There are numerous reasons why a harmonica player may want to play the harp through a microphone.
You might want to be heard better, you might want to change your tone, or you might want to record your session.
How do you go about selecting the right amplified system, though?
Well, it all depends on what you want to sound like.
Now, let me explain.
Best Harmonica Microphones In 2020
Why Use A Harmonica Microphone?
When playing in a band with amplified musicians, it might be hard to hear the harmonica over all the other instruments.
For this reason, a harmonica microphone may be used to amplify the sound of the harp so that it is as audible as the other instruments being played.
This has to be done skilfully because if the mic and amp are not compatible, there could be some horrendous feedback (loud screeching sound), and nobody wants such a scenario.
A competent harmonica microphone should work great with guitar amplifiers, without emphasizing the upper frequencies.
To make their sound more audible, the harp player has two options: either stand and play in front of a stand-mounted mic; or hold the mic, cupping it in your hands. The former style better suits classical players, while the latter befits blues musicians.
This may seem like a strange concept, but yes, a microphone may be used for the sole purpose of distorting the harmonica’s sound.
Sound distortion isn’t always a bad thing. In this instance, using a microphone to distort the tones of a harmonica would result in a fatter, saxophone-like sound similar to that found in the “Chicago Blues” style of music.
Having been popularized by Little Walter, this style can be created using a combination of factors.
These are overdriving the mic, the amp speakers, the amp tubes, and the harmonica itself. Proper breathing, single note, and your general playing technique should essentially get you there.
First of all, keep in mind that there is a difference between increasing a sound’s volume and amplifying a sound.
Amplification refers to increasing the amplitude of a signal, which in this case, means making lower-pitch tones more noticeable.
See, when you play two notes on a harmonica, the 3rd note called the “difference tone” is produced.
The two fundamental notes tend to have a higher pitch than the difference tone, so it’s not likely that you’ll even hear it.
However, with a good microphone and amplifier, the difference note can be heard just fine once it’s been amplified.
Depending on your technique, amplification of a harmonica, therefore, adds bassy difference tones into the mix, making your sound that much more vibrant.
Bullet Mics Vs. Vocal Mics: Learn The Difference
Did you know that bullet mics were initially designed for dispatch use by police and taxi drivers? Did you also know that they are so-called because of their shape?
Around the late 1940s, blues bands became increasingly electrified, and this led to bullet mics becoming very popular among harp players.
The incline towards bullet microphones resulted from the fact that these mics were inexpensive, and the shape of the mic lent itself to being cupped.
Using the mic involved plugging it into various tube guitar and bass amps, and the musician then played by cupping their hands tightly around the mic and harp. This cupping produced a fat, distorted sound that’s now synonymous with Chicago-style blues tone.
Bullet mics might have been preferred earlier on because they were inexpensive, but that is no longer the case.
It is difficult to get a hold of the original bullet mics. Not to mention that they are quite expensive as well.
The good news is that there are modern bullet microphones that look virtually identical to the originals.
However, bullet mics are not for everybody. Players with smaller hands may struggle to get an airtight grip around the mic.
You might be more familiar with vocal mics seeing as these are the popular microphone design, having a small head and a long handle.
A vocal mic is the typical one used for singing. This one will work just fine, seeing as microphones that work well for vocals also tend to work well with harmonicas.
When picking out a vocal microphone for use with a harmonica, you would have to go for a low impedance mic that has an XLR connection at the base.
This specific type of vocal microphone has balanced lines for noise cancellation and mitigation of signal loss.
The result is high-quality sound, which is just what you want to hear when playing your harmonica through a microphone.
On the other hand, a low impedance mic is often not a good fit for most guitar amplifiers, and the sound may come off as muddled.
So, when using the mic with a guitar amp, you may need to go for a high impedance vocal mic.
To use a vocal microphone, you may mount it on a stand, or cup it with the harp.
Various aspects will influence the sound quality produced. Such as the angle at which you approach the mic, your distance from the mic, and the type of microphone you get.
Vocal microphones are much more common, and they are also cheaper than their bullet counterparts.
When cupping, vocal mics have the advantage of having a smaller diameter than bullet mics. As a result, they are easier to cup while playing the harmonica.
Additionally, it’s easier to get an acoustic-style tone when using a vocal mic. Bullet mics are better suited for getting a bit of extra distortion.
What to Look for When Buying Harmonica Microphone
a) Size and Shape
When cupping a mic, the aim is to achieve a good seal around it. An excellent airtight grip will increase the volume of your harmonica, in addition to providing more vibrant tones.
So, to achieve this, you need to consider whether you will be able to fully cover the mic on the sides as you play. The mic shouldn’t be too heavy to hold either.
b) Polar Pattern
Most vocal mics tend to be directional, i.e., are designed to pick up more sound from the front rather than from the sides and rear of the mic.
Often, the reason behind a directional mic is to avoid feedback on stage, but this only works if the mic is to be used in free air, mounted on a stand.
Because most harmonica players end up playing by cupping their microphones, then you don’t need to worry about getting a directional mic.
When using the cupping technique, you can easily get away with using an omnidirectional mic on live stage.
c) Output Level
A high output level translates into more power, and this yields a more powerful sound. What this means is that your harmonica tones will have that extra oomph.
On the downside, a high output level may lead to howling feedback, and so therein lies the challenge of finding that sweet spot for your sound.
d) Volume Control
This may seem like a luxury, but it is actually a necessity when it comes to selecting which harmonica mic to buy.
Having a volume knob on the mic allows the player to make the necessary adjustments so that they can get the best proximity effect.
Ideally, the proximity effect dictates that as a directional mic gets closer to the sound source, there will be an increase in its bass-frequency response.
Proximity effect could work for or against you, depending on the sound effect you desire to achieve, and a volume knob on the mic would help you tweak it to your liking.
The best microphones having a volume knob will give you the advantage of being able to manipulate the volume without altering the tone.
If you will not need to manipulate the mic’s volume (such as if the sound is to go through a mixing desk that’s controlled by a sound engineer), then no need to worry about getting a mic with volume control.
e) Presence Boost
A sound can either be present or distant and when recording or playing on stage, the presence or distance of a sound will rely on the sensitivity of the microphone being used.
3-6 kHz is usually considered the ‘presence band’ of audible frequencies meaning this range allows for more comprehensible tones that are more appealing to a listener.
Therefore, when it comes to microphones, their presence is determined by how responsive and sensitive they are to this 3-6 kHz band.
A mic with ‘good presence’ will boost this range, thereby allowing vocals to cut through denser mixes.
This is especially important when playing with a cupped mic. Cupping tends to boost low and low-mid frequencies while cutting the presence of high-end frequencies, thereby giving you the desired sound output.
A microphone’s headroom is the ability to tolerate higher sound pressure levels without distorting.
Therefore, a mic with a lot of headroom will distort less. However, high headroom could work against you as well, seeing as it can prevent the player from overdriving the microphone.
It seems like a no-brainer, but the price is still an essential factor to take into consideration.
Gear can be expensive, and harmonica microphones are no exception. The price of a particular mic should match your skill level.
So, if you are a beginner, there is no need to go for a very expensive microphone.
Besides, you may end up realizing that there are very minimal differences between an expensive mic and a cheaper option.
Another thing to note is you might want to go for a microphone which you can afford multiples of.
This applies to both harpists, audio technicians, and venue owners, who make a living through their equipment.
FAQs About The Best Harmonica Microphones
How Do You Hold A Mic on A Harmonica?
Cupping is a learned skill that involves much more than merely getting the mic to your mouth.
When playing the harmonica into a cupped microphone, proper technique is essential because this is what produces the fullest, warmest tones.
You need to create an airtight seal around the back of the harp while still using your hands to control the harmonica’s tone and volume.
Your playing techniques, combined with your cupping techniques, can give effective combinations for various tonal effects, voices, feeling, and emphasis.
When using this miking technique, the rule of thumb is to hold the microphone one finger width away from the harp. This keeps the harmonica from bumping into the mic and making noise.
Here’s how you should go about cupping both your mic and harmonica:
Step 1: Taking the microphone into your left hand, hold it between your palm and your last two fingers (pinky and ring finger). The mic is not supposed to come up beyond your middle finger.
This technique of holding the mic applies to both bullet mics and vocal stick mics.
This middle finger shall act as the distancing buffer between the mic and the harmonica, so ensure that the mic doesn’t go up past it.
Step 2: Take the harp into your left hand, gently holding it between your thumb and index finger, and let these two fingers run the length of the harmonica.
To know that you are doing it correctly, both fingers should be pointing to the right side of the harp. Make sure you’re holding the harmonica with the slide to the right, holes facing you, and hole numbers visible on the top cover.
Step 3: Bring your right hand to cup your left one, cover any openings, and creating a good seal around it.
Adjust your hands accordingly so that you’re comfortable but without compromising the airtightness of the chamber you’ve created.
You can use this video to make sure you’re holding both mic and harmonica the correct way.
Does the Microphone Need to Be Centred on The Harp?
No, it doesn’t.
What Are the Advantages of Cupping the Microphone?
Holding the mic in your hands together with the harmonica makes your sound louder, stronger, and more concentrated, all the while maintaining the instrument’s natural tones.
Besides, cupping is a better method than playing acoustic because, with the former, you get to block out other loud sounds (e.g., drums and guitars) from getting into your mic.
Another advantage is because the mic goes where you go, cupping allows you to move around on stage while performing.
Are There Any Disadvantages to Cupping the Mic?
Yes, there are.
For starters, cupping limits your ability to shape tones seeing as the mic now occupies the space in your hands that’s needed to create an acoustic chamber.
Also, when playing with a cupped microphone, there tends to be less of a distinction between loud and soft sounds.
You might also notice that the tone of your harmonica chances when using this mic holding technique. Because higher frequencies are now less pronounced, your tone will sound darker and mellower.
The best harmonica microphone ought to be light, small, compact, and have excellent sound quality.
Always remember that excellent amplified sound quality doesn’t merely rely on the quality of the microphone.
It also depends on your playing technique, and your miking technique as well.
You might not get it right with your first try, and that’s alright. Don’t fret.
As long as you have the right equipment, though, just keep at it, and you’ll be a pro at playing amplified in no time.