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I am a freelance Canadian writer and editor, with a passion for history, sociology and the sciences, tequila, and music (harmonica, guitar, and ukulele mostly, but I'd love to learn to play the oud, bouzouki or sitar). Click this link to read my biography.
Updated Nov 25, 2008
For future purchases: Seydel 1847 and Favourite harps, Hohner 365/28, Suzuki Folkmaster and Hammond, TurboHarp AX-S20, a Hohner 365 Marine Band, Steve Baker Special (G), a Hering 6020 Black Blues Harp (D) and a Hering 9020 Master Blues Harp (A), plus some alternate tunings and layouts (spiral, country, Irish, diminished, tremolo, octave and something in Low C). Harmonica Honker mic, Audix Fireball mic.
Back to school:
I've been buying some harmonica-learning and repair DVDs and books, as well as looking on YouTube and other places online for lessons, tips and tricks. I'll add a page about what I've found, what works and what doesn't in the next month.
I have been focusing on playing the ukulele these past several months, playing much less harmonica. The uke became an instant passion when I bought one in February, 2008. It's not the ideal blues instrument, but it's still playable as such. There's a huge, passionate online uke community, too. For my notes and reviews, see my ukulele page.
While professionals may want a certain sound or style on stage and thus demand specific microphones that meet demanding technical and audio specs, I wanted an inexpensive microphone that still gave a reasonably good sound for my undemanding ear. After all, I'm only playing for myself at home, and perhaps jamming with friends. So I went online to look for something, and started at eBay where there are numerous homemade mics available.
The first mic I bought was Jim McBride's 'Bottle o' Blues' handmade microphone. Made from a clear plastic spice or pepper bottle, with the innards exposed, this is a medium-sized mic. I found it a tad awkward at first, but since I haven't used a mic for a couple of decades this is understandable. Any reasonably sized mic will limit your hands somewhat and make some cupping effects muted or impossible. The neck of the mic is a little narrower than the body, which makes it easy to wrap a finger around it to hold it in your hand close to the harp.
The mic provides a good frequency response, and doesn't seem to overload into feedback very easily, but even that's easily controlled by the volume dial on the mic itself. Although it looks big, it's very light. An added bonus: with a little model paint, you can paint the outside to customize its look.
My only issue with the Bottle o' Blues mic is that I'd like to be able to remove the mouthpiece cover and put some foam or hollow-fibre pillow stuffing in between the mouthpiece and the actual microphone to hear how that affected the sound. Unfortunately it doesn't seem like the cover can be removed to test it.
Got the 'Egg Static' mic from its eBay seller (no web site). It's a small microphone built into a metal tea ball - the kind used for steeping tea leaves - with a guitar-chord jack on the back. No controls. While the frequency response is supposed to be the same as the Bottle O' Blues, the Egg Static mic seems more sensitive and more prone to feedback - a small volume control dial ('volpot') would help. But it produces what seems to me a good response once the amp is set up to compensate for its native thinness.
I find I have to turn down the amp's treble control quite a bit compared to the Bottle O' Blues mic to get an equivalent sound. That's not really bad, just a matter of adjustment. The real plus is the small size - easily held in the hand with a harp and still lets you use your hands for cupping effects. It's less clumsy when trying to play the Pipe Humming harmonica, too. But it's sensitive enough to pick up the sounds of your hands, so you have to hold it tightly and not rub the metal cup.
Again, it appears sealed - I'd love to open it and try the experiment with the hollow fibre pillow fill to see if it dampens the mic's sensitivity and reduces the feedback potential.
Of the two, the Bottle O' Blues is certainly the better for harmonica - the 'bluesiest' sound by far. The Egg Static sound a bit 'tinny' in comparison (much more high frequencies). This can be compensated for through the amp, so it's not really that much of a drawback, but played one-against-one with no effects settings, the Bottle comes across as richer and grittier.
Nov. 6. Curiousity got the better of me. I pried open both mics. The Bottle was sealed with some silicon caulking, so it came apart easily. I folded a small rectangle of foam filler (see photo, right) and placed it in the cavity between the mic and the mouthpiece. It didn't affect the response significantly, but it seems to have helped stop any popping due to air (and possibly saliva) hitting the mic directly. The Egg however is different. The mic is lodged in a piece of foam which seems to be glued into the top of the tea strainer. Without cutting it out, I can't change the configuration. The top unscrewed easily, by the way, once I got it started.
Both these mics should be fairly easy to make at home - anyone with some competence in soldering should be able to buy the components and put them together. It's mostly a matter of selecting the proper microphone element (ceramic or dynamic) then wiring up an appropriate potentiometer and a jack, then placing it a suitable carrier. I can feel a winter project coming on... if you're keen on making one yourself, check Harmonica Typepad first for instructions and a component list.
I borrowed a Bullet mic clone from Blue Mountain Music to test and while it sounded good, I found it clunk, big and heavy. The Bottle still sounded better when compared one-on-one and is a whole lot easier to hold.
I was given a Shaker madcat microphone in late winter. I had read some good things about them and a member of the harp-l mailing list was kind enough to send me one to test (photo soon). It's a great design: small, ergonomic, easy to hold while you cup the harp. However, it's a very clean sound compared to the Bottle o Blues, so it doesn't suit everyone. I used my amp effects to muddy it a bit.
Because it's small, it's light, but I find my hands tend to curl and bring the mic very close, sometimes even touching the harp. That's probably fixed through more practice than a design flaw. The biggest flaw is the short cable. Not sure if it's standard, but mine had only a 2' cable, requiring me to get a connector to play it standing upright. That just adds another piece of hardware to get lost or disconnected.
I liked the Madcat design, and think the small size is terrific, but didn't think the sound was particularly outstanding for the harp, given the popularity of a muddier/hotter "Chicago style" sound. Frankly the Bottle o Blues mic still sounds better.
I've also read good things about the Audix Fireball and Harmonica Honker mics. Maybe I can test them in the near future. Update: I've heard some good things from fellow harpists about the Honker. Emails I've received over the past few months have all spoken highly about it and its hot output. The Honker is also smaller than the Madcat and the ring design makes it easy to hold. I may have to get one myself in the near future to test.
MP3 samples at 160 kb/s:
Shaker Madcat & Lee Oskar,
Eggstatic Mic with Lee
Oscar, Bottle O Blues mic
with Lee Oskar . Sound samples courtesy of my longtime musician
friend and music teacher, engineer and performer extraordinaire, Rick
Would I purchase another Bottle O' Blues? Yes.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes.
Would I purchase another Egg Static? Yes, if they had an amp with EQ settings to adjust for the higher frequencies.
Would I recommend them to others? With a volume control, not without.
Rating (0-5): ***
Would I purchase another Madcat? Yes.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes.
Blue Mountain Music was kind enough to let me take home several small amplifiers for weekends to test them, and tolerated my frequent visits to tinker with models on the floor and ask endless questions.
I wanted an amp that was not very big or loud, but had good sound, some effects, and offered some amplifier simulations to give me a wider range of sound. The amp would be used for home and maybe jamming, and for my guitar, my Strumstick, harmonica and maybe anything else I might get later (maybe a Xaphoon!), so I wanted a general-purpose device.
Purists would probably groan and point me to something with tubes, something old, but I like the low maintenance and durability of a solid state. Besides, I'm not on stage or recording. And this little amp is light enough to lug around if need be. I personally believe that while musicians may have faith in tube amps having better sound than solid state, most of the audience can't tell the difference.
After playing with several models, I decided on the Roland Cube 30x. This is a 30W amp with eight amp simulations, plus a 'clean mode', a combined chorus/flanger/phaser/tremolo knob and a combined delay/reverb knob. Because these operate on a single know, you can't combine effects like you can with foot pedals (i.e. no delay and reverb at the same time - it's one or the other).
It has a built-in tuner, a bass/treble/middle equalizer, one input plus a recording/phones output jack, and an aux in for hooking up a CD player or other music source. pretty good for around $300.
I chose it over the Micro Cube and Cube 20 because I thought the amp sims were better on the 30x, and the sound was a bit better and more robust than the smaller models. But I really liked all three Roland amps and was impressed by their sound.
The Cube 30x has a 10" speaker, too, and can crank out a healthy amount of noise, so there's a 'power squeezer' button that drops the output to 2 watts, while still allowing for some distortion and effects. Good to keep the neighbours from getting angry at midnight...
The amp sims (the grey box in the picture at the lower centre of the panel) include several popular makes such as the Fender Twin, Vox, Fender Bassman, Marshall, Peavey and Mesa Boogie. I can't say how accurate they are, but they're fun to use. There's also a dyna-amp setting that's supposed to produce sound clean at low input levels and adds distortion as the input increases. I haven't really fooled around with this setting, so I can't say how well it works.
It's really aimed at an electric guitar, but I like it with my acoustic and my harps as well. My acoustic Takamine guitar has its own preamp-equalizer and takes a bit of setup to cut down the feedback and get the tone just right, but once the level's reached, it sounds great. I kind of like that folkie acoustic-heavy metal mix... with the Strumstick and a stick-on pickup, it sounds like a crazed bouzouki.
But for the harp, it's good too, and a bit of chorus and reverb, with the Brit Combo or Tweed sim it is a pretty hot sound. Of course, I like strangely distorted sounds anyway. Must be something to do with growing up in the 60s.
Dec. 18: A little Smokey Amp arrived yesterday, purchased from an eBay seller. This amp is a bit bigger and heavier than than my shirt pocket will allow, but it's a nice, small size to carry around to gigs or jams. The shell is a tough plastic that comes in many colour choices. There is also a cigarette pack shell, but as a non-smoker that didn't seem appropriate to me. However, the exposed speaker may require extra care. Otherwise it's a busker's dream.
It's battery-operated and turns on simply by plugging it in. It has one input and one output (for an external speaker), no other controls or effects. Basically it's a WYSIWYG amp. The 9-volt battery should last about 16 hours of playing and can be replaced by unscrewing the back cover.
Overall it's loud enough for practice or solo play, and has a fairly decent sound with a tube-like distortion. The tone is a bit shrill using the 3" built-in speaker, but this may improve when using a larger external speaker.
It really could use some sort of belt clip or mechanism to hang it on something because it's small and light enough to get moved easily when playing. I've only tried it with harmonicas, and my Strumstick, but not with my guitar yet. More on this amp later.
Jan. 3/08: This Smokey is a hot sounding little amp on its own, even if it's a bit shrill and not very loud without an accessory speaker. It's been good to show off a few harps and mics to people. I think the makers should consider developing a little cradle like an iPod uses, to hold the amp and still allow it to be plugged in (maybe using right-angled plugs or something to lay the amp on its side for standard plugs).
Update: My ukulele passion has pointed me to look for a smaller, even battery-powered amp. The Cube is great for electric guitar, but too big to lug around for uke play (and not the front-porch sort of amp I'd like for uking). I'm looking at something far more portable, maybe a Honeytone or Pignose, if I can find a good deal. Recommendations welcome!
Would I purchase another Roland? Yes.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes.
Would I purchase another Smokey Amp? Yes.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes.
Click here for harmonica reviews on a separate page.
Sources and Links