People ask us frequently about the best way to amplify their harp, and there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Everyone’s situation is different (needing a bit of a boost for outdoor weddings vs. competing for volume in a rock band), and the best solution depends on a number of factors. We’re not experts on live sound, but we do know a lot about harps in particular and we’ve found that for many harpists, the world of amplification is a new and daunting place full of unfamiliar terms. So we’re doing a short series of posts for harpists new to this world that will hopefully get you oriented and help you figure out in what direction to begin looking.
The first thing you’ll need is a pickup or a microphone to capture sound from your harp, and there are a few things to consider when deciding which one is going to work better for you.
A microphone will not be permanently attached to your harp, which means that you can move it between as many different instruments as you want. This might be the way to go if you perform on multiple harps and don’t want to buy a separate system for each harp, or if you need to amplify an instrument you don’t own, such as a rental.
A pickup usually involves something being stuck on to the harp, and different sticking methods range in permanence. Some simple pickups are relatively easy to remove and stick onto a different harp. Some are stuck on with double-stick tape and can be moved, but it’s not particularly quick and easy. Glue is the most permanent and while a glued-on pickup can ultimately be removed, the pickup may not survive the process to be used again. A good pickup installation involves a fair amount of finesse to find the sweet spots that will make the pickup sound its best, so even if your pickup isn’t glued down, you probably won’t find yourself moving it between harps very often.
To address one common concern with a permanent pickup installation: you don’t need to worry about the pickup affecting the sound of your harp when you’re not using it. As long as it’s properly installed (nothing is buzzing or rattling), if you don’t need it for a particular situation, you won’t even know it’s there.
Evenness of Sound
The body of a harp is quite long, so a single microphone will almost always pick up one part of the range more than another part. This can also be true of a small pickup that sticks on in one place. A pickup that covers a bigger area or has multiple elements will be more able to pick up the whole range of the harp and give you a more even sound.
You are probably familiar with that agonizing high-pitched, growing-louder-by-the-second tone that you sometimes hear when someone walks up to a microphone and starts speaking. This is called feedback. In general, pickups are less susceptible to feedback than microphones are. The louder you want to be, the more feedback is likely to be a problem, so if you’re playing in a rock band, you might have less trouble with a pickup than you will with a microphone.
A Few Possible Amplification Scenarios
If you have a single harp that you take out for wedding gigs and you want the simplest possible setup, having an installed pickup will probably be the easiest to deal with. All you need to do is plug one end of an instrument cable into the pickup jack in your harp and the other end into an amplifier (more on amps in a later post) and you’re ready to play! Even if your harp is basically loud enough on its own, it can be nice to have a subtle boost so you don’t have to play as hard.
If you are playing with your band in a concert venue and everyone’s instruments will be running through the house PA system, you will likely need to plug your harp pickup into a direct-in box (again, more on this later) and then use a different type of cable to go from there into the PA. Microphones can often be plugged directly into a PA without needing the extra box, but can be trickier to protect from feedback if your band plays very loudly.
If you are planning on doing home recording, a couple of really good quality microphones (which can be thousands of dollars) will probably get you the best and most realistic sound. If you don’t want to spend that much, a high quality pickup can do a good job of capturing the harp’s natural sound, and an inexpensive microphone will probably be fine as well, although the sound may be less even across the range of the harp.
If you have multiple harps that you use for different gigs, or if you switch between harps in a single performance, it might make the most sense to invest in a single microphone that can be used with all your instruments rather than buying and installing a pickup in each harp. You’re probably used to seeing microphones on stands, like the ones people talk or sing into on stage, and this is one option. There are also microphones that can be clipped onto the back of your harp in one of the sound holes, so you’ll have to decide what seems the easiest for you.
What pickup do you recommend?
It may come as no surprise that our favorite pickup is the one we designed! It’s called the Dusty Harp Pickup, it comes in both pedal and lever harp versions, and we think it does the best job of capturing the true and natural sound of each harp. That being said, there are a variety of other harp pickups available, and ours may not be the right solution for everyone. More details on our pickup in the next post.
What happened to the Harp Mic?
The Harp Mic was the first harp amplification solution we developed. It was a microphone designed specifically to clip onto the back of your harp, with a gooseneck that would bend so you could position the microphone in the spot that sounded best. A few years ago, the manufacturer stopped supplying us with parts. By this point the Dusty Harp Pickup had been developed, and we decided that we would turn our attentions instead to supporting the pickup. You can find other harp-specific microphones out there if a microphone seems to suit your purposes best, but we've found that for most uses, the pickup sounds better and is easier to deal with.