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Amplifying Your Harp: Preamps, D.I.s and Connecting the Dots

May 27, 2014
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This is the final post in our harp amplification series, which covers the details of connecting everything together. If you can make it through all of them, you should have a pretty complete (if basic) picture of what you’ll need to get the sound from your harp out to the ears in the back row. If you’re new to the world of amplification, we recommend reading the first, second and third posts before reading this one.

Connecting to an amp

An amp is likely to have a ¼-inch input meant to accept a signal from an instrument pickup. So if you have a pickup and an amp, it is fairly simple to connect the two with an instrument cable, plug in the amp to a power source, and start playing.

If you are using a microphone with an XLR connector, check whether your amp also has an XLR input. It would look something like this:

XLR input jack for microphone cable

If it does, you should be fine plugging your mic into the amp directly with an XLR cable. If it doesn’t, there are transformers you can get to change the signal from balanced to unbalanced and to adapt the plug so it fits into the amp’s ¼-inch input. If you have a choice, an amp with an XLR input is the better option, since it will have a preamp built in that is intended to receive a microphone signal.

Connecting to a PA

When connecting to a PA system, you will probably want to use XLR cables. Even if the mixing board can accept ¼-inch cables, XLR is better for covering long distances because there is less loss of signal. If you have a microphone, you can connect it directly to the PA’s mixing board with an XLR cable. If you have a pickup, you’ll need to convert from ¼-inch to XLR, and the best thing to use is a D.I. (see below).

Preamps and D.I.s – what are they and do I need one?

D.I.s, or direct-in boxes, convert signal from unbalanced to balanced, as well as adjusting the signal strength. They are quite often used when instrumentalists with pickups are plugging into a PA through a mixing board. The D.I. has an input jack to accept a ¼-inch cable (coming from an instrument pickup) and an output jack to accept an XLR cable (going to a mixing board). Many instrumentalists who need to plug their pickup into a mixing board will have their own D.I., and there are plenty of inexpensive options out there. If you are using your own amp, it will most likely have a ¼-inch input and you will not need a D.I.

A preamp gives your signal a boost between the pickup and the amplifier, allowing your amp to put out a greater volume of sound. Many pickup/amp combinations produce enough sound without one, but if you are playing harp with a rock band and need to be heard over a drum set and a screaming guitar, using a preamp to boost your volume might not be a bad idea. Generally, you would use one ¼-inch cable to connect the pickup to the preamp, and a second ¼-inch cable to connect the preamp to the amp.

Some preamps have volume and/or tone controls built in, which allow you more freedom to adjust your sound without needing to reach your amp. The L.R. Baggs Gigpro preamp is an example of this style. [Edit: The Gigpro is no longer made.]

LR Baggs Gigpro preamp

There are also D.I./preamp combinations that cover all the bases, boosting the signal as well as converting from unbalanced to balanced if you need it, and often including a greater variety of tone controls. They are generally more expensive, and probably not something you need right off the bat. However they do provide almost anything you might ever want in a performance situation in a single device. The L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic D.I. is one example.

LR Baggs Para-Acoustic DI

If you made it this far, congratulations! Hopefully you’re feeling a little more comfortable with the jargon and have figured out what questions to ask next. If we can help with anything specific relating to the products we sell, please give us a call. If you have any thoughts or experiences to share, we welcome you to leave a comment below.

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