Sarnia, Ontario-based (about an hour from Detroit) Mike Stevens is one of the best bluegrass harmonica players in the world, with a string of credits that includes multiple appearences at the Grand Ole Opry and performances with Roy Acuff, Jim and Jesse (with whom he currently performs), Bill Monroe, and other bluegrass legends. Mike is also an extraordinary rock harmonica player whose terrific tone and innovative use of electronics for sample-and-hold looping and multitracking can be heard on his release “Normally Anamoly” (see Mike’s discography below). Mike is now doing shows with a new band, The McLains, as well as solo harmonica shows that incorporate acoustic and (very) electric tunes. In his spare time, he plays all the horn parts in a Sarnia-based funk band called The Funk Band. We think that whatever Mike is playing at any given time tends to sound pretty damn good. (See our extended discussion of Mike’s work at this site.)
We asked Mike the same questions we ask every pro whose profile we publish here:
- What are your 5 favorite harmonica records?
- What instruments (harmonicas) do you use?
- What amplification and other gear do you use, on stage and in the studio?
- What’s your discography?
Mike’s answers are sometimes surprising, and his detailed observations on recording studio setup will be of great interest to practically every harmonica player who ever plans to enter a studio. Thanks to Mike for this terrific contribution to harmonica players (literally) everywhere.
Mike’s Top 5 Harmonica Records
I hate to cop out on the first question, but I honestly don’t have 5 favorite harmonica records. I have pulled stuff from every harmonica player I’ve ever heard, and as far as favorites are concerned, for me it’s like asking me what my five favorite sunsets are. They are all beautiful and all different.
My preferred harmonicas are Hohner Marine Bands that have been set up by Joe Filisko. The combs have been laminated, and I think they are sealed quite a bit tighter than stock harps. However, I have just discovered Hering Blues harps, and I think they have great potential, since the reed plates are thicker (RH Note: a thicker plate produces a louder sound) and they are fairly air tight out of the box. They also overblow and overdraw quite easily.
I have several preferred setups. Let me break it down a bit:
Live Performance – Acoustic
Acoustic Jazz or Fusion – when I want the harp to cut thru a mix and still
sound acoustic and quite horn like, I will use a Sennheiser 441 mic. The
proximity affect of this mic really adds to the warmth of the sound.
Acoustic for Bluegrass (“natural”) sound – I prefer a Beyer m160 ribbon mic or a Microtech Geffel with an M7 capsule. These mics naturally roll off a bit of
the high end, but sound very natural. You can also use an old ribbon mic, but
they are very prone to wind noise.
Recording – Acoustic
Any mic that accents the chest sound in your voice will generally sound very nice for harmonica; that frequency, when hyped, makes a harp sound really fat. One mic that accents this frequency is the RCA 44 BX ribbon mic. It doesn’t have much high end response, but it has a really meaty sound. I personally like Neumann tube mics that have the M7 capsule. These generally are very warm, with a little more high end response than the ribbon mics. I also use small condensers in various locations to capture the sound where it’s produced thru my hands.
Other ribbon mics that come to mind are Coles 4038, the Royer Labs ribbon mics, and the Shure 330. I will also use a Sennheiser 441 in the studio when I want the harp to sound acoustic, but cut through the mix like a horn.
Live Performance – Electric
I have recently discovered an amp called the “Homewrecker,” which is built right here in Toronto, and I plan to buy one soon. It comes in various configurations, has 30 watts output, and (I believe) is a hybrid of a ’59 Fender Bassman, a Vox, and a Matchless. Tom’s Mics (Tom Ellis) built me two wonderful mics – one is an Astatic JT-30 shell with a control reluctance element, and the other is an ElectroVoice 619 mic that looks like a pig’s nose (sorry for being so technical, heh heh). This rig works very well for a rock/funk/blues or country gig.
For my looping and my effects I use the ElectroVoice (pig nose) mic, then I like to plug into either tubes (a tube preamp) or tape (an old tape delay) to get some compression and pleasing harmonic distortion. For the tubes, I’ve been using a Mesa Boogie VTwin preamp. An Echoplex or Roland tape machine sounds great as well. I have a Rane FMI 14 half rack channel strip, which allows two inputs and 4 outputs. This lets me send the house a nice balanced signal, and lets me run my own personal PA on stage). I use a Boss SE70 on the insert in the Rane and sometimes in the signal chain. I follow the Boss SE70 with a looping device called an Echoplex Digital Pro. I can create all of my looping songs with this, and it fits into the overhead rack on an airplane. (The “Homewrecker” amp that I will be purchasing will also fit into the overhead on the airplane.)
Recording – Electric
I have some very small Gibson amps from the early 50’s, a Silvertone from the 40’s, and some extremely old tube record players that I use in the studio for a traditional blues sound. I like to mic these with a large diaphram mic, such as an AKG 414 (which has a bright sound), or a Coles 4038 (which gives you a darker sound). Always use several mics in the room and try to capture the sound acoustically a few feet from where you are playing, so you can mix it all in together.
One very important thing in any recording situation, either electric or acoustic, is to have really good mic preamps. Telefunken tube preamps generally sound wonderful on harmonica, and it’s nice to have a really good tube compressor or limiter (like a Fairchild). These will really fatten up anything that goes to tape.
“Harmonica” – CD4004 – Bluewind Records
“Blowin Up A Storm” – PRC1010 – Pinecastle Records
“Life’s Railway to Heaven” – CD4005 – Mike Stevens Music
“Colin’s Cross” – CD4006 – Mike Stevens Music
“Normally Anomaly” – CD4007 – Mike Stevens Music
“Bluegrass Harmonica Book” – Centerstream Publications
All of this material is available directly through Mike at his web site.