Monday, November 30, 2009

Random Notes

-I downloaded Pinetop Perkins’ album “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” from iTunes. This is great blues with BOTH Kim Wilson and James Cotton on harp. The songs “You Don’t Have to Go” and “Look on Yonder Wall” have sensational harp work by Wilson.

The album dates from 1992, when there were no fancy, expensive harp-specific amps. I don’t know for sure what amp Kim Wilson used in this session, but I know he was an endorser of Victoria amps back then. Check out his tone. It is exceptional even for him.

-Pandora Internet radio is da bomb. I entered one song to start my channel : Paul Butterfield’s version of “Too Many Drivers.” Pandora now plays one Chicago blues tune after another for me, almost all with harp. I’ll buy the upgrade. This thing is great.

-The Hohner Marine Band Crossover harp I ordered from Musicians Friend several weeks ago is STILL on backorder. It was supposed to be available on Nov 9.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Tone Test: Paper in Oil Caps

Gary Onofrio is right. He claims the paper in oil caps in his excellent Sonny Jr. harp amps contribute to their great tone. I cannot speak to his amps directly (I’ve played them but not had the chance to thoroughly review them), but I am a believer in his wisdom about the caps.

Coupling capacitors move the signal from one stage of the amp to another… In this case from the preamp section to the tone stack. Controversy rages on this topic among techie types. I’ve read very persuasive essays by highly qualified engineers who swear that it is impossible for coupling caps to affect tone in a way that can be heard by humans. I’ve also read tons of anecdotal evidence from musicians and audiophiles who swear that different caps have very distinctive tonal qualities. I decided to find out for myself.

A few days ago I tested several different coupling capacitors in my 5F2H harp amp. The method we devised was to compare the caps quickly, one after the other in rapid succession. The caps were soldered into the amp (it takes only a few seconds) and played with the same amp in the same position with the same control settings, the same mic and harp, and even the same licks. Each set of caps was in the amp for about 5 minutes.

I’ve gigged the 5F2H amp more than 50 times this year, so I am intimately familiar with its tone. Any change was easy to identify. It was up to me to take notes on each cap and decide which – if any – sounded better than the others.

We tried several different brands and types of capacitors, including all the well-known brands; paper, polyester, polypropylene, film, and paper in oil. We tested several different versions of the NOS Soviet military caps, including the K40, K42, and K72.

With most of the caps I could not hear any difference at all in the tone of my rig. However, there were four capacitors that did make a discernable change in the tone: The Mallory 150 poly film cap, the STK polypropylene cap, the Soviet K40Y-9 paper in oil, and the Soviet K72 Teflon cap.

The winner? The NOS Soviet K40Y-9 paper in oil capacitor. This cap was the clear winner in my mind, slightly broadening the tone and giving it a subtle yet pleasing vocal quality. I immediately liked it.

Next best was the Soviet K72. The tone was similar to the K40 but even more subtle.

The STK was notable for its airiness. I bet it sounds great in a guitar or guitar amp.

The Mallory 150 was slightly brighter than the others.

The Soviet K40Y-9 capacitors were not the most expensive caps we tested – not by a long ways. You can find bulk examples on eBay for as little as 20 cents. Good NOS versions range up to about $6.00. There are lots of sources for them in Eastern Europe and online.

Are these caps worth the trouble? Can you hear the difference in your amp? Good players – like Gary Onofrio – can hear it. It is part of that last 1 percent of tone we struggle to wring from our gear.


If you examine these
spectrum analyzer scans, you can see why the paper in oil caps appealed to me: The have more energy in the vocal range of sound, particularly in the 1000hz area. These tests were done in a guitar.


From an audiophile (scroll down):

Russian K40y Paper-In-Oil Capacitor
After the usual rocky burn-in ritual, this PIO cap settled into a confident, natural sounding device. There are some audiophiles who rank these PIO caps as the best of the Russian military caps, including the FT-3 and K72 Teflon caps. I may agree with this sentiment when it comes to utter naturalness and ease of presentation as well as the lack of a subtle "plastic" sound, which of course all plastic (film) caps have.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Harp Amp

A new harp amp will be offered soon by an established and respected boutique amp builder. The basic model will be a 30-watt, 2x6L6 amp in a Tweed narrow panel Super cabinet. The features will include:

-All hand wired point-to-point by master amp builder. Beautifully crafted.

-Every finished amp rigorously tested by pro harp player. Guaranteed five years.

-Cloth-covered solid core wiring.

-NOS military-grade Paper in Oil capacitors. Dark, warm, lush tone.

-Beefy 50-watt power transformer. Powerful bottom end.

-Separate inputs for Normal and Crystal harp microphones.

-Separate Bass and Treble controls.

-Speakers broken in using custom harp-specific processes. Fat tone from the first note.

-"True Tone" Line Out XLR jack with level control. Perfect for PA or recording.

-30 watts of real usable power from two Tung Sol 6L6 power tubes.

-One 12-inch premium speaker.

-Tweed Super cabinet, finger jointed, solid pine with a furniture grade birch plywood baffle board.

-Under 45 pounds.

The price will be about $1000.00. The low price reflects a “No B.S.” policy: No fancy cover, No multiple coats of lacquer, and No freebies to endorsers. All those things jack up the price you pay for an amp.

The circuit for this amp is based on classic tweed designs from the 50s, but updated with proprietary enhancements to impove tone and playability. This is not another over-hyped knockoff like so many expensive harp amps out there, it is a step forward in a no-nonsense package.

The builder chose the Tweed Super platform because it allows for multiple speaker configurations with the same chassis and cab. The amp can be ordered as a 1x12, 2x10, 1x15, or 12 + 8.

I’ll pass along more details as I learn them. I’ll also have the first reviews when the amp is ready.

Review: Jensen C12Q speaker

Yesterday I tested a recent (but well broken in) Jensen C12Q reissue speaker in my 5F2H harp amp. I installed the Jensen speaker and played it without having played any other amp or speaker before, to avoid biasing my ear.

The tone was oddly flat... not objectionable, but just not lively. Another musician listening described it as "dead." It did get a little bit of rip on the big harp notes, but the speaker did not seem very loud. Jensen claims its efficiency rating is 94.6 db at 1/watt 1/meter, which is rather low.

The tone spectrum was mostly mid-lows. Definition was a bit muddy. As I say, it was not objectionable at all, just not inspiring. I played it for about an hour, trying various volume and tone settings on the amp. I didn't find a "sweet spot" for the C12Q. I was using my usual Shure CM-equipped bullet mic with no pedals or effects.

It is possible the Jensen C12Q would sound better in a different amp. But the 5F2H is a pretty good test bed for speakers because of its ultra-simple Class A design.

One very positive thing I can say about it is that it had zero ghost notes, something I've found to be a problem in 12-inch guitar speakers used for blues harp. The Jensen reminded me of many harp amps I've heard -- both harp-specific amps and converted guitar guitar amps -- that lack the projection and definition I like in harp tone.

Incidentally, the Jensen C12Q is one of my favorite speakers for guitar but it just doesn't tickle my happy zone for harp. I can't recommend it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: Eminence Cannabis Rex speaker

I’d heard of this speaker on Harp-L and elsewhere; some mildly enthusiastic remarks about it’s suitability in a harp amp. To my mind, there are few good choices out there for new 12-inch speakers for harp. Many of them are noisy when pushed hard, falling over into ghost notes and cone cry. I decided to give this speaker a try.

The Eminence Cannabis Rex is a 50 watt ceramic speaker with a 1.75 inch voice coil. It has a remarkably high efficiency of 102 db at 1 watt/1 meter. The interesting thing about this speaker is that the ribbed cone is made of hemp, hence the name. Street price for the speaker is $79 to $89. I ordered an 8 ohm version from Musicians Friend.

Eminence describes the speaker’s tone as “Clean and full, with lots of body and sparkle. Smokey smooth with high-end definition.” This runs a bit counter to the harp amp conventional wisdom for speakers: We generally want a speaker to break up early (be “less clean”) and to diminish the highs a bit. Still, I’d heard good reports about the speaker.

I installed it in my 10-watt 5F2H amp and took it to Bruce Collins’ shop at Mission Amps. The speaker sounded a little sterile at first, so we broke it in by letting it howl some loud low tones for several minutes.

Much better. The speaker’ tone is slightly dark and smooth, as the promo suggests. The highs are particularly smooth… not attenuated really, but the edges are rounded off. As the efficiency rating indicates, this thing is loud. The tone is not as compressed as with alnico speakers. The sound is lively, and these speakers have some thump.

I can get the amp slightly louder without feedback compared to the speaker previously in the amp, a vintage Mojotone knockoff of the Jensen P12R alnico. (It’s actually a re-branded Eminence.)

I gigged the amp this weekend and I thought the tone was impressive. There is less thrash and breakup, for sure. The sound of the notes holds together very well. We can sometimes go a bit overboard with speaker breakup, I think. The cleaner Cannabis Rex asks the player to be a bit more thoughtful in his tonal inflections. The subtleties are beautiful.

While researching this speaker I spoke to a very well-known harp amp maker who tried the Cannabis Rex, liked it, but thought it didn’t break up enough for his tastes. I find the tone to be very warm and full, but not ragged.

In the case of the Eminence Cannabis Rex, “clean” does not mean dry or shrill. The tone of this speaker is wide and deep and s-m-o-o-o-o-t-h, baby, like a big river. I like it a lot.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Review: Herring Vintage 1923 Harp

I hate 'em. I ordered two - in A and D - and they both are terrible: Leaky, not loud at all, very hard to bend, and dead tone. It is impossible to get the reeds to snap or pop. They are so leaky playing them is like breathing into a sack: I get so lightheaded I think I'll hyperventilate and faint on stage. I kept these things around in my kit for several months but found myself always chosing other harps, relegating these guys to permanent back-up status.

Is there some secret way to set up these things to play decently? It seems absurd that you'd have to send them to a customizer just to get them to play as well as an out-of-the-box Special 20. (They cost about the same.)

I'd like to hear from any players who actually like these harps.


This post got me thinking about my list of favoite harps. I'm a creature of habit and haven't tried all the harps our there, but here are my general preferences.

1- Hohner Marine Band Deluxe
2- Seydel 1847 Silver
3- Hohner Special 20
4- Hohner Golden Melody
5- Hohner Marine Band
6- Tombo Lee Oskar
7- Hohner MS harps (Pro Harp, Blues Harp, Big River, etc)
... (many others)
last- Herring 1923 Vintage

I've ordered a Hohner Crossover harp, but Musicians Friend has it on backorder.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review: Fat Dog Model 2A Harp Amp

The Fat Dog Model 2A harp amp is a willing little player, and it deserves props for its spunky character. But before we plunge into the review of the amp we need to establish a basic fact:

The Fat Dog Model 2A is not loud enough to gig with. But that is not a knock on the amp at all. The regular gig rig I used last year (a 5F2H custom amp) was also not loud enough to stand up to a 5-piece blues band, and I gigged it more than fifty times. If for some reason you are looking for a big heavy loud harp amp, the Model 2A will be a disappointment for you. If you are looking for a smaller, lower-powered amp with cut-through-the-mix tone, read on.

Rob Reynolds, who makes the amps, told me that all future Fat Dog amps will have a line out jack for sending the signal to the PA. That is exactly how I gig my own amp, and it works very well. The Model 2A Rob sent me has a prototype line out jack dangling from the bottom of the chassis and zip tied to the power cord. It is a simple quarter inch speaker tap with a resistor across the leads to reduce the signal down near line level. I’m sure future Fat Dog amps will have the jack cleanly mounted somewhere. An XLR out with level control would be sweet.

When I first played the amp at home after taking delivery of it, I liked its barky Champ-like tone. Indeed, it sounds like a Fender silverface Champ with two 10-inch speakers and a bit less compression. But there was a bit of shrillness to the tone, and the sound did not seem lively enough for my tastes.

I talked to Rob about this and he said the issue was the speakers in this particular amp. New Jensen “Vintage” reissue speakers are notably bright but are known to improve with use. After they are broken in the Jensens sound much better. After I played the amp at higher volumes for a few hours it started to take on a rounder tone.

When I took the Model 2A to a blues jam hosted by my band Roadhouse Joe, the little amp had a chance to sing out. I lined it out to the PA and fiddled with the volume and tone controls. With the volume on 6 out of 10 (the volume is not numbered, so I am estimating) and the tone control BARELY cracked off the minimum setting, the amp suddenly came alive. A couple of my bandmates who had heard the amp previously at practice immediately remarked that the amp sounded a lot better.

I added a bit of delay and the tone fattened up. It still had the Champish midrangey barkiness, but with pretty good rip. When I dug in on a tight cup the amp growled nicely. It evidently sounded good to the musicians hanging out waiting to jam because I got very nice response after my first solo. That is the bottom line on amp tone right there.

I covered some of the technical details of the amp in a previous post. The Fat Dog amps are a modular scalable design, wherein Rob can use as many of his 6L6 mono-block amps as there are speakers in the cab. With two speakers he uses two mono amps, and so on. This also gives the amp its signature sound.

If you want to gig this amp, no problem. Use the line out for PA support, and use the amp as a stage monitor. I had the amp on a tilt-back stand right behind me, and I could hear it in the loud jam if I stood in front of it.

Rob Reynolds is a great guy who will work with you to get the amp just right. I’d probably order it with Weber Signature series speakers instead of the Jensens, but speaker tone is wildly subjective and subject to endless personal revision.

The Fat Dog Model 2A is a willing little amp worthy of your consideration. It just may be ready to run with the big dawgs.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Random Notes

-A couple weeks ago I bought a BBE Sonic Stomp pedal used on eBay for $43.00 and finally got around to trying it today. Yoiks, what a remarkable sound! I haven't played with it enough yet to offer a full review, but I can tell you I'm very impressed. That thing they say about how it "takes the blanket off your amp" is valid. I was influenced to buy it by Jason Ricci, who swears by this thing.

-I seldom review guitar amps, but I am so impressed with
Mission Amp's Tweed Vibrolux clone that I just can't stop myself from telling people about it. The guitar player in Roadhouse Joe, Matt Spinks, played through it at a recent gig. The tone was fat and complex and LOUD, with swirling overtones and great punch. Seriously, we are not a quiet band at all, and the little Vibrolux dominated in a very, very good way. The Vibrolux is rated at 18 watts but sounds huge. It is 2x6V6 driving a 12-inch Eminence Patriot Lil' Texas Neo speaker. The amp is small and light and amazing. Bruce Collins, the owner of Mission Amps is a wizard with amp tone, and I am not kidding one bit. Matt's playing electrified the packed club. I've been around the block a time or two in blues bands, and I seen 'em come and I seen 'em go. I've heard a lot of guitar players play a lot of amps. This one is special.

-Remember, on November 8th I'll have the
Fat Dog Model 2A harp amp at the blues jam we host on Sundays at Ziggies in Denver. I'm liking this amp more every time I play it. Today I threw my whole pedal board at it and it acquitted itself well. I invite and encourage all harp players to come try it out and give me their unvarnished opinions for the upcoming review of the amp.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Analysis: Fat Dog Model 2A Harp Amp

Rob Reynolds of Fat Dog Amps very graciously shipped me an example of his Model 2A amp for review. This article will cover the technical examination of the amp and some early playing impressions. This coming Sunday – November 8 – I plan to take it to the Blues Jam my band hosts at Ziggies in Denver. I invite any interested harp player to come on down, try the amp, and be part of the final review.

-Appearance: It is a good looking amp, decked out in all classic black. I took the amp to band practice last week, and the guitar player said, "Wow, what’s that?" The finish is sprayed on and seems nearly indestructible, and it looks and feels fine. In these photos you can see through the grill cloth to the speaker cut-outs, but that is only because of the camera flash. In normal light the grill cloth is completely opaque and looks cool. The amp weighs 39 lbs, and the carrying handle is quite comfortable.

-Design: The first thing that strikes you when you look at the chassis is that this is essentially a stereo amp. It has two discreet class A power amps, each with a Sovtek 6L6 tube and its own output transformer. The preamp tubes are a metal 6SJ7 and glass 6SN7, which give the amp a similarity to vintage Gibson and Masco amps. These are lower-gain tubes than you find in most newer amps. The rectifier is a 5U4

There is no need for a Phase Inverter since both power tubes run independently as single-ended amps. It is Siamese Twin Champs, kind of. A very interesting design concept.

-Build Quality: The amp looks and feels solid. This is not a cheapo home-built amp, by any means. Rob’s philosophy is to use quality off-the-shelf components to make a good custom harp amp at a reasonable price.

When you look at the chassis you see that philosophy in action. The wiring is all point-to-point, using good but not hyper-expensive parts. The power tranny is a Hammond 270FX. The caps are Xicon. He uses good ceramic tube sockets. The controls have a solid feel that I like (but the volume and tone knobs are too small and stick up too much.)

One cool feature is the two standby switches. You can put one amp on standby and play through the other, or switch them both on when you need more volume.

-Testing: Each mono amp produces about 3 watts RMS of clean power before clipping. When playing blues harp, of course, we love us some clipping so that is not a barrier. The amp puts out about 10 Watts total when cranked and clipping like crazy.

-Tone: Well, that is so subjective, isn’t it? I wrote earlier that this amp is like Siamese Twin Champs, and it does have that barky character of the Fender Champ, but with a lot more volume. It has that same cut-through-the-mix quality you get with a Champ.

The tone has a lot to do with the choice of speakers. Rob has gone with two Jensen mismatched speakers, an alnico P10Q and a ceramic C10Q. Both speakers have a smooth cone. It is true that mismatched speakers in a harp amp contribute to the singing overtones we all crave. However, I have always disliked reissue Jensen speakers for blues harp. These "Q" speakers are definitely better than the "R" Jensens I’ve tried, but I would still prefer Webers. Rob’s take on this is that the Jensens sound great after they are broken in. He may be right.

I've played the amp about 2 hours, and my early impressions are that it breaks up well, with a tearing across the leading edge of the notes when you push it. It has that Champ quality of sassy snarkiness, only not as compressed.

-Price: Rob sells the Fat Dog 2A harp amp for $850.00. You can step up to a 2x12 configuration for only $25.00 more. That seems like a great bargain for either amp. The price is at the entry level for custom harp amps, but the product is way more than your typical 5F1 Champ clone.

Please check back in a few days for a full hands-on review of the Fat Dog Model 2A harp amp in action.