The traditional harp player’s rig is a mic, a tube amp, and a reverb or delay pedal.  But there’s something new out there, and it has the potential to change the way harmonica players work and sound.

“New” is overstated, I guess.  Amp modeling technology–which is what this piece is about–is around 10 years old.  And that’s a good thing.  It’s chip-driven technology, and like any chip-driven tech, it evolves rapidly.  The devices made by Line 6, Digitech, Zoom, and Boss a few years ago are far less capable than the ones you can buy now.  And the price to performance ratio is pretty remarkable.

A traditional amped rig  has a simple arithmetic to it: you want to get louder, you buy a bigger amp.  Bigger means more powerful, and it also means heavier and more expensive.  For a full-blown pro rig designed to make the harp cut through a loud band, you’re talking about a 40 Watt (roughly) amp with a 4 x 10-inch or 2 x 12-inch (or similar) speaker setup that weighs about 50 pounds and costs between $1,500-2,000.  That’s a big investment and a lot of gear to haul around.  And it makes a particular sound, which is great when that’s the sound you want, not so great when you want more or different sounds.

All that said, I love tube amps.  I own a modified Crate VC508 5 watt amp that’s a total monster, and I own a Sonny Junior Super Sonny that’s an even bigger monster.  But the rig I use most on gigs and recording sessions now is a Digitech RP355 loaded with my own patches.

DigiTech RP355 Guitar Multi Effects Pedal

DigiTech RP355 Guitar Multi Effects Pedal

The RP355 cost me less than $200 new.  I’ve programmed hundreds of  sounds into it.  (You can save yourself the hundreds of hours that it took me to make those sounds by licensing my patch set, which gives you access to all the sounds I develop for the RPs.)  It’s the size and weight of a hardcover book, and it’ll get as loud as the PA system I plug it into.  I did buy a 65-watt keyboard amp to go with it for about $300 for those occasions when I want my own on-stage monitor.  And that’s about it.  Dozens of great sounds for a little more than $500 total. (Less if you buy a smaller keyboard amp, like the Peavey KB-2 I’m using lately.)

This kind of setup gives you a different kind of arithmetic from the traditional setup.  It’s less expensive, the power is in the PA, not the amp, and the range of sounds is much, much bigger.  Does it sound exactly like your favorite tube amp?   No.   But it’ll make good tube amp sounds, and a lot more.

If you’ve got a great tube amp, don’t sell it.  Never sell a piece of gear that makes a sound that inspires you.  But if you’re thinking of changing amps, consider an amp modeler instead.  It’s a lot of bang for the buck.