As I noted in a previous post, I got a call Friday night from Brian Keane, a composer and producer that I’ve done a number of sessions for. Brian wanted me to record acoustic harmonica for a scene in a BBC series he’s scoring called “Copper”, which is directed by Barry Levinson. I went over to Brian’s studio that night to get the concept right, and we set a studio date for today (Monday April 22, if you’re keeping track). Over the weekend I recorded three takes in my kitchen using an Audix Fireball V mic, a Digitech RP255 (connected to the computer via USB) for the audio interface, and my laptop computer, which is running Cakewalk Sonar 8.5. I exported the takes from Sonar and emailed them to Brian, and when I went to the studio today to do a few more takes on parts of the cue, I found that he’d already put together a composite track with the best bits from the tracks I recorded in my kitchen.

I’ve done a fair amount of recording using the RP as the audio interface, but this was the first time I’ve recorded acoustic harmonica tracks with it. The usual setup for recording acoustic harmonica in Brian’s studio is a large-diaphragm condenser or ribbon (read: expensive) mic feeding a high-end preamp (usually a Grace model 201), with the harmonica positioned a foot or more away from the mic. In this case I was using a handheld dynamic mic (the Fireball) that costs about a twentieth of one of the mics that Brian usually puts up, into a device (the 255) that costs about a tenth of what the Grace 201 costs. I was concerned that hand-holding the mic in particular would cut too many highs from the tone, but it was no problem. I set up the RP with a direct box amp model, took off all the EQ and FX, and let it rip. And it worked. (When I did the overdubs in Brian’s studio, we ran the Fireball V into his Grace 201. The Grace sounds wonderful, of course.)

Digitech RPs--They're not just for performing anymore
Digitech RPs–They’re not just for performing anymore

The harmonica functions as the lead instrument in this scene; there’s virtually no dialogue, and the harmonica is thoroughly exposed. I was really pleased that the RP255 and Fireball combination functioned so well for this application. A Fireball V mic and an RP255 together cost less than $300, and while I wouldn’t claim that it sounds like a Neumann U47 with a high-end preamp, I’m confident now that it sounds plenty good enough, even for exposed acoustic tracks. And even better from the point of view of the musician recording at home is the fact that a handheld Fireball mic completely ignores the sound of the room you’re recording in. My kitchen is not designed for recording harmonica, but with this setup, it’s as good as any other location.

I had the usual issues with this session that I get almost every time I’m working from a score and playing diatonic harmonicas. (I had to play diatonic in this case because the composer wanted a sound that was authentic for the era, which is 1864, and chromatic harmonicas were invented in the early 20th century.) Diatonic harps, by definition, don’t have all the notes on them. If the composer puts the missing notes in the score, you have to hope that they’re not exposed for long, because playing those notes with either bends or overblows will make them stick out, and the longer you hold them the worse it gets. My preferred approach in these cases is usually to switch harps, so that at any point in time I’m playing a note that’s already on the harp, and bending or overblowing only on passing tones, or for expression.

In this case, the piece was in C, and I used a Suzuki Manji in F for the first few notes of each section, and a Lee Oskar A Natural Minor (which has a complete C major scale in the mid-range) for the rest of the piece. It was a pretty easy switch once I’d practiced it a few times, and those choices gave me a lot of options for shaping the sound on the scale tones that were most prominent in the piece. Even with this setup, I had to use a prolonged half step bend on the draw 3 reed in the lowest octave of the A Natural Minor harp–in other words, hold a B natural–just before the end of the piece. It was a challenge. It was also cool, because in the score the B resolves upward to a C natural, which is the last note in the piece, and resolving the bend slowly upward made for an expressive ending. (When I was setting up for recording on Sunday night, I tried retuning a Suzuki Firebreath in Bb into Melody Maker tuning, which would have given me a complete C major scale in 3rd position; but I didn’t seem to have the right mojo for getting the thing into tune. I’ll try again later. In the meantime, maybe Lee Oskar will start making Melody Makers in Bb. Or someone will.)

You can hear the sound for yourself when “Copper” episode 19 airs (on BBC in the UK, and PBS in the USA) later this year. In the meantime, if you’ve got an RP and you haven’t recorded with it yet, give it a go. And don’t forget the Fireball V; I’m amazed at how much this $125 mic can do.