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For a long time, harmonica players that wanted to play with a band were at a big disadvantage.
While vocal, guitar, and bass amplification were easy to come by, harmonica players often had to work around all sorts of equipment limitations.
However, the past several years have seen a significant improvement in equipment designed specifically for harmonica players. One important area that has seen growth is the design (and availability) of harmonica microphones.
If you’re a new player, looking for a first mic, or a more experienced player looking to upgrade, this article is for you! We’ll explain what you should be looking for in a mic (no matter your musical style), and we have several quality options to recommend, if you’re in a hurry!
|Name||Shure Green Bullet 520 DX||Superlux D112/C||Shaker Dynamic Handmade||Audix Fireball V|
|Freq Response||100Hz - 5kHz||100Hz - 6kHz||Unknown||50Hz - 16kHz|
|Where to buy|
One of the first things that you need to consider when deciding on a microphone for harmonic playing is the type of sound you want. While the obvious answer may simply be “louder,” there are two primary schools of amplified harmonica playing.
The first type of sound is what I’ll call an acoustic amplified sound. In this style of amplification, the goal is to have the amplified sound be a faithful reproduction of your natural acoustic tone, only louder.
For many purposes, this can be accomplished by merely standing in front of a mic on a stand. Note that having a bit of distance between you and the microphone creates a more natural sound.
This kind of playing is typical for classical players who desire a natural, clean sound.
The second (and more common) style of amplified sound I’ll call a dirty amplified sound. In this style of amplified harmonica playing, the mic is cupped in the hands, and the resulting tone is dirtier, with a mild to moderate distortion in the sound depending on the mic setup and player volume.
While we’ll cover mics for both types of playing later on in this article, in general, the mic selection for acoustic amplified players is relatively straightforward. Most of the rest of this guide will focus on the dirty amplified tone since that’s where the mic makes a much more significant difference.
One of the most apparent considerations when picking out a mic for handheld playing is the shape of the mic’s outer shell.
There are two basic shapes for harmonica mics – stick and bullet.
As the name suggests, a stick mic is a cylinder shape. Some have a ball at one end, like the Shure SM58, while some are almost uniform in diameter like the Shure SM57.
Additionally, stick mics can come in a variety of lengths. You have the “traditional” length mics like the two Shure mics mentioned above, or the Ultimate 57, which is a variation of the Shure SM57 with a barrel over 3 inches shorter.
The bullet mics are very popular with harmonica players, due to their shape, making them easier to cup for many people.
There are lots of variations on the bullet shape, so it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. However, if you can’t find a stick mic that is comfortable to hold with a good, cupped seal, make sure to check out some of the bullet mics we mention at the bottom of this article.
Picking Your Shape
While different players have lots of opinions about the innards of the mic, the shape of the mics shell is one place where you should not let anyone tell you what works best for you.
Your hands and cupping technique are not exactly like someone else’s, so there’s no reason to expect a mic which is comfortable for one person to work for you. If you’ve not spent at least a little bit of time trying out a few different shapes (after you get your cupping technique down, of course), you really should.
There’s a lot of information out there on the merits of different mics. While this article is probably not going to be the most thorough technical explanation of how different kinds of mics work, I am going to try and give a general overview of how these various components can influence the sound and response of a mic.
You (and your ears) will have to decide for yourself what you like and don’t like, but hopefully, this guide and our recommendations at the bottom will give you a stable place to start.
First, here are some terms you’ll need to keep in mind:
- Frequency range: The ability to “hear” higher and lower sounds.
- Frequency response: Keeping all frequencies at about the same volume.
- Headroom: The ability to tolerate louder sounds without distorting.
Acoustic vs. Amplified
The first thing you want to consider when you’re picking out a microphone is how you’re going to be using it.
If you’re an acoustic amplified player, then you’re going to want something with a wide frequency range, flat frequency response, and as much headroom as you can get. These characteristics let the natural harmonica sound come through, and don’t change it much (except to make it louder).
If you’re a dirty amplified player, then you (often) want the opposite. Something with a wide frequency range can sound shrill up high and muddy down low. A flat frequency response can often sound bland or get lost in the mix with guitars and vocals. And high headroom means that it’s much more challenging to get a gritty distortion at reasonable volumes.
Dynamic vs. Crystal
Dynamic mic elements are by far the most common type of mic element you’ll find in newer mics. These function similar to a speaker, except in reverse: sound waves move a small coil or pin past a magnet to create electrical energy.
There are lots of different styles of dynamic elements, but two of the most sought-after are the vintage Controlled Magnetic (CM) and Controlled Reluctance (CR) elements developed by Shure. Dynamic elements (both new and vintage) are generally very durable, and if well-cared-for, they can last for decades.
Crystal elements connect a small crystal to a diaphragm, and when the crystal moves, that generates the electric current.
Sound differences (which we’ll get into in a second) notwithstanding, unless you get a great deal on a crystal mic, or buy from a reputable dealer, most people are better off with a dynamic element. While there are some excellent examples of crystal mics, many of them are older, and the crystals are quite fragile. Crystals also have a limited life span, and so even if one works today, there’s no guarantee that it will last, especially if you tour around or play it outside of a controlled studio environment.
In terms of sound, both the dynamic CR/CM and crystal elements are well-suited to dirty amplified playing. In general, crystal elements (in good condition) have a bit more of a mid-range “honk,” while CR/CM elements have a fatter tone that accentuates the lower frequencies. The actual sound produced depends on things like your cupping technique, amplifier, and a host of other variables, of course.
For acoustic amplified playing, newer dynamic elements are generally recommended (we’ll have our recommendations below), since these are usually more “neutral” in sound than the vintage elements.
One thing to consider if you’re shopping for a mic to connect with an amplifier or PA system is matching the impedance of the mic to the equipment you already have.
Matching the impedance of the mic and output device is essential since both pieces of equipment work best with specific load levels. If there is an impedance mismatch, your kit will not function as well as it possibly could. Some things to keep in mind when looking to match the impedance:
- High impedance systems came first, and low impedance systems were developed later. Most vintage equipment will be high impedance.
- Some devices can match a high impedance mic to a low impedance load (or vice versa). The DI (Direct Input) box matches a high impedance mic to a low impedance load, while an IMT (Impedance Matching Transformer) connects a low impedance mic to a high impedance load.
- Low impedance systems handle longer cable runs better.
- There’s no difference in tone or feedback level in low and high impedance mics (all other things being equal).
- Low impedance systems almost always use XLR jacks. However, not all XLR jacks are low impedance! Be aware that high impedance XLR cables are wired differently internally from low impedance XLR cables. Just because you can connect these devices physically doesn’t mean they will work well together!
- If a mic or amp uses a 1/4″ mono jack (like a guitar cable), it’s almost always a high impedance device.
Many dirty amplified harmonica players are turning to wireless systems for more freedom on stage.
Keep in mind that every wireless system will change the sound from the mic to some degree. Most often, the sound tends to be a bit more compressed. Cheaper wireless systems will also have less frequency range and/or frequency response than your mic, and so those systems should be avoided.
There are a wide variety of wireless systems designed to work with either high impedance mics (look for guitar wireless systems) and low impedance mics (look for vocal wireless systems). Just remember that you (often) get what you pay for!
Tube vs. Transistor Amps
There are lots of opinions on this topic (just ask any guitar player), but since this topic is outside the main focus of this review, I’ll keep this short.
If you are an acoustic amplified player, solid-state amplifiers are fine. Lots of solid-state amplifiers offer a whole range of features (although not all are useful) at a comparable price point to tube amps. Additionally, solid-state amps are lighter weight, more durable, and they don’t have the regular upkeep of tube amplifiers.
If, on the other hand, you sometimes venture into the grungier side of harmonica playing, it’s probably a good idea to at least strongly consider a tube amp. The natural, soft clipping that you get from a good (loud) tube amp being driven hard can’t really be replicated.
Additionally, the tone and dirty-ness of tube amp can be modified a bit by playing around with tube selection. This makes a good amp sound (and respond) even better!
Harmonica Mic Recommendations
Here are our top recommendations for harmonica microphones. While all of these are good places to start your mic search, remember that there are other things to consider that we can’t possibly cover in an article like this!
If you’re looking for a dirty amplified mic, remember that the mic shape and your cupping technique will be essential factors to find the right mic for you!
1. Shure Green Bullet 520 DX
- Type: Dynamic
- High/Low Impedance: High
- Style: Bullet
- Freq Response: 100Hz – 5kHz
Shure is a legendary name in microphones, and one of the most often-recommended brands.
The Green Bullet 520DX is probably one of the most-used harmonica mics out there, known for its comfortable shape, reliability, and features. The 520DX is designed to be plugged into a regular guitar amp, which makes it perfect for a newcomer to amplified harmonica playing. It features a volume knob on the mic to quickly and easily adjust the volume.
- Smaller bullet shape is comfortable for many. Medium-heavy weight
- The metal casing can be cumbersome for some.
- No included threading to attach to a mic stand
2. Superlux D112/C
- Type: Dynamic
- High/Low Impedance: High
- Style: Bullet
- Freq Response: 100Hz – 6kHz
Superlux makes a wide variety of microphones for all sorts of musical and business applications. They have a reputation for producing quality mics for very reasonable prices, and the Superlux D112/C is no exception.
The D112/C is based on the external shape of the classic Green Bullet mic, although it is a bit smaller, which may make it easier for longer gigs or people with smaller hands. It’s also a high-impedance mic, which makes it easy to plug directly into a guitar amp without the need for an impedance-matching transformer.
- Similar to the Green Bullet, but a bit smaller and lighter.
- Lower cost than the Green Bullet, but quite sturdy with metal construction.
- A bit of a “cleaner” or more “sterile” sound. Not quite a grungy as the Green Bullet.
- The volume knob is a bit unpredictable
3. Shaker Dynamic Handmade
- Type: Dynamic
- High/Low Impedance: Low
- Style: Bullet
- Freq Response: Unknown
Since their inception in 1992, Shaker have been developing some very interesting and unique designs for harmonica microphones. Shaker microphones are all handmade in Arkansas, and if you’re looking for something off the beaten path, a Shaker mic is a great place to start.
The Shaker Dynamic is a nice, all-around mic for those looking for something lightweight and easily manageable, but still with a full sound that can cut through a big group.
- Very small and lightweight
- The volume knob has subtle detents to make finding specific settings easy.
- For those with larger hands, it may be too small.
- Not able to attach to a mic stand.
4. Audix Fireball V
- Type: Dynamic
- High/Low Impedance: Low
- Style: Mini-Stick
- Freq Response: 50Hz – 16kHz
Audix has been a staple of the high-end audio equipment market for over 30 years. They make a wide variety of microphones for vocals, instruments, live performing, and studios.
The Audix Fireball V is designed for the unique combination of harmonica and beatboxing. This gives it a few essential features that make it the first choice for many musicians. Its small “stick” shape makes it easy to hold for most, whether you’re cupping a harmonica, beatboxing, or singing. The full frequency range is well-suited to all sorts of applications, although it doesn’t “color” the tone like some bullet mics.
If you want to do more with your mic than just harmonica, the Audix Fireball V is a must-try.
- Stick shape is very versatile
- Wide frequency range makes this suitable for almost any application
- Stick shape can be uncomfortable for some hand sizes
- Volume knob location and response make it easy to accidentally turn down (or up) too much.