Amps Crash Course for Harpists

Amps Crash Course for Harpists

Amps, PAs, cables, guitar pedals, preamps, power supplies, loopers…

Is your head spinning yet? 

If you’re like most harpists new to the world of electronics, you may feel overwhelmed at the sheer amount of choices available and breadth of things to learn. We have put together a series of guides to help you make sense of it all and get you on your way to being a Harp·E rockstar!


Introduction

“What amp should I get?” is one of the most common questions we get asked. Even though it seems like it should be straightforward, the answer is actually quite complicated as there are many types of amps for many different purposes. I know that this doesn’t help, so let’s break it down with some questions that you should ask yourself when shopping around for an amp.

Considerations

Tone
Amps play a major part on how your instrument will sound. Different amps provide different tones, so musicians choose their amps carefully with that in mind.
Do you want your Harp·E to sound as natural as possible, like an electric guitar, or something else entirely? 


Portability
Will your amp stay mostly in one location, will you take it traveling, or to the big stage?
Do you want to busk with it?
Bluetooth and battery powered amps are perfect for travel and busking, but at the cost of sound quality, possible lag (in the case of bluetooth), and battery life.Some amps can get very big, will you be able to carry a heavy amp?


Volume and Sound Quality
Will you use your amp for practice or professional gigs?
What's the typical size of your concerts/gigs? 

If you need a quieter amp, look for a lower wattage (5-15 watts). Louder amps (for stages) are higher wattage (30-100 watts). Bigger speakers also provide more volume and frequency response versus smaller speakers.

Choosing your amp will ultimately come down to this one question: 

What will you be using it for? 

Types of amps

Amps come in three types to suit musicians’ needs and budget. They each have their own mechanism of action. 

Tube Amps

These are your vintage-style amps. Before the 60s, every amp was a tube amp. Guitarists have used these amps for decades to get a signature warm classic rock sound. We don’t have to get into the weeds of how they work, but you should know that their sound comes from physical glass tubes inside the amp that process the instrument’s sound, hence the name. The tubes add natural harmonics and overtones to your sound instead of using digital processing. 


Besides their signature warm/organic tone, these amps are known for their responsiveness to dynamic changes. They will perform differently depending on how high the gain is and how loud you play your instrument, an advantage over modern-style amps. It is almost like having a natural compressor. Your playing will be more dynamic (as in, more range in volume) if you play softer versus louder. 

Cranking the volume will create a smooth, warm distortion that is a great fit for blues. A common opinion amongst people who use tube amps is that the louder you crank it, the better it sounds due to that distortion. These amps also tend to get louder than other types.

If you enjoy tinkering with electronics, you can open up these amps and use different types of tubes to fine tune your tone. 


To summarize the pros:

  • Warm sound coloration. This is the tube amp’s bread and butter. Many tone-purists swear by tube amps alone and refuse to work with anything else.
  • Dynamic response. The amp adapts to your playing in real time, providing natural compression.
  • Natural distortion. If you are looking for a great and natural sounding distortion, tube amps are a way to achieve that, no pedals required.

  • All this sounds great, but there are some real drawbacks:

  • They are expensive. These amps will cost you a pretty penny with a common starting price of $500 and can go up to several thousand. 
  • They are fragile. Since their whole thing is the glass tubes, this makes the inside components fragile. Sometimes just moving around the amp a bit roughly can cause the tubes to get damaged. 
  • They are bulky. These amps are bigger and heavier than their counterparts; not practical for travel or small gigs.
  • Maintenance. The tubes unfortunately have a lifespan, so they will eventually need to be replaced. This type of maintenance is not needed for other types of amps and can be quite the hassle if you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • Not great at low volumes. This amp is not a good fit for those who are looking to mostly use it to practice at home or play for small gigs.
  • Solid-State Amps

    Unlike tube amps, solid-state amps use electronic components to process and amplify sounds. Since they don’t have tubes, their sound is cleaner and more natural. There is no difference between loud and soft playing, the amp will always sound and react the same. You can crank this amp as high as you want and the tone will remain clean, perfect for technical playing. You won’t hear any of that sound coloration that you find from tube amps, which can be a positive for those looking for a clean and precise sound. 

    The lack of internal tubes also make these amps less fragile, require much less maintenance (no tubes to replace), and weigh significantly less, making it perfect for beginners who just want a reliable amp with no frills. The cost is also significantly lower, a huge plus for many. Your standard practice, entry level, and travel amp will be a solid state. 

    Many solid state amps come with built in effects that can step up your sound. Reverb, chorus, and distortion are commonly found on these types of amps, lessening the need for pedals. 

    To summarize the pros:

  • Lower cost. This is a big pro for the harpist on a budget! 
  • Low maintenance. You don’t need to worry about replacing parts.
  • No pedals? No problem. Many come with built-in FX.
  • Although, there are cons:

  • Sound quality. Lower end solid-state amps tend to have poorer sound quality compared to their tube counterparts. The quality gap closes the higher you go in price.
  • Not great with pedals. These amps do not take pedal sounds as well as tube amps, but plenty of musicians still use pedals with them.
  • Less dynamic. These amps do not have natural compression. If you want that, you will need to get a compressor pedal.
  • Tone. Many feel that solid state amps are more cold and tinny compared to the warmth of tube amps. As previously stated, the quality of tone improves with higher-end solid-state amps.
  • Hybrid amps

    These amps are a blend of solid state and tube. The signal is processed with an internal tube to provide that signature warmth and then amplified using solid state technology for added clarity. This allows you to have access to a bit of that tube sound without shelling out a lot of money. Since there are less tubes and they are used less, the tube doesn’t need replacing nearly as much. Less tubes also means less weight and size if you are searching for that tube alternative. This amp also combines the reliability of a solid state amp so you won’t have to worry too much whenever you transport it. 

    Pros:

  • Best of both worlds. The warmth of a tube amp with the simplicity of a solid-state.
  • Cheaper than a tube amp. If you want the tone of a tube amp without paying the price tag, this is the way to go.

  • Cons:

  • Tubes still need to be replaced. Less tubes means less maintenance, but not no maintenance. They will eventually need to be replaced. 
  • Still heavy. Since it combines the functionality of both solid-state and tube amps, it will still be heavier than a solid state amp. 
  • Won’t sound like a tube amp. You will hear a difference, but it may be slight. This mostly matters to those vintage aficionados. But if it sounds good, who cares right?
  • Not many options. Most amps are either one or the other, so you won’t have a wide selection. 
  • Notable mentions

    Bass amps

    A common recommendation we hear for harpists is bass amps. Just like guitar amps, they can come in tube, solid-state, or hybrid flavors (although the majority are solid-state). Why pick a bass amp over a guitar amp?

    Let’s discuss the differences. First, bass amps require much more wattage than a guitar amp. Guitar amps go to an average maximum of 100 watts, even for the loudest setups. Bass amps go from 100-700+ watts. They need higher wattage since lower frequencies require more power to reproduce. 

    Due to this requirement, the physical construction of a bass amp has to be different. Bass amps have much larger speakers on average. Another reason for the larger speaker is to adequately play lower frequencies. 

    But how different does it sound compared to a guitar amp? Since the amp is made for, well, bass, its frequency response is focused on the low to mid frequency range. This is great for adding that bassy meat that a lot of harpists are looking for. Many guitar amps miss those lower frequencies. On the other hand, since the frequency response does not go as high as a guitar, you may lose some of the sparkly high frequencies that we associate with harp. The tone of bass amps tends to lean cleaner and more natural than a guitar amp.

    Pros:

  • Adds bass. An obvious one but needs to be stated, many guitar amps make harps sound thin.
  • Little to no coloration. Unlike your average guitar amp, bass amps sound more natural.

  • Cons:

  • Big and heavy. Since bass amps have larger speakers, they tend to be quite heavy and hard to transport.
  • Not great with higher frequencies. Since these amps are made for bass guitars, they don’t replicate higher harp notes well. 
  • PA Systems

    While not proper amps, PA systems are worth mentioning as many harpists tend to opt for these instead. Even though they both amplify sound, both PAs and amps serve different purposes. PA system stands for Public Address System. A PA is the final stage of the amplification process. If you see a live concert, all the amps on stage will be miced up and amplified together by a stereo PA system usually located at either side of the stage. 

    Since PAs are the final stage of the amplification process for large concert venues, they have to cover a wide range of frequencies to accurately represent any sound run through it - be it electric guitar, bass, vocals, keyboard, etc. The frequency response of PAs tends to be flat, which allows a natural representation of the sound. A typical amp, on the other hand, is made to recreate and color the specific limited frequencies of a guitar. Due to this, harpists often run into trouble finding the perfect amp that replays the full spectrum and subtleties of their harp’s sound without unwanted coloration or tinniness. 

    PAs also have the advantage of amplifying sound across a wider area than an amp due to their shape and by typically being raised on a stand. If you perform with a band, they provide you the ability to connect multiple inputs and balance them together - another advantage over an amp. PAs tend to have more fine tuned sound controls (EQs, short for equalizer)) that allow more precision in controlling your tone. This is a plus for those familiar with EQing and mixing.

    Most employees at music stores will recommend a PA for harps of any kind. 

    Pros summary:

  • Will make your harp sound like a harp. PAs are for accurately portraying how instruments truly sound. The frequency response range is very wide and flat.
  • Bigger reach. Great for large venues.
  • Multiple inputs. If you perform with a band or sing with your instrument, you can connect to the single speaker and balance each signal.

  • With this stated, there are downsides just like other methods of amplification:

  • They are expensive. This choice is not for the harpist on a budget. A good PA system typically starts around $500 and goes up to several thousand dollars.
  • Most are big, clunky, and heavy. If you are limited on transportation space, PA systems may not be a good choice. Many PAs are huge, have multiple parts to carry, and are heavy enough to be cumbersome. Of course, this is not a universal rule, portable PAs do exist.
  • More involved setup. With cumbersome equipment comes cumbersome setup. Also, the more sophisticated EQ controls of PAs can require extra time and fine-tuning before performing. PAs are not as plug in and play as amps are.

  • Conclusion

    As you can see, there is a world of options. There's no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to choosing the best amp. Many musicians tend to own multiple amps so they have one for every need. For instance, those who tend to travel a lot and busk like to add a small bluetooth or battery-powered amp into their arsenal. 

    Before making a purchase, we recommend visiting your local music store to try out different amps with your Harp·E. Play in various styles with the full range of the harp to hear how each amp responds to different music genres and its full frequency range. Ultimately, the most important thing is that you like how the amp sounds, not the individual specs. 

    To connect your Harp·E (or any instrument) to an amp or PA, just use any quarter-inch cable. Music stores have plenty to go around. 

    We hope this guide serves as a helpful starting point in your journey to find the perfect amp for your Harp·E!

    We hope you enjoyed this blog post! If you have any questions or would like to learn more about Harp·E, feel free to contact us at info@harp-e.com. Happy harp·ing!

    Stay tuned for more exciting updates, tips, and resources!

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