The following interview originally appeared in the National Harmonica League magazine as part of my regular column, Reeds for the Record...
Mark Hummel started playing harmonica in 1970 and has gone on to become one of the premier blues harmonica players of his generation. Thanks to over thirty recordings since 1985, including the Grammy nominated 2013 Blind Pig release "Remembering Little Walter", part of the Blues Harmonica Blowout CD series Hummel started in 1991. These events have featured every major legend (Mayall, Musselwhite, Cotton, etc.) on blues harp as well as almost every player of note on the instrument. In addition, Mark started his own band, the Blues Survivors, in 1977 with Mississippi Johnny Waters. By 1984 Hummel began a life of non- stop touring of the US, Canada and Europe, which he still continues at least 130-150 days out of each year. Hummel has toured or recorded with blues legends Charles Brown, Charlie Musselwhite, Lowell Fulson, Billy Boy Arnold, Carey Bell, Lazy Lester, Brownie McGhee, Eddie Taylor, Luther Tucker and Jimmy Rogers. More at www.MarkHummel.com.
RG: When you think of sideman harmonica, what are the gold standards?
MH: My tendency is to go back to someone like Little Walter, Big Walter, Rice Miller, or John Lee Williamson, who all did some great backup things. James Cotton too. They all did great backup records. Someone like Rice Miller played behind Tampa Red, Baby Boy Warren, Elmore James, and a number of more obscure guys. Some of my favorite Big Walter is him backing up Jimmy Rogers and Johnny Shines. That’s some of the wickedest playing he ever did.
RG: Anything you find particularly instructive about those recordings?
MH: All the guys I’m mentioning did a lot of backing up other people. Take Little Walter, Little Walter played behind all kinds of people on Chess Records. He played behind John Brim, Jimmy Rogers, Muddy Waters, Johnny Shines, Memphis Minnie...all kinds of people. What made these guys great is they played sympathetically but also excitingly, knowing when to dart in and out behind the vocal. And for me that’s the thing; knowing how to stay out of the way but do something exciting at the same time. Billy Boy Arnold is always talking about how it was Little Walter that sold the Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers records, and I believe him. He was so inspiring that people would go out to buy the record for Walter as much as the frontman.
RG: Can you describe the difference in your approach as a frontman and and as a sideman?
MH: My approach is different! When I moved to the Bay Area, it was pretty much a West Coast scene. It was not a Chicago Blues scene. People played like T-Bone Walker and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. They fit a West Coast mold, not a Chicago mold. So you had to stay out of the way and people didn’t like harmonica. I had to change my playing drastically to be accepted on stage. I couldn’t play like Little Walter; the saxophone players hated me! That was too much (playing) all the time. I learned to play more horn-like and be a part of section with the horn players. It was a rough experience, but I learned.
RG: How do you prepare for the studio and how has your approach changed over the years?
MH: My education was really trial and error. When I started, people baffled everything. It tended to be a close mic sound with no room sound. Rusty Zinn, when he was playing with me around 1991, really helped me with a lot of ideas about recording. Like leaving more space between the microphone and the amp. One thing I learned to do was use two or three mics; one close, one about three feet away, and one about five feet away with no baffling. I used to put my amp in a bathroom or hallway; somewhere with hard surfaces. I also experimented with everyone in the same room with no baffling. That was tough as the drums tended to overpower everything.
RG: After all these years, what’s your ideal studio setup these days?
MH: I usually record at Kid Anderson’s Greaseland Studios these days. He has it in his house and I’m usually in a wash room, which has hard surfaces. It’s small enough that we don’t really use more than one microphone.
RG: How about differences between recording and live playing?
MH: Those are two completely different worlds. One thing I used to always do is use a small amp, like a Princeton, in the studio. I probably used the Princeton for about the first eight years in the studio. I’ve used a lot of amps but eventually I started using the Bassman and on the most recent record, a 2x12 Silvertone, both bigger amps. I have a little 1x8 amp called the Hurricane, which I used on Back Porch Music, and sounded really good. On the Johnny Dyer record (Rolling Fork) I wired my Princeton and Bassman together. The thing people don’t realize is that bigger amps have much more bass response, so by wiring them together, you get both and it’s pretty killer. I thought it would be interesting to try, and I only used it on that one record, but it turned out great.
Things are going to sound different in different studios, so I just keep experimenting. So much of what I’ve learned is just trial and error!
When you put something on tape, it becomes permanent, that’s the nerve-racking part. If you’re live on a gig, other than someone YouTubing it, it’s gone. That’s where preparation really helps, and sometimes I go in more prepared than others. Like chromatic...sometimes I really mess up on chromatic; sometimes I don’t have my ideas quite as in focus.
A lot of times when I go into the studio and come up with things that I’ve never really performed before. It all depends! On the last album I went in with about half of it really prepared and half of it, my originals, I was totally finishing up by the time we got in. The weird thing about the studio is that you never know if the things that are super prepared will come off as well as things that you totally improvise on the spot. You kind of need a little of each. The studio is really like gambling!
When we recorded that Johnny Dyer Muddy Waters tribute record, Rolling Fork, that’s one of the records I’m most proud of. We were very prepared, and had a number of musicians on it, including two guys who had played with Muddy, Paul Oscher and Francis Clay, in addition to Charles Wheal, Rusty Zinn, Bob Welsh, Marty Dodson, and Steve Wolf. It was really a mix of musicians and I was producing it and I had to find the right spots for the guys. I was gassed with how it turned out. It really is like gambling, you just never know how it will turn out!
RG: Any advice on the technical aspect of recording harmonica?
MH: Anything analog is going to best. If you can put stuff on tape, that’s a way better way to go. There are some amazing aspects to ProTools, but in terms of sound, I’d have to say tape is best. I’ll play through whatever mic they put in front of me---you’d have to ask Kid Anderson, or someone like that, more on the specifics---but for acoustic playing, I pretty much just play into whatever mic I’m singing through. If it’s a small room, I will use one mic on an amp. And if it’s a bigger room, we’ll use more mics.
I don’t think compression is a good idea. You want to do stuff as real sounding as possible. The same as live; I don’t like compression on a vocal or anything. But I’d have to say the tape thing is big, even though I haven’t had access to tape on my recent records.
RG: Any closing thoughts or things you might share about your recent projects?
MH: I was real pleased with the last couple records I’ve done. The live Little Walter record (Remembering Little Walter) was a record I both played and produced on. That was a real hairy experience. We had one day and two sets to do it. And it turned out that the monitor guy unplugged the laptop that was recording and we lost the whole first set. Fortunately, the second set went well enough that we were able to get an entire album out of it. That was a really great album, was Grammy nominated and won two Blues Awards, and I was really proud of how everyone played on that.
The last album, The Hustle Is Really On, was recorded half in Chicago and half at Kid Anderson’s studio and I was really happy with how that turned out. And the new album, I’m really stoked about, because I think Anson Funderberburgh did a great job producing it and I was really happy with how the harmonica sound turned out with an all-original 2x12 1959 Silvertone rig.
RG: How about gear?
: I’ve always changed it up! I’ll play an amp three to five years and move on to something else. I still have a Sonny Jr. Cruncher, which I really love. I had a couple of different Meteors which I liked, but I have to say I really like the Cruncher for a newer amp. But vintage gear is always my preference. I have a 1961 Concert, an original Bassman I love to death, the Silvertone I love, a Magnatone with 4x8’s, and the Hurricane I still play on duo gigs with 1x8. And I switch it up all the time. I don’t like to have the same sound all the time.
I’m sponsored by Seydel and I generally have Rupert Oysler or Ben Bouman work on my harps. I have a chromatic guy, Steve Malerbi, who works on my chromatics. It used to be Dick Gardner, but he sent me to Steve when he started slowing down. I still mostly play Hohner chromatics, but I also play Hering Chromatics, the Suzuki chromatics are a trip, and the Seydel twelve holes are great. I have a set of Filisko harmonicas that I’ll use in the studio if I remember to. I find that I’m most comfortable on the Seydels at this point in time and they stay in tune a lot longer than any kind of Marine Band. But when they go, they go quickly! edit.
This is a segment from an extensive interview with Jason Ricci I conducted as part of a lesson series on overblowing for BluesHarmonica.com. In this passionate clip, Jason discusses the architecture and elements of music and how these concepts have influenced his development. Some great wisdom from one of the geniuses of blues harmonica. Visit BluesHarmonica.Com to watch the full interview and overblow lesson series.
This is a snippet from an interview with Adam Gussow I conducted as part of a lesson series on overblowing for BluesHarmonica.com. In this eloquent clip, Adam talks a bit about his creative process and how to use traditional phrases as a starting point for developing one's own vocabulary. Visit BluesHarmonica.Com to watch the full interview and overblow lesson series.
The following interview originally appeared in the National Harmonica League magazine as part of my regular column, Reeds for the Record...
Tom Ball was born in Los Angeles and shares birthdays with his early harmonica hero Sonny Terry. Tom began playing guitar at the age of eleven and took up harmonica two years later. A teenage member of the Yerba Buena Blues Band in the mid-1960's, he played Love-Ins and Sunset Strip nightclubs before leaving the country for most of the '70s. In 1978 he came back to the U.S. and teamed up with guitarist Kenny Sultan - a partnership that still flourishes today and has resulted in eight duo CDs (most with Flying Fish/Rounder,) and literally thousands of concerts and festivals all over the world. In addition to working with Kenny, Tom has played on 250 CDs (including records by Kenny Loggins, Jimmy Buffett, and Jeff Bridges), countless film soundtracks, TV shows and commercials, recorded four solo guitar CDs, written five instructional books and authored a couple of novels. More at www.TomBall.us.
RG: Who are some of your inspirations and models as a studio harmonica player?
TB: Boy, there are so many and I guess it depends on what style of harmonica you’re discussing. Stevie Wonder playing on James Taylor, Brendan Power playing with John Williams (the guitarist not the film composer), and Norton Buffalo on Kate Wolf’s record "Close to You" has a wonderful warm tone that I aspire to. In the blues world, Big Walter playing on Johnny Shines' JOB sessions. That’s probably the greatest amplified Chicago tone I’ve ever heard---it can’t be surpassed and he never surpassed it either! Little Walter of course...the sideman work he did with Muddy (Waters) is even more impressive to me than the stuff he did under his own name. There’s so much great non-blues stuff to talk about too! Tommy Morgan on virtually everything. There are just so many who do it so well.
In my situation, I live in Santa Barbara and ever since Mitch Kashmar left town, I’m the only guy left here. So if they want harmonica, they’ve got to call me. Of course it’s a small niche because there aren’t that many studios here, but I'll take what I can get.
RG: Are there any things about those recordings or players that you found particularly instructive or inspiring?
TB: Well, when you’re playing as a sideman, I think it’s a whole different set of requirements than when you’re playing out front. You need to support the melody, you need to fill in the gaps, you need to play harmony to the melody or perhaps do a call and response thing, but you’re not supposed to play through the vocals or step on people. When I was first doing studio work, I tended to play too much. The main lessons I needed to learn were (1) how to play in support of what’s already there, and (2) how to anticipate what is going to be overdubbed later because the producer may have a bunch of other instruments in mind that he’ll bring in later. Nowadays, the process of recording has changed and a typical session for me may be to go in there and play a complete take of chunking rhythm background, a whole take of subtle background trills, a take of balls-to-the-wall playing without even worrying what you’re stepping on, and by the time you’re out of there you’ve given them about six tracks that they will slice and dice and possibly add effects to. By the time the record comes out, there is not only stuff on there that you didn’t play, but stuff you’d never have even thought of! So it’s become a producer’s medium rather than an artist’s medium. Sometimes they can make you look like a genius and sometimes they can make you look like a hack! But that’s the way it is now and there’s nothing you can do about it, so you just have to go in there and give them what they want and then cash their check.
RG: Can you describe your approach to a recording session where your client doesn’t have any particular part in mind for you but knows they want harmonica?
TB: It’s trial and error at that point. Sometimes a producer knows exactly what they want---like a particular melody or harmony---and you can give them that. But in other cases they don’t really know what they want. I had one guy tell me that he wanted me to play a little “greener”. What the hell does that mean? I don’t know what “green” means to you! All you can do is try something different and keep giving them choices and finally they’ll say, “That’s it!” It also comes into play when an engineer doesn’t really know how to mic a harmonica. You have to be a psychologist, and you have to make suggestions that will make you sound better without alienating the engineer. You have to be discreet and a diplomat as you express how they can change the microphone placement, the type of microphone, or to try adding another ambient mic for example.
RG: Are there any skills you’ve found particularly important in your studio work?
TB: Well, I am not a sight-reader at all for harmonica. I can get through a classical guitar piece very painstakingly and convert it to tablature and I understand the process, but out of all of the sessions I’ve done I can’t think of one time that they had my harp part mapped out in standard notation. For better or worse I think they think diatonic harmonica players are musically illiterate. In my case, it’s true! And so they don’t bother to write it out and are generally kind enough to play whatever it is they want me to play two or three times until I can figure it out. Sometimes I’ll get chord charts, but that’s not a problem. I’ve just never had a session where I had to read traditional notation.
About half the sessions I get are simple folk, Americana, or bluegrass melodies where the chord changes are sort of self evident and you can anticipate in advance where they are going to go. I always request that if the song has a specific melody, or has key or mode changes and/or modulations, for them to send me an MP3 in advance so I can hear the tune. Otherwise I’m going to waste time in the studio having to hear it four or five times in a row and that’s their money. So it’s in their best interest to send it to me ahead of time. I’ve been in situations where there were twenty live musicians all playing at once including me and all of the other guys could sight read and I can’t, so all you can do is play what you think is right and hopefully they will give you another crack at it if you blow it. And if they’re not going to give you another crack at it, and you do blow it, chalk it up to, well... you’re not going to be working for that guy again. And that’s okay.
RG: Have you found any differences between session work for major artists and artists that are more on a local level?
TB: Well, I try to bring a certain level of professionalism whether it’s a major project or a local project. The difference may be in how the studio is equipped and how much time you have to record. Sometimes you may not have the opportunity to go through it eight or ten times and you have to be okay with what you get. And sometimes you get somebody who doesn’t particularly care if you’re playing your best, and you may have to ask for another pass. If it’s a big budget, major name, chances are they’re going to want something fairly specific and sometimes they get down to how you’re playing every single note.
RG: I know you’re known as a diatonic player, but you’ve also recorded on chromatic, bass, and polyphonia. Where do you think those instruments fit into the studio harmonica player’s arsenal?
TB: I’d like to be able a play those instruments a lot better than I can, and I’m something of a dilettante when it comes to really knowing how to play them. I’m not skilled on any of those instruments and it really helps to have the safety net of being able to go back and punch in to get the part right. Usually when they want me to play the bass harmonica, they’re not looking for a specific melody or bass line -- they're generally looking for odd tones and creepy background stuff, especially for film work. I can only think of a half dozen sessions I’ve done with the bass harp. The bass harp I have is an oddball prototype from the 1920’s before Hohner decided on what kind of tuning they wanted, and it actually goes from G to G instead of E to E like most bass harps.
For me, I’m not comfortable improvising on the chromatic, but if they ask for a specific melody line I’ll figure it out and play it from rote muscle memory in the studio.
RG: How about alternate tunings?
TB: Well low tunings for sure. I’ll use a low F or F#, or a high G, and country tuning if I need that major 7th in second position. Once I did a concert with the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra and they wanted me to do Shenandoah, and you couldn’t do it in second position because the major 7th isn’t there. I could do it in first position, but then I couldn’t bend any notes. So then I realized a country-tuned harp would be perfect and I went out and got one. But I don’t really use them in live performance.
RG: How about custom intonation? I know some studio players will carry harps at 440, 441, 442, etc.
TB: No. In the early days, with my duo project, Kenny could just tune up to 443 and it’s not a problem. If you’re overdubbing with a piano or something that can’t be easily tuned, nowadays they have the ability to VSO you down into tune so it’s just not an issue. And when you think back on Muddy with Walter and Otis Spann, it sounds perfectly fine because I think Walter’s adjusting a bit. So I think some people make a little bit too much out of that. I can hear it, but it doesn’t bother me. I have a bigger problem trying to make sure all of the bent notes are properly intoned. When you take hole three draw, it’s tough to really nail all four of those notes perfectly without sliding into them, and chances are you’re going to be off by more than one cent!
RG: Any thoughts on the art of capturing a great harmonica sound?
TB: Well, I think it’s important to play softly because, even though it’s counterintuitive, when you play softly you get a bigger sound. When you play loudly or close to the microphone, you’re going to get a shrill sound that emphasizes the highs. The engineer can always EQ that out later, but then you’ll lose other aspects of your sound you might not want to lose. I think it’s important to play further from the mic and softly if you can. They can always bring you up. And that way, even though you’re playing softly you end up with a bigger sound that doesn’t emphasize the highs. You also get a more natural, room sound if you’re able to put some air (space) between you and the mic. About a foot or so.
With acoustic playing, I’ll usually ask for the best tube vocal mic that they have. A lot of times that’s a Neumann U47, 67, or 87. The AKG C12 is probably my all time favorite microphone to record with. On a high pitch session where maybe they want me to play on F harp, I’ll always ask them if they have a Royer 121; that’s a microphone that tends to de-emphasize the highs. That way you don’t have to EQ too much later. An F or F# harp can be extraordinarily shrill no matter what you do with your hands and I don’t like to have them have to EQ the ultra highs out. I also prefer, where you have the luxury, to have a room mic as well.
I don’t put any additional effects like delay, but reverb is absolutely necessary. I like a big plate reverb, not a springy, boingy kind of reverb. It’s mostly digital these days but I was in a few studios early on that had a big plate in the ceiling.
RG: How about electric playing?
TB: I don’t get a lot of calls for electric playing but when I do I have a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp and a whole array of bullet shaped mics like the JT30 and Shure 520. What I like to do a lot of times is to have one dry mic, like a Neumann, and next to that a bullet mic on a stand. Then I’ll play into both and we’ll run the bullet into an amp in another room. That way you have two tracks, one that’s dry and one that’s grungy. Then you can mix elements of both. Of course you’re never going to get that handheld sound that way, which I do sometimes with the JT30 and the Deluxe Reverb, but I’m not really a strong Butterfield-esque Chicago handheld mic player. There are certain techniques to that which I don’t really use, and my electric playing tends to sound a lot like my acoustic playing except that it’s amplified.
RG: Are there any areas of the harmonica you’re excited to hear people explore?
TB: At this point it’s all about tone. Of course, these days, you have all of these alternate tuned harps and overblowing and overdrawing, which incidentally I don’t know how to do, but for me I think the area I can grow the most is tone. There are certain warm kinds of tones coming out people that make me think, “God that’s so beautiful, how come I can’t do that?” It’s more about how they’re playing than what they’re playing. I love listening to guys who can shape those warm, bell-like tones. Like Norton on “Across the Great Divide” off Kate Wolf’s record. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about what he plays---I figured it out in five minutes---but I cannot match that tone... I can’t figure out what he’s doing!
RG: Do you have any advice for aspiring studio harmonica players?
TB: Never turn down a gig! Every session you do you’ll learn something -- something about microphone placement or your approach. And not only that, but the engineer you’re working with might call you up later for another session. Don’t make enemies with any engineers and take any session you can. It all builds by word of mouth, and if you get enough CDs out there maybe somebody will hear something they like and you'll get a phone call.
RG: Any closing thoughts?
TB: Well, of course I'd like to encourage people to come out and hear the Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan show when we swing through their towns. Aspiring guitarists will be knocked out by Kenny's picking! Also I would like to direct people to a project called "Silver Morning" that I did with my friend Alan Thornhill, who’s a singer-songwriter from Ojai. He writes beautiful songs and hired me to play diatonic, and it was one of those sessions I was very proud of. Plus I think people should know more about his songwriting and his extraordinary singing and guitar playing. So I would direct people to that if they want to hear some studio work that I’m particularly happy with.
But, of course, sometimes I play on stuff and record it and never listen to it again. By the time you spend all that time learning it, playing, fixing it and mixing it, you don’t want to hear it anymore... I’m ready to go on to the next project!
RG: You can find out more about Tom’s discography, solo and with Kenny Sultan, his overdubbed harmonica group version of Nagasaki Sails From Uranus and his tuition books on these web sites:
The following interview originally appeared in the National Harmonica League magazine as part of my regular column, Reeds for the Record...
Mike Turk is a Boston-based chromatic and diatonic harmonica player who has released six critically-acclaimed albums as well as having had an active studio career. Highlights of his session work include recording with Jerry Lee Lewis, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sharon Robinson, and the scores to John Sayle’s Honeydripper and Lone Star. More at www.MikeTurk.com.
I first became familiar with Mike Turk’s music through his record, Harmonica Salad. I was astounded by the scope of his playing: fiery blues-based diatonic harmonica, featuring tasteful use of overbends and a harmonic awareness not often associated with the blues tradition, paired with some of the most nuanced bebop-based chromatic harmonica I’d ever heard. From that point on, Mike’s playing became the benchmark against which I measured my own versatility and command of both the diatonic and chromatic harmonicas. Over the years, we’ve become friends, and my appreciation for his musicianship has only increased as I’ve come to understand his focused, patient, and uncompromising approach to his craft. I was honored that Mike agreed to this interview and found his insight into both his work as a studio musician and solo artist a trove of harmonica wisdom.
RG: Who would you consider the “Gold Standards” for studio harmonica?
MT: It’s a tough question because my years of being an active player straddles an old era into the new era and I’m highly influenced by the old stuff.
Actually, I became aware of and grew to appreciate the older stuff more as I got older as opposed to embracing the newer things that came along. So trying to define the “Gold Standard” for me goes back the 50’s and 60’s with guys who established themselves as studio players because they were literate musicians, great sight readers. They were practiced musicians who had a certain sort of conservatory; they practiced classical pieces, exercises, and had a certain discipline. Guys like Tommy Morgan in LA, and in New York there were some good players like Blackie Schackner, Charlie Leighton and after a while Cham-ber Huang. Of course the guy who was always the first call: Toots Thielemans.
Contrary to the many players who were legitimate or "legit", or who came out of the harmonica bands, cruise ship circuits and were also very competent, Toots Thielemans came from a complete jazz "conservatory." He had a completely different kind of musical fluency and so my “Gold Standard” moves to what he established in the late 50’s and 60’s. At that time in NYC, I think he made most of his "bread" being a commercial harmonica player and would do jazz gigs to fill the time. He had come off the road with George Shearing and for a period of time he was doing weddings and bar mitzvahs and was the first call studio harmonica player. People aren’t generally aware of this period in his career. He even picked up the diatonic. Of course he was also a whistler and guitarist, which helped.
For the most part, I just tried to follow what Toots did. Once, I got to watch Toots record for Quincy Jones’s The Wiz which gave me something to aspire to: to watch Toots as part of an amazing entourage of musicians who just walk into the studio, don’t sweat it, look at the music, no matter how easy or complicated and know exactly what the music requires, and do it in one or two takes.
And of course there was Charlie McCoy and he was a very clean, “Gold Standard” example of a great diatonic player. He had an amazing technique, clean sound, and was very melodic.
RG: How did your early studio sessions come about, and what were some typical situations you found yourself in?
MT: I cut my teeth playing with "Papa" John Kolstad in the early 70's in the folk duo genre and a few other bluegrass/jazzy players who were into the Django thing for example. After that, I hooked up with a country western band here in New England, John Lincoln Wright & The Sour Mash Boys, which was when I began to concentrate on a cleaner sound and playing specific parts; this was necessary with the full band.
After a while of that, I went to Berklee College of Music because I realized I needed to learn to read, about music theory, arranging, and all of that. Coming out of my years in Berklee, I knew I could put my own groups together and perform but I needed other ways of making money and that was in the burgeoning studio world that existed in New York City and throughout New England (Maine, New Hampshire, Boston, Connecticut, etc). I’d end up driving all over the place and getting work that way. I had to hone my ability at being comfortable sitting down with music I’d never seen before and giving those producers what they wanted.
In order to break into this scene, I put together a demo reel and bio and sent it out to hundreds of studios. I was a pretty persistent telephone caller in those days (around 1980) and I’d sometimes get a very favorable response and they’d call me for sessions. It was tough and I had a lot of competition.
Getting back to the “Gold Standard,” by 1980 in New York City it was Donnie Brooks on diatonic harmonica. Toots was getting out of the studio scene as he began touring internationally and Robert Bonfiglio, who was then and is now an extremely disciplined classical player, ended up getting a lot of the work. I was trying to hone in on these guy's business as an upstart new kid in the neighborhood. I wound up doing a bunch of things there but eventually got tired of it and went back to Boston. I became frustrated that I never got on the big commercial spots that hit big money and I had to re-evaluate things for that.
RG: Can you talk about the skills that you found useful and important in the studio?
MT: I was always uptight walking into a studio session. I was never confident as a "sight reader" and that was something that I had to concentrate on getting better at. However, I always wanted to play chromatic harmonica. In my approach to getting my foot in the door, I’d always push that I was a chromatic harmonica player and jazz guy who could make my style work on anything, and I’d try to get in that way. I wanted to play or improvise freely on the sessions and I wanted the writers to recognize that ability in me. But, it wasn’t always that way. I’d come in and they’d have exactly what they wanted me to play on paper, some pastoral piece with a small string section for a Monsanto commercial or I’d have to play blues harp on a Stetson Cologne commercial with specific markings on where the harp was supposed to come in (check out Mike’s record, The Mouth that Roared, for some examples of his commercial work from this period). These were called "30's or 60's with a possible 20" which referred to how many seconds the spot was and if there would be 20 minutes of "overtime" to be paid for. The most important thing wasn’t how much one practiced, but can you give them what they’re looking for, the image they had of the harmonica in their mind, otherwise known as "schtick."
It's funny, in those years in NYC, the microphone of choice in the commercial studios was a weird, square piezo-electric pick-up mic that was actually clipped to the music stand and picked up the harp vibrations....a curious technology; however, it really sounded like shit!
RG: What were the characteristics of Donnie Brooks and Robert Bonfiglio that lead them to dominate the New York studio work in that post-Toots era?
MT: Bonfiglio was a master sight reader. Everyone I ever talked to said that he could read anything in any key. Donnie Brooks had established a way of playing and presenting the diatonic harmonica as a very clean voice, so that above and beyond the commercial world, he wound up consulting to Roger Miller and contributing to the “Big River” (the musical) harmonica book which plays a crucial role in the overall score.
I guess he established a way of notating for the diatonic harmonica. Though he tragically passed away just a few years after “Big River”, he had pretty much established a “Gold Standard” for diatonic harmonica that even carries back to Nashville .
RG: After you transitioned out of the studio world and into a solo career, you made a series of very influential records. Let’s talk about how you’ve approached your recordings and how you went about capturing your best sound from a technical standpoint.
MT: When I first began to record, especially the sessions for Harmonica Salad, I didn’t really know how to get the sound I was looking for and was at the mercy of the engineers. I’d listen back and I didn’t know how to explain to them that “it’s just not fat enough”, or “I need more reverb”, or “I don’t like the color the harmonica has’” terms like that are very vague and I didn’t know how to express myself technically. After a while it dawned on me that even though I didn’t know much about moving the dials I knew enough about what I needed to hear. I began to learn about the importance of microphone placement and equalization and to make sure the sound was to my liking.
RG: Your sound on the chromatic is one of my all-time favorites, can you talk, playing technique and musicianship aside, how you’ve approached capturing that sound.
MT: I was and am still very envious of saxophone and trumpet players ( i.e. Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown) because their sound basically incorporates their reed, mouthpiece, horn, and embouchure. Now because of it's comparatively low volume projection, harmonica is always at the mercy of the environment and you’re really going to lose if you don’t pay attention to how you’re going to microphone and amplify yourself.
In a studio situation, it is practically the same thing though you can control it more. The most important thing is getting a good signal and sound into the microphone. I’m an avid appreciator of Toots Theilemans and he probably has the biggest sound of any harmonica player who ever recorded, so I pretty much tried to copy that tone which is natural for many chromatic players. If you listen to The Amazing Sound of Toots Theilemans (Columbia Records), you can actually hear that they’re using very sensitive Neumann mics at a very close proximity, probably with a windscreen. Those engineers really knew their shit and how to make the harmonica sound full, round, and with a great presence within the stereophonic sound field. I think this is how he recorded for a long time.
As time went on, like, in the 70’s or 80’s I began to realize that he was using an ordinary old Shure microphone, like the SM-58, and hand holding it, so I followed and adapted that later on.
So, on Harmonica Salad, except for the amplified blues harp tracks, the harmonicas were recorded with a pair of AKG 414’s at close proximity which gave a really good signal. (Mike commented that he was about 6 inches from the 414s and that they were spaced about 1 foot apart.) We did the same thing on Turk’s Works. Of course the engineers like to use a room mic and all of this would get mixed together with the mic channels. We recorded live but with total isolation. Once we got a good full signal, I was adamant about the tone I wanted to get in the mixing session.
After a while in the 90's, I met these guys who had recorded Toots in Italy (Libens’ Ozio on Via Veneto Jazz, 1994). Toots had told them he wanted to use an old hand microphone that he had brought with him. This was a revelation to me because he needed to make sure they got his sound correctly. This was a great relief because I don’t want to mess around with how engineers "think" harmonica should be recorded.
When we did The Italian Job, we used an overhead microphone and I used my own hand held microphone that I perform with on stage, the PVM45. The thing I like about the 45 is that it has a characteristic in its frequency roll off and tone that I thought was a perfect mate for the Renaissance harmonica. Now, I don’t have to worry about whether an engineer knows how to record harmonica or not.
There have been collaboration where an engineer has put some thought into how to record the harmonica, so I’ll listen to the guy. For example, The Nature Of Things was recorded with 2 very rare 1948 Neumanns and a contact on the harmonica but, the 45 is an insurance policy as many engineers don’t have much experience recording harmonica.
For the most part I used Hard Boppers and Mellow Tone harmonicas, because of the deep tone they had. They were what’s referred to as long slot reed instruments with thicker reed plates and they had a much fuller sound than the normal 270’s. I’ve experimented with other harmonicas like 270’s tuned in G or F, or one of the early Huangs, which were made pretty good at that time. It was like that for me until I met Douglas Tate in 1998 and he gave me the Renaissance to borrow for 6 months, and that’s when things changed forever. I've played this one harmonica for 15 years now and do all my own reed repairs and tuning.
I just use my ear when I mix... you have to be patient! It’s like cooking; you season to taste, then you make sure that it has the characteristics you liked at the studio on different speaker systems and different rooms.
RG: Which of your records are you most satisfied with the sound?
MT: The Italian Job, it's self-arranged, directed, mixed and mastered.
RG: Any closing comments?
MT: I’ve chosen the direction I’ve gone in, which is to be a singular personality on the instrument. However far that’s gotten me is yet another discussion, but I’m happy and satisfied with the path I’ve chosen in that regard. It identifies me and it’s why I got away from blues harp and being a guy who will play all styles. Sometimes, there are "moments" where I play something new, a phrase or passage that I’ve never done before and it’s very satisfying.
To me, being unique means you’re doing something on a higher level than what’s been done before. I don’t want to hear new recordings with people attempting to imitate or sound like something that was already done 60 years ago without putting something new on it!
The following interview originally appeared in the National Harmonica League magazine as part of my regular column, Reeds for the Record...
Tim Kobza is a performer, producer, composer, session-player, author, and educator in Los Angeles, California. His television and film credits include the hit shows The Office, Felicity, Desperate Housewives, The Real World and the major motion picture, The Lucky One. He is the author of Alfred Publications’ Blues Lessons Vol. 3 and has been on faculty at the University of Southern California since 1996.
I met Tim while recording with singer-songwriter Jack Kovacs (to hear an example of our collaboration on Tim's production of Jack’s single, Song of the Summer, click here). Since then, I've had the pleasure to work with him on many projects. I'm constantly impressed with his mastery of the studio, management of large and multifaceted projects, ability to guide artists and help them find their sound and voice, and his frequent use of the harmonica, often in unusual and interesting ways. I was thrilled when Tim agreed to do this interview and share his insight and perspective into the harmonica with us here at the NHL!
RG: When you think of harmonica, what comes to mind?
TK: My first exposure to harmonica was on Stevie Wonder records and Mike Post TV themes like “Rockford Files.” Harmonica is a very expressive instrument that ranges from the lonely campfire cliche to the dirty blues of Kim Wilson, Little Walter, and Howlin Wolf to the jazz side of Toots Theileman, who is someone I listened to a lot growing up. So I see the harmonica as a very wide palette as an instrument.
RG: What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of the instrument?
TK: I think the strengths are that it’s an evocative instrument and can be very moody and is a signature color that is only limited by the player….. and it’s really easy to carry to gigs!
RG: Why would you include harmonica on a project?
TK: I think the harmonica is a more misunderstood instrument which lends itself to the magic of the player. For example, people know of your playing on the harmonica because of what you do; they’re not just going to call any harmonica player, they’re going to call Ross Garren because of what you offer and it just so happens that you bring that to life on the harmonica. That’s a big part of it.
RG: In other words, on more common instruments you typically have specific parts in mind but with harmonica it’s more open ended and more about the musician themselves?
TK: Totally, it’s about what kind of textures are you hearing and can bring out. In the case of the material we’ve worked on, it’s about what can you contribute to the overall mood of the song we’re crafting. You bring stuff that I couldn’t necessarily write and that’s why it’s more about the musician blowing the air into it the instrument.
RG: If this were a project where you weren’t able to get the specific player you wanted, what would inspire you to go hunting for a harmonica player?
TK: Probably only if I was assigned to include harmonica. The fact that you’re a known quantity, I’ve heard you play a lot, and all the guys I work with love your playing has a lot to do with it—the artists themselves are often making that decision, not necessarily me. Sometimes you might hear somebody on some instrument play something and know that you need that sound.
RG: Let’s talk about some technical considerations—firstly, are there any things regarding microphone placement, microphone choice, EQ, etc. you might mention?
TK: Not a lot! I’ve added space with reverbs, but it’s a distinct timbre that has a unique frequency range that nothing else in the mix occupies. I honestly don’t know what else I’d do except try to make it sound cool with EQ, reverb, and maybe some compression if it were recorded acoustically and if we were recording an amp, I’d probably leave it as is because that’s the sound we were going for. I prefer that if I call Ross Garren for a session that I let Ross create the sound that I’m going to end up using via pedals, effects, or whatever rather than me taking a raw sound and putting on crazy delays and stuff. I’d rather that what you bring is what it is and sounds the way we want it as we’re recording.
RG: Any specific ways of using harmonicas you’ve found effective? I know we’ve done some layering and stereo panning of things and such…
TK: I think the percussive aspect of harmonica as a rhythm instrument is really cool. And the occasional happy accident, where you do a few passes with different approaches—that may allow you to find something that might be put deep in the mix as an added textural layers.
RG: What are some of the aspects of harmonica you find intriguing, underexplored, or exciting?
TK: I really like the range of the instrument and find that interesting, from the bass harmonica to some of the screaming higher range diatonic harmonicas. I like a lot of the improvising of harmonica. It seems to idiomatically lend itself to unique things. Like John Popper, his stuff would be really hard to play on guitar. And the appeal has always been how expressive it is and how much it connects you to the human voice. Speaking of that, I hear some possible blues harp influence in Jeff Beck’s early work. If I had the luxury to really explore the harmonica on a project, I’d explore the range and colors of the instruments, the percussive aspect, and the characteristics that make it unique.
RG: Any advice you’d give an aspiring studio harmonica player or even a professional player who’s not that experienced in the studio?
TK: Double on something! I think that harmonica is not in the mainstream and strictly from a practical standpoint it needs to be one part of your arsenal. If you’re going to be pursuing a career as a whistler, harmonica, or session accordion player, then you have know styles. You have to know how to play all of the clichés. You have to know how to play out of an amp. You need the right gear and all the licks and you need to know how to improvise over changes. You have to be able to mimic every style that has come before you that’s become a clichéon your instrument. Plus, I would really get your electronic processing together because that allows you to get a variety of tones like distortion, delays, wah-wahs, and add value to what you’re doing. I think you have to create your own value as an artist on that instrument; you have to put it out there in such a way that people hear it and say, “I’ve got to have that, that’s exactly what I’m hearing even though I didn’t know it”...It’s about what you do being so cool, notabout the instrument.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article! Please feel free to write me an email through the CONTACT page at www.RossGarren.com with any feedback you may have.