Harmonitronica Geekout: The Hole Story

Last night I posted my third song for this year’s February Album Writing Month. “This Hole,” along with the previous song, “I’m Not Not Very Concerned,” combined harmonica with loops created in Korg’s iKaossilator, an iPad application.

As usual with my harmonitronica work, listeners hear the harmonica as all sorts of other instruments — guitar, keyboards, synth. The Kaossilator provides the drum and bass lines, and in “This Hole,” the atmospheric industrial sounds, plus a touch of synth. It involves more preprogramming than I usually do for harmonitronica (the vast majority of it is performed and recorded completely live), but allows a very intuitive “playing” of the rhythm track in real time, so I can vary the rhythm as I’m performing.

But the lead is all harmonica. Once people recognize that, they often comment on the tone of the harp. As with any instrument, the majority of tone comes from the player. In this case, I’m playing a C chromatic, a Super 64, in fifth position (meaning, I’m playing in E minor). The chromatic doesn’t allow for true bending but it’s got a great range (four octaves) and a metallic clarity that blues harps don’t have. Chromatics have always been favored for minor-key blues. I’m playing it very hard on this track, using a lot of double stops and different kinds of attack.

Effects, of course, also create a great deal of what you hear in this piece. On “This Hole,” there are three main effects: two delays, and a distortion pedal. (These are applied both to the harp and the vocal, by the way.) The distortion pedal is my treasured OCD (Overdrive, Compression and Distortion) pedal by Fulltone. I like it better than any other distortion pedal I’ve tried. It’s not just trying to emulate an overdriven tube amp like the Blues Driver and its relatives (I have tube amps), nor does it completely shred the harp the way metal-oriented distortions do. It has a warmth and thickness that are perfect for harmonica.

The two delays in this case are a Boss DD6, and the Eventide Timefactor. The latter is, to my ears, the best and most flexible digital delay on the market and I have tried many of them, from rackmount models to boutique pedals like the Strymon to standbys like the DD20 and the famous mint-green Line6 DL4. For this piece, I used the TimeFactor’s band-pass filter delay, which adds and deletes frequencies from the delayed sound, towards the middle of the frequency range where the harp is strongest. I can open or close the filter with a pedal. You can hear it clearly at the start of the piece. The filter is closed at the start, opens up at the last note in the second phrase, and closes again with the metallic sound at the end of the third phrase.

Meanwhile, that metallic sound comes from the DD6. I have every model of the Boss digital delays from the DD2 through the DD7 (there is no DD4, allegedly because 4 is an unlucky number in Japan). Each of them has their strong point and the DD6’s is a feature called Warp, which basically increases the feedback on the delay and somehow changes its frequency response as well. Used sparingly it makes a great punctuation effect, or it can produce a vicious drone if used behind a volume pedal so it doesn’t overwhelm everything else. You can hear it on the harp at 4:54 or so, and on the vocal at 5:17, where another advantage of this tool becomes apparent: it lets me hold the last note of the vocal as I start playing the harp, letting me blend them together.

Everything is also running through a Kaoss Pad, with another kind of filter cycling. This effect is fairly subtle and mostly serves to vary the background loop in different ways. At some points I am “playing” that filter as well, adjusting it on the fly to get different feels for the track. An overall filter like this mostly places the sound in a space, making it fee closer or farther away, claustrophobic or open.

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