HOW PADS CAN BENEFIT HARP PLAYERS

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Tightcup Podcast Episode 2 : Jason Ricci

Jason Ricci joined Nathan Heck from Lone Wolf Blues Co. to discuss a variety of topics including gear, harmonica players, Jason’s new album and pets.

The Tightcup Podcast is a new series we are starting at Lone Wolf. We will be interviewing people from around the harmonica community and cover a wide range of topics. The intention is for these podcasts to be released biweekly.

Jason Ricci is one of the most exciting harmonica players in the world today, and he is also one of the most enthusiastic members of the community. He joined Nathan Heck from Lone Wolf Blues Co. to discuss a wide range of topics.

Due to the duration of the podcast, the episode was trimmed and cut into two halves. This episode represents the second half of the recording. In which, Jason and Nathan discuss gear, pets and more. You can find the first half here.

Please note that this podcast was recorded a few weeks before it was released. In the meantime, Kim Wilson won a Blues Music Award for Instrumentalist – Harmonica and Jason and his wife, Kaitlin Dibble, were married.

The next installment will feature a discussion with Jason Ricci, Andy Kurz (Bass – The Bad Kind) and Nathan Heck. Jason and Andy talked at length about the recording process, touring and a host of other topics.

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Tightcup Podcast Episode 1: Jason Ricci

Jason Ricci joined Nathan Heck from Lone Wolf Blues Co. to discuss a variety of topics including gear, harmonica players, Jason’s new album and pets.

The Tightcup Podcast is a new series we are starting at Lone Wolf. We will be interviewing people from around the harmonica community and cover a wide range of topics. The intention is for these podcasts to be released biweekly.

Jason Ricci is one of the most exciting harmonica players in the world today, and he is also one of the most enthusiastic members of the community. He joined Nathan Heck from Lone Wolf Blues Co. to discuss a wide range of topics.

Due to the duration of the podcast, the episode was trimmed and cut into two halves. This episode represents the first half of the recording. In which, Jason and Nathan discuss a variety of harmonica players, Jason’s new record and a few other topics.

Please note that this podcast was recorded a few weeks before it was released. In the meantime, Kim Wilson won a Blues Music Award for Instrumentalist – Harmonica and Jason and his wife, Kaitlin Dibble, were married.

The next installment will contain more discussion between Jason and Nathan, including the topics of gear and pets. We hope that you enjoy the Tightcup Podcast, and we intend to post these regularly.

 

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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.

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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.

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