Egg Static mic (left) and Bottle O' BluesharpsWorking end of Egg Static mic (left) and Bottle O' Bluesharps againBottle o' Blues opened, foam filler readyBig SixHarpsEgg Static openedHarp profilesJack entry for Egg Static mic (left) and Bottle O' BluesXB 40 and Marine Band

Microphones

While professionals may want a certain sound or style on stage and thus demand specific microphones that meet demanding technical and audio specs, I wanted an inexpensive microphone that still gave a reasonably good sound for my undemanding ear. After all, I'm only playing for myself at home, and perhaps jamming with friends. So I went online to look for something, and started at eBay where there are numerous homemade mics available.

The first mic I bought was Jim McBride's 'Bottle o' Blues' handmade microphone. Made from a clear plastic spice or pepper bottle, with the innards exposed, this is a medium-sized mic. I found it a tad awkward at first, but since I haven't used a mic for a couple of decades this is understandable. Any reasonably sized mic will limit your hands somewhat and make some cupping effects muted or impossible. The neck of the mic is a little narrower than the body, which makes it easy to wrap a finger around it to hold it in your hand close to the harp.

The mic provides a good frequency response, and doesn't seem to overload into feedback very easily, but even that's easily controlled by the volume dial on the mic itself. Although it looks big, it's very light. An added bonus: with a little model paint, you can paint the outside to customize its look.

Testimonials on Jim's site speak of the mic providing a 'Chicago blues' sound, by which it seems they like some fuzzy tube-style distortion. I try to get that through my amp and my hands, so I'm not sure how much the mic is responsible for it (in fact, I would think a cleaner mic would be better as a starting point... so you can layer in effects with more precision). But I'm satisfied with the sound it produces and according to the testimonials on his site, so are many others.

My only issue with the Bottle o' Blues mic is that I'd like to be able to remove the mouthpiece cover and put some foam or hollow-fibre pillow stuffing in between the mouthpiece and the actual microphone to hear how that affected the sound. Unfortunately it doesn't seem like the cover can be removed to test it.

I got the 'Egg Static' mic from its eBay seller (no web site). It's a small microphone built into a metal tea ball - the kind used for steeping tea leaves - with a guitar-chord jack on the back. No controls. While the frequency response is supposed to be the same as the Bottle O' Blues, the Egg Static mic seems more sensitive and more prone to feedback - a small volume control dial ('volpot') would help. But it produces what seems to me a good response once the amp is set up to compensate for its native thinness.

I find I have to turn down the amp's treble control quite a bit compared to the Bottle O' Blues mic to get an equivalent sound. That's not really bad, just a matter of adjustment. The real plus is the small size - easily held in the hand with a harp and still lets you use your hands for cupping effects. It's less clumsy when trying to play the Pipe Humming harmonica, too. But it's sensitive enough to pick up the sounds of your hands, so you have to hold it tightly and not rub the metal cup.

Again, it appears sealed - I'd love to open it and try the experiment with the hollow fibre pillow fill to see if it dampens the mic's sensitivity and reduces the feedback potential.

Of the two, the Bottle O' Blues is certainly the better for harmonica - the 'bluesiest' sound by far. The Egg Static sound a bit 'tinny' in comparison (much more high frequencies). This can be compensated for through the amp, so it's not really that much of a drawback, but played one-against-one with no effects settings, the Bottle comes across as richer and grittier.

Curiousity got the better of me. I pried open both mics. The Bottle was sealed with some silicon caulking, so it came apart easily. I folded a small rectangle of foam filler (see photo, right)  and placed it in the cavity between the mic and the mouthpiece. It didn't affect the response significantly, but it seems to have helped stop any popping due to air (and possibly saliva) hitting the mic directly. The Egg however is different. The mic is lodged in a piece of foam which seems to be glued into the top of the tea strainer. Without cutting it out, I can't change the configuration. The top unscrewed easily, by the way, once I got it started.

Both these mics should be fairly easy to make at home - anyone with some competence in soldering should be able to buy the components and put them together. It's mostly a matter of selecting the proper microphone element (ceramic or dynamic) then wiring up an appropriate potentiometer and a jack, then placing it a suitable carrier. I can feel a winter project coming on... if you're keen on making one yourself, check Harmonica Typepad first for instructions and a component list.

I borrowed a Bullet mic clone from Blue Mountain Music to test and while it sounded good, I found it clunk, big and heavy. The Bottle still sounded better when compared one-on-one and is a whole lot easier to hold.

I was given a Shaker madcat microphone in late winter. I had read some good things about them and a member of the harp-l mailing list was kind enough to send me one to test (photo soon). It's a great design: small, ergonomic, easy to hold while you cup the harp. However, it's a very clean sound compared to the Bottle o Blues, so it doesn't suit everyone. I used my amp effects to muddy it a bit.

Because it's small, it's light, but I find my hands tend to curl and bring the mic very close, sometimes even touching the harp. That's probably fixed through more practice than a design flaw. The biggest flaw is the short cable. Not sure if it's standard, but mine had only a 2' cable, requiring me to get a connector to play it standing upright. That just adds another piece of hardware to get lost or disconnected.

I liked the Madcat design, and think the small size is terrific, but didn't think the sound was particularly outstanding for the harp, given the popularity of a muddier/hotter "Chicago style" sound. Frankly the Bottle o Blues mic still sounds better.

I've also read good things about the Audix Fireball and Harmonica Honker mics. Maybe I can test them in the near future.

Update: I've heard some good things from fellow harpists about the Honker. Emails I've received over the past few months have all spoken highly about it and its hot output. The Honker is also smaller than the Madcat and the ring design makes it easy to hold. I may have to get one myself in the near future to test.

MP3 samples at 160 kb/s: Shaker Madcat & Lee Oskar, Eggstatic Mic with Lee Oscar, Bottle O Blues mic with Lee Oskar . Sound samples courtesy of my longtime musician friend and music teacher, engineer and performer extraordinaire, Rick Garner.

Would I purchase another Bottle O' Blues? Yes.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes.
Rating (0-5)
: ***1/2

Would I purchase another Egg Static? Yes, if they had an amp with EQ settings to adjust for the higher frequencies.
Would I recommend them to others? With a volume control, not without.
Rating (0-5): ***

Would I purchase another Madcat? Yes.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes.
Rating (0-5)
: ***

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