Joseph Marie Jacquard is one of the most important figures in the history of computer technology. Yeah, and he was French
At Camac Harps, we're great believers in careful user testing in order to ensure that our products and information work well. When it comes to things like clear guides to electric harps, what we usually do is have Jakez explain it to me, and if I understand, we know we've arrived at a truly idiot-proof description. In this vein, in the spring of last year we published a blue harp dictionary, where you can look up everything from DI Box to splits.
Since we wrote the blue dictionary, we have discovered Ischell microphone systems. They are so good that we currently don't use anything else for our harps - you can use all sorts of microphones, but Ischell is our favourite, and it is Ischell's products that you will find for sale in our online shop. I therefore thought it would be good to explain a bit more about them and the topic of harp amplification in general.
If you want to amplify your harp and are new to the whole topic, an excellent way to start is by reading Deborah Henson-Conant's Gurl's Guide To Amplification (even if you are a guy). This will talk you through all amplification basics, from how electricity works to working with professional systems; troubleshooting; sample tech riders; and even dealing with drunk sound engineers who only speak German. It will give you a great overview, and is clear and very entertaining to read. Once you have digested this, you will have a pretty good idea of how to plug in your harp, at which point you have to decide what to plug it in to. This is where our Ischell recommendations come in.
Know what this does? Nor did I, until Jakez told me last week
Our online boutique offers two principal Ischell systems: this simple one, and this posh, professional one. You can also get the professional one in a double microphone version, which is interesting if you need an amplified sound that sounds particularly natural and acoustic - when amplifying concert harp performances, for example. I'll explain more about the double mics presently, but for now, here's what the simple and professional systems are about.
When you amplify a harp, you can do so using an aerial microphone (the ones you usually find on stands, clipped on your shirt, or hand-held), and/or with a pickup (sometimes also called a transducer). When you hear a sound, your ears respond to vibrations that have travelled through the air, and an aerial mic functions in a similar way (it has a membrane inside that converts the soundwaves coming through the air into audio signals, which then flow through the microphone cable to be processed by the rest of the connected equipment). A pickup does not interpret sound waves coming through the air, but instead is stuck directly onto whatever it is that is producing the sound, and so picks up the vibrations directly from the source - for example, from the wood of the harp's soundbox. It doesn't pick up any other noises there may be around the source, and therefore usually gives cleaner amplification.
Most pickup systems are passive, which means the microphones are not powered by any electrical means (power supply / battery). This means the only energy they get to generate their electrical current is from the vibration of the strings. Low mic batteries cause their own problems, but the signal level in passive systems is always very low. When we amplify a signal, we also generate additional noise from the components of the amplifier itself (especially with cheaper ones), which can be heard as a hum or whistle. To avoid this, it is useful to enhance the level of the signal before amplification, and to do this, you need a thing called a preamp. It pre-amplifies the signal from a passive pickup so that the amplifier works in a more effective range, without generating unexpected noise. Our Ischell systems come with tailor-made preamps - these are the boxes you see alongside the pickups.
Posh system - pickup and box
So, what is the difference between the simple and professional systems? The professional box has a volume control, a filter (which usually you don't need, but which can be very handy if you have too many low frequencies causing knocking noises in the amplification - the filter cuts these out), and - above all - can double as a DI Box. A DI Box, or Direct Box, is a type of adapter you (have to) use to connect your instrument to a professional sound (PA) system.
If you are not playing in any context that involves a professional sound system (eg in theatres, stadiums, with professional technicians...), you do not need a DI Box. If you just want to amplify your harp nicely by yourself - for example, when playing to a large crowd at a wedding, or to experiment with electronic sound effects using an additional effects box - then the simple Ischell BOX-CJM is ideal for you. It is half the price, and very small and lightweight. It consists of an input socket into which you plug your pickup, an output socket into which you plug your amp, a tiny button battery and unchangeable standard settings, which provide excellent preamp quality.
As I mentioned earlier, there is also a double-channel version of the professional box.
In the photo above, you'll see that the harp has two microphones attached to it - one pickup, and one aerial. This means that you get a double-channel amplification: the sound directly from the wood, through the pickup, and the sound out in the air, from the aerial mic. This combination gives you a sound that is both reliable, and very natural (you do, of course, have to adjust the levels so the balance is well-mixed). It's especially recommended for a particularly faithful acoustic solo sound).
We also use a third type of Ischell system when we build a microphone system into a harp. Some of our models - like the Telenn Kadiou and EC Llanera - are fitted with a pickup system as standard, but we can fit any acoustic harp you like with it, allowing you to amplify more easily. For this, we put a pickup inside the soundbox, plus a version of the small, simple Ischell box, with a volume dial as a special extra function. You can then plug your amp, effects pedal, looper, DI Box, and all the other things Deborah's guide tells you how to use, into your harp - and away you go.