The harmonica, or blues harp, appears on tracks in many genres. Despite its apparently simple construction, it's an amazingly expressive instrument — and there are almost as many ways to record it as there are to play it.
As Lauren Bacall might have put it, you know how to play the harmonica, don't you? You just put your lips together and blow. But while getting a sound out of the thing might be child's play, unleashing its full musical potential requires considerable technical and physical ability, and in the hands of the skilled player, the humble harmonica is transformed into a remarkably expressive and surprisingly versatile instrument.
Although it finds arguably its most famous and forceful incarnation as a key element of the Chicago blues sound, the harmonica can be heard across rock, pop, jazz, folk, Celtic and country styles, performing both rhythm and lead duties. In the cinema, it has been used prominently by the likes of Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini and John Barry, and for many soundtrack composers the evocative sound of the harmonica is a convenient shorthand for wistfulness, isolation and being down on your luck. In the world of pop, it's often relegated to cameo appearances, but you only have to listen to The Beatles' 'Love Me Do' or Culture Club's 'Karma Chameleon' to hear how the instantly recognisable sound of the harmonica can provide an indelible sonic hook.
To find out more about capturing the sound of the instrument in the studio, I enlisted harmonica player and teacher Steve Lockwood (www.steve.ms) to be our guide, and he has kindly provided a series of audio examples to illustrate a variety of different recording options, which you can find online at /sos/may13/articles/harmonica-media.htm. I also talked to a number of other players and producers to get their take on the subject.
There's a clear distinction to be made between the raucous amplified harmonica sound used for electric blues (which we'll come to shortly) and the purer, more natural tone usually favoured in pop, jazz, folk and classical contexts. For the former, the player will generally hold the mic in his or her hands together with the harmonica. For the latter, the player will normally perform in front of a mic on a stand. There are exceptions — jazz harmonica legend Toots Thielemans uses a hand-held Shure SM58, for example — but where the goal is to capture the acoustic sound of the harmonica, the natural starting point is to use a stand-mounted condenser mic.
While the hand-held mic approach might seem attractive in terms of both convenience and isolating the mic from other sounds in the room, it not only alters the character of the sound (especially when the hands are fully cupped around the mic) but it is simply not compatible with some playing styles. Harmonica players use a variety of techniques to add expression to their playing. Those that cup the mic tend to rely on internal vibrato, which comes from the diaphragm and throat. Those that play acoustically often use more external vibrato, moving their hands to modulate timbre and volume.
Setting the mic at a distance of at least six inches will give it a chance to capture this external vibrato fully. However, as Steve Lockwood explains, hand position varies from person to person, so it's best to treat each player as an individual, observe their playing style and then place the mic accordingly.
"The shape of the hands has a huge amount to do with the tone and volume of what you're hearing,” he says. "You have to recognise the player's technique and work with it. A lot of players have a poor technique, so rather than cupping the hands so that the sound comes out of a hole at the front, they have a hole at the side, directing the sound out past their ear. Others play with their hands closed across the top of the harmonica and their palms apart, which tends to direct the sound downwards. Some don't cup their hands at all. Whatever the situation, you need to find where they're directing their sound — forwards, downwards or to the side. If in doubt, you could even walk around the player while they're playing and listen.”
Given that this is a reeded instrument powered by the human lungs, many of the techniques and approaches commonly applied to vocals and orchestral woodwind are transferable to the harmonica. With the mic set six inches away, the sound should be full and focused. Moving it back to a distance of a foot or more will give a more open, airy sound and capture more room noise. This is the approach favoured by Brendan Power, the sought-after session player and 2012 BBC Folk Awards winner. "Normally I'd use a good quality studio mic like a Neumann U87,” he says, "and stand between one and two feet away; you want to give it some air.”
At the same time, 'air' is something to watch out for. "Harmonica players use their nose as kind of a valve,” says Power. "If you're doing a lot of draw notes [pulling air in through the harmonica], you quite often let out air through your nose as well as through the harmonica, and that can give you some breath noises. Often the engineer likes to put the microphone quite high, but if you put it a bit lower you'll get less of that extraneous noise.”
So dropping the mic down below nose level will help you capture more of the harmonica and less of the player's breathing. Of course, for some folk, country and blues styles, noises that might otherwise be undesirable — from rhythmic breathing to grunts, whoops and shouts — can be considered a crucial part of the sound and should be preserved. You might consider combining close and room mics to deliver the full picture. It's up to you to judge what counts as extraneous noise and what as musical expression.
In terms of the air coming through the harmonica (rather than out of the nose and mouth), you should not encounter the kind of pops and direct air blasts you'd get from a vocalist, though a pop shield can still be usefully deployed for very close miking. Moving the mic a few inches to one side of the air stream should clear up any residual windiness. While a large-diaphragm condenser might be favoured for a full, warm sound, small-diaphragm mics have an advantage here, as they are much less picky when positioned a little off axis. Other noises besides moving air, such as the sound of the hands clapping together if the player is overdoing the vibrato, can be a problem when close miking, but can be easily cleared up by moving the mic a little further away.
For producer Gareth Williams (www.garethwilliamsaudio.com), mic selection and positioning is a question of just what kind of a sound you're trying to achieve.
"It really does depend on the genre of the music and how aggressive you want it to sound,” he says. "The harmonica can be the most mellow, beautiful instrument for ballads, in which case you're looking for a very smooth type of sound, but in a rock context you might want that very close-up, in-your-face sound. It also depends on whether you're recording a lead part or accompaniment. It's a bit like recording backing vocals and lead vocals. For the accompaniment figures, you might back the mic away a little bit, or use a pencil microphone and perhaps a room mic as well — you'd treat it much more like an orchestral instrument. If it's the lead part, you'll want to go very close in with a large-diaphragm, like you would with a lead vocal.”
Although dynamic mics are generally associated with hand-held and amplified playing styles, a dynamic mic placed on a stand a hand's width away from the harmonica can also yield good results when you're seeking a more punchy sound with less top end. Again, to pick up more harmonica and less breathing it's a good idea to set the mic below the player's chin, pointing upwards into the aperture in the hands.
When setting levels, it's important to appreciate the harmonica's wide dynamic range. While skilled players may have perfect control of their breathing and note level, less experienced mouth-organists can be unpredictable, especially when 'bending' notes downwards, a common feature in blues and country styles.
"It's a good idea to test the player on pitch bends,” says Steve Lockwood. "A lot of players play much louder on bends because they're trying that much harder to pull the note down. But it's important not to over-compress the harmonica because so much of its passion is in its dynamics.
"With most harmonica players,” he continues, "it's better to record them standing up, because half their power is coming from the diaphragm. As with vocalists, they're likely to perform better once they've warmed up, but they may start to tire after too many takes.”
Once the mic comes off the stand and is cupped in the player's hand, the sound changes dramatically. There's a pronounced treble roll-off and a big boost to the low end and lower mid-range, delivering the characteristic full, punchy harmonica sound favoured for rock and electric blues. Running the mic through a guitar amp fattens and compresses the sound further still, while adding desirable grit and distortion.
The origins of this sound go hand-in-hand with the evolution of the electric blues. Seeking to hold their own against the new electric guitar and basses, harmonica players started plugging into guitar amps themselves. At the same time, a new playing style developed as players moved away from the chugging chords of country blues to take up lead duties, often adapting sax and guitar lines onto the harmonica. The mics used by the harp players of the late-1940s and '50s were primitive by modern studio standards and mostly designed for speech reproduction, and their limited bandwidth and mid-range emphasis (think of the stereotypical 'old telephone' effect), together with the tendency to distort when pushed, go hand-in-hand with the classic Chicago blues harmonica sound.
Many dedicated blues players consider a specialist harp mic essential, whether it's a vintage original or modern-day reproduction (see box). Opinions differ, but for blues player Keith Parker, whose band The Untouchables (www.theuntouchablesblues.com) record to tape in mono at Ed Deegan's all-analogue Gizzard Recording studio in East London, only the authentic equipment will do.
"What you're trying to do is make the harmonica sound as big as possible, so you can compete with the guitarist, the drummer, the bass player and whoever else is in the band,” Parker says. "You're trying to make it sound like a saxophone — that really big, raunchy 1950s sound. The only way to get that is to use the equipment that would have been used in that era. I use a late-'60s Shure Spher-O-Dyne dynamic mic. Modern microphones tend to be too good, too clean.”
Just as a harmonica player will carry around multiple harmonicas to cover different keys, many routinely travel with a selection of different mics. Blues harmonica player Lee Sankey (www.leesankey.com) explains. "The harmonica, though it is an acoustic instrument, can be thought of as an amplified instrument as well, particularly in the blues,” Sankey says. "It's like the difference between recording acoustic and electric guitar. In the amplified mode, the microphone you use is analogous to the electric guitar pickup, except it's much easier to swap mics than pickups! There are lots of different microphones I use. It might be a crystal mic, a controlled-reluctance mic, a controlled-magnetic — it really comes down to what's happening in the room and how a particular mic pairs with a particular amplifier.”
Despite favouring the amplified approach, both players are adamant that the mic and amp are only a small part of the sound. "A lot of people see amplified harmonica as a bit of a black art,” says Keith Parker. "They obsess about equipment, but a lot of it is playing technique. You're using your embouchure, your chest, your diaphragm. You're never going to make someone whose playing is sub-standard sound good.”
"It's all about the individual player,” agrees Sankey. "When I was touring, I found that a lot of sound engineers had never heard what a proper player really sounds like. If you hear someone who can really play a blues harmonica with a big tone — not going through an amp, just stood in front of you — it's something else. So I'd make a point of going up to whoever was doing the sound at a venue and play a bit for them acoustically just to say, this is my kind of sound. Really being in touch with the musician's sound before you record it is fundamental.”
When recording through an amp, you can mic it up exactly as you would a guitar. The vast majority of amplifier players favour the warmer sound of valve amps over solid-state, but it's important to keep the amount of gain used in check, or the sound soon becomes indistinct. Thought should also be given to amp placement and isolation — as you might expect when plugging a mic straight into a guitar amp, feedback is a big potential issue.
"The player's grip is crucial,” says Steve Lockwood. "If you don't form the correct seal around the mic and harmonica, you don't get the bass frequencies coming through. But a tight seal also eliminates feedback and if your grip is not right, the mic will be more prone to feedback.”
If this is the case, isolating the amp completely is the obvious solution, and it opens up the option of recording the player acoustically at the same time. But for adept players who can control and exploit feedback for additional tone and sustain, having the amp close by, as it would be in a live situation, is an important part of their sound.
If the facility is available, it's a good idea to take a parallel signal direct from the mic, both as a safety net and to open up mixing options further down the line. You can achieve perfectly respectable results using amp modelling hardware or software designed for guitar, or by simply plugging hand-held harp mics straight into the desk. However, it's worth remembering that, unlike modern low-impedance dynamic mics, many vintage mics are high-impedance, so a suitable DI box or a mic preamp with a high-Z input facility will be required.
While amplified harmonica is naturally more compressed than acoustically recorded harmonica, in both cases it can be worth paying attention to your level automation when it comes to mixing.
"When they're playing high up, harmonicas really stick out of any mix,” says Gareth Williams. "As with oboes and flutes when they're playing in their upper register, they can really jump out all of a sudden. Equally, in their low register they can disappear completely. Often I'll find myself riding the level up on the lower notes and drastically bringing it down on the higher ones. You can do that with the EQ as well, to a certain extent, beefing up the low end a little bit and making sure it doesn't get too harsh at the top end. Around that 2-4kHz area, especially, it can be a very edgy instrument, but sometimes you want that effect.”
Using a cupped harp mic tends to produce a honky peak a little lower, at around 1kHz, that you may want to look out for or even emphasise in a blues context. If you want to add definition and brightness or emphasise the breathy quality of the harmonica, try boosting in the 6-8kHz area, while a boost at 200-400Hz will add warmth and fullness. Not much happens below this point, and applying a high-pass filter at 150-200Hz can reduce mix clutter and cut out some handling noise.
When it comes to effects, many amp players like to use slap delay and spring reverb to augment their live sound. It's all too easy to overdo these effects when recording and, where possible, it's good practice to let the player hear their effects over the monitor mix but record a drier signal. For acoustic harmonica, particularly when in wistful ballad or Western soundtrack mode, some good-quality, natural-sounding reverb is practically compulsory!
Aside from delay and reverb, within traditional styles the use of effects is typically minimal. For the more adventurous, things like ring modulation and step filtering can create some dramatic and unusual sounds. Gareth Williams also suggests some interesting arrangement ideas. "The harmonica shouldn't just be treated as a featured solo instrument for lead parts,” he says. "Actually, it works very nicely just sitting in the mix doubling something else up. When it's used for accompaniment — whether that's chugging rhythmically or holding sustained chords — the harmonica sounds a lot like an accordion. It's something that Latin American composers, in particular, have often combined with strings. If you blend a harmonica with a string section, it adds this wonderful natural chorus effect. Like an accordion or a church organ, you've got all these reeds that are slightly detuned. You blend that in with the strings and it just fattens everything up. You might not even be aware that the harmonica is there.
"Another reason why the harmonica is great for doubling up string parts, synth pads or synth lines is that you've got this natural phrasing that comes from the player's breathing. That's very difficult to reproduce synthetically or with samples. You never get that human quality and randomness of movement you get with a real player. Even a little of it often adds something special.”
With a strong claim to being the world's best-selling instrument, the harmonica comes in a huge variety of sizes, formats and tunings, but in every case the noise-making principle is the same: air from the player's mouth is directed over tuned reeds, usually made from a brass alloy, causing them to vibrate.
In the case of the diatonic harmonica, commonly used for blues and folk playing, a second set of reeds pointing in the opposite direction allow the player to access a different set of notes by 'drawing' (sucking air in) instead of blowing. The standard diatonic offers 19 different notes across three octaves in one particular key. Players typically carry multiple harps in different keys to allow them to switch to suit the key of the song being played. As a side note, some diatonic harmonicas are tuned according to just or pure intonation, so as to produce clean, clear chords and sound perfectly in-tune with themselves. Others use the equal temperament system, which is intended to help them sound more in-tune with other equal-temperament instruments, like the piano and guitar.
The chromatic harmonica, used for jazz and classical playing as well as folk and blues, features four sets of reeds, with one pair tuned a semitone above the other. A slide mechanism redirects airflow between them and thus offers the full chromatic scale. Chromatic harmonicas are available in different sizes and keys, generally covering three or four octaves. While the diatonic and chromatic are the most common in Western music, there are many other interesting harmonica variants, including the tremolo harmonica, which uses two slightly detuned reeds for each note, producing a distinctive natural chorus effect.
As with any instrument, it's important to ensure that the harmonica is properly prepared for recording. It's perfectly possible to tune a harmonica if you have the right tools and know-how, but in practice a good quality instrument should keep its pitch well enough. You can expect any competent player to check that there are no blocked reeds and keep the harmonica free of spittle, which can cause notes to warble and choke, but watch out for rings or any other jewellery that may rattle or click against the case of the harmonica during playing. Chromatic players should take measures to ensure the slide mechanism is moving freely and not making excess noise.
Crystal & Ceramic
Some of the earliest 'bullet' mics used for amplified harmonica utilised a piezo-electric crystal transducer coupled to a metal diaphragm. Lo-fi by modern standards, they're favoured by blues players seeking an authentic honky, distorted sound. Vintage examples made by companies like Astatic are highly prized, but by their nature, crystal elements are very fragile and sensitive to moisture — not great qualities in a hand-held mic you blow into! Modern reproductions, featuring either a crystal element or a more durable ceramic piezo-electric transducer, include the popular Hohner Blues Blaster.
Controlled-Reluctance & Controlled-Magnetic
Developed by Shure, C-R and C-M mics were a precursor to the modern dynamic mic. Where the dynamic features a moving coil, in these designs the diaphragm is instead attached to a metal pin that moves within a magnetic field. These transducers were much more durable, and mics like Shure's famous model 520 'Green Bullet' were principally intended for civil and military use with radio and public address systems. Superseded by modern dynamic mics, these mics are no longer in large-scale production, but a number of specialist harp mic dealers sell, salvage and rebuild them.
The modern-day Shure 520DX 'Green Bullet' features a conventional dynamic transducer, but is designed to reproduce the coloured response of its forebear. Other dynamic mics designed specifically for harmonica, such as the Audix Fireball, are built to handle high SPLs and offer a wide frequency response for a more natural, uncoloured sound. In the absence of any specialist mics, a Shure SM58 or SM57 makes a perfectly adequate stand-in — Steve Lockwood suggests that the SM57 is a better fit for smaller hands, but the larger spherical grille on the SM58 provides a wider pickup area.
Clip-on & Finger Mics
Some players use specialised miniature electret mics designed to attach to the body of the harmonica or mounted on a ring worn on a finger. Some are designed for natural acoustic reproduction. Others, like the Harmonica Honker finger mic, include a built-in distortion effect.
This article would be incomplete without a quick note of thanks to Steve Lockwood for his considerable help. A gigging harmonica player and session musician for the past 30 years, Lockwood has appeared on over 70 albums and recorded with both the Royal Philharmonic and Prague Philharmonic Orchestras. His latest solo album, Between The Tracks, showcases just what a versatile instrument the harmonica can be, offering a whirlwind tour through traditional blues, jazz and country styles and venturing into more experimental dance and ambient territory. In addition to his work as a virtuoso performer and session player, Steve is also a harmonica teacher and runs regular harmonica workshops around the UK.
The author has prepared a number of audio examples to accompany this article, demonstrating a range of playing techniques and the sounds of different mic and amp setups. You can access these files on the SOS web site.