It’s not a common thing for recording engineers to come across an instrument like the harp, that’s like a hybrid between the piano and the guitar. I might not exactly be a recording engineer myself, but I can say I have quite a bit of experience with trying to record my harps in various ways. So, here are a couple of considerations to make about recording and mixing a harp:
1. Tuning it first
I know that one sounds pretty obvious, but I think that’s important enough that it has to be mentioned. Maybe I’m a bad student, but I often get lazy and I don’t always tune my harp. Result is: Sometimes I forget to do it before recording, and that’s the kind of thing I never miss regretting once I listen back to the track…
EDIT: A fellow harpist suggested to also add that making sure the pedal felts are not worn out is a very good idea as you might hear the clacking on the recording. I think making sure you’re using an instrument that’s in good shape is absolutely essential to a good recording. So, if possible and necessary, adjust it before.
2. Stereo or mono recording?
Of course, stereo is always a very likable solution for recording: the harp kind of is like a piano, and it adds a lot of depth to the recording if you’re able to record it stereo. Lately, I figured out it was much easier for me to record in mono. Why? Preventing phase issue is a big problem if you don’t have the proper equipement. The shape of the harp and the fact that it moves while it is played makes it very difficult to mic properly unless you have a microphone stand that’s made for that. I personnally achieved much better and consistent results out of using only one of my two NT1A’s, but that’s just me.
Actually, a week back, I listened to my old Youtube videos, and I watched my very first cover “Ich hab’ die Nacht Geträumet” This one was recorded with my Zoom H1 microphone, and I think that pretty inexpensive setup was the most efficient that I had since the stereo take is already perfectly set.
I think there’s no solution that’s better than another one, but I think getting a stereo take may not be worth it if you don’t have the necessary means. I would sacrifice the stereo take in exchange for making sure that I can get a better mic positioning & a sound that’s easier to work with.
3. The Space
The space is always something you want to consider for recording, but more specifically for the harp, there are really important things you want to take into account.
The harp is an instrument with a huge range (Same as a piano), it is then important to take into account that at some point, it will probably interact a lot with the room you are in. That said, unlike the piano, the harp has clear differences in tone along its range (tone vs. sustain). It’s very important that you stay aware of how these components interact with the room. I personally have two options: either I record in the most sterilized environment to make sure I have as much control as I need, or I record it in a space that already sounds great.
That seems a little bit obvious (it kinda is), but I just wanted to drag specific attention to it because the harp, due to its acoustics, will interact A LOT with the room it’s in, and you want to make sure it is used at its advantage rather than at its disadvantage.
4. Mixing a harp
This one is probably the trickiest for me as mixing is an art in itself, and art is something you can hardly codify. I’m just going to go with what I personally do and why, but a lot of it can be left to you, depending on what you’re searching for.
Range-wise, the harp resembles the piano a lot, so the principles are rather the same. As I said earlier, since it has a tendency to interact a lot with its room, you might want to notch the specific frequencies that bother you, but other than that, I don’t think there is anything special to say about EQing a harp other than that. (Note: I may cover specific contextual EQing in a further article, but right now, I’m just going to leave it to that as I don’t believe EQ to be more or less relevant when talking specifically about the harp. – EQ is a lot more about context than it is about single instruments.)
I think this one is the most crucial of all. It took me a long while to figure out how I was supposed to compress my harp, until I figured I got the best results using a Multi-Band Compressor. Since the tone of the harp is not consistent throughout its range, I feel it is important to treat frequency bands as separate entities. The highs of a harp have a very fast attack, and an equally fast release. They then tend to have a very bright and punching attack, but their fast release often creates holes in the music. On the contrary, the bass of the harp have a slow attack and a slow release also: Their attack is pleasant and soft, but they have such a long release it gets a bit muddy and undefined.
To get the best out of my harp, I figured I would divide my compressor in 3 distinct bands: Highs, Mids (as a sort of transition between both) and Lows. Where to cut it will be up to you since all harps do not have exactly have the same amount of tension along their range.
Highs: I set a fast attack to counter the often unpleasant attack they have. I want their sound stay clear and punchy, but I definitely don’t want them to burst unexpectedly either. Then, I set a fast release so I don’t cut the already low amount of sustain they have. That gives a sound that’s more even without necessarily losing their bright quality (I like to think like the highs of my harp sound like little sparkling stars!)
Mids: Basically this section serves as a transition between the highs and the lows, I usually keep it in between the two settings, but that goes with the harp you are recording and it’s just there to make the transition between the highs and the lows smoother.
Lows: I set a slow attack to bring the sound together and keep the natural punchiness it has, and then I set a slow release so the tail of the sound is less muddy and clearer. It then gives a more contained sound while remaining smooth at the same time!
The way I usually go about reverb, is I simply try to continue the work that I did with the compression. Like I said, the highs tend to sound a little bit dry by themselves, and the lows are often overly muddy. With my reverb, I’m basically just going to try to emulate a room that’s going to give a more “legato” feel to my high notes, as I’m going to limit its response in the low end of my register. I sometimes get a bit creative with the reverb, but it’s just important to keep in mind the specific ways in which the harp can interact with its environment!
As I already told, I’m definitely not a sound engineer in any way, but I think these general considerations and the experiments that I have made along my journey might help some of you to get a better understanding of the instrument acoustic-wise!
Have you ever had to record a harp? What were your struggles? Did you come across solutions? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment, I’m definitely open to suggestions and discussion about the topic!