An Introduction to Studio Harmonica Part 3
In parts one and two of this series I described what being a studio harmonica player means to me and shared a few insights into performing in the studio environment that I have gained over the years. In this third and final installment, we’ll take a look at some of the ways you can improve the sound of your own recordings, whether from your home studio or a professional one.
Like most players, I started out playing exclusively in live settings. As I began to record more frequently, I had to learn to adjust my playing to the studio environment. As an example, I rarely use low-tuned harps live; they can be useful, but it is challenging to get their sound to cut through in all but the most quiet settings. As a result, I tend to use them sparingly in performance. In the studio however, it is much easier to have control over the sound and mix, and thus such limitations are easily overcome. I find myself reaching for low tuned harps quite often in studio settings. Bass and chord harmonicas also present amplification challenges (not to mention more stuff to load in and out of a gig!), but can also provide wonderful colors in the studio as well.
Another studio only consideration for me is intonation. For live performances, I don’t tend to focus on precise intonation. The rootsy material I generally play live is rather forgiving regarding intonation, and there are other aspects of performance that take a higher priority for me. However, in the studio environment, that is not always the case. Most harps arrive from the factory tuned quite sharp (i.e., A=443-445). If you have a few fixed intonation instruments in the mix, like an accordion and a vibraphone, the intonation can become a bit of a wash, but as soon as you try doubling a melody with a piano tuned to A=440 and string orchestra accompaniment, you’ll find that intonation can be much more delicate and precise. While I’m starting to experiment with different intonation schemes like just intonation vs. equal temperament, at the moment, I at least make sure that I have a few harps around tuned to A=440 or 441. In fact, when it comes to anything other than folk music, these harps are always my starting point.
Experiment! In the same way that many blues players are fanatical about their bullet/amp setups, the same level of care, experimentation, and subtlety can go into the choice of your microphone or microphones for recording your amps or acoustic harp. Different microphone models can have very different frequency responses, tone qualities, and pickup patterns. Depending on the music, your instrument, playing approach, and the recording situation, different mics may be preferable and it pays to familiarize yourself with your options. For example, if you are recording amplified harmonica live in the same room as an entire band, you might consider using a Shure SM7 or Shure SM57 just a few inches from your amp, while on an acoustic overdub session in a nice sounding room, you might prefer a Neumann U67 a foot or so away from the harmonica.
Another consideration is the physical space that you are recording in. A tiled bathroom, an acoustically “dead” isolation booth, and a cathedral all sound very different and you’ll want to adjust your gear accordingly. Plosives (the terribly loud and often distorted sound that can happen when a gust of your breath hits a microphone) can be an issue as well. This very distracting and unmusical sound can be greatly improved by the use of a “popper stopper” or by adding more distance (either vertically or horizontally) from the harmonica. Another factor is the proximity effect. Some mics, like the dynamic cardioid SM58, will increase the low frequency response the closer it is to the sound source (ie your harmonica!). If you want a realistic acoustic tone, you’re going to want to avoid proximity effect; but if you’re looking for a warm, bassy sound you may consider maximizing proximity effect like Toots Theilemans often did by holding an SM58 directly to the back of the harmonica.
There are endless ways to approach effects. My preference is to go analog as much as possible; if the room sounds nice, capture it; if you have a great tube amp, analog tape delay, or plate reverb at your disposal, why use plugins or pedals to simulate it? Using channel strip plugins is an often necessary but very effective alternative when analog alternatives aren’t available or practical. Want more reverb? Want a shorter reverb? If you are using a reverb plugin like Altiverb, you can make all of these tweaks easily and at any stage in the recording process, which is a definite advantage plugins have over many of their analog counterparts. (Just to clarify, some analog effects can be controlled in the mixing process, like running a previously recorded track through a plate reverb. Others, like the reverb settings on the amp you used, can’t). Though I tend to avoid effect pedals, they can certainly be useful as well. For the most part, if I can’t get the effect in an analog way, I’d rather use a plugin than a pedal because the plugin is still editable after you’ve tracked the part. However, certain pedals might offer unique features, or you might not have time to experiment with various plugins or studio gear. In my experience, studio situations can be time sensitive and a good sound captured quickly might trump a slightly better sound that takes much longer to capture. If I’m tracking amplified harmonica and there are some great amps on hand, I find that the Harp Tone+ is a great pedal that can be quite handy due to the control it gives over the EQ. In fact, with good analog gear around, it’s the only pedal I’d currently consider a part of my default amplified setup.
You need to be comfortable with what you’re hearing while recording. If you can’t hear yourself, it can be difficult to play with any subtlety. If you hear yourself too loudly, it can be a challenge to play with your normal technique as you’ll instinctively want to play everything unnaturally quietly. In particular, if I’m overdubbing amplified harmonica, I try to make sure the amp is in a different room otherwise it can be almost impossible for me to hear the track over my amp well enough to play in solid rhythm. Additionally, if you’re imagining a specific, fairly transformative effect will be added to your sound, it can be really helpful to dial in some sort of channel strip setting that is in the ballpark of what you imagine so that you can adjust your playing appropriately. If all you’re hearing is a little light room reverb or slapback delay, it may not be necessary to track with it; but if you’re hearing something that will drastically change the sound of the harp, like an extremely long reverb or filter effect, you may want to at least simulate the effect.
If you don’t work much with a metronome, it could be good to start practicing with one a bit. On a lot of recordings, the click track may be the most important frame of rhythmic reference that you have to record to, and having one can help save considerable editing time. It definitely pays to be comfortable playing with one! There’s an art to tracking to a click while still having a vibrancy and feel that is organic and natural, rather than mechanical and rigid.
When I first began recording, all of the elements of the studio overwhelmed me. There was so much to learn about mic choice, mic placement, room sound, plugins, and how things could/should be altered while mixing and mastering, etc. Don’t be intimidated. Have fun and enjoy the learning and experimentation process! As always, I’d love to hear what you thought of this article and feel free to comment below or drop me a line through the contact page at www.RossGarren.com.