Getting Your Band Off the Ground

The purpose of this article is to give you some helpful little bits of information in regards to starting, and leading, your own band. This is, by no means, scientific. I’m basing these “rules” off my years of running active groups. I’m sure you readers have some other great ideas and tips, and I would love for you to add those in the comments.

First things first… the band:

So you have some really great tunes you’ve been working on, and you’re ready to unveil them to thousands upon thousands of eager and adoring fans. The problem is, no one wants to hear one guy blowing away on a harp. You’ll probably need a drummer, bass player, guitar player, singer, keyboard player, and whatever else your creative little heart desires. So how should you go about finding the members to this soon-to-be-multi-platinum group? First off, you should start with your friends. You’re a musician, and you probably have a decent number of musician friends. You’ve probably jammed with these cats a couple times, and the familiarity will go a long way in building band chemistry. But let’s invent a hypothetical dilemma… John is your best friend, but he’s only decent at the drum kit. Jim on the other hand is an animal (Muppets jokes are the best) back there, but you are barely acquaintances. Who should you call first? You call Jim every time. 365. 24/7. If you want to achieve anything, you need talent. Chemistry can be built, but, most of the time, talent cannot. The only real exception to this rule I make is for the relationship between the drummer and the bass player. These two NEED to be on the same page from day one. So if Jim has a decent bass player he absolutely loves playing with, you should probably try him or her first.

The first (and subsequent) rehearsals:

There are some costs that go into running a group that most people overlook. Most of them deal with rehearsal space. Where will your group practice? I’m lucky enough to have no children and an extra bedroom in my house, so I’ve got it made in the shade, but I assume most of you aren’t so fortunate. From my experience, it really is best to work out rehearsals at a member’s house over renting a space simply because renting a space creates a financial burden. Nothing sucks the creativity out of a room like telling everyone they owe you their monthly 100 bucks for rent. This is especially true in the beginning when the band isn’t making much in the way of money. Another cost that most people overlook is the PA system. This is an absolute necessity. First off, I think we can all agree that actually hearing vocals at rehearsal is pretty awesome. (On a side note, I once played in a group that didn’t have a PA. Our singer just sang out loud to practice with us, and he was always drowned out. When no one in the band even knows the vocal melody, it probably won’t work out well.) It will also save you valuable space in your rehearsal setup since your vocalist, keyboard player, and even your guitar player (in a pinch) can all go into one rig.

Being the leader… rehearsals and beyond:

It should be established early on that there is a band leader, because democracy is for wimps. That band leader should, preferably, be you, since you started the group. That doesn’t mean this group needs to be an “insertyournamehere-tatorship,” but someone needs to take the reins. The band leader needs to coordinate rehearsals (This is probably the worst part of the job. I thank the heavens every day for group text messaging.), run rehearsals, make sure Jim isn’t too drunk, and occasionally pay for Jim to get his belongings back after his weekend stay at the local prison (true story). It’s a lot to handle. In our modern age of technology, you can probably throw in running all of the band’s social media accounts just for good measure.
Do you have a pretty awesome cellular plan? You’ll probably need it. Even if you set a weekly rehearsal day and time, you are still going to need to play some serious phone tag. I often compare running a group to herding cats, and this is the worst part of the job. Your members will find all kinds of creative ways to throw a wrench in the works. “My cousin’s sister’s brother’s roommate is getting married. Can we do five o’clock instead of noon?” This will almost always lead to a conflict with another member’s schedule, resulting in a drastically different time or cancelling the rehearsal altogether. The key is to not get frustrated and to keep plugging along. Your band needs to rehearse, and you need to arrange it. Running rehearsals can be very easy or extremely challenging, depending on your group. If you have a bunch of goofballs, it can be almost impossible to keep them on task. In this situation, I find it best to have a written list of things that need to be accomplished in a certain time frame. That tends to keep them in line. If you are lucky enough to get some disciplined guys, kick back and relax, because all you need to do is go with the flow.

Getting your first gig:

So your group has been rehearsing for the last month or so, and you have an hour or so of music, but no one will respond to your desperately worded emails asking to open for Charlie Musselwhite. Life is hard, and so is booking. The truth is that you’re going about booking all wrong. Does anyone outside of your immediate friends and family know that your group exists? I doubt it. You’re just getting your feet wet. Without name recognition, no venue will ever book you for any decent gig. So how do we remedy this situation? Let’s refer back to the first section. Remember all those musician friends you probably have? They probably play in bands, right? Didn’t one of them borrow a drill from you that one time? Don’t they owe you one? Nepotism isn’t always such a bad thing. Use these connections to hop on other people’s bills. Once you are booking your own gigs, return the favor and do the same for other new groups. When you’re starting out, resist the urge to play with other brand new groups. Always, always, always, 100% of the time try to book with a band that has a few more fans than you. If you follow that rule, you won’t play to very many empty rooms (which we all know is the lowest sanctum of hell for a musician).

Where do you go from here?

You’ve got the band, you’ve got a functioning rehearsal setup, and you’ve got a gig under your belt… what now? The important thing is to keep plugging away. Quite often, groups have a tendency to slack off on the rehearsals once they start getting booked. That is the wrong path. Keep the discipline high, and keep your eye on the prize. You should be constantly perfecting your existing material and working on new material. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is ever good enough.

I hope this helps, and I wish you all good luck.

 


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.

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Amplifiers for Harmonica

My Philosophy

I believe that every amplifier has a character or a natural presence, a tone that is fundamental to the components and the design of the amp. When modding, it is necessary to take a holistic approach with the goal of minimum changes and to have a plan to accomplish the objective. You cannot make a Blues Jr sound like a Bassman; you cannot force an amp to be something it isn’t. Keep it simple, and you will not be sorry. If you chase every mod recommendation on the forums, you will never be satisfied; you will spend more time modding than playing, your amp will be the worse for the wear and it will lose value. The approach I take is best described as “voicing an amplifier for harp.” This method includes setting the frequency response and the preamp gain of the amplifier for harp.

What makes a good harp amp?

To make it simple, there are three primary design features in a good harp amp: low end frequency response, correct preamp gain, and a good speaker. It really isn’t more complicated than that.

The number one component is the coupling capacitor; this, along with the speaker, sets the frequency response of the amp. The Fender Bassman is great for harp primarily because it uses .1uf coupling capacitors and utilizes 10 inch speakers; these features are ideal for harp because together they pass the lower frequencies and provide for a fatter tone.  Coupling capacitors carry your signal from one amplifier stage to the next; there may be 2 to 5 coupling capacitors in an amp.

Next is preamp gain. Because guitar amplifiers are designed for the very low signal produced by guitars’ pickups, they have a lot of preamp gain. A microphone produces twice the output signal of a guitar pickup. The end result is we cannot turn our amp up past 2 or 3 on the volume control without feedback. How much gain do we need for harp?  Only enough to saturate the power tube and no more; a good rule of thumb is that you should get to at least 7 or 8 on the volume control before feedback. Preamp gain can be tamed by a simple tube swap, the installation of a voltage divider, or the removal of the cathode bypass capacitors in the preamp.

The speaker is critical in achieving good harp tone, yet it may be the most overlooked component. How well the speaker breaks up, the frequency response, and the speaker’s sensitivity can make an average harp amp a great one.  A couple notes on speakers: speakers with larger voice coils can be significantly louder than the same size speaker with a smaller voice coil; also, going up in cone diameter increases volume and low end response. Increasing speaker size can be the best way to make your amp louder. Another consideration is a smooth cone speaker will be warmer than a ribbed cone speaker, which sounds brighter. Two great harp speakers are the Weber Vintage Series and the Weber Signature Series in 8, 10, and 12 inch, smooth cone with the H dust cap. When comparing speakers with Alnico or ceramic magnets, the technical properties of the two are different and they produce different tones when overdriven. The Alnico breaks down slower and produces a smoother breakup than the ceramic, but the difference is very subtle and may not be worth the difference in cost.

When purchasing an amp, you can save money by passing on amps with boutique components like oil-filled capacitors and paper-wound transformers, which are not necessary because the human ear cannot tell the difference between them and less expensive components.  One thing to remember is the vintage amps we love were built as cheaply as possible. Maybe an argument can be made that states there is a synergistic result from having all of the boutique parts; possibly so, I personally do not think the difference is discernible to the average human ear.

Low preamp plate voltage is sometimes recommended for harp amps. I have experimented extensively with low preamp plate voltages and found there are a couple things happening in the circuit when the plate voltage is lowered below 100 volts, and these same occurrences are magnified when below 90 volts. Under this extreme parameter, the tube draws much less current, which causes a drop in bias voltage.  This is significant because it does two things that affect the tonal aspects of your amp: first is the gain of the tube drops, which is good for feedback; the second is the tube becomes highly overdriven, producing excessive even-order harmonics. Some even-order harmonics are essential for good tone, but under normal bias conditions, the harmonics produced are sufficient.  When excessive even harmonics are produced, your tone becomes muddy and loses its texture. I recommend preamp voltages between 110 and 175 volts; there is really no magic voltage, just as long as you have good operating parameters for you tube.

The Relationship Between Wattage and Loudness

Sound is measured in decibels, which is a measurement of sound pressure; one watt equals 30db. Power has to be doubled just to reach 33db, which is an increase of 3db, and this is only slightly louder; less than 3db is hard to detect.

An increase of +3 dB or going from 5 to 10 watts = twice the power, but is only slightly louder.
An increase of +6 dB or going from 5 to 20 watts = twice the amplitude and is noticeably louder.
An increase of +10 dB or going from 5 to 45 watts = twice the perceived volume or twice as loud.

So, it pays to focus on tone rather than wattage when choosing an amp. I do not recommend choosing an amp 5 watts higher because you want to be louder when the one that sounds better is only 5 watts less. It is easy to gain 3 to 5db of volume by choosing a speaker with a higher sensitivity, larger cone diameter, and/or a larger voice coil. If you are not quite loud enough, changing your speaker or adding a speaker may be a better option than getting a new amp.

Summary

When shopping for an amplifier for harp or modding an amplifier for harp: consider the number of preamp stages, the fewer the better. Consider the preamp gain, can I swap tubes easily? And pay attention to the speaker type and size. As for the coupling capacitors, well, if you are looking at guitar amps, they will almost certainly be the wrong value for harp. But, if you pay attention to the aforementioned items and get at least a 10 inch speaker, then your amp can still be a great harp amp.

 


My name is Randy Landry, and although I am currently an operator at an oil refinery, I am an electronic technician by trade. I also own and operate Lone Wolf Blues Company, where we make effect pedals and amplifiers for harp players.

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