Amplifying Folk Harps
This section is always changing, as I discover more and better ways to amplify my lever harp. This is based on personal experience only - for other people's views and ideas on amping harps (and more technical detail), check out the links at the bottom of the page. - T.H.
Pick-Ups, Microphones, & EQ mixers Amplifiers Tech Talk (terminology)
Pick-ups and Microphones
Types of Pick-Ups, and Pre-Amps / EQ mixers.
I'm currently using a Schatten Celtic Harp pickup with built-in preamp, a dual transducer microphone that sticks directly to the wood. So far this is my favourite out of all the pickups I've used. I like the way it covers both bass and treble ranges, and having had it for several years now I can say it's definitely more durable than any of the other brands I've tried. It's an extremely sensitive pickup, so it really does help to use it with an equalizer (EQ). My 34-string harp has a big resonant bass sound, and that combined with the pickup's sensitivity was occasionally making things tricky for the sound guys when I played gigs using other peoples' sound systems (it had a tendency to max out the system and cause feedback issues even when set at a low level). I solved this problem by getting a great little 10-band equalizer from Dunlop (the MXR M-108). When using this kind of system, the pickup plugs into the EQ, and then another 1/4 inch cable leads out from the EQ into the amp. This means you'll have to remember to bring extra 1/4 inch patch cables with you, as well as an extension cord to plug the EQ in. I ended up making two "kit bags" for myself - one for fully amped solo harp (with the EQ and all the requisite cords and plugs), and a separate one for my trio (which involves three people plugging in, as well as a couple of external instrument mics).
One more note on the M-108: it comes with an 18-volt AC Adapter, which I was told by the guys at the music store is an extremely important addition. If you're looking into an EQ Mixer or preamp, make sure it comes with an adapter. 18-volt AC Adapters on their own are often much more expensive to purchase, so guard the one you have carefully. In general with all your equipment, it's a really good idea to tag it with your name and contact info. Since a lot of sound equipment looks the same (esp. in the dim light backstage), it's easy for things to get mixed up if you're doing a stage gig with other musicians. I put address labels on all my equipment, including my mics and music/mic stands. Trust me, it's worth doing.
Other pickups I've tried over the years (you can get them from Dean Markley, Schaller, Barcus Berry, Fishman, Schatten and other brands):
I started with a Dean-Markley pickup, which seemed a decent mid-range transducer, and cost about $50 Cdn (before taxes, back in the late 1990's). However, I found it didn't stand up well to the constant wear-and-tear of detaching & re-attaching it to the harp (at the time it didn't always make sense to leave it permanently affixed inside the harp). It lasted for a couple of years before it wore out completely. I then tried a Schaller oyster pickup, which was about equally effective in terms of sound, and comparably priced (mine was on sale for $45 Cdn. - most mics of that kind nowadays are around $70 and up), and this time I tried to install it a little more permanently. The sticky tape it came with was a bit too effective; I ended up needing a knife to get it off again when it, too, wore out (again, after less than two years). Also, having the cord constantly dangling from the harp was a pain when playing un-amped (even when carefully bundled up, it still sometimes buzzed against the soundboard). I have to say I'm much happier to have moved on to a more sophisticated pickup (the Schatten dualie Celtic Harp pickup, described above).
The reason I started using your garden variety stick-on pickup, was to avoid the bother of constantly having to cart around a mic stand (also, when it's stuck in your harp, you can't forget it or lose it). However, for studio work, I did find that two strategically placed instrument microphones (outside the harp) seemed to work better for a good balanced recording sound; the transducers were often too "hot". Although I'm game to try recording with a pickup again, now that I have more control over the sound output via my 10-band EQ.
I've consistently placed my pickup inside the sound box (from the back). On my little lap harp I put it about halfway up the harp. On my big floor harp, since the bass strings are quite resonant and louder than the upper strings, I place the pickup about 2/3 of the way up. You can also use two pickups (one for treble, one for bass) or a combination of a pickup inside the harp, and a microphone placed outside the harp pointing at the soundboard to pick up ambient sound. Or you can use two instrument mics outside the harp. I find it really tricky to get any kind of good balance with only one outside-placed instrument mic - however, I have had to resort to that in a number of situations, normally where the sound system is provided by the venue. When using mics outside the harp, you'll find the placing will change depending on the space you're playing in, background noise, type of amp used, etc. Transducers and condenser mics often really pick up the bass (sometimes too much), so with those I tend to put them a bit closer to the treble end.
Top / Mics / Amps / TechTalk / Main / FAQ
Since I first began this site I have learned a few more technical terms, so hopefully I'll have to resort less often to phrases like "three-pronged thingie-whatsit". See below for a list of helpful terms (wish I'd known these when I started out, so I wouldn't have sounded so clueless).
Amps in General
While I enjoy playing acoustically most of all, I've discovered that amplifiers are really helpful in several situations - when playing indoors, especially where people will be talking (receptions, dinners, etc.); when playing for a large group of people; and when playing on stage. There are many different varieties of amplifiers, from the small portable battery-powered variety up to professional models. I mainly have been using the smaller variety with a built-in speaker, but often when I've played on stage with various ensembles we've rented or borrowed a larger system where the speakers are separate.
If playing with a big band or an odd assortment of instruments (or when using any kind of transducer), you can also plug yourself into an EQ mixer, which gives you more direct personal control over your sound. The EQ mixer then plugs into the amp. For some types of microphones it might also be helpful to have a preamp. If you're thinking of buying a small amplifier just for you and your harp, see if you can find one that is designed with acoustic instruments (such as mandolin, classical guitar) in mind. Some of the small guitar amps that I've tried (meant for electric guitars primarily) made the harp sound flat and "pingy", with too much treble and lacking the proper resonance (it sounded more like a banjo than a harp!). For mid- to large size amps, Keyboard/Acoustic (KB/A) amps work well, since they're designed to cover a larger range of sound. If, however, you need the ease and flexibility of one of the little battery-powered amps (they do come in awfully handy at times), the classic Pignose amp does well in a pinch. Music stores specializing in harps and other acoustic instruments will sometimes have their own personal favourite battery-powered amp in stock. Some brands recommended by other harp players (that I haven't tried personally) include the "Mighty Mouse" mini amp, along with small guitar amps made by the likes of Gibson and Fender (companies who have been at this sort of thing for a long time, so they know what they're up to.)
What I/we use
The Peavey KB/A 100 keyboard/acoustic amplifier is the main amp I use with my trio. We started out with the 60 model, but we needed to move up to 3 separate plug-ins for the trio, and the boost in power was nice too. I discovered that the Peavey amp also makes a good monitor for those gigs where you want to be sure you can hear yourself during larger stage gigs, for instance when competing with drums, guitar, singers, cello, and crowd noise. (The monitors provided by the club often don't cut it, especially since they don't usually have harp players in mind). The Peavey KB/A is designed to cover a wide range of sound from bass to treble, so it works perfectly for the harp (I can also use it with my keyboard). (2009 Note: While Peavey.com doesn't appear to list this amp anywhere on its main site, you can still find it in music stores, or online via second-hand sources like craigslist and eBay.) It is, however, quite large and heavy (we put wheels on the 100 model), so not a good option for anyone for whom portability is the prime objective. Keep in mind that the little portable amps often do not do justice to the quality and range of harp strings, so be sure to try out several kind of amps before making a decision. However, if you're just looking to boost your sound enough to be heard over the fiddles and bodhrans at your local jam session, then you can get by with one of the little suitcase-style mini-amps, like a Pignose or Mini-Mouse. I've been playing around with the mid- sized "Hog" Pignose amps, since I like the fact that they are rechargeable (no cords or outlet needed!). While not the ideal representation of true harp sound, the smaller re-chargeable amps are perfect for loud jam sessions, busking, festivals, and the like - anywhere where you want to add a bit more volume to your natural sound. Lately I've been using my Pignose 20 fairly regularly for solo harp gigs at garden parties, receptions, etc., just to give it that boost so it can be heard over the crowd. One helpful thing to remember when using mini-amps, is that the sound won't carry all that well if you set the amp on the ground; they tend to work much better placed on a stool or chair.
Top / Mics / Amps / TechTalk / Main / FAQ
Note that I've had to pick up tech terms on the fly, as a matter of survival, so I'm not an expert by any means. While I've made an effort to provide accurate and concise definitions for each term, feel free to let me know* if you notice anything inaccurate, or anything that could be phrased in a clearer or easier-to-understand fashion (recommended links to sites explaining sound equipment in more detail are also welcome). (*email can be sent to comments @ celticharper.com, minus the spaces).
Some Of The Weird and Mysterious Technical Terms of the Music World
Adapters - Little gizmos that can be used to adapt your equipment, by turning, say, an XLR plug into a quarter-inch plug, or vise-versa (see cables and plugs, below). Very useful to have a few of these kicking around, especially if you are going to be using unfamiliar sound equipment at any point.
Cables - There are lots of different kinds of cables; which one you need depends on what type of mic or pickup you're using, and what type of amplification system you're plugging into. The most common ones to find yourself wrestling with are "mic cables", "patch cords" and "speaker cables". Mic cables are the ones with XLR (or canon) plugs (see "plugs", below). Patch cords, also known as guitar cords or quarter inch cords, have a quarter inch plug on both ends. Patch cords connect equipment and instruments together. Speaker cables are similar to patch cords but are used to connect the speakers to the amp or to each other. Cables can stop working at any moment with no warning or obvious reason, so always have extras!
DI / Direct Box - Usually used to connect an electric guitar or electric bass to a mixing console's microphone input, in order to minimise noise, distortion, and ground loops. Probably more useful for electric or electro-acoustic harps, than for an amplified acoustic harp. (see EQ, below, for the best interface for amplified acoustic harps)
EQ / Equalizer - Mixers that allow you to adjust the various treble and bass settings of your output. It's good to go for at least six channels if you can, although for a harp, a ten-band EQ is ideal.
Mic / Microphone - ("Mic" is short for microphone, and pronounced "mike"). The traditional kind of instrument microphones are separate from your instrument and require a mic stand - they pick up sounds from the air rather than the direct vibration of the wood. Transducer mics that attach directly to the instrument are commonly known as "pickups".
Mixing Board - Hopefully this is one thing you won't have to worry about, unless you have an emergency situation where the sound guy (or gal) doesn't show up on time - not fun. When using a standard sound system (as opposed to the all-in-one amps with built- in speakers), all the wires from the mics, pick-ups, effects pedals, etc. go into the mixing board, and then other wires go out to the speakers and monitors. The board is used to balance the various levels between all the instruments and equipment (volume, bass & treble, etc.). If you are going to be using one of these for the first time, practice with it first before going to your gig. Sound equipment is notoriously unreliable, and is mostly likely to be finicky at exactly the point when you most need it to work properly. Much easier to use on a personal level is a standard EQ mixer, which your pickup or mic can plug directly into, and for which you can manipulate all the levels right from where you're sitting. A personal EQ will go a long way towards balancing the sound output from your harp, which should hopefully minimize the amount of knob twiddling on the main mixing board.
Monitor - If you are a harp player, playing amped on stage, you will need one of these! A monitor is a speaker that's aimed at the performer instead of the audience, so you can hear how you sound amped. It is especially important if you're playing with a group of other people, so you can hear yourself in the mix. In my experience, the one piece of equipment most likely to not work the way you want it to. Take the extra time during the sound check to make sure you're hearing yourself properly in the monitors, no matter how annoyed the other band members or the techies get - it's worth it!
Pick-Up - a transducer microphone that "picks up" the sound from your instrument, by being connected directly to it. Some pickups are built-in to the instrument. Others clip on. Most of those used by harpists stick directly to the wood, usually on the inside of your soundbox (using sticky tape or putty), and are removable.
Preamp - A preamp (preamplifier) is a device that precedes another amplifier to prepare an electronic signal for further amplification or processing - in the case of a microphone pre-amp, it amplifies a microphone's low output voltage to a stronger, more usable level. Check out this link for more info on preamps. Harpists can get pickups with built-in preamps, and a separate pre-amp shouldn't be necessary if you're already using an EQ mixer. For an example of a standard preamp sold through one of the popular online harp stores, click here.
Plugs - XLR (or canon) plugs are the ones with three prongs (or holes). An XLR cable will have three prongs at one end, and three holes at the other end. XLR cables are used to plug your mic into the amp or mixing board. Sometimes you'll need an adapter, if for instance you want to plug a mic cable into a quarter-inch slot on your amp, or vise-versa. Quarter-inch plugs have the tubular, skinny ends that plug into a jack that's a single hole. These are used for plugging in your pickup (if it uses a quarter-inch cord), and other kinds of personal sound equipment. They're essentially the same kind of plug you use to plug your headphones into your MP3 player or computer, except for being one or two sizes larger. Having a few adapters handy can be useful if you ever need to convert a quarter-inch plug to fit an XLR slot or vice-versa.
More Info On Amplifying Harps
For specific questions, try posting your inquiry to any of the harp mailing lists hosted by Yahoo (formerly Egroups/Onelist) - there have been numerous threads on amping harps on Harplist, for instance. You can check them out by visiting http://groups.yahoo.com. The lists should also have archives of old messages, which you can browse through.