Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Review: Front and Center Harp Microphones

A man I know who builds high-end boutique guitar amps has a motto: “If it sounds good, it is good.” His point is that you needn’t be a slave to conventional wisdom (which ain’t always wisdom) to get good tone. Besides, who wants to be conventional?

I heard about the Front and Center harp microphones from Ronnie Shellist, a great blues harp player here in Denver. I’ve known Ronnie for years, and I know he is a sharp critic of gear. He rejects anything that gets in the way of pure tone. He uses zero pedals, not even delay… just a mic, a cable, and his Bassman amp.

This is why I took notice when he strongly recommended the new Front and Center harp mics to me. I arranged to test two of F&C’s mics against several other good harp mics, including a JT-30 crystal and several good bullet mics with Shure elements. Here is what I found.

The Front and Center mics were astonishing: Louder and more defined, but with less feedback. The tone of the F&C mics was more colorful, with overtones swirling in the sound. If you lean into them they crunch nicely. The CM/CR mics may have a tad more grind, but it made them muddier.

The F&C mics allowed me to turn up a Bassman amp one notch before feedback, and one notch on a Bassman is a pretty big deal. In the room used for the review, the other microphones all started howling at “4” on the Bassman amp. The Front and Center mics could get to “5” and sounded STRONG!

The F&C mics don’t get lower feedback by being wimpy. With the Bassman on 4 for all the mics, the F&Cs were by far the loudest, with the fullest warmest tones.

I spoke with Scott from Front and Center about how he did this, and – as you might expect – he was a bit guarded. Here is what I can tell you for sure: It took him more than a year of constant trials before perfecting the design. The tonal and anti-feedback properties of the mic owe as much to the overall design as to the NOS crystal element, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Scott fashions the inside contours of the mic in a certain way that enhances tone and rejects feedback. He makes his own gaskets for the element, which is actually double gasketted. One key part of the design is that the cavity behind the element is absolutely airtight.

The mic is made entirely of hand-carved wood. The grill has three very narrow slots, which are about a half inch deep. I noticed the mic is hyper directional, rejecting sounds that are not right in front of it. That is probably the meat of it’s anti-feedback properties right there.

The element in the mics is an American-made No Name crystal manufactured about 30 years ago. I’ve tried hard to get more precise information on these elements but found nothing. They have no markings to identify them. Scott bought them from vendors who’d had them in stock for decades.

At this point, some harp “experts” will start moaning about off-brand elements, to which I gently remind them: If it sounds good, it is good. I’ve played these mics, and I can tell you they sound fantastic. No worries anyway... Scott has a 14-day money back policy. Try it for two weeks; if you don't like, return it.

The Front and Center Mics are very highly recommended by the Blues Harp Amps blog. I’ll be ordering one in a few days. My Christmas present to myself! ;-)


Listen to the Front and Center mics:
With Volume Control
Without Volume Control

(The F&C mic with the volume control is slightly darker because it has a capacitor across the pot. The mic without the volume control is slightly brighter and hotter. They were equal in feedback rejection. BTW... these recordings just can't do justice to the "bigness" of the F&C tone.)

Listen to other mics:
JT-30 crystal mic
Bullet with Shure CM

Ronnie reports that since he started using these mics he has never had to run around the stage to avoid the feedback demons. At a gig he picked up a few weeks ago with a loud band, he had to set up right next to the drums and could only stand directly in front of his Bassman. He had to play loud because the band was very loud. The gig went well. He told me he could have never done that with his old bullet mics.

The Best Amp Stand

I've tried 'em all. I've had a couple varieties of the raise-it-up-and-tilt-it-back amp stand. I've tried the low tilt-back stands. I've tried the usual method of pulling a chair from the venue and using that. I've tried leaning the amp back against the wall or against another piece of gear.

Here's the problem: Amps usually sound better when lifted off the floor, especially smaller amps. But if the amp is too far down there, it is harder for you to hear it. If it is too high up and tilted toward you, the feedback problem goes up to unmanageable levels. Especially if you use a bullet mic with a Shure CM or CR element.

My buddy Al Chesis of the Delta Sonics always uses a plastic milk crate under his Bandmaster clone, or when he uses his vintage Flot-a-Tone amp. I had one of those crates sitting around with cables and stuff in it, so I took it to a gig where I'd had problems before.

Voila! I could hear myself, I had better projection, and less of a hassle with feedback. Amp tone guru Bruce Collins of Mission Amps said after the gig that I'd found the right height. He noticed the louder volume and the absence of feedback demons.

I remember buying this at Ace Hardware; I paid maybe ten bucks. Hey, if it doesn't work out for you as an amp stand it makes a great place to stash cables and stuff.

Carrying your Spare Tubes

I got this idea online at the Fender Forum.

If you play a tube amp you need to carry spare tubes and fuses. If you don't you are asking for trouble and an embarassing experience. I had my spares stuffed into a pocket of my gear bag... not a very good solution. When I needed the pockets for other stuff (they are perfect for stacks of harps in boxes) I looked around for another way to carry the tubes.

Wrap the tubes in bubble wrap, put them in a ZipLoc bag, and use push pins to secure them inside the amp. That way you have the correct complement of spares right in each amp.

I bought everything at Target for a few bucks. What could be better or simpler?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Blues Cello?

Last night at the blues jam we host, a young lady showed up with a cello! Monica plays in a local orchestra and digs the blues. Check out her slinky riffs on this solo (Eldon Jones on vocals): LINK

Loretta also dropped in to belt out a few songs. Very impressive.

Lots of other great jammers too, including John Goggins, Bubba on drums, Victor Creazzi on harp, Kent on drums, John, Mike, and Calvin on guitar, Rodney on drums, and many others. A very fun jam!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review: Ultimate Jam Tracks

The name says it all. Ronnie Shellist turned me onto this killer set of tracks to play along with. These 32 recordings are so tight and perfect it’s like having Kim Wilson’s band in your living room.

Seriously, check this out:
Quick 2 Feel in A. There’s no way you can listen to that track and not reach for your D harp.

Marching Shuffle in F. This is old school Chicago groove. I can see Big Walter out front and Ronnie “Youngblood” Earl on guitar.

You like
West Coast Swing? You can work your chops for nearly any blues/boogie genre with these tracks.

Click to
Ronnie Shellist’s YouTube channel to see him rippin’ it up with these tracks, including a great 3rd position romp on some minor blues.

Getting the Utimate Jam Tracks is ultra easy, only $25.99. Got a PayPal account?
Click on this link and you’re like one click away from downloading the tracks to your computer in mp3 format.

NOTE: If you get a message saying your order is “pending” don’t freak out. That happened to me when I ordered. You will soon get an email with a link to download the Zip file.

The Ultimate Jam Tracks are highly recommended

UPDATE: Also from Ronnie Shellist, Blues Licks For Song Endings. The price is $12.00 to download twelve audio lessons using different flavors of blues songs. I don't think anybody has done a lesson on endings before. I bought this... very cool.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hohner Marine Band Crossover harp

I finally received my MBX harp after it had been on backorder at Musicians Friend for weeks.

First impressions:

-It is nicely made, looks like an MB Deluxe with a bamboo comb.

-It is loud! The back is opened up even more than the MBD, similar to the way I do it with my own Marine Band harps.

-Very responsive. I can play with very little breath and get good response and great tone. The tone is warm, less "brassy" than the MBD. Bends are smooth and precise.

-The compromise tuning sounds good.

-The little harp pouch that comes with it is a nod to Herring's 1923 Vintage harps. I hate those harps but the little cases are cool.

I'll report more after I've gigged this harp a few times. I'm looking forward to that.

Update 12/14/09: I lent my Xover harp to local harp phenom Ronnie Shellist. His verdict? The Crossover is "almost perfect." Most of Ronnie's harp collection is made up of expensive custom creations, so that is high praise. He said it is more airtight than the MBD. Great response, great playability. I listened to him get four distinct beautiful bend tones on the two-hole draw. Nice!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Victoria Blow Box amp

I'd heard some rumors about a new small 2x8 harp amp from Victoria Amps called the "Blow Box." Victoria makes wonderful amps so I was curious. I contacted Mark Baier, the proprietor, and got the straight scoop:

"The 'Blow Box' is a creation of Michigan harp player James Reeser. Jim took one of our 45410's fitted with our 'harp-centric' sonic seasoning and converted it into a head only unit with an 8" speaker crammed into the box. We have never replicated his custom 'Blow Box' as a factory made item, although, I would be happy to do so! The starting point for the BB is a custom harp modded 45410, and they are certainly available factory issue. Although Victoria is known more for making guitar amps, we have cultivated an elite roll call of top harmonica players: Kim Wilson, Jerry Portnoy, Mark Hummel, Mark Wenner, Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells have all had us make a rig for them over the years. Thanks to our interaction with these players, their suggestions have been incorporated into the harp-mod 45410 we build. The individual tube choices, as well as circuit elements, are all part of the equation. It features a 1/2 power/"harp-monic" switch (I just made that word up BTW) and a tone stack voicing switch."

Mark will build a "Blow Box" amp if anybody is interested. I'm sure it is a very fine amp -- like all of Victoria's products. I am in love with their 5112 amp, but then I'm a sucker for Class A amps with one 12-inch speaker.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wezo's Big Ass Speaker Cab

This is a photo of Mike "Wezo"Wesolowski's speaker testing platform. Mike built this monster to help him find the very best speaker for his take-no-prisoners harp amp, the WEZO 45.

This Big Ass Speaker Cab is cool because it allows Mike to analyze the tone of many speakers in real time, with exactly the same parameters and conditions. It makes it easy to find the differences in an "all other things being equal" testing environment. I share that exact goal for amps in my recent posts about wattage ratings.

I asked Mike which speakers stood out from the rest in this testing, and he named Eminence Ramrod, Ragin Cajun, and Delta Demon (10-inch speakers) and the Eminence Governor (12-inch speaker).

From Mike: "It measures 8' long by about 6' tall and 14 1/2" deep. ALL of the speakers are in separate 14" by 14" enclosures and there is a back panel that covers approximately 1/3 of the back of each one.

Years ago I worked in a big HiFi shop across the street from Michigan State University in East Lansing. In the high end room we had a similar setup: Many speakers wired to a switchbox the customer could use to test them all. You can learn a lot about speakers by testing this way. Since Mike is testing purely for harp tone, I'd take his recommendations seriously.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Update from the Wattage Wars

The response from harp amp makers to my challenge regarding wattage claims has been fascinating and illuminating.

For the most part, the amp makers all are using methods that could be considered valid. Their wattage ratings for their amps are “correct” for their own tests. The problem is, all the methods differ slightly, making the wattage numbers meaningless for comparisons.

In other words, none of these amp makers are being dishonest about the power of their amps. But you’d have to use their precise methods (none of which is used by other makers) to verify their claims, and to compare to other makers’ amps. That makes it impossible for the consumer to make an informed choice on a very key buying issue.

One amp maker dragged his feet about his testing methods, and became defensive. He then declared he’d made a mistake and his amps actually make MORE power than previously claimed. This proves my point that wattage numbers are sometimes arbitrary.

Automakers make claims of power and performance for the cars, which are verified and reported by the motoring press. This is no different. I am not casting aspersions upon the integrity of any amp maker. I am simply calling for clarity and uniformity in the harp amp market.

In all future reviews of harp amps I intend to test wattage as well as SPL volume, using the same parameters for all amps. This will give amps shoppers a reliable way to compare amps and know what they are getting.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

More New Amp Details

I’ve learned a few more details about the new soon-to-be-released harp amp I previewed in an earlier thread. The amp is called “The Chicago.” A photo of the 2x10 version appears above. This is a mid-sized amp in a tweed Super cab, with 30-watts of power, NOS military grade paper in oil capacitors, priced at $1000.

The name on the amp has been obscured because the builder is not yet ready to announce.

There will also be a second harp-specific amp offered by this builder: “The Memphis.” It is a smaller amp built on the tweed Deluxe platform. The circuit was inspired by the 1960 Premier Twin 8, particularly the tone stack model. The amp will use a single power tube, (KT66, 6L6, or 6V6, swappable), NOS paper in oil caps, 12-inch premium Eminence speaker, and True Tone line out. The amp will produce 10 watts of power and will weigh less than 35 pounds. The price has not been finalized, but will probably be in the $800 range.

I’ve played the prototype Memphis amp. The tone is outstanding; warm, smooth, full, with just the right amount of crunch. These amps should be available in a few weeks. I’ll have the first reviews here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Watt’s Up With That? Part 1

I’ve been thinkin’ about watts lately… the wattage ratings that harp amp makers claim for their amps. There is no standard method of measuring amp power being used at all. Sometimes it seems the numbers are related more to marketing than to real engineering.

There is a rule of thumb used by some amp makers that goes like this: a certain kind of power tube has the potential to produce X watts of power. So, if they use 6L6 tubes they claim 20 to 25 watts per tube; if they use 6V6 they claim 9 to 12 watts per tube.

But the amp circuit design has a LOT to do with the amp getting to that potential. For example, a cathode biased amp has a tough time getting beyond 25 clean watts in a 2x6L6 amps, while a fixed biased amp may get all the way to 50 watts. (For now, don’t worry about the technical mumbo jumbo. Just agree with me that amp watt ratings can be fuzzy.)

You might notice I wrote the phrase “clean watts” in the previous paragraph. Why would a Chicago Style blues harp player want a clean amp? Well, you don’t, but the amount of power an amp can generate before clipping (the amp starts running out of power) is an important measure of its performance. Hi-fi buffs will recognize this spec from their favorite stereo: 100 watts RMS per channel @ 8 ohms with .1% of total harmonic distortion.

That last part about percent of distortion is the missing piece in harp amp power ratings. Tube amps are capable of producing power beyond their clean power rating, and the distortion in tube amps can be a lovely sound, while in solid state and digital equipment it can be very harsh sounding.

So then… To what point do we drive a tube amp when testing for power output? Should we dime the amp all the way to get ultimate peak power? There are several problems with that: Tone sometimes degrades considerably at that level, and nobody ever plays that loud anyway because they get feedback before getting there. (My 5-watt 1970 Fender Champ is excused from both of these rules.)

What power rating will make sense to amp shoppers? How can we make the system more honest and meaningful? My proposition is this: All harp amps makers should publish a clean RMS rating as well as their best estimation of real usable power, NOT maximum theoretical power.

The clean signal should be derived by driving the amp into an appropriate dummy speaker load and measuring on a scope the electromotive power output in volts. Crank the amp until the sine wave just begins to visibly deform, back it off to clean, and use Ohms Law to calculate watts at that exact point.

All amp makers should publish this spec, and all consumers should demand it. If you take your amp to a tech and it does not produce the level of clean power specified by the manufacturer, you should return it for repair or refund.

I'll be writing more about this in the future.

Watt’s Up With That? Part 2

The reason harp amp power ratings are so murky is that consumers often get caught up in the numbers game. I was reading a popular online harp forum last night and saw familiar discussions about “What amp should I buy?” Several people in the discussions flatly stated they went for the amp with the higher wattage rating, as if it were a no-brainer.

That is just wrong.

First of all… Is an amp rated at 50 watts twice as loud as an amp rated at 25 watts? Emphatically, NO! If these wattage ratings are accurate, the laws of physics say the 50-watt amp will be only somewhat louder than the 25-watt amp. It takes 250 watts to double the perceived volume of a 25-watt amp.

Will a 50-watt amp necessarily be any louder then a 25-watt amp? The answer is “maybe.” If the speaker in the 25-watt amp is more efficient than the speaker in the 50-watt amp, the little amp may smoke the big one.

And WHAT is all this fixation on high watts and high volume? It’s kind of pointless.

Fact: Guitar players and drummers can overwhelm us and drown us out anytime they want to. You hear stories from time to time about harp players being asked to turn down their amps, but these tales are apocryphal. A harp amp playing too loud for the venue is just as obnoxious as a guitar player doing it, and a guitar amp can do it way more easily. We cannot ever win the volume contest.

As the great Gary Smith says, when you play harp in a band the other members need to be “sympathetic to what you are trying to do.” They need to crank it down to a reasonable level and lay out even more during your solos.

The best way to be make sure you can be heard may not be to spend a zillion bucks on a high-powered amp that weighs a ton, but to use a line out from your amp to the board. I gig with an amp that puts out 10 watts on a good day, but it sounds monstrous through the PA. My advice is to find an amp whose tone you love, regardless of how many watts it generates, and do what it takes to gig that amp.

If you are a jam rat who hits the local open mic every week, the temptation to buy a louder amp is very strong. At jams you cannot always mic your amp or line it out to the PA, and there is very little, uh, volume discipline in your typical bar jam. Even with the loudest harp amp – played at the brink of feedback – you will get lost in the hash if that is the way the guitar players want it.

That is why the harp amp makers shuffle their wattage numbers like cards in a high-stakes all-in poker game. We do need a clear and consistent standard to compare the relative power of different amps. We also need to educate the consumers on the facts (and knock down all the fiction) surrounding those vague watt numbers everybody gets so agitated about.