The harmonica (also known as the harp – to be or not to be confused with the string instrument) is a free reed woodwind instrument with a distinctive sound. Often found in Blues genres but also in Folk and Rock music, the harmonica is known for its expressiveness and “Bluesiness.”
Because the harmonica is played in genres that generally utilize amplification, it must often be reinforced live with a pickup or microphone. In recording situations, the harmonica must absolutely be miked in order to capture its sound. So are there microphones that work the best on harmonicas? Here are my top 2 harmonica microphone recommendations:
Top 2 Harmonica Microphone Recommendations:
- Shure Green Bullet 520DX: The Shure Green Bullet 520DX (link to check the price on Amazon) is a well-regarded blues harp microphone. This dynamic microphone features a volume control knob and a ¼” Tip-Sleeve cable (like electric guitars and basses cable )for use with high-impedance amplifiers. This is my top recommendation for a harmonica mic in live and studio applications for a classic harmonica sound.
- Shure SM58: The Shure SM58 (link to check the price on Amazon) is another dynamic microphone by Shure. This microphone is famous as a live vocal microphone. Its characteristics and design as a vocal mic make it a superb choice for harmonica as well. Whether we’re recording the harmonica immediately or sending the signal to an amplifier, the SM58 is a popular go-to and get a top recommendation as a harmonica microphone.
Let’s get into each of these microphones and talk about why they work so well on harmonica.
“Best” is a dangerous word. There is really no such thing as a “best microphone” for any situation. The microphone(s) listed in my Recommended Microphones And Accessories” page are simply my recommendations. These recommendations are based on my own experience and are mindful of budget. It would be easy to suggest an ELA M 251 or U47 for most scenarios. However, these tube mics are very expensive, putting them out of a hobbyist’s price range and making it difficult for professionals to make their money back on the gear.
Another important note is that the microphone or equipment you choose is not the most important part of recording audio. In fact, there are many factors that are arguably more important than the choice of microphone. These include:
- Performer (whether a musician, speaker, or otherwise)
- Microphone technique/placement
- Number of microphones used
- Natural sound of the room
- Content (whether that’s the song, discussion, or otherwise)
- Signal chain (including mic cable, preamplifier, console, and/or interface/computer)
With that being said, some microphones and gear suit some instruments better than others, prompting this series of articles under “Recommended Microphones And Accessories.”
What Does A Harmonica Sound Like?
When choosing a microphone for any application, it’s to our great advantage to know the characteristics of the sound source. So what does a harmonica sound like?
The harmonica is played by directing air (using the mouth) into and/or our of one or more holes along the mouthpiece. Each hole has a. corresponding chamber with at least one reed. These reeds are typically made of brass, stainless steel, or bronze and the vibration of these reeds causes the characteristic sound of the harmonica.
Harmonicas are often tuned to a specific key, though chromatic harmonicas are also available.
The harmonica produces a sound rich in harmonics and this characteristic sound of the harmonica emanates from the instrument in all directions.
A Note On Miking Harmonica
Harmonicas are most commonly close-miked. The harpist often hold the microphone in his or her hands along with the harmonica. Cupping the microphone yields a fuller harmonica tone and is done so creatively by the harpist. This is also done with microphones mounted on mic stands, in which case the harpist cups the harmonica and microphone similarly.
That being said, there are many ways to mic a harmonica. Close-miking without contact works well and distant-miking techniques (like room mics) yield decent results in studio environments. Another favourite is mic the harmonica normally or with a harmonica pickup (check out Hot Harmonica pickups), send that signal to a [guitar] amplifier, and then mic the amplifier cabinet. Recording the dry signal (before the amp) and the amplifier will yield a flexible and interesting harmonica sound.
For more information on microphone placement, check out my article Top 23 Tips For Better Microphone Placement.
Frequency Range Of Harmonica
Note that there are many different variations of the harmonica. The common diatonic harmonica often spans 3 octaves and has a. lowest note between C2 and C4. Let’s look at the overall range here:
- Overall Range: 65 Hz ~ 15,000 Hz
- Fundamentals range: 65 Hz – 2,093 Hz (C2-C7)
- Harmonics range: 131 Hz ~ 15,000 Hz
So we want a microphone that will accurately capture the true sound of the harmonica. Knowing the fundamental frequencies and the harmonics of the harmonica is a great place to start. On top of this, there are a few more criteria to keep in mind when choosing the best harmonica microphone.
What Makes An Ideal Harmonica Microphone?
When looking for a microphone tailored for the harmonica, there are a few things to consider:
- Durability: Choose a microphone that can withstand some physical abuse. The technique of miking a harmonica with the instrument and mic held in the harpist’s hands will inevitably cause contact between the two and some points. A microphone capable of withstanding some abuse (physical wear and tear, moisture, etc.) will fair better as a harmonica mic.
- Price: Pick a microphone you can afford multiples of. This is important for harpists and crucial for venue owners and audio technicians who make their living with their tools/microphones.
- Directional Polar Pattern: Select a directional microphone to work well with fold-back monitors. Cardioids are considered the best microphone for this application, although since the cupping technique is so prominent with harpists, it’s easy to get away with omnidirectional mics on live stages.
- Presence Boost: A boost in sensitivity between 3-6 kHz helps improve the intelligibility of the harmonica. This is especially true when cupping the microphone (which causes a boost in low and low-mid frequencies while cutting the presence and high-end frequencies).
- High-Frequency Roll-Off: A roll-off of high frequencies keeps the brilliance of the cymbals and other high-pitched sounds out of the microphone signal. Guitar amplifiers will effectively filter out anything above 5 kHz, anyway.
- Low-Frequency Roll-Off: A roll-off of low frequencies reduces handling noise, wind noise/plosives, and low-end rumble in the microphone signal.
- Size: Choose a microphone that is easily “cup-able.” The size of a microphone directly affects the ability for a harpist to effectively mic their instrument.
- Grille/Pop Filter: A grille/pop filter is critical is protecting the microphone diaphragm from breath “wind,” spit, and foreign objects.
- Easy To Clean: Hygiene cannot be overstated when it comes to harmonica microphones.
- Wireless: Although not essential, it’s nice to have freedom from cables.
So we have a general idea of what we’re looking for. Let’s discuss the recommended harmonica microphones according to the above criteria.
The Shure Green Bullet 520DX
The Shure 520DX (otherwise known as the Green Bullet) is a legend among harmonica players. With its contoured shape, the Green Bullet fits easily in the hands of a harpist, allowing them to effectively cup the mic and harmonica and get the tone they want and need. The 520DX has an adjustable volume control on the mic itself and a ¼” Tip-Sleeve out, making it a go-to for hornists everywhere.
Durability Of The Shure 520DX
Shure is well known for the ruggedness and durability of their dynamic microphones. The 520DX dynamic cartridge is designed and built to last.
Though I wouldn’t recommend putting any microphone through purposeful physical abuse, the 520DX should hold up well to the hardships of a harmonica microphone.
Price Of The Shure 520DX
At roughly $120 USD at the time of this article, the 520DX is a steal. I’d recommend that any serious harpist pick up at least on of these microphones for their locker.
For more information on the price of microphones, check out my articles How Much Do Microphones Cost? (With Pricing Examples) and Top 20 Most Expensive Microphones On The Market Today.
Polar Response Of The Shure 520DX
The Shure Green Bullet is an omnidirectional microphone. Caution should be taken when using this mic live to avoid microphone feedback.
For more information on the omnidirectional microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is An Omnidirectional Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).
Cupping the microphone is a common harmonica miking technique and will drastically reduce the directionality of the 520DX. Still, it’s important to pay attention to the potential feedback sources and the distance between them and the microphone.
The volume of the monitors, loudspeakers, and guitar (harmonica) amplifier should be adjusted so that no feedback is present when the Green Bullet’s volume control is at its maximum setting.
If the microphone happens to cause feedback during a performance, the audio technician should turn down the monitor feed and the harpist should reduce the mic volume while distancing him or herself from the monitors.
For more information on microphone feedback, check out my article 12 Methods To Prevent & Eliminate Microphone/Audio Feedback.
Frequency Response Of The Shure 520DX
The frequency response of the Shure 520DX is given between 100 Hz – 5,000 Hz. Here is the 520DX frequency response graph:
It’s often paramount to choose a “flat” microphone that covers the entire range of human hearing. That is not the case when selecting a harmonica microphone.
First I’ll mention that guitar amplifiers typically output 75 Hz – 5,000 Hz, so sending anything beyond this range is effectively filtered out of the amp signal. This has shaped the expected sound of a harmonica, for better or for worse, and so a response like the 520DX is very suitable for the harmonica.
The low-end roll-off of the Green Bullet seems steep, but is actually beneficial in capturing a full sounding harmonica when the cupping method is used. Cupping the microphone causes the sound of the harmonica to muffle (the low and low-mid are boosted while the higher frequencies are made less present). A low roll-off like that of the 520DX will balance out the frequency response when cupping the mic and harmonica together.
The 520DX is also an omnidirectional mic and so it does not suffer from the proximity effect, which would further accentuate the bass frequency response.
From roughly 600 Hz – 4,000 Hz, the Green Bullet has a flat response, this helps to reproduce the important harmonic content of the harmonica more accurately.
The 5,000 Hz upper limit of the Green Bullet’s frequency response is very low for a microphone, but again, it helps to capture that “harmonica sound” we’ve come to expect and enjoy. This is particularly true when capturing the dry sound of the 520DX since there’s no guitar amplifier to filter the sound for us.
For more information on microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).
Size Of The Shure 520DX
The Shure 520DX is 83 mm (3¼ in) long and 66 mm (2.5 in) at its greatest diameter and weight 737 g (26 oz).
The size of the Green Bullet is ideal for most harpists. It fits neatly and comfortably in most hands and is light enough to hold for extended periods of time when performing live.
Grille And Cleaning Of The Shure 520DX
The grille of the Shure 520DX is removable (held in place by two screws). Washing the grille from time to time can keep the microphone hygienic, which is important since it will be close to harpist’s mouth and face during performance.
There’s no acoustic foam in the Shure 520DX to help protect the diaphragm from moisture (and spit). Luckily, the dynamic diaphragm of the 502DX really isn’t sensitive to moisture, and so it’s not a great big deal that it’s not overly protected.
For more information on microphone grilles, check out my article What Are Microphone Grilles And Why Are They Important?
Is The Shure 520DX Wireless?
The Shure 520DX is not wireless, though a wireless electric guitar system would provide this capability quite nicely.
For more information on wireless microphones, check out my article How Do Wireless Microphones Work?
The Shure SM58
The Shure SM58 may be the most iconic microphone in the world today. It sees great amounts of use as a vocal microphone in live music venues and studios alike around the world.
The SM58 dynamic vocal microphone lends itself well to harmonica, particularly in live settings. The microphone grille is relatively easy to cup and the mic sounds great on harmonica.
Durability Of The Shure SM58
Again, Shure is known for the extreme durability of the microphones. At the top of this list in term of toughness are the SM57 and SM58.
There are official Shure videos of the SM58 getting:
- Dropped from a helicopter
- Set on fire
- Submerged in beer
- Run over by a tour bus
- Shot by a 12-gauge shotgun
In each of the above scenarios, the SM58 came out functioning (though a bit beat up). I think it’s safe to say if the 58 can withstand that much abuse, it should be fine in any practical harmonica performance!
Price Of The Shure SM58
With a price point of roughly $100 USD, the SM58 is mic every harpist should own and definitely deserves a spot in any musician’s mic locker.
Polar Response Of The Shure SM58
The SM58 is a cardioid microphone, meaning it’s sensitive to sound from its from and insensitive to sound from its rear.
Cardioid mics are often the best choice for miking instruments live due to their isolation abilities as well as the way they work with foldback monitors. In other words, pointing a cardioid mic at an instrument will pick up that instrument while rejecting others. Similarly, pointing a cardioid mic away from monitors will reduce the likelihood of feedback.
For more information on the cardioid microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Cardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).
Frequency Response Of The Shure SM58
The frequency response of the Shure SM58 is given as 50 Hz – 15,000 Hz. The SM58 frequency response graph is as follows:
The frequency response of the SM58 is quite a bit wider than the 520DX and will effectively pick up the entire sonic picture of a harmonica. Sometimes this is a good thing, but often we want a reduced range for the “best harmonica sound.” Luckily, this is easily achievable with the SM58.
Firstly, cupping the SM58 while playing the harmonica into it will increase the low-mid response of the mic while reducing its high-end effectiveness.
Secondly, as mentioned, the SM58 is a cardioid microphone. This means it exhibits the proximity effect. The proximity effect states that as a directional mic gets closer to a sound source, its bass-frequency response will increase. This “muddies” the sound even further, getting us pretty close to that harmonica sound!
Size Of The Shure SM58
The Shure SM58 is 162 mm (6 3/8 in.) long with a grille diameter of 51 mm (2 in.) and weighs 298 grams (10.5 oz).
The SM58 is much lighter than the 520DX and is easily mountable to a mic stand. These facts make it easy for a harpist to hold (or not hold) the 58 during a long performance.
The grille is 51 mm in diameter, which is a good size to cup around. If there would be an issue, it would likely be that the SM58 is too small to comfortably or effectively cup.
Grille And Cleaning Of The Shure SM58
The large grille of the SM58 offers excellent protection for its capsule. The grille is made of perforated metal in a spherical shape and includes an acoustic foam in its interior.
As mentioned earlier, the grille acts as a sort of pop filter, helping to reduce the amount of wind energy that gets to the microphone capsule.
The grille is designed to crumple in on itself if subjected to great physical force (ie: getting dropped from a helicopter). This malleability of the grille helps the microphone absorb shock that would otherwise be transferred directly to the capsule, further improving microphone durability.
The grille of the SM58 is removable, which plays an essential role in maintaining microphone hygiene. A harmonica microphone will potentially be bombarded with saliva, sweat, and, of course, beer.
Cleaning the grille is essential for keeping good microphone hygiene. The SM58 is simple to clean.
- Remove the grille assembly from the microphone.
- Submerge a toothbrush’s bristles in mouthwash (or mild detergent) mixed with water.
- Gently scrub the microphone grille from the outside with the toothbrush
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the entire grille has been washed
- Allow the grille assembly to dry overnight before reassembly.
You may remove the acoustic foam to check for degradation. If the foam appears worn out or damaged, it’s worth considering replacing the grille.
Is The Shure SM58 Wireless?
The Shure SM58 we’ve been discussing is not wireless. However, there are options available if you’d prefer a wireless SM58.
The first general option is to combine an SM58 capsule with a wireless transmitter. This method would require purchasing a separate SM58 capsule or modifying a “wired” SM58.
A common SM58 capsule wireless system combo is the Shure FP25/SM58 (link to check the price on Amazon).
An alternative is to have a plug-in wireless system. The transmitters in these systems have XLR connectors that you can plug your “wired” SM58 directly into.
Good wireless systems are a bit pricey and there are so many more options that I’ve suggested above.
There are many microphones that sound amazing on the harmonica, but in considering price and setting, these are my top 2 recommended harmonica mics. Let’s recap:
- Shure Green Bullet 520DX: Top recommendation for a specialized harmonica microphone.
- Shure SM58: Top recommendation for a general harmonica microphone.
- Audix Fireball V (another recommended specialized harmonica mic that also works well for beatboxing)
- Shure SM57 (Another recommended general purpose harmonica mic with a less-effective pop filter than the SM58)
For all the My New Microphone mic/gear recommendations, please check out my page Recommended Microphones And Accessories.