Blues Access Fall 1999
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Dear Dr. Harpo

The night was clear, and the moon was yellow, and the leaves came tumbliní down. Signs are that autumn has fallen, and it canít get up. Fresh back from a hard day of temp work as a scarecrow, the Curbfeeler of the Blowphone reflects on the day.

That coating of Carnuba on his receding hairline as it meets his proceeding forehead is keeping him all aglimmer, so the crows mistook him for a reflective garden globe and considered him part of the fixtures.

Striking a pose like a kleptomaniac caught in a kleig light, he duly admires his reflection. "Maybe some fill-in work as a mannequin," he muses, dropping his head to do his best Valentino "come-hither-and-ogle-my-jodphurs" gaze.

This unfortunate turn of the head carriage causes a shaft of blinding light to carom into his three-way mirror from the bare 100-watt bulb dangling in back of him, having been directed on this detour by his ample and capitol dome. The shaft of light strikes him in his windows of the soul, immediately rendering him flaccid as a shirred egg.

In a state not so much a dream, but more like the way it looks in back of your refrigerator, he fancies he sees a letter pass before him. Powerless to resist, he lifts the flap, remembering to use his legs.

Dear Doctor,

As an avid reader, I appreciate your sage advice on matters harmonical, so I hope you will indulge me and other beginning/intermediate-level players relatively new to amplification and mystified by such esoterica as "three-band EQ with presence" and "a multi-tap output transformer."

I play a Shure 520DX hooked into a new Fender Blues Junior. What suggestions do you have (amp setup and playing technique) to get the low-down and dirty sound that is milk and honey to the ear?

Nick Yeazel
Elmsford, New York

Dear Nick,

The eternal question, yet again! As to the real technical exotica regarding amplification, I live in the neighborhood of Whatís Easy and Quickly Applicable. I look like last weekís grouper about three nanoseconds into any technical discussion of matters electronic beyond where you plug in what. With that in mind, and a caveat that you will have to turn to other sources for the down and dirty technical aspects of what I may tell you, I will forge ahead with some practical info.

First off, letís cover the most primary consideration: Is your un-amplified playing sounding fat and happy, or do you still have that beginnerís tone, like a kazoo player with a sinus condition? If you have refined your sound so that you get a full tone when you just play without muffling the harp with your hands, great!

On to the next step: using the proper grip on the harp and microphone. If you have small hands and a huge mike, especially if you play big harps like Golden Melodies, your tone will suffer for the consequent lack of air-tightness.

If you have hands that wrap around the block, go on to the next step. If you have smaller hands, a bullet mike may not do the trick for you, as you have to have a totally air-tight seal around the mike and harp to overload the mike and give a fat signal to the amp. It also clips off the high end of your playing, which is a good thing.

Try using a vocal mike, or one of the fine ergonomic designs from Shaker (as in salt, not the religious sect) Mikes. The smaller the mike, the bigger your sound. Practice cupping water in your hands to get an idea of how tight to make the seal of your overlapped hands.

On to the subject of that you have. The Green Bullet reissues are great mikes, used by a lot of pros. They have a rich tone, though a little heavy on the bottom end for my taste, especially with 12" speakers, such as your amp of choice is equipped with. I am waxing technical here, but the frequency that we want to emphasize in amplified harp is around 4000 hz, dead in the mid-range, like your normal speaking voice. See why we harp players all gravitate to vocal mikes?

The Shure 520 has a little lower bump on its frequency response compared to the other most popular choice for harp, the various incarnations of Astatic JT 30ís. The Green Bullet will work fine, but you have to play it hard (that is, with a fair amount of power behind it) for it to get edgy sounding. Crank your amp up as far as you can without feedback, and youíll hear what that thing is capable of sounding like.

Enter your amp. I have been a die-hard fan of vintage amps since they were not old enough to be vintage. Now, we all have mellowed with age, and I still have an old amp. That being said, I have tried the newer Fender amps, and they have a great sound, not appreciably different from the vintage stuff.

It is true that an amp that has been played for thousands of hours does get a broken-in sound, but it doesnít have to be a leftover from the Eisenhower-administration era. Your little monster should rip it up pretty well, if you set it up right. Fiddle around with the built-in gain controls that boost the signal to the pre-amp, which means that you get more signal from the mike into the amplification.

If that doesnít sound right, try another form of pre-amp, as the one built into your amp is intended for a guitar ó not necessarily the right match for the sound that you want. I would investigate various types, but I have had great success with a Boss foot-pedal EQ with a sliding gain control.

You can diddle with the sound you produce by tweaking the EQ bands, and also goose up the signal so that itís raw as WWF on ladiesí night.

As to tone settings, I would start with every setting on the amp on 1 to 2, and nudge them up gradually. You will notice, too, that you have no ideal setting that works in every room and every band setting. The acoustic qualities (or lack of same) will affect your effects, requiring you to flatulate around with the various controls at least somewhat, every time you play. Think of it as a learning experience.

Lastly, your ampette has a 12" speaker, which is a lot of paper for you to push with a harp signal. If you canít get your sound to rip, try switching to a 10, or even an 8. Itís purely a reflection of what works for you, but the common choice is 10" speakers for harp. I have, however, heard of rigs that had a combo of 6ís, 8ís, 10ís and a 12 all in one enclosure. Talk about indecision.

One last bit of advice from someone who learned the hard way. The sound you get is more dependent on your expertise in playing and in setting up your amplification than it is on finding the one perfect rig. There might be one mike-and-amp combo that works once and always for you, but chances are youíll keep discovering new and different set-ups that all sound good, just all a bit different. Hey, itís the spice of life. Good luck, and enjoy the search for THE SOUND!

Got a burning question? The chrome-domed miscreant of the mouth marimba, all too aware of what happens when these things go untreated, recommends that you consult with your personal physician or HMO about it right away. Failing that, send a rabbit packet of folding lettuce impregnated with portraits of passed-on prexies to the rabid raconteur of all things harpological (and even harp illogical).

Dr. Harpo
1455 Chestnut Place
Boulder, CO 80304



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