Introduction to Studio Harmonica Work, Part 3

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.

Harmonicas

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.

Microphones

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.

Effects

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.

Headphone Mix

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.

Click Tracks

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.

Conclusion

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.

Posted in The Harp Business | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Introduction to Studio Harmonica Work, Part 3

Amp Design Myths and Truths

I would like to address some topics that have been hot on the internet lately, namely, PCB vs. PTP wiring, output transformers and line outs.

*More information about technical vocabulary can be found at the bottom.

 

PRINTED CIRCUIT BOARD AMP DESIGN
VERSUS
POINT TO POINT HAND WIRED AMP DESIGN

Both designs have benefits as well as concerns that need to be addressed. Let’s talk pros and cons first.

PTP Design
Pros

  1. Sturdy build
  2. Easily modded
  3. Shortest path between points
  4. Crosstalk* and stray capacitance* can be kept to a minimum (yes, PTP wired amps can have stray capacitance and crosstalk too)
  5. Easier to replace bad parts

Cons

  1. Expensive
  2. Poor design can lead to hum and odd problems
  3. Poor craftsmanship can lead to hard-to-fix problems

PCB Design
Pros

  1. Affordable
  2. Better uniform performance from amp to amp
  3. Better solder joints
  4. Crosstalk and stray capacitance can be kept to a minimum

Cons

  1. Requires proper design to be noise free
  2. Parts that overheat can damage the board
  3. Requires some skill to replace parts

What a builder can do to address the cons in PTP design:

  1. Take care in running all audio wires perpendicular to DC voltage and heater voltage wiring to prevent crosstalk
  2. Use a star grounding* system to minimize hum
  3. Practice stringent quality control to maintain craftsmanship

What a builder can do to address the cons in PCB design:

  1. Have solder runs only on one side of the board to prevent stray capacitances
  2. Use ground plains to shield from crosstalk
  3. Use higher wattage components to prevent heat damage

In brief:

PCB is used in pro audio gear, effect pedals, and most likely, your home stereo. Proper PCB design allows for a less expensive build without sacrificing tone. Stray capacitance and, to a lesser extent, stray inductances* are primarily a concern in high frequency circuitry and, to a much lesser extent, audio frequencies. Proper design eliminates this problem.

In PCB design the ground plane can act as a shield where sensitive signals cross; this is done in PCB design, but cannot be done in hand-wired PTP. The size of the solder trace is engineered to provide minimum resistance, just as choosing the right gauge wire in PTP.

Potentiometers mounted directly to a circuit board perform better than wired potentiometers because there is less chance of cross interference. There are absolutely no reliability issues associated with properly-installed PCB mounted pots.

In conclusion it can be said and proven that a PCB design can sound every bit as good as a PTP design.

 

OUTPUT TRANSFORMERS

Anyone who has read the information on my website knows where I stand on boutique parts, including output transformers; I would like to elaborate here.

Vintage amps sound the way they do, due to the parts and circuit design. One of the more important parts is the output transformer. Vintage amps used OT’s that are designed to handle the power consumption and no more; this design choice is due in large part to the cost and weight of OT’s. Would Fender have used a larger OT in their Champ and Bassman amps if cost were not an issue? One can only speculate, but whether or not cost was the primary factor is moot; the reasoning really does not matter. Why, you ask? Well because we like the tone of the Champ, the Bassman, the Kalamazoo and the others. The Fender Champ is the most cloned amp in the harp world; why does everyone clone the amp if the vintage models do not sound good?

So, am I saying that a large OT sounds bad? No, not at all, I am saying that it does not have vintage tone. A large OT can add bass response (if your amp needs it) and it will produce a cleaner, less distorted tone. The result can be good; tone is subjective, and if this is the tone you are looking for then definitely give it a try. If you want vintage tone, a 5-watt amp should have a smaller 5 to 8 watt OT as a saturated OT is an integral part of vintage tone.

 

LINE OUTS

There are two methods of obtaining the source for a line out: one is from the preamp and the other is from the speaker out jack. You will most likely never hear a preamp line out recommended for harp because this source does not capture the sound from the power tube section or the output transformer. By far, the better choice is from the speaker line out jack because you will capture the distortion from the power section; this source is as close as you can get to the sound you hear from the speaker.

Here is an example:

Line Out

Will you hear the effect of you speaker? No, I do not believe you will. Why not? Because it is not possible for the effects of the speaker to couple to the speaker wiring and then to the line out jack. The speaker is a mechanical device and all of the effects of the speaker are projected forward through sound pressure. Below, I will show you how the sound out of a line out jack that is wired directly off of the speaker jack is different than the sound produced by the speaker.

This is what a 500hz tone looks like with the oscilloscope connected across the line out of an overdriven amp:

wspeaker1 (2)

This is what the same signal looks like when the speaker is replaced with a dummy load:

wospeaker1 (2)

The images are almost identical. There is a slight increase in level, which I believe is due to the dummy load being a purely resistive load while a speaker is not. This is the signal that goes to the PA; if the signal to the PA is unchanged when the speaker is disconnected, then the sound from the PA is unchanged and there is no transfer of speaker tone to the Line Out.

I encourage everyone to do their research; with the world wide web anyone can make unsubstantiated claims.

 

*Technical vocabulary information can be found here:
Star grounding
Stray capacitance
Inductance
Crosstalk

 

About myself:
I am Randall (Randy) Landry. I completed a 2 year Electronic Technician course at a vocational school in 1980. Since that time I have worked in audio and digital communications for a period of 25 years. Following that, I have operated Lone Wolf Blues Co for the last 8 years, developing the finest in effect pedals and amplifiers for harmonica players.

Posted in Blues Related | Comments Off on Amp Design Myths and Truths

Introduction to Studio Harmonica Work, Part 2

In the first article in this series, I shared with you a few of the overarching ideals I strive for as a working studio musician. Here are my thoughts on how to be effective in the studio. The art and craft of recording is something I’m constantly honing and exploring, and these are a few of the most invaluable (and often obvious!) tips that have helped me succeed.

Prepare for Success

Be prepared. Will you need an amp? Effects pedals? Are your harps in proper working order? Are there any demos, specific recordings/players, or styles that can be referenced for the session? Occasionally, I’ll get requests to do something unusual, challenging, or requiring special practice. A little forewarning can be the difference between a successful or an embarrassing session.

Also, be aware that sometimes even experienced musicians may not know exactly what they want, and part of your job will be to help them clarify their musical vision. I’ve done numerous sessions where the client told me they wanted chromatic harmonica, but we ultimately used diatonic, or the client had never heard a bass harp before, but they ended up falling in love with it and featuring it prominently. I’ve even done sessions where they asked for acoustic harmonica, but ended up settling on a raucous amplified take. It can be hard to predict how the session will go and it’s best to be overprepared!

Check Your Ego at the Door

We all have different ideas about who we are as artists and what we consider meaningful music and exceptional playing. It’s easy to define a successful musical activity by whether you liked the music or the performance. However, when it comes to studio work, success isn’t defined by you, but by your ability to do the job asked of you. Often that’s “be yourself, and give it the best you’ve got,” but frequently, it’s not. If you play the most inspired solo of your life only to have the producer say, “that’s not working for me,” it’s time to go back to the drawing board and find something that will work. Enjoy the challenge and don’t get too attached to your last take.

Be Confident

For me, being a professional musician is a privilege and a lifelong dream—I don’t want to mess it up! It’s so easy to psyche yourself out: perhaps there are a few intimidating musicians on the session, perhaps it’s for a high profile project that many people will hear, perhaps it’s your first time working with a producer or artist you’d like to impress, or perhaps you haven’t had enough time to play recently and feel a bit rusty. Regardless, you can always take comfort knowing whoever hired you has already invested in you and knows you’ll do a good job. Somehow you earned their respect and it’s important to acknowledge this even when facing the array of unusual situations, requests, and adverse circumstances in the studio. When in doubt, do your thing!

 

Build a Foundation

In some situations, it can be hard to know where to start: perhaps the track has a lot happening already, the producer hasn’t given you any directions, or you’ve never heard harmonica played in the context you’re currently in. Trust your intuition and go with something simple, texturally consistent, and foundational. Maybe it’s long tones, a simple rhythm part, or fills between vocal phrases. Whatever you’re feeling, stick with that and create a foundation that you and the client can build on. Is it working? If so, how can it be improved? If not, try another approach until you find something that’s working and go from there. When trying to figure out an appropriate part, I avoid playing a little of everything in one take—playing too many different ideas can make it difficult to pinpoint what’s actually working and to generate a meaningful conversation on how to hone the part.

Trust Your Intuition

Your first instinct is often your best—the mystique of the first take is well founded. There’s a spontaneity and honesty that comes with intuitive reaction, before you think  about what you should be playing, what notes the producer has given you, and how many bars left before you get to that break you missed last take. If music can express things that words cannot, it’s worth letting it fly once or twice before getting tangled in words. Trust it. In some cases I’ve even been thankful I hadn’t received the material ahead of time, as I loved the opportunity to react without preconception. Even if your first take needs polish (and it probably will), your intuition can be your greatest guide in coming up with that part. Often, a client may be looking for a specific part to be played, but in other instances they may be looking for you to sprinkle a little magic on their recording. Sometimes the best way to find the magic is subconsciously! Trust your instinct and develop your intuition.

Faith in your musical sensibilities can also go a long way when you find yourself out of your element. Before panicking because you’re unsure what to play on a particular song or in an unusual style, allow yourself to find something that works. If this song is begging for Toots-style chromatic and you don’t have that in you, allow yourself to find something that will work with your skills, palate, and style. I’m constantly surprised at how one’s limitations can be great opportunities.

My approach to the studio is equal parts common sense, technique, and psychology. If I’ve had a bad session, it’s typically because I failed to stick to the guidelines I’ve laid out in this article. There’s always more to learn, and recording is a beautiful way to document your development at each stop on the path.

In the third and final article in this series, I’ll share some pointers on how you can improve your own recordings, whether you’re recording from home or working on your band’s record at a studio. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. Please visit www.RossGarren.com to hear some of my music and do drop me an email while you’re there!

Posted in The Harp Business | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Introduction to Studio Harmonica Work, Part 2

We’re Not Starving

I’ve heard it all a thousand times. You can’t make a living in music, or any art for that matter. I heard it when I went into school for music, and my wife heard it when she went into school for art. Fast forward a handful of years, and we’ve gotten married, bought a house, and led pretty comfortable lives. The best part? Every penny that our family makes comes from art. My wife is a graphic designer, and I’m an audio electronics tech and musician. It’s not an easy path, and it means you’ll probably never see a forty-hour work week again. At the end of the day, though, you’re making a living doing something you hopefully love. I’m not going to try to lay out a hard and fast path in this blog on how to pull it off (a lot of luck is needed), but I’ll do my best to share tips as to how to make it work.

Every household needs a budget. Whether you actually have a spreadsheet you fill out or just set very general limits. When it comes to budgeting, I’ve seen artists make the same mistake over and over again. Do not budget anything that isn’t steady. I play a lot of gigs every month. A handful with a regular group I play with (weddings and events), a couple fill-in gigs, and a jazz brunch every single Sunday morning. The ONLY gig that gets put into our budget as income is the brunch gig. The other two categories can vary wildly from month to month, but I can count on that brunch gig. It’s not that those other gigs don’t exist, but all of it is treated like lagniappe. Those gigs don’t pay bills. Those gigs pad our savings, so that, if for some reason we have a slow month or two, everything is all good. I’ve heard so many musicians say phrases like “I can count on at least 6 or 7 gigs a month.” They’re wrong. If it isn’t 100% steady, don’t count on it.

As I mentioned in the previous section I play with a regular group that plays weddings and events. Some musicians will scoff at the idea because it isn’t creative or innovative, but the pay is great. You can call me a “sell out” or a “part of the problem”, but I really don’t care. I’m getting paid to play music. By doing pay gigs, I’m allowed the financial freedom to do original music the right way. I’m not pressured to make money on creative projects, so I have the freedom to take my time, not rush things, and let it develop organically. The best way to keep a pay gig is to just do the simple things that a lot of burnouts don’t. Show up on time, know the music and be as kind and helpful as possible. It really isn’t much harder than that.

Never underestimate the power of networking. That’s how you get those odd hired gun gigs. Be sure to always give out your information to every musician you meet and be sure to get their info as well. You never know when you will need to book them for a gig. Take care to build your reputation as a solid player that can fill in. I’ve been able to pick up so many of these gigs by doing a few simple things…

1) This is not the time for creative statements. Play your part and play it well. Don’t do anything crazy, just get the job done.

2) Show up early. I mean like an hour early. This makes an impression on the band leader.

3) Don’t be uptight. No one likes a stick in the mud. Joke with the other musicians and be friendly. Be sure to exchange numbers with as many people in the group as possible.

4) On the other hand, don’t be too comfortable, and by that, I mean don’t get drunk. A drink or two to loosen up is fine, but keep it under control.

5) Always keep a calendar to keep your life straight. There is nothing more embarrassing than showing up to a gig on the wrong date.

The best part about following these simple rules is that, eventually, you’ll fill in for a gig that becomes regular. All of the regular gigs that I have are a result of me subbing for a gig, doing a good job, being professional, and ultimately becoming the first call bass player for the group. Even if you don’t find yourself in the first call slot, you will be called back to fill in for future gigs with the group. There is no shame in being the second call guy. If you can cobble enough of those gigs together, then you’ll be in business.
I hope this blog is in some manner helpful. Just because we’re artists, it doesn’t mean we have to starve.

My name is Nathan Heck, and I am the lead technician at Lone Wolf Blues Company, where I have worked since 2009. I studied bass at Southeastern Louisiana University, where I received a minor in music.  I also have been an actively gigging bass player in the New Orleans area for the last seven years.

Posted in Blues Related | Comments Off on We’re Not Starving

Interview with Konstantin Kolesnichenko

Konstantin Kolesnichenko is a blues harp player from the Ukraine. He recently came out with an album titled “If You Want to See This Blues.” For more information, check out Konstantin’s Facebook page here.

We thought it would be interesting to find out more about Konstantin and his country, and he graciously agreed.


1. How long have you been playing harmonica and who are your primary influences?

I’ve been playing harmonica almost 12 years. I’ve had ups and downs in love with harmonica. In 2009 year I started to play with the band and it was my main breakthrough.

I have a lot of influences in harmonica, so better I’ll try to name my favourite harmonica players: Little Walter, George Harmonica Smith, Norton Buffalo, Paul deLay, Charlie Musselwhite, Gary Primich, Mark Ford, Jim Liban, Gary Smith, Kim Wilson, William Clarke, Kirk Jelly Roll Johnson and P.T. Gazell.

2. Do you play any other instruments?

Currently I’m playing only harmonica, but for 7 years I was studying piano in music school when I was child and once when I was student I even tried to play xaphoon. But now and forever Harmonica is my one and only! 🙂

3. Tell us about the new tuning that you have discovered.

I love not only harmonica and blues music. I’m a big lover of jazz, soul, funk and all this good music from the past. So I wanted to play melodies and I’ve tried to learn how to overblow… and now I can do overblows but I’m pretty bad with them. So I dig into alternative tunings and I found diminished tuning. It was a hard to play on it after 10 years with Richter. But I like it and have some results(you can see them on my youtube channel). I’ve played on it for two years. I wanted easier access to chromaticism on diatonic so I connected Richter and diminished tunings and get my brand new “Easy Chromatic”. It’s on 70% almost like Richter but you can get all missed notes in every position.

4. Tell us about the blues scene in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

I don’t know much about Eastern Europe blues scene. There is a lot of bands in Russia (Moscow primarily), Belarus has a small blues scene. In Ukraine we have local bands and events (there were two harmonica festivals in Kiev, small blues festivals in Kiev and I’ve managed small blues fest even in my city – Dnepropetrovsk). Our blues scene is small but very friendly! And our blues players are all enthusiasts mainly. We have blues bands only in few cities: Kiev, Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhye. But some international musicians visited our country: Bob Margolin, John Nemeth, Guy Davis, Keith Dunn, Son Of Dave, Matyas Pribojszki, Howard Levy, Melvin Taylor, Lucky Peterson etc. I’ve even played with some of them! Guy Davis called me a brother! 🙂 Most of these events took place due to Max Tavrichesky – the main bluesman in our country. He is from Kiev.

5. In our lifetime we have witnessed Ukraine going from communist rule to a free country and now there are separatist who are supported by Russia attempting to bring the country back under communism, please tell us what this will mean to you and how it will affect your freedom to express yourself in music.

Thank you for this question. I hope all this will end soon. But now it takes my thoughts and feelings totally.

You know even when I was a child and lived in former USSR republic my parents grow me up with deep feeling and understanding of our Ukrainian background. So all these separatists and terrorists deeply hurts me. All this time they lived in our country, they ate our bread, they breath our air but they hate Ukraine without any reason for it. I can’t understand it. I don’t understand also for what reason russian mercenaries fight against our army. Where they took all their rage and hatred?! Before this big part of our people thought they were our brothers but now it have changed. I have a lot of friends in Russia and when all this begun… you don’t even realize what they wrote and said to me about my country (especially if take into account that our country does not infringe on their freedom and life). I broke a lots of relationships with some of them. I believe that there is a lot of good and honorable peoples in Russia but Kremlin propaganda turn a lot of them into kind of zombie.

Now we still live in free country and one of the songs from my album is dedicated to all people who fought and died for our freedom.

6. Where do you see yourself in the future? Do you wish to explore other genres of music? Do you wish to tour other countries?

I wish still to explore new ways to play harmonica, I wish still to collect music and have the chance to meet wonderful and talented people. I wish the blues music scene in my country will grow up and I will be there and will have possibility to play with greats.

I’ve already tried to play other genres of music, on my album there are jazz songs : “Sugar”, “Night train”, “In a sentimental mood”, one funkier song. I try to play everything that I like! Of course I wish some day to be at SPAH for example, I believe I can see some of my harmonica heroes when they still be in a good form and alive!

Thank you for questions Randy! Thank you for all you do for our small harmonica world!

Posted in Blues Related | Comments Off on Interview with Konstantin Kolesnichenko