Several of us are away at the Somerset Folk Harp Festival, and we may not be able to respond to emails and phone calls as quickly as usual. Thank you for your patience!
This is the second post in our harp amplification series. The first post talked about the differences between pickups and microphones, and this one covers all the details of our pickup in particular.
Development and Features
How do you give someone a pickup recommendation for their harp when you’ve tried just about every pickup out there and none of them have been all that satisfying? For us, the answer was to go to work developing our own. We thought there must be a way to get a more focused, even and natural sound from a harp pickup, and after much engineering and experimentation, we felt like we achieved it.
The Dusty Harp Pickup is one of the few pickups designed specifically for harps. There are three different models, one for 24-30 string lever harps, one for 32-40 string lever harps, and one for pedal harps. Depending on the model, there are three or four carefully spaced pickup elements, which produce an even signal strength up and down the range of the harp without hot spots or dead spots. The risk of feedback is minimal compared to a microphone, and best of all, the sound is really good. Everyone who tries it says the same thing – it sounds just like their harp, but louder.
Any reasonably handy person (or a non-handy person who is willing to go slowly and patiently) can install the pickup. The pickup itself looks like a long braided cable with three or four flat metal pickup elements sticking out on wires at various points. There are mounting clips that stick on to the inside of the harp body, and then the braided cable gets snapped into the mounting clips. The pickup elements are glued to the back of the soundboard following the included template. The kit comes with all the supplies and tools except for the drill and ½-inch brad point drill bit that you’ll need if you decide to permanently mount the jack.
So what is mounting the jack all about? The jack is the silver plug at the end of the pickup cable and is what you plug your ¼-inch instrument cable into in order to connect the pickup to an amplifier. Most of the time when instrument technicians are installing a pickup, they drill a hole in some part of the instrument and mount the jack in the hole. All you see on the outside of the instrument is the tip of the jack, and it generally looks very clean and professional. It’s easy to plug a cable into it, and the jack is held securely so it can’t buzz or rattle against anything.
We have drilled many, many holes in harps and it always goes fine (in fact, your harp already has lots of holes!), but that doesn’t mean it’s the way you have to do it. If you’re doing the installation yourself and you’re not confident in the steadiness of your hands, or if the thought of having a new hole drilled in your instrument just makes you queasy, there is another option.
The Pickup Jack Clamp
This nifty gadget is the solution to a clean and secure pickup installation without any irreversible changes to your harp. It is designed to attach to the lower sound hole of your harp and has a soft rubber surface that grips the harp without marring the finish. Instead of mounting the jack in a hole drilled in the harp, you use the hole in the Jack Clamp. You achieve the same result – the jack is held securely so it doesn’t rattle and is easy to plug into – but the jack clamp is removable and does nothing permanent to your harp. Just to be clear, the Jack Clamp itself is not a pickup; it’s an accessory to be used in conjunction with a pickup.
The Harp Pickup in Non-Dusty Harps
Although it was designed originally for Dusty Strings harps, our pickup has been used quite successfully in a wide range of harps by other makers, pedal harps included. The same principles apply, but there may be a little experimentation needed to find out where it will work best on your harp.
There are different sizes of mounting clips included in the kit to negotiate different internal body structures, and there is some leeway in where you glue the pickup elements. If you have a non-Dusty harp, we recommend using double-stick tape to temporarily stick the elements on the outside of the soundboard, following the template. Then plug the pickup into your amplifier and see how it sounds. You can move the elements around until you’re satisfied you’ve got the best position, then mark their locations on the template and glue them down in the same places on the inside of the soundboard. The double-stick tape method will give you a relative reading, allowing you to adjust the balance between the different elements, but taped-on elements will not produce as strong of a signal as they will when eventually glued down.
Pedal Harp Pickup
After we had been making the lever harp pickup for a while, we gave in to the clamoring hordes and designed a pedal harp version, which has also gotten rave reviews. One of the major differences between lever harps and pedal harps is in the soundboard. Lever harps generally have less string tension and can often have thinner and more responsive soundboards, while pedal harps need a thicker soundboard to hold up under greater amounts of string tension.
We’ve tailored each style of pickup to match. The pedal harp pickup has a couple of larger elements that can pick up more subtle soundboard vibrations, and the elements are generally placed closer to the middle of the soundboard. The lever harp pickup elements are a bit less sensitive and further out to the side because the soundboard is more live. This is something of a generalization, however, so we really do recommend testing the placement of the pickup elements before you glue them down. If an element isn’t getting enough sound, try moving it closer to the center of the soundboard. If it’s getting too much signal, move it towards the edge of the soundboard.
It is possible to remove the pickup, should you decide to do so somewhere down the line. If you’ve used the Jack Clamp, there won’t be an awkward hole left over, and you can usually sand off any glue residue left on the inside of the soundboard . You should know, though, that the pickup itself often does not survive the removal process, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to use it again.