Hohner Harmonica Pickup Systems
1480 - General Use Type
1481 - Blues Type
For too long, the humble harmonica has been something of a 'Cinderella' instrument, restricted largely to its own little musical ghetto of blues, folk, r 'n' b and country music.
It is a great shame because, as an instrument, it has a lot going for it. The sound is unique, always instantly recognisable and impossible to imitate. And it is a wonderfully expressive and satisfying instrument to play.
The keyboard-playing fraternity have only recently started to come to terms with the use of breath controllers to inject that extra something into their music. But to generations of harp players, it is pretty old hat. Different techniques using the tongue, lips, hands and vocal cords allow it to produce a staggering variety of sounds and to inject as much feeling into those sounds as can the human voice itself.
Another advantage is the sheer simplicity (and therefore relatively low cost) of harmonicas.
Someone learning to play, say, the guitar, usually has to make do with an instrument which is generally inferior to those used by professionals and more accomplished players. Even in these days of high quality low-cost Japanese guitars, it is hard to find an acceptable electric guitar for much under £150. A reasonable semi-pro's axe might cost upwards of £300 and a pro might spend double or treble that on his instrument.
If you fancy having a crack at playing harmonica, the chances are you will buy one of the Hohner range of diatonic harps (with only the natural notes of the scale). Such an item will set you back between £4 and £10, depending on which model you buy, but for that you are getting exactly the same instrument as is played by top players anywhere in the world.
It really is surprising that more people do not invest such a modest sum in an instrument which is easy to carry, requires no amplification for practising, and, as Hohner's own blurb says, "will be your friend for life!"
A lot has to do with fashion and the preconceptions of musicians about the roles of various instruments. I am, first and foremost, a blues/r'n'b player, but have used harp to good effect in a wide range of music, from jazz to reggae and pop.
Recently the harmonica has surfaced on a variety of hit singles, which might be an encouraging sign that the humble harp is, to borrow a political catch-phrase, "breaking the mould" at last. I certainly hope so.
But one major discouragement, I suspect, has always been the difficulty of amplifying harmonicas to cope with modern music. To do the job properly, the harp and a suitable mic are traditionally cupped in the hands — something which naturally tends to induce feedback at high volume levels.
So, enter, stage left, Hohner's new harp Pickup System, which aims to provide a better solution to the problem — and presumably make the firm's most famous products an even more saleable proposition.
Hohner have, in fact, launched two harmonica pickup systems, both based on the same transducer principle which has been successfully applied to acoustic guitars and other instruments for some time now. One is intended for general use — the 1480, and the other specifically for blues players — the 1481.
Both come attractively boxed and comprise two main components — a pickup bug with lead and plug and a battery-powered pre-amp unit. Both also include a good quality ten-foot lead with moulded Switchcraft ¼-inch jacks to connect the pre-amp to an amp or mixer, plus a half-dozen sticky-backed tabs for attaching the bug to various harmonicas.
At the heart of both systems is a transducer pickup bug specially developed for Hohner by Barcus Berry. The bug is fixed to the comb of the harp of your choice by the sticky tabs, which are covered on the other side with a velcro-like finish. This engages a matching pad on the bug itself and allows a reasonably rapid changeover from one harp to another for key changes between songs, but not sufficiently quickly I would have thought, to allow easy changes during songs.
A six-foot length of extremely flimsy looking cable leads from inside the bug to a plastic-barrelled mini-jack plug, of the kind of which I am always a bit suspicious. My experience has shown them not to stand up to life on the road very well in the past. Likewise, the attachment of the cable inside the bug looks on the weak side and the fact that the accompanying manual advises caution when removing the bug from the harp, reinforced my concern about its durability on a crowded and darkened stage.
Fortunately, I did not manage to break one during the test period, but then I was being extra-careful as the gear was not mine. One sharp tug on the cable when it was accidentally trodden on or became snagged on something like a drum key would probably be sufficient to render the bug — and hence the whole system — inoperative. Replacement units are available, but Hohner couldn't tell me how readily so or at what cost.
It's therefore advisable that the working musician carries a spare bug to be sure he could continue playing.
The 1480 system's pre-amp is housed in a sturdy little metal box, measuring 80 x 55 x 35 mm and has a mini-jack input socket on one end and a standard jack socket on the other end for output, along with a rotary volume control. On the back is a handy belt clip, which is removable via the velcro pad.
The blues pre-amp is in a considerably bulkier (134 x 60 x 84mm) and heavier version of the same box, with one end carrying the input socket and rotary volume control and the other the output and rotary tone control. Because it is bigger and obviously intended as a static unit, the 1480's belt clip is replaced with four rubber feet. In both cases, power from the standard 9 volt battery inside is turned on when the input jack is inserted, in common with the arrangement on most modern effects units.
My initial reaction to both units was that the control layouts were far from logical and therefore not designed to make use as easy as it could have been.
In the case of the 1480, one would assume it would be worn with the volume control upwards, giving the player instant access for a quick tweak, if needed. I feel it would have been more logical in this case to have had the input socket on the same surface, as opposed to the output. It is a small quibble, I know, but in a simple unit like this, one which could easily be put right.
My quibble with the 1481's control layout is far greater, and ought to be remedied on the next production run. It seems plain daft to me not to have both volume and tone controls on the same surface. The present arrangement means that wherever you put the box, one of the controls is out of sight. If you put it on top of your amp one knob is facing away from you. If it is at your feet on the floor, neither are visible, which could lead to difficulties under low lighting conditions.
At low to medium volumes, both systems sound good. Very good, in fact, with a clarity and tone which is difficult to obtain with a conventional mic, without picking up unwanted breath and handling noise.
The 1480 does its simple job well, sounding out loud and clear with both diatonic and chromatic harmonicas. The centrally-placed bug picks up the whole length of the instrument's reeds evenly and amplifies their sound faithfully.
It works particularly well run straight into a mixer and will doubtless find a use amongst players who like their sound clean and crystal clear.
For those amongst us who like a healthy helping of 'dirt' in their harp sound, the 1481 does a similarly good job, used with the right set-up. When I read the initial Hohner blurb, which mentioned the system's distortion capabilities, my initial reaction was one of trepidation, in case Hohner had plumped for some kind of 'fuzz-box' circuitry. But reading the instruction manual put me right on this as it advises the use of the system with a good old-fashioned valve amp. The preamp's distortion capability comes via the generous amount of gain which is available on the pre-amp output.
Run into my old faithful Fender Twin, the sound cooked up a treat, helped by a healthy application of distortion on the amp's master volume control. The tone control worked well and I was able to get the authentic, bassy 'Chicago' sound with no trouble at all.
The manual says the tone circuitry has a specially tailored frequency response to produce that kind of sound and in this department, at any rate, Hohner appear to have done their homework very well. The unit is also capable of a wide range of other sounds and will run clean, too.
But as soon as I started winding up the volume, the old feedback problem came howling back at me. Most of my playing is with my own band, Automatic Slim. While not the loudest of outfits neither are we the most subdued. We play very powerful no-nonsense r'n'b and as soon as I tried to lift the volume from test room levels up to my usual gig level, the unit started feeding back.
My usual set-up starts off with a Shure SM58 mic and runs to the amp via an Amdek distortion pedal (Used these days with all the controls turned down as an on/off switch for the system) and Boss delay, chorus, graphic and noise gate units. With the '58 - the best mic I have come across for resisting feedback — and judicious use of the noise gate, I find I can usually get the sound I want at the volume I want with little trouble.
But try as I might, I could not do so with the Hohner system. It didn't seem to like running through my effects either, particularly the chorus.
At lower volumes and without effects, it was fine, though, and I loved that gorgeous sound. The only problem was, it was not my sound.
In the studio, where effects can be added afterwards and volume is not important, it came into its own. In fact I ended up using the unit a couple of weeks ago when we went down to Spaceward to record our new single, Julie B. (plug, plug!) and I was well pleased.
The feedback problem and its lack of compatibility with my effects, which are primarily designed for other instruments, anyway, meant the system was a personal disappointment. But then it would have had to be really something to make me give up my old set-up anyway.
Personal reservations, apart, though, I reckon both systems have a fair bit to commend them to many players.
Both have their drawbacks. The slow changeover between harps, the odd control layouts on the pre-amps, and above all, the flimsiness of the most vulnerable parts of both systems must all be counted as such. But the system will pick up all the nuances and subtleties produced by various hand techniques better than the traditional cupped mic at low levels. And both systems are useful tools which offer something different to players in a field where new items of specialist equipment are rare.
Pricewise, the 1481 Blues System costs £87.50 and the 1480 General Use System £69.95 and these prices compare favourably as an alternative to buying a reasonable mic, with the bonus of much improved performance for studio work and average level gigs.
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Review by Tim Aves
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