Amplification for the Wire–Strung Harp

Before there were planes, trains, and automobiles, there was silence. The musical instruments of days long past developed in a much quieter world. People’s hearing was better, performance spaces were usually smaller with floors and walls often made of hard reflective surfaces, in sharp contradiction to today’s acoustic–dampening tiles. People may also have been a little more focused on the music given the lack of personal music players with their headphones delivering sound directly into the ear. The modern environment is a challenge for any acoustic instrument. It is a special challenge for today’s wire–strung harper.

Since the late 1800’s we have introduced electricity to our culture, installed wall–to–wall–carpeting in our rooms, hung deadening acoustic ceiling tiles, and padded our chairs. The blowers of heating and air conditioning systems, humming light fixtures, sirens and traffic noises, helicopters flying overhead, all make our modern world a very noisy place. Electrified instruments, huge orchestras, and bigger instruments vie to keep up with this louder world. But the small, accoustic Clàrsach did not evolve into a powerhouse of sound. Somehow, we must reinforce the sound of the instrument to make it louder for certain situations. In particular, there are times when the sound needs to be louder in a noisy environment so that the harper can hear him/herself as required for background music (wedding receptions, for example) and then those times when the sound needs to be louder for a large listening audience.

The wire–strung harp is an unusual and highly specialized instrument. While there are hundreds of thousands of guitar players all benefiting from the economics of research and technology development that leads to the design and manufacture of sound–reinforcement systems, the wire–strung harp’s “economies of scale” leave us with no easy solution. Thus, every piece of technology available for this purpose was designed for instruments other than the wire–strung harp. We have to adapt what is available.

One consistent truth in capturing the sound from wire–strung harps is transparency in audio quality. The wire strung harp is an exceptionally complex instrument. The overtones of any string are astonishing and complex. Some strings “pop” harmonically and the instrument as a whole is dynamic and breathes sound. Notes may sound for a full minute or more: an eternity of time to a modern sound system. What other instruments have this kind of sustain? Certainly not many. One could point to the pipe organ, but when was the last time one of those needed sound reinforcement? (Referring to organs with functioning pipes of course, and not electronic organs.)

Many people say, “I need a microphone,” when they think of amplification, not even conceiving of the other elements required. Even limiting oneself to thinking of microphones, there are many different types: large diaphragm microphones, small diaphragm microphones, ribbon microphones. There is the use of combinations of different microphones, the issue of microphone placement and axises.

The goal is to amplify for the best sound quality for the harp, a sound that is transparent, uncolored and absolutely representative of what the harp sounds like acoustically. In short, we want a natural sound despite the technology.

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