Amplifying your Autoharp

updated 1/2/09


The Autoharp is one of the quieter instruments, which causes many problems on stage. Its quietness is further aggravated by the fact that when you play it, your hands are right where the mike should go, so you cannot get the mike very close to the sound source. Because of the inverse square law, if you double the distance from a sound source, you get 1/4 the volume. It is my observation that to allow the audience to hear anything that resembles what you hear when you place your ear against the side of the harp and play it, you need either a mike or pickup or both built into the instrument.

Microphones
Lavalier mikes or mini-mikes are made by many manufacturers, and come as either high or low-impedance, and as either directional or omni patterns.Almost all of them are condenser miikes, which means they need a source of electricity, either a battery, or supplied from a mixer or power supply as "phantom power". (Shure made one model I saw that was a dynamic mike) You can sound pretty good and probably good enough for a lot less work and money if you use a high-impedance mike, though low-impedance signals are cleaner, and can travel hundreds of feet in a mike cord. High impedance signals have trouble going more than 20 feet.They only have two conductors (hot and ground), and use a normal guitar cord to plug in. I like it when it is lying flat on its side against the back of the harp inside the sound hole. You can use self-stick Velcro to do this, since it also cushions the mike from body vibration. The autoharp body is not very deep, so you don't have problems with the mike being inside the instrument like you do with guitars.

I much prefer the sound and properties of a low-impedance mini-mike. They ar harder to experiment with on autoharp than guitars and other instruments, because they have to be placed in the soundhole, under the strings, to sound best, and this means you pretty much have to drill a hole and install a jack so that the wire does not hit the strings. Some people clip an omni mini-mike to the back of the harp, which sounds OK but not optimum, in my opinion.

Pickups
There are two basic types of instrument pickups: magnetic and piezo-electric. The pickup that comes with an Oscar Schmidt harp is a bar magnet, and the stick-on things you put on your instrument, sometimes called "contact" pickups are the latter. They use a piezo-electric crystal or a similar material that generates an electric current when it is vibrated. Magnetic pickups are loud, and great for bass response on an autoharp, while the piezo pickups have a more woody, natural sparkle. Piezo pickups have to be placed properly, and it can be quite a period of trial and error to find the "sweet spot" where it sounds the best. Magnetic pickups have to go under the strings. Both types of pickups need to be EQ'd= have their tone adjusted, usually with a graphic equalizer. Most of them need to have a lot of midrange removed. Piezo pickups sound a lot better when they are used with a pre-amp. They put out a very weak signal, that can sound pretty awful if it's not connected to a device that is designed to accept those kinds of signals. They can be had for under $50, and DiMarzio makes one of the best readily available ones, that's round and half-dollar size. Most amps and mixing board inputs are designed for magnetic pickups, which have very different electronic characteristics.

What I do...
To me, the autoharp is a very imperfect instrument, and this includes its sound. Even when I record the harp, I usually use a mixture of microphone and a hint of pickup sounds- the mike gives me natural clarity and high-end sparkle, and the pickup gives me warmth, bass, and sustain. I have a built in Crown GLM-100 hypercardioid mini mike and a stock Oscar Schmidt magnet pickup and a Fishman AG-125 piezo pickup all built into my harp. The pickups are wired together as one, and it works for me. My mini-mike is wired to be unbalanced, and it connects to the ring of a stereo jack, and the other 2 pickups connect to the tip. The ground is shared. The pickups are grounded to the strings for hum reduction.

I used to plug a stereo cord from my harp into a Fishman Blender, which is a $350 box (powered by a 9V battery) I usually keep on the mike stand that is a pre-amp and impedance buffer for the pickup, a 9V phantom power supply for the mini-mike, a 2-channel mixer to allow me to adjust tone, volume and phase on the two signals, a good quality active direct box , and a patch bay to allow me to patch in a tuner and effects pedals to the pickup signal. The Blender also has a mute switch to allow me to connect and unconnect my instruments and switch instruments on stge without a loud POP in the PA system. The mini-mike was nice in many ways, but caused feedback problems sometimes (especially with bad monitors) , and was subject to wind noise at outdoor gigs, which is the biggest problem with using them on stage.

Now I use only the pickup signal and only use the Crown mike for workshop demonstrations and comparisons. I run through a custom .fsi file that I made for my autoharp using the Fishman Aura technology. This system uses sophisticated processing to make my pickup sound like a recording I made of my harp using a microphone, and I believe I am still the only person who uses this technology on an autoharp. I determined in 2008 that if you plug a standard Oscar Schmidt amplified autoharp from Washburn (who now makes them) into my Aura box with my custom-made Aura setting, it sounds quite good. I will gladly e-mail you the Aura file if you own an autoharp with a pickup and an Aura and want to try it. I don't think Fishman has put it up for download on their web site or plans to. I use the same Aura box (it has room for 12 different instrument settings) for my various guitars, banjo, mandolin, mandocello, and bouzouki and just switch the setting from one to the other on stage as I switch instruments. This way I can use 1 channel and one cord for all my instruments, and save the EQ, volume and compression settings for each one.

What you should do...
This is of course subjective, but so is a lot of good info. What you need depends on 1) how loud you want to get 2) how natural you want to sound 3) how much money you want to spend 4) how often you perform and 5) where you perform. If you only perform in quiet, listening settings and you have a loud instrument or playing style you may not need or want a pickup. A uni-directional mike on a stand might do, and certainly either a low-impedance mini-mike installed or the GDR would give you lots more volume. Bryna Bowers currently peforms with both his voice and harps going through a single stage mike, and it works pretty well for the kinds of gigs he does, since he plays and sings pretty loudly. If you play in a band, even an acoustic one, or if you are a professional player of any type, you should probably have a pickup in your harp, even if you only use it for a tuner and for emergencies. There are situations where you just need the volume, and being heard at all is the issue. You may need at least a graphic equalizer or a good pre-amp ($50 -$80 each or so). The way to mix the mike and pickup signals on stage is to start with one (usually the mike) and get it as loud as you can before it starts to feed back or sound really boxy and weird. You can't push a mike beyond that point. (With sophisticated EQ you can get a few more db's of volume, but positioning the mini mike properly does a better job in my opinion. When you find the right spot it sounds good. Then add the pickup signal until you reach desired volume overall. Anything beyond a certain volume will of course contain an increasing proportion of pickup signal, which generally sounds less natural. But it can be heard. If you want to sound fabulous, you can count on spending minimum (these are discount prices) $50 for a piezo pickup, $10 for a jack, $10-20 for a stereo wire, $80-100 for a mini- mike, $50-60 for an equalizer, $90-100 for a stereo chorus, and maybe $299 for an Aura. You can spend even more if you want a better mike. They start at $100 or so. That's a lot of money to amplify an inexpensive instrument. But if we're on stage together, I'll blow you away!

Songwriter and instrumentalist Harvey Reid has been a full-time acoustic musician since 1974, and was the 1981 National Fingerpicking Guitar champion and 1982 International Autoharp runner-up. He has released 20 solo recordings on the Woodpecker label. © 2009 by Harvey Reid

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