Amplifying the Autoharp

Amplifying an autoharp can be a bit complicated due to the very nature of the instrument.  The autoharp is a fretless zither with 36 or more strings and a mechanism of chord bars that mutes specific strings when the player applies pressure to a bar.  The air chamber inside the autoharp body is relatively small and contains abundant bracing to support the extreme tension (approx. 2000 lbs.) when all the strings are tuned to pitch.  The soundboard is thicker than the soundboards seen on other instruments for this same reason.  As a result, the instrument body does not vibrate with the same type of intensity seen in other stringed instruments and leads to lower overall volume. This makes the autoharp sometimes difficult to hear in a group of other instruments.  The chord bar mechanism for muting the strings often creates unwanted and very noticeable mechanical sound.  Great strides have been made in recent years to reduce the mechanical noise with the introduction of custom made chord bar assemblies, but it can still be an issue.  Another factor to consider is the noise created when the fingers and/or finger picks strike muted strings while playing (the so-called “dead wire” noise).  The final blow to giving sufficient voice to the autoharp is the fact that it is generally held close to the body when played.   This causes a good deal of sound that naturally escapes through the back and sides of the instrument to be absorbed by the player’s body and lost.  Those of us who have had the pleasure of playing an autoharp while holding it closely and having our head and ear gently laid against its side are acutely aware of the amount of incredible sound coming out of that autoharp that is never heard by the audience.  The goal then, is to find a way to capture this sound and get it out to the audience so they can enjoy it just as much as the player does.

The autoharp is not a mainstream instrument for the most part and is rarely seen in live settings.  The limited information currently available about amplifying an autoharp seems to be largely anecdotal, with players recommending a particular setup because it’s what they use and fits their particular needs.  Although a lot of work has been done by luthiers to improve the overall sound of the instrument as well as document the sonic qualities of various wood species and construction techniques, there is no documentation I am aware of that shows how various autoharp amplification methods compare to each other.  This post is my attempt to get more documented knowledge out there by sharing my personal experiences with autoharp amplification over the past several years.

When an autoharp player shows up at a live event, like a casual open-mic session, the typical response is to stick a microphone in front of it, aim at the sound hole and adjust the mix. This usually means a using standard dynamic instrument mic such as Shure SM-57, or an SM-58 vocal mic.  This works for casual situations where the sound system may consist of a small PA and a number of different musicians will be rotating on and off stage.  But for other situations such as a formal concert or paid venue, a single dynamic microphone is woefully inadequate for amplifying an autoharp.  Another common practice, regardless of the type of microphone used, is to apply a heavy hand to the settings at the board by turning the gain up too high and boosting the low frequencies because the autoharp is a relatively quiet instrument and doesn’t have much bass.  Doing this makes the autoharp sound boomy and hot.  It’s hard to find any fault with the folks running the sound, because few (if any) have ever heard an autoharp played before. How are they supposed to know the best way to amplify an instrument they’ve only rarely seen and probably never heard?

The lack of knowledge about autoharps on the part of an average sound crew is compounded by the autoharp player’s own lack of knowledge about how to amplify.  Nine times out of ten, the players themselves have little to no experience amplifying their own instruments and no idea what kind of advice to give the sound guy.  How do I know this?  Because this was ME.  For years, I didn’t have a clue — and I’ve talked to dozens of other players with similar live-sound experiences.  The vast majority of autoharp players rarely (if ever) find themselves in a position to play publicly unless it’s with a large group of other folk instruments, such as a jam session where amplification isn’t used.  But the tragedy in this lack of knowledge is that people who might get the rare opportunity to hear an autoharp played live won’t get to hear what one really sounds like.  To me, this is unacceptable.

Over the past 20 years or so I have used several methods to amplify my autoharps.. My first experiences playing live were usually brief, open-mic sessions using just a dynamic instrument microphone provided by the venue (like a Shure SM57) that was aimed at the front of the autoharp.  When I began playing with a small bluegrass band, we used much the same type of setup with dynamic microphones for both vocals and instruments.  None of us in the band had any experience running sound either, so we were “flying by the seat of our pants” for the most part.  Later on I began playing solo gigs with my diatonic autoharps, and I started looking for a better way to amplify — something that would bring out the subtle sounds of the instrument that a dynamic mic alone simply could not.  My first setups involved piezo-type pickups run through an LR Baggs Para-Acoustic DI.  The sound of the piezo’s tended to be hot-sounding and invariably amplified the strings closest to the pickup module itself, even when the pickup was mounted on the frame.  The LR Baggs DI provided a 4-level EQ which allowed me to shape the resulting sound.  But because I play several different autoharps in a single set and each had the piezo placed in a different spot, I had to EQ each one individually.  I started out by determining the best EQ settings ahead of time for each one, but when I arrived at the venue the settings didn’t work at all due to variations in room size and sound equipment.  I wasn’t happy with the sound anyway because — even when combined with a mic in front of the autoharp — the piezo pickups sounded harsh and edgy to me.

Once I gave up on the piezo pickups, I began using a high-quality lavaliere condenser mic by Audio-Technica on my clothing directly behind the autoharp, along with a good quality small-diaphragm condenser mic out front (Shure PG81).  Blending the two signals gave me the sound that I wanted, but unless I had a sound guy that knew what he was doing I was left with no way to adjust the sound myself.  The only control I could manage from the stage was varying the distance of the ‘harp from both the front mic and the lavaliere.  But if the setup wasn’t a “set and forget” type of sound setup with no one controlling the board in real time, any adjustments I would attempt to make from the stage would be offset by the well-intentioned sound tech adjusting the mix to compensate.  If the mix was off, I had to live with it.  The lavaliere also had its own set of problems, from picking up the noise of my clothing rubbing against it to amplifying my breath sounds if they had the gain turned up too high, etc.  When the combo worked, it was awesome.  But it only worked satisfactorily about half the time, and I depended heavily upon having a sound tech who knew what the autoharp should sound like.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen very often.

A few months before a gig I had booked at Winfield, KS in September of 2018, I took a serious look again at how I planned to amplify my autoharps.  The Winfield (Walnut Valley Festival) sound crew are some of the best sound techs I’ve worked with and I knew they would do a great job no matter what kind of setup I brought.  But I still wanted to get a setup figured out that was going to work well, not just at this festival but also anywhere else I decided to go in the future.  Knowing that my typical sets involve at least three different autoharps and that I would be dealing with a different sound system at each of the different stages (plus outdoor conditions like wind, etc.), I started looking at what kind of pickup was going to give me the most consistent signal from instrument to instrument and from stage to stage.  The only thing that was going to do that was a magnetic pickup, because a magnetic pickup runs underneath all of the strings and picks up the vibrations from the individual strings equally across the top.  At the time, I had only one autoharp with a magnetic pickup installed and I had never used it. The reason I had never used it and why it took me so long to even consider using a magnetic pickup was because I had heard so many negative comments from other players about how “artificial", “organ-like” and “electric” the magnetic pickups sounded.  I wanted sound that was as purely acoustic as possible, so I had not considered them to be a viable option.

In spite of my bias against magnetic pickups, I was desperate to get some kind of consistent setup figured out so I could put the issue of live sound for my autoharps to rest once and for all — even if it meant drifting slightly from “pure” acoustic. So I pulled out my trusty LR Baggs Para-Acoustic DI box that I had squirreled away in a closet after giving up on the piezo pickups.  I grabbed a cable and connected the autoharp with the magnetic pickup to the DI. I set a flat EQ and ran a cable into my portable amp.  I adjusted the gain and volume and started playing something.  That’s when the epiphany happened. Guess what?  It did NOT sound “artificial”.  It did NOT sound “organ-like” and it did NOT sound “electric”.  When I got over the initial shock of how good it sounded, I began to listen closely to exactly what I was hearing to see if I could pick up what (if anything) was missing from the sound I was used to hearing when playing un-amplified.  Was anything missing?  Yes, but not much.

What *was* missing was the brightness of the strings — the high-frequency “sparkle” that comes out of the front of the ‘harp and is a result of the strings interacting with the surrounding air, contact with the finger picks, etc.  So I plugged a good large-diaphragm condenser microphone I had at the time into the second channel on my amp and set the mic about 8-10 inches away from the front of the autoharp.  I began playing again and mixed the two signals with very little EQ’ing on either the pickup or the mic.  Not only did it sound good — it sounded VERY good.  I continued to play around with this setup for several days at home to make sure what I was hearing didn’t amount to wishful thinking.  When I noticed that I was always smiling whenever I’d play through this setup I knew I’d found what I was looking for.

It was at this point that I made the decision to have magnetic pickups installed in all of the autoharps I planned to perform or record with.  Because I was looking at putting pickups in eight different autoharps (I play single-key diatonics) I decided to do the work myself in order to have it done within the time frame I was needing and also to keep costs down.  I educated myself as to the installation process and armed myself with the tools necessary to do the job properly.  I then ordered magnetic pickups from Greg Schreiber and installed them.  Once I was finished with the installations, I turned my attention to the rest of the equipment I would need for my live setups: Direct box, preamp, microphones, cables, mic stands, etc.

For small gigs, I had been using a small, 100 watt PA (Fender Acoustic100) with 2 instrument/mic channels.  Most portable amps are designed with a particular setup or instrument in mind, and mine is no different.  It’s intended use is for solo acoustic guitar and vocals, with 3-level EQ on both channels and several built-in effects.  Any PA, Direct Box or preamp is going to add its own particular “color” to the resulting sound, depending upon the type of instrument the amp is designed to be used with.  The perfect DI/preamp is transparent, adding little if any of its own personality to the sound and is also very quiet, adding no extraneous noise to the mix.  The best preamps (those that tout their “transparency” and claim to be “colorless” and “silent”) are typically high-priced items found in recording studios and professional rack systems — not those generally built into portable amplifiers.  So I decided to compare the sound of the magnetic pickup when I ran it through the built-in preamp on my little portable amp with the sound when I ran it through my own LR Baggs Para-Acoustic DI box.  The result?  The sound coming through the LR Baggs unit was quiet, warm, and sounded very authentic.  The sound coming through the built-in preamp in my amp was good, but it was more cool-sounding and lacked presence, sounding more one-dimensional than the LR Baggs.  Okay — I liked the sound of the LR Baggs DI, and the unit has on-board EQ, a necessity when playing multiple instruments.  But it there were a couple of things that made this DI inconvenient:  Relatively short battery life and no mute switch to use when disconnecting/switching instruments.

Battery life on the LR Baggs Para-Acoustic DI is adequate for most situations, and it will bypass the 9v battery if 48v phantom power is available from the house system.  But the unit can only be turned on or off by plugging in or unplugging the instrument cable. If phantom power is not available, the battery drain begins the minute you plug in your instrument.  If you forget to unplug your instrument during a break, you may not have enough juice to finish the set.  Switching instruments can be awkward, requiring a reach down to the floor to turn down the volume knob on the box before unplugging one instrument and then reaching down again to turn it back up once the next one is plugged in.  Neither issue was a real deal-breaker, but I wondered if there was something similar out there — maybe a new and improved LR Baggs DI with a mute switch and an option for AC power so I wouldn’t have to worry about batteries?  With these issues in mind I started searching online to see what was available.

Perhaps it was a case of good timing, but when I went to the L.R. Baggs website I discovered that they had just released a new set of acoustic instrument modules a couple of months earlier.  They still had their flagship Para Acoustic DI box which had remained unchanged, but in addition they had just added a new set of gadgets that was designed specifically for live acoustic sessions called the “Align Series”.  If you follow the link, you’ll see that they are PEDALS.  After reading the literature, it appeared to me that they took the DI and preamp circuitry of their popular Para Acoustic DI unit and housed it in a single pedal unit.  They call this one the ”Active DI”.  Next up comes the “Equalizer” pedal, which takes the EQ control of the Para Acoustic DI and kicks it up a notch with Six bands of EQ plus notch filters and boost. There are four other pedal modules, the “Reverb” (with a very natural-sounding and infinitely adjustable reverb,) the “Chorus”, the “Delay” and the “Session”, which adds compression and saturation.   The biggest selling point for me when looking at these pedals was that they all had foot-activated mute switches.  This meant I could very easily mute the signal before unplugging one autoharp and plugging in another.  In addition, they all had the option of obtaining power by plugging into an A/C source through an adapter.  No more worrying about dead batteries in the middle of a set.  The icing on the cake was the fact that these units were made by the same company that made the Para-Acoustic DI — whose sound I really liked.  So I reasoned that the sound from these modules should be similar.  I ordered the DI and the EQ pedals, along with an inexpensive pedal board and a suitable 9v to A/C adapter.  When they arrived, I set them up and gave them a go.  Did they work?  Oh, YES.   They worked and sounded just as fantastic as I had hoped they would.

The next issue to tackle was determining what kind of microphone would work best for my sets.  I rarely sing when I perform, so my focus was on obtaining a mic that was best for the autoharps.  I had a small-diaphragm condenser mic (a Shure PG81) that I had been using along with the lavaliere.  It did a good job, but if I used that mic for the autoharps I would still need a vocal mic to talk into during the set or sing into on the rare occasions that I actually do sing.  I did NOT want to have to bring along another microphone or any more equipment than was absolutely necessary because I’m usually traveling solo.  So I pulled out the large-diaphragm microphone I had purchased years earlier which was adequate —  but which had also given me problems with feedback on several occasions.  It’s focal depth was rather close, meaning I would have to place it  within striking distance of my playing hand if I expected it to pick up both the autoharps and my voice.  So I began looking at other large-diaphragm condenser microphones that would be suitable for live settings, and in the process I remembered an experience I had a couple of years earlier.

In the summer of 2016 I had performed and taught workshops at the Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering (MLAG) in Newport, PA.  The gentleman who ran sound for me during the workshops had set me up with a single Ear Trumpet Labs large-diaphragm condenser microphone.  I was very impressed at the time with how well this mic not only picked up my autoharps, but also my voice as I spoke to the attendees.  It managed to do this without me having to stay really close to it.  On top of that, the sound was great.  So I went to the Ear Trumpet Labs website to see what models they had, what they would recommend for the type of setup I needed.  After exploring the available models and options (and visiting with one of their very helpful and knowledgeable staff members), I settled on their Delphina model.  When it arrived, I set it up and tried it out.  What impressed me most, besides its natural/warm sound, was that it was extremely resistant to feedback.  In fact, it was almost as if I had to force it to give me feedback.  It did a really good job of picking up the autoharp and my voice without having to be right on top of it.  Once I had this mic set up appropriately, I then added the signal from the magnetic pickup and gave the setup a good workout. I adjusted the EQ and the mix until I had something that I thought sounded pretty good.  But what sounds good at home doesn’t necessarily translate to what sounds good at the venue.  I had learned that lesson the hard way.

I realized that I would most likely need different EQ settings for each and every autoharp I used, not only because they are from different makers and composed of different woods, but also because each one is tuned in a different key and produces a different frequency range.  This told me I would need to change the EQ settings each time I changed autoharps, if my previous experience with piezo pickups was any indication.  I wasn’t confident in my ability to pick up the subtle differences between each autoharp and make the appropriate adjustments without some professional help.  So I called on Walt Bowers, who recorded and helped produce my last album "Lyrical". I packed up all eight autoharps, along with my preamp, EQ module and microphone and headed to his recording studio in Tulsa.  We hooked up each autoharp to the preamp only — and then pulled a short recording from each one into the recording system for analysis.  Once that was done, we ran an effects loop with the EQ module into the system and played the recordings back.  (This way we could adjust the EQ for each autoharp using a perfectly consistent signal from instrument to instrument.)  Here’s the shocker:  ALL of the autoharps — with the exception of my little Oscar Schmidt B model — used virtually the same EQ settings.  Every single luthier model:  The Fladmarks.  The Schreiber.  The Blue Ridge.  The Daigle.  ALL of the settings were almost flat, with only a very small boost in the bass.  I had been dreading the results, thinking that the autoharps would all be so different that I would need at least a couple of separate EQ modules in order to keep from making big changes to the settings every time I changed instruments on stage.  But instead, I discovered that the opposite was true. My relief was enormous!  

While I was at Walt’s studio, we also checked to see how well-isolated the pickups were from surrounding noise in the room, because I’d heard that some folks had experienced trouble with a “hum” when using magnetic pickups.  We found no evidence whatsoever that the pickup itself was either generating electrical interference or picking up anything other than the string vibrations. We tried everything we could think of to re-create anything abnormal, but we came up empty — and Walt commented on how well-isolated the pickups were.  As far as the Delphina mic was concerned, Walt was impressed with it also.  Not only by its resistance to feedback but also its nice sound.  We positioned the Delphina about 12 inches away from the front of the autoharp, slightly above my right hand and aiming slightly downward.  This put it in a good spot to pick up vocals also, meaning I wouldn’t need an extra vocal mic for my sets.

Bottom line, this combination is giving me the best live autoharp sound I’ve ever had.  Setup is simple as well.  When I arrive at the venue and set up, I hand the sound guy two cables:  One for the pickup and one for the mic.  I tell them to give me a flat EQ — and an open mind ;) .  From there, the sound crew can adjust the mix to fit the house and their own acoustics without having to EQ the instrument because I’m sending them a signal that is consistent from beginning to end, no matter which autoharp I pick up.  The sound crew appreciates having no surprises.  I knew I had a good setup when I glanced over at the sound crew midway through one of my sets and they were sitting with their chairs leaned back and sipping coffee.  As far as stage monitors are concerned, I generally tell the crew to give me only the signal from the pickup.  Doing this avoids any problems with feedback from the condenser mic (not that I’ve ever had any — it’s worked very well so far).  I really don’t need to hear the mic anyway because I’m already getting an earful directly from the autoharp. When I’m doing a small gig, I take my little 100 w amp and run the pickup signal through the pedals and into the instrument channel so as to bypass the built-in preamp.

You can put almost any kind of FX module in the pickup signal chain and create some really cool sounds, too.  But if you’re wanting a sound that’s as acoustic as possible and big enough for a large venue, this WORKS. NOTE:  I use the LR Baggs Align Active DI and the EQ modules almost exclusively.  I also got the Reverb module, but use it only rarely and only for specific songs. I did not purchase the others, as I have no need for them at this point.

To summarize, the Ear Trumpet Labs Delphina large-diaphragm condenser mic captures the high frequency sparkle of the strings while the magnetic pickup, run through an LR Baggs Align Series DI and EQ modules, gives the fullness of the body — and this combination gives me the most authentic, true and acoustic autoharp sound I’ve been able to find for live settings.  

As always, YMMV.

Jo Ann

How Many Chord Bars Do You Need?

A question arose recently on the Cyberpluckers autoharp email group asking, "How many chord bars does a player really need?”  I enjoyed seeing the varied points of view and the reasons given in support of those views.  In looking at all the different responses and for any points they all share in common, what I found is that the chord choices seem to be driven by only two factors:  1) The type of music the player favors, and 2) The player’s playing style.  Since these two factors are rarely if ever identical from player to player, chord choices will vary somewhat.  Nonetheless, some general themes start to develop when you look at these two factors individually.  In one of the responses to this question, Steve Brown enumerated a number of prominent players and listed how they fit their autoharps to their particular needs.  It shows that there are some definite similarities in motive, if not method — and that where there’s a will, there’s a way (the unspoken motto of the fatally autoharp-afflicted).

Genres such as Blues, Swing, Broadway, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, etc. etc. require the flexibility of crossing multiple keys in a single tune. Chromatic tuning is mandatory, and the limitation to straight majors, minors and sevenths is also mandatory to preserve the ability to cover all of those keys adequately, *IF* we are discussing a one-bar-per-chord standard system.  Hal Week’s Prizm, Steve Brown’s Keyboard and Will Smith’s Deleter chord bar systems enable the creation of many other chords by engaging more than one bar at a time.  The types of chords created with these systems don’t enable playing in additional keys, but rather allow the player to add flavor and color to their arrangements by using these combination chords to add something in addition to the straight majors, minors and sevenths.  But then you need to evaluate the player’s style (factor 2).  Players whose playing style focuses mostly upon picking note-for-note melody with only minimal chordal underpinning would most likely lean toward the straight I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, V7 while players who want the complexity of varying the underlying chordal accompaniment will want something that allows them to drop in a minor 7th or sus4 to give the arrangement the desired flavor.  In all cases, the player has one or more chord bars engaged at all times unless using a hammer-on technique or some other type of rhythm strum.  Although these systems do allow chromatic players the option of utilizing chords that are most often relegated to the diatonic, the chromatic tuning won’t allow utilizing the diatonic technique of open-noting.

As for genres such as Irish/Celtic, Old-Time, Bluegrass, etc., where the tunes tend to fall in specific key ranges and require rapid-fire melody picking, the player may find that  limiting their autoharp to a diatonic tuning in a specific key or keys will give them the advantage of doubled strings, more volume to play in a group and the speed-enhancement of open-noting.  But a player with this type of repertoire probably won’t be interested in any unusual chords beyond the I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi and V7, and may opt to leave out sevenths entirely.  Sus4s and m7s may not be utilized at all because the player’s repertoire doesn’t require them.  Open-noting techniques may also not be utilized, particularly if the player prefers to play closed-chorded to control sustain.  These diatonic players can generally live with very few chord bars, which makes sense given their repertoire and playing style.

The players who find the alternative chords of the diatonic autoharp most useful are those who use them to flavor their arrangements.  While a particular song may be quite playable using the standard chords, these players want more flexibility than the standard chords provide.  This goes beyond the flavor of the alternative chord and gets into melody-picking territory, when an add9 or a m7 chord might include the exact note progression for a clean melody run that a straight major or minor won’t provide.  But in order to have a logical selection of alternatives that work well in multiple genres and will be used regularly enough to warrant dedicating space to them requires opting to play single-key diatonics.  I find myself in this camp.  Again, it comes down to repertoire and style.  I play tunes and songs that lend themselves extremely well to arrangements that utilize non-standard chords.  I also open-note a good part of the time.  I play an underlying chord and then play melody on top of that while keeping as much of the underlying chord ringing through for as long as possible.  Those alternative chords allow more of that to happen.

The number of desired chords (other than the standard I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi and V7) on a diatonic autoharp will be determined by the individual player’s repertoire and style.  These two factors are rarely static over the long term but do tend to be linear.  A player who is coming to the autoharp from a guitar background may find the lack of sus4s, M7s and m7s very limiting if that player is used to incorporating those types of chords in their arrangements.  For this player, a two-key diatonic with a couple of sus4s and a major or minor seventh might be more palatable.  But if the player plans to pursue open-noting techniques, two bars have to be delegated to locks so this further limits the chord selection if one is to maintain the optimum of 15 bars.  A single-key diatonic offers the most flexibility for alternative chords, but a seven note scale has limits of its own.  Many of the chord possibilities in a single key actually sound so similar that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to include those that can easily be substituted for another — an add9 vs. a pentatonic, for instance.

The final decision as to how many chord bars are necessary and which specific chords will reside on those bars is something that individual players have to determine for themselves.  Advice from seasoned players should always be sought.  However, the final determination can only be made by the individual player’s own experience via trial and error.  The process of discovery — finding how each new chord choice either enhances their repertoire or remains unused — can only be obtained by cutting up some felt and putting it to use.  Finding where a new chord fits in the context of the songs happens when the chord is on the autoharp, not when being thought about on a piece of paper.  My own journey down this road has been very similar.  I was privileged to be the recipient of a single-key autoharp in the 1999 Winfield competition, and hearing the alternative chords that were installed on this autoharp in the context of my playing helped me determine which ones I was going to use, and which ones I was not.  This didn’t happen overnight, but within a period of a couple of years I had settled on four specific chords that I considered essential to have on all my diatonic autoharps.  Since then, my playing and repertoire continued to evolve and I have added others — often in response to needing a particular chord for a specific song I wanted to play.  I would then discover that it worked well in other songs and tunes and so it stayed permanently and was added to each of my other diatonics.

Mike Fenton once quipped “Horses for Courses” at a workshop I attended years ago.  That quip has stayed with me, and it speaks volumes — because it’s not about the instrument.  It’s about the MUSIC.  Choose the tools you need in order to do justice to the music.  Rather than trying to make the music fit the instrument — make the instrument fit the music.