Everything you could ever want to know about the Shure Green Bullet mic and more!
GETTING THE BEST TONE FROM YOUR RIG
Many people first starting out with amplified harp may think that great tone comes from a super harp mic, or a combination of the mic and amp. Well this is a very misleading belief. The tone you get from your rig is influenced by many things from your playing ability and technique, right down to the tubes and components used in your amplifier. The microphone you use does have an affect on tone, but it's probably in the neighborhood of 25% influence on your final tone. Choosing the right mic is important, and it needs to be designed and built the way it was meant to be built or it will not perform as well as it can or should. If you have a mic built for you, make sure you get it from a reputable mic builder who knows how they work and builds top quality microphones. Just because you pay someone $250 for a mic doesn't mean they know what they're doing. Many mics you see on auction sites with flashy paint jobs were built by painters, not mic builders, so be careful where you get your mic from and ask around for references. You'll likely hear the same few names come up time after time. Also, look for mic builders who guarantee their work, as I mentioned in the “Building Mic’s” section.
Choosing the Right Mic
Picking the right mic is very important to get the tone you want to achieve. Picking the right mic shell is important too, to get the most out of it. Keep in mind that the size, shape and the material that your shell is made of, will have some affect on the way any given element will sound. Generally, the bullet shaped shells, or shells having a bit of space behind the element seem to have the best affect for good tone from a harp mic element. The shallow shells, like the Astatic biscuit, seem to have an affect that makes the elements sound a bit thinner, but it may not be very noticeable to most people. So don't choose a shell based solely on this! It's much more important to be able to hold the mic comfortably, and to be able to use the different hand techniques with it.
Plastic and wood shells may be cool looking, but plastic and wood does nothing to shield an element which helps to keep feedback down, which is a common problem with many of the high output mic’s. I have found that the bullet shells that I have had chrome plated have better shielding qualities than the same type of shell without the chrome, and allow me to be able to turn my amp up a notch higher and getting a little more bite out of the element. Chroming die cast shells usually has to be done in a way different than chroming steel. Being mostly die cast zinc, the shells must first be copper plated, then nickel plated, and then chrome plated. So quite a bit of metal has been added to the shell which is why they have better shielding qualities than painted shells of the same type. Many players don't like chrome because they do get slippery in sweaty hands, so keep that in mind if you think you might like a chrome plated mic.
Choose a shell that you can hold comfortably, and one that you can hold with your harp in hand, and be able to form a chamber with the palms of your hands around the mic and harp. This technique takes a lot of practice but is probably the single most important technique to perfect. You'll need to be able to make this chamber with your harp and mic in hand as airtight as you possibly can. Therefore, choosing the right shell for your mic is as important as choosing the right element to get the tone you want from it. Players with fairly large hands find it easy to get used to the full sized bullet mics such as the 520 green bullet, or other shells of this size, but many players, especially the younger, and female players with small hands find it difficult to hold the larger mics comfortably, and be able to get a good seal around the mic and harp with their little hands. Therefore, players who can't handle the larger mics should choose one of the smaller shells usually available from most good mic builders. There are many types and shapes of mic shells out there, so finding one to suit your needs shouldn't be a problem.
Various Models of the JT30 Shell
Many players love the Astatic JT30 shells which are slightly smaller in diameter than the Shure 520's, and like the old art deco look of them as well. These shells were made starting back in the late 30's I believe, so there are plenty of them around and are easily found on most auction sites. This type of shell was also used for other model number mics, other than the JT30 in the early years. Some of the models I've seen using this type shell had tags on them with the following model numbers stamped on them: A, 30, 40, A30, W30, W80, JT30, JT30VC, JT31, JT40, and probably a few others that I don't know of.
This same type of shell was offered by CAD, a subsidiary of the Astatic Corp. which made the same mic called a model HM50, or HM50VC, the VC meaning the mic came with a volume control. The CAD mics are just JT30's with a brass plated (gold colored) grille and a flat black body rather than the usual chrome grilles found on the JT30's. The Hohner Blues Blaster, which I believe is still in production today, are still using these shells. Recently the grilles have been changed slightly and don't have the same detail that the vintage JT30 chrome grilles had, but they do fit the vintage shells.
So as you can see, the ever popular JT30 shell was used on many different mic model’s, most of them being vintage model numbers dating back into the 40's and 50's before they were just called JT30's. The JT30 is a crystal mic, but the shell is able to house just about any mic element you choose without much modification if any at all. The older models are slightly shorter than the later models, as are the Canadian models which I prefer over the longer ones. They're not much shorter, but they are, slightly. The newer models have a more rounded end, whereas the shorter models have more of a pointed end of the shell body.
The Astatic "Biscuit" & the EV 605
Another of the smaller shells is another shell made by the Astatic Co. It too carried the model 30 on some of them but many had no visible model # or tag on them. This shell is better known as "the biscuit", which is a small round mic that came on a stand, usually found as an accessory to old console units made in the late 30's and early 40's by other mfg's, that had recording capabilities. These were crystal mics that are either all brown, or brown with a chrome grille, and were about 2 1/4 inches in diameter with a very shallow body that has a hump on the back, and a domed grille. The crystal elements are usually long gone these days but you can find the shells around in very good condition. These are probably the smallest and easiest mic shells to hold for those who have trouble with the larger shells. These shells will also hold just about any element you choose, but may require a custom gasket. These shells are popular with many players, even those who can handle the larger shells. The only real drawback with this type of shell, is that it is almost impossible to use with a built in volume control due to it's small size.
Another shell made by Astatic is the model T3 which is an all chrome shell that is slightly smaller in diameter than a 520 and has a metal mesh, dome shaped grille, but it quite comfortable and easy to hold. It has a long stem built onto it that is meant to be used with a mic stand which can be bothersome to some people, but it can be cut short and customized to make it less cumbersome. The head of the mic moves back and forth on a swivel that is built into the stem and the shell. As I mentioned, this stem can be cut up close to the mic and a screw on connector installed on the shortened stem making it adjustable as to where you want the connector to be while using the mic. Because the swivel is built into the shell, you really can’t remove it completely. It is possible, but you will be left with a good sized open slot on the bottom of the shell. You can see an example of this in the picture section.
Another small shell very popular with harp players is the Electro-Voice model 605. It is a small, all polished metal shell that has a narrow diameter, maybe 1.25 inches or so, and has a streamlined body that is very easy to hold. These were originally dynamic mics that came in high and low impedance models, and make for good harp mics as all original, but these shells will also accept just about any element you wish to put in it, but are a bit more difficult to customize to use other types of elements if done properly. I've seen these types of shells with CM's in them with the element resting on top of a wad of polyester pillow stuffing, and a half a roll of tape wound around the element to hold it in place. This is not the way you want your mic built. It won't respond the way it should and just won't work anywhere near as well as it could if built properly. Its things like this that make it important to have your mic built by a reputable mic builder.
The Smaller Shure Bullet Shells
Many players really like the old Shure crystal mic shells made in the 40's, which have a slightly smaller diameter than the regular 520's.They are roughly 1/8 of an inch smaller in diameter than a full sized 520. These slightly smaller shells were used only for the older 707A's and some of the older bullet mic models used in the early to late 40's. These shells are quite popular with many players but are not as easily found, and usually sell for a good buck on auction sites. Finding them in near mint original condition is very rare, but there are some out there. Be prepared to pay top dollar for mint condition mics, and don't expect them to work well enough to gig with if you do find one in working condition. You can occasionally find them in working condition, but 99% of them are too weak to be usable, and they will be extremely fragile if they do work, so if you do find one, you might want to put it on your desk or mantle and just admire it if you want it to keep its value! If you buy one for its size, you're better off buying a beat up one and refinishing it yourself.
There are many home brew mic shells popping up all the time in all kinds of shapes and sizes. The trick is to find the shell that you can handle the best, and one that you can hold comfortably while forming as airtight a chamber as you can around it with a harp in your hands. The better you can seal the chamber up, the better your mic will sound and the more you'll be able to alter the way the mic sounds with your hands. So, once you've found the right shell, choose the element that will give you the tone you like best, and have a reputable mic builder put it together for you properly to get the most out of it. Once you've got the mic-shell combination that’s best for you, work on perfecting your technique handling the mic and harp while playing. You will find that you will be able to get a whole bunch of different sounds from the same mic by using your hands as sound deflectors, mufflers, fluttering and chamber forming.
CHOOSING AN AMP
As with microphones, there is a whole world of good amps out there to choose from that will give you a good harp tone. Beginners will probably want to start off with a small practice amp to use to develop your technique. Your technique will be one of the biggest influences on the final tone you hear coming out of your amp, so don't expect to sound like William Clarke or Sonny Boy once you get a good mic and amp! As you'll probably notice sooner or later, any great harp player can make just about any rig sound great no matter what it is.
Point to Point vs. PC Board
I’d like to first comment on an amp subject that seems to have many different opinions from many people. The subject of “point to point circuit’s vs. a printed circuit board”. I have discussed this with many people and technicians, and everyone seems to have a different theory. First, a PCB (printed circuit board) is just a board full of holes for all the perspective parts, with a thin copper trace going from one point to another to complete the connection from one hole to another. As long as the parts are inserted and soldered in properly, the circuit works just as well as the same circuit on a turret or eyelet board.
A true point to point amp is rarely seen these days. They are very time consuming to build and also expensive to build. A true point to point amp does not use a turret board, or an eyelet board. A true point to point circuit uses insulated stand off's for each and every point of contact, and all the parts are assembled to these stand offs in an actual point to point contact manner. These amps usually look like a rats nest when completed because they are difficult to build neatly. Most of the custom made amps you see today use eyelet cards, or boards, or turret boards which do the same thing in a different way. The turret lugs are stand off’s, instead of eyelet’s, in which parts are soldered to, and eyelet boards use eyelets to connect the parts together. The advantage of eyelet and turret boards is more of an ease to work on advantage rather than any electrical or tonal advantages. They are also more rugged and less prone to bad connections and cold solder joints. The materials used to make the boards these days are much better than the fiberboard used years ago. Today’s phenolic board materials are much stiffer, and won't bend out of shape when you fill them with parts like the fiberboard will. The phenolic material also does not absorb moisture as it's said that the old fiberboard would. This could be a problem with noise if used in a high humidity climate. But it's been my experience that as far as having tonal superiority over printed circuit board, I really don't think so as long as the same components are used. One of the down sides of PCB's, is that they can be difficult to work with, especially when removing parts who’s leads have been bent over the solder hole. Solder eyelets and the traces can be easily damaged when removing hard to get at parts, especially when you don’t have the proper specialty tools to work on them, but I really don't think that PCB's are inferior to other types of turret and eyelet boards sonically. They're simply much easier to work on when it comes to diagnosing and replacing parts.
Outside of reliability, think the PCB's are just as good sonically as turret and eyelet boards. One thing that can affect the way a circuit performs and sounds is the layout, or physical design of the circuit board. Where certain parts are located, and their proximity to other components can affect the way a circuit performs. Sometimes PCB’s will have a whole bunch of components crammed together closely on a small board to accommodate limited space in which to work with. Situations like this may be the reason that some PCB amps don’t sound as good as the same circuit laid out on an eyelet board amp.
Popular Tube Amps
The most popular amps with most harp players are the amps that are all tube driven. Solid state amps just don't have the same tone that tube amps have, and although there are a few decent solid state amps that have good harp tone, almost all amps used by harmonica players are either vintage or boutique all tube amps. Some of the more popular smaller amps being used today are the Fender Pro Jr., the Champ and Vibro Champ, the Blues Jr., and the Princeton, which is more of a medium sized amp. Also popular are some of the older smaller Gibson's, and the old Sears & Roebucks Silvertone amps that usually have a single 8, 10 or 12 inch speaker and have a power output of around 8 to 15 watts. This is usually plenty of power to drive your family members out the door, but not enough to gig with or annoy the neighbors. There are a number of other amp mfg's who made small 8 to15 watt tube amps that sound pretty good as well as the ones mentioned.
There are many medium sized amps around to choose from. Again, the all tube amps are the front runners for best tone. The Fender Princeton is a very popular medium sized amp, as well as the Fender twin and the Gibson GA30, and a couple of the Silvertone models which I’m not familiar with, but these vintage amps are usually not cheap. If you're looking for something with decent tone but won't put you in debt, look for the smaller Silvertone’s, and the less popular name brands. There are a lot of home brew amps around that you can get cheap that will give you good tone to start out with, but if you're looking for an amp that you can gig with that will cover fairly large clubs, you'll need something around 40 to 50 watts or more.
The 59 Fender Bassman
Without a doubt, the most popular of the larger amps being used by gigging harp players is the Fender 59 Bassman 4X10 amp, or some other 4X10 amp that’s based on the famous Fender 59 Bassman circuit. It's my favorite too, so I feel compelled to put this section on my site. Just about every amp mfg. has put together an amp based on the Fender 5F6-A bassman circuit. This is a very simple, basic circuit design that Fender made famous for its signature warm clean vintage tone. It was originally designed to be a bass amp as the name suggests, but it turned out to be a great amp for guitar, and especially, harp. It's my favorite amp without a doubt, and I own two of them and two tweed Blues Jr's. that I have modified to suit my taste. One bassman is a reissue and the other is an eyelet board amp that I built from scratch using the original 5F6-A circuit and layout (see picture section), although I have modified it extensively. These amps have very high gain, the original tag board circuit amp more so than the reissue. All of my amp’s I have modified for better tone to suit my taste for harp.
The 59 Bassman reissue as it comes out of the box is a decent sounding harp amp, but it can definitely be improved upon. As they used to come with a solid state rectifier, in the form of a solid state plug that fits into the octal tube socket, you can replace it with a tube rectifier, which is the first thing you can do to improve it's tone. I suggest using a 5U4G or a 5U4GB rectifier to get the most tube sag, and having the fixed bias replaced with an adjustable bias control so that you can adjust the amps bias. This will allow you to use a variety of new and NOS (new old stock) output tubes and have the amp biased to any particular set of tubes.
Those of you who have a 59 Bassman know that plugging a nice strong green bullet into it can cause the amp to squeal like a pig with the volume control on 2. This is because the green bullets and most crystal mics have a very strong output signal, way stronger than a typical guitar would have. The squeal is caused by the high gain of the mic, and the high gain of the preamp tubes. Leaving it like this just causes you to put an overloaded preamp signal into the power section of the amp, and you can't drive the amps output section into natural distortion, which is where these amps really start sounding good.
One way around this is to change the amps 12AX7 preamp tubes to lower gain tubes. Most of the common preamp tubes all work in the same way, but some have a lower gain factor than others. The gain factor of the preamp tubes determines how much the preamp amplifies the input signal before being sent to the output section of the amp. All preamp tubes have a specified gain factor, with the 12AX7 having the highest gain factor of all the preamp tubes. The Bassman comes equipped with all 3 preamp tubes being 12AX7's, which is great if you're going to use it for guitar, but not for use with a mic with high output. Therefore the best thing to do is to lower the amount of amplification in the preamp section by replacing the high gain tubes with lower gain tubes.
Here's how the preamp tubes are rated for gain. The 12AX7, which is the highest gain tube, has a gain factor of 100. A 12AT7 has a gain factor of 70. A 5751, which is a high quality tube made to be used as a direct replacement for a 12AX7 with lower gain factor, has a gain factor of 60. A 12AY7 has a gain factor of 40, and a 12AU7 has a gain factor of 18. Any of these tubes can be used in any of the preamp positions of the 59 Bassman. Lowering the gain factor of other amps is usually possible, but if you have a different amp and want to try reducing the gain factor of the preamp, you should check with the mfg. or a technician who is capable of giving you correct information. Not all amps can use different types of preamp tubes!
There are also many things that can be done to most amps to give them better harp tone, but unless you understand electronics and what all the different parts do, there’s no sense in me getting into that in detail, but changing the types and values of certain components in your amp can also help you get better tone from your amp. The tubes that I use in my reissue Bassman are, a 12AU7 in the first and second stage of the preamp, (the 2 sockets farthest to the right looking into the back of the amp), and a 5751 in the phase inverter position (closest to the power tubes). I use and recommend that you use Tung Sol, or another US mfg. of 5881 power tubes. They have a warmer tone, and break up sooner than the Russian 5881's or 6L6's, and use a 5U4G rectifier tube. New old stock Tung Sol 5881 tubes are usually fairly expensive as compared to others, but well worth the extra money if you want the best tone from your amp. If the Tung Sol's are too expensive for you, you can use other US made 5881's with good results. Other than the Tung Sol's, I like the GE's best.
Tung Sol made 5881 tubes for other companies like GE, RCA and others, and the tubes are identical other than the name on the tubes. You might be able to find some of these cheaper, but the Tung Sol 5881's are highly sought after tubes and the people selling them know this, so they usually sell for a pretty good buck. This tube set up allows me to be able to push the output tubes into natural distortion giving the amp a much better tone that is less harsh and much warmer than the stock tubes. I recommend using new old stock US made tubes in the preamp as well, or, if you have the bucks for the expensive European tubes, go for it, but stay away from the Japanese and Chinese tubes. With this tube set up, I can turn the volume of the #1 bright input up to 6 or more depending on the mic I'm using. With the amp that I built, I need to use all three 12AU7's in the preamp. The original Bassman amp circuit has much more gain than the reissues. With this amp I can get the volume up to near 7, which is where you want to be to push the output tubes into distortion.
These amps sound fantastic with plenty of volume, grit and bite without feedback. I have done other modifications to my amps but these are the first things to do with a stock Fender 59 Bassman reissue. I like the older reissues best. The ones that came with the blue framed Eminence alnico magnet speakers. I think these are one of the best speakers for harp on the market today. Actually, they are no longer being made. The ones that came in the Fenders were special designs, but basically the only difference between those and the Eminence model is the dust cap. The Fenders have a paper dust cap on the speakers giving them a slightly brighter tone. The Eminence models were made with a felt dust cap and are less bright sounding than the Fender design. Either of them make for great harp amp speakers. I believe that Fender is now using Jensen reissue speakers in the current 59 Bassman reissues which are not getting as good reviews as the Eminence speakers did in the older bassman’s from what I've heard.
Speaker selection is also a very important part of your final tone. Most harp and guitar players believe that the old vintage Jensen speakers have the best tone of just about any speaker out there. They can be difficult to find, and expensive if you do find them. There are also a couple other speaker companies that made superior speakers, even better than the Jensen’s according to some audio buffs, such as Fane and Heppner, but I can’t rightly say that this is true because I have no personal experience with them. However, I have talked to many harp players who do use them who say that they are in fact excellent speakers. I do however have some experience with vintage Jensen’s. I have a 1956 Jensen P12RC Professional Series speaker in my Blues Jr. The speaker alone turned this little 15 watt amp into a tone beast. Not that it's blowing out windows or rattling the doors, but the tone is better than any other amp of this size that I've ever heard. It's loud enough to gig with if mic’ed, but the tone is of the likes I've never heard from any other speaker. I also did some mod’s to it and upgraded the output transformer, but I fully believe that it was the speaker that turned a mediocre amp at best into the best tone I've ever heard from a small amp, and it's a 12 inch speaker too, which aren't known for being the best size speaker for harp amp's.
Many people believe that a 12 inch speaker won't produce a real crunchy tone and prefer the smaller speakers. This is not true! This particular Jensen has a strange dust cap on it that appears to be half paper, and the center is some type of see through brass mesh or something. The cap itself is about the size of a quarter. The label on the speaker magnet housing says, "Specially Designed for Commercial, Industrial, and Institutional Use". I've tried, but have been unable to get any good information about this speaker from anywhere. If you're a vintage speaker guru who knows about these "Professional Series" Jensen's, I'd love to hear from you! Whatever it is, it's got TONE!
Choosing a Speaker
There are a number of good speakers being produced today that make for great harp amp speakers. A few mfg's do produce speakers specifically to produce good harp tone, or are made to sound like the vintage Jensen's that have become popular with harp players. These speakers are usually made a certain way with certain materials, such as thin paper cones and alnico magnets, to produce the same sounds of the popular speakers of the past. Your speaker is what produces your final tone, so be sure to find the right one.
The right speaker can make, or break the tone that you want to get from your amp. Look through the websites of current speaker mfg's and find out which ones will best suit your amp. You can usually email or call on the phone to these places for technical support, and maybe get some suggestions. Most places will be happy to help you choose the right speaker. Speaker specs can be confusing, so ask a lot of questions. You'll need to choose a speaker that first will give you good harp tone. Personally, I like the Eminence Legend Series speakers, which are what I use in my Bassman amps. Many harp players today are giving the Weber speakers good reviews as well.
You'll need to get a speaker with the correct impedance for your amp too, which is its resistance spec, or its ohm rating. You will need to select a speaker that is of the right power rating for your amp too. If you have a 15 watt amp, you don't want to choose a speaker that can handle 100 watts. It likely will sound like it's hardly being driven and sound low in volume. Choose a speaker that can safely handle the amount of power that your amp can produce, but don't go overboard. Choosing a 20 watt speaker will be plenty for a 10 to 15 watt amp. Keep in mind that a speaker’s efficiency will have a lot to do with the amount of volume it will put out. You may have noticed from past experience that some speakers that have the same power rating as others, will sound louder than the others. Speakers DO NOT produce power, unless they have a built in amplifier, so choosing a 50 watt speaker is not necessarily going to be louder than a 25 watt speaker.
A speaker’s ability to produce a certain amount of loudness as compared to the amount of power being put into the speaker is the speakers efficiency rating, which can be difficult to understand as they put it in the speakers specifications. Loudness is measured in db or, decibels. Unless you know how loud 90db is or 100db is, it will be difficult to understand a speaker’s efficiency rating. Generally, the less amount of power a speaker needs to produce let’s say for example, 90db of sound, the more efficient it will be. One speaker may require 20 watts to produce 90db of sound, whereas another may require only 1 watt to produce the same amount of volume! The loudness is usually given as a decibel rating at a given distance from the speaker, usually 1 meter, with the amount of power that the speaker needs to produce that amount of sound. If you do your homework on this subject, you will see that some speakers are much more efficient than others that have the same power rating, therefore, they will produce more sound or loudness with less power than speakers that are less efficient. So keep in mind that it is a speaker’s efficiency that makes it produce more volume, rather than its power rating.
So, as you can see, getting good tone from your rig has many things affecting what you're hearing. There are many things you can do to change the tone to make it sound the way you want it to, but there are no magical mics, or amps, or pedals, or anything else out there that are going to give you fantastic tone. It's a combination of everything in the chain from your lips to the speaker in your amp that affect the way your playing sounds. Once you develop your technique and hone it down, you'll be able to make just about any mic-amp combination sound great. If you have any questions about how you may be able to improve your mic or amp, feel free to email me by clicking on the email link at the bottom of this page and I'll do my best to answer your questions.
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