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This is the third post in our harp amplification for beginners series. (We tried to make it the last one but it just got too long, so we split it up.) The first post talked about the differences between microphones and pickups, and the second post explained the details of the Dusty Harp Pickup. This one and the next one will get you familiar with the equipment that actually amplifies the sound that is captured by your microphone or pickup, as well as the stuff that connects it all together.
We won’t go into detail on this subject, but if you’re new to the amplification thing, a brief explanation of signal path might help you to wrap your head around all the necessary elements and how they should be connected to each other. In a very basic sense, it goes something like this:
In this situation, the word “amplifier” refers specifically to the device that makes the sound signal bigger, which is separate from the speakers. However, the more common usage of the word (and how we’ll mostly use it here) refers to a single unit with built-in speakers, which both amplifies and projects sound.
You are definitely going to need at least one cable to connect your pickup or microphone to your amplifier or PA system, and there are two general types of cables to choose from.
Instrument cables are also often called guitar, unbalanced, high-impedance or ¼-inch cables. Unbalanced and high impedance refer to the type of signal being passed along the cable and ¼-inch refers to the size of the connector or plug. Most instrument pickups like the ones you may have seen on electric guitars or keyboards have a jack designed to accept a ¼-inch cable. The jack might look something like this:
And the plug probably looks like one of these:
Microphone cables are also called low impedance, balanced or XLR cables. Low impedance and balanced refer to the way in which the signal is passed along the cable, while XLR is a description of the type of connector. In general, microphones are designed to accept XLR cables, which look like this:
As you can probably tell, you can’t plug an XLR cable into a ¼-inch jack, and vice versa, so when choosing cables, you need to know what things you’re trying to connect. We’ll explain more about that in the next post.
Amplifiers vs. PA systems
This is another confusing world of technical terms. In the most basic sense, these are the things that make your sound louder and project it to the audience.
An amplifier (or amp, if you want to sound more hip) is generally used by a single person. There needs to be a cable connecting the pickup to the amp, and what the audience hears is coming out of the speaker on the front of the amp. Often solo performers will have their own amp that they bring with them and use in conjunction with a pickup in their instrument. For most harpists, this is the easiest solution and provides plenty of volume.
For those of you who do better with visuals (but who hopefully aren't too concerned with technical details like the number of legs or whether the strings are actually connected to the stick harp), here is what that might look like:
A PA system (short for public address system) is usually used by several people, like when a band plays a show in a concert venue or a group of musicians plays in church, and is a little more of a complex setup. It is basically a combination of a mixing board (into which many instruments and/or microphones can be plugged), some kind of amplifier to make the sound louder, and a set of speakers to project the combined and amplified sound. Most musicians don’t have their own PA system, and instead use the one provided by the venue. PA systems can be rented if the venue doesn’t have one or if your band is playing outdoors, and they can generally go louder than small portable amplifiers.
Again, a helpful "artist's" rendering:
Which one should I get?
If you are planning to play in church or are a touring performer who mostly gives concerts at established music venues, you may not need any of your own equipment. Most places will have a PA system to plug into, and they often have microphones and cables as well.
If your performances are more of the do-it-yourself variety (e.g. playing for outdoor weddings), you will most likely want your own amp. Unless you are bringing a whole band, you probably don’t need a PA.
There are a variety of amps out there, and really any of them will function. To get the best sound for a harp, you should look for an amp that’s specifically designed for acoustic instruments (rather than electric guitars, for example). Some have extra features like extensive tone controls or another channel that allows you to plug in a second instrument. If you can, bring your harp to a music store and try out a few different amps to find the one that sounds best and fits your budget.
You might also want to think about portability. Will you be carrying the amp yourself? There are relatively small amps that put out quite a bit of sound. You don’t necessarily need a giant one to be heard at the back of the room. One small and portable amp that we really like is the Schertler David, but there are many other great options out there. (Edit: As of 2017, we no longer have the Schertler David for sale.)