more bass, which is a good thing.
Some players also like the Shure SM57 or SM58, the Shure 545SD, or other “stick” type vocal mics. The sound of these mics is raw and powerful, and they’re in that same $100 price range. (Butterfield used an earlier version of the 545, and Rob Paparozzi uses an SM57 among other mics. I use a 545SD for some blues recordings.) An issue with these vocal mics is that they emphasize treble frequencies, which can be a problem with harp, given that harp already puts out a lot of high frequency stuff, so you might need to mess with EQ if you use one.
Start your mic collection with a mic that’s tops for the stuff you play most
Not everyone can afford to buy three mics at once. If I had to get only one mic to start, I’d ask whether I was planning to play Chicago blues only. If yes, then I’d get the Bottle o’ Blues or a Shaker Dynamic or MadDog. If no, I’d get the Fireball. The Fireball doesn’t do hard blues as well as the Bottle o’ Blues, but it does everything else a hell of a lot better than the Bottle o’ Blues, and it does hard blues more than well enough to get by. (You can hear a recently recorded example by me and my slide guitar-playing brother Mark Hunter, Dyin’ to Live, at this site.) And you can sing through it if you need to. If I was planning to use the mic for recording, I’d get the Fireball for sure.
That all assumes that the harp playing matters more than the singing. If the singing matters most, start with the SM58 and go from there.
These are not the only choices that will work, of course. You can use these as examples of mics that will do the job, a good baseline for comparisons to other mics. When you’ve had a little experience with decent mics, you’ll be in a better position to evaluate others. And over time your collection will grow. I have a personal rule: when I see a working mic going for $1 at a yard sale, I buy it no matter what it is. (I don’t buy mics that aren’t working no matter how cheap they are. I’m a player, not a collector.) I’ve picked up some interesting mics that way. Many of the mics in my collection, including the much more expensive (when new) Shure SM58 and SM57, were acquired for a few dollars each at yard sales. So as the great 20th century philosopher and ballplayer Yogi Berra said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. (I think he meant “when you see a working mic going for a few bucks, buy it.”)
Enjoy. Changing the mic is an easy way to change your sound, and mics, like most equipment these days, are higher quality and less expensive than ever.
If you liked that, you’ll like these:
the 21st century blues harmonica manifesto in sound
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the rock harmonica masterpiece
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