Microphone Elements Explained – Part 2

It’s been a while, folks, but at last we continue the Harmonica Microphones series with the second part of Greg Heumann’s exposition on microphone elements.

The Harmonica Microphone Series beginsLast time around, we described two kinds of elements used for amplified blues harp – dynamic and crystal elements. So let’s name some of the most sought-after crystal and dynamic elements, and find out how to shop around for them.

Which are the most desirable Dynamic elements?

The most desirable dynamic elements among amplified players are the vintage Shure “Controlled Magnetic” and “Controlled Reluctance” elements (“CM” and “CR”). Yes, CR’s and CM’s are dynamic elements – but because they are special ones we usually refer to them by their marketing names instead of just lumping them in with all the other “plain old” dynamic elements. These elements came in the Shure 520 and 520D microphones, among others. The current 520DX has a more modern dynamic element which is less desirable tone-wise. It is brighter and has less bottom end.

Much has been written about Shure’s Bullet elements; Dave Kott’s excellent site has more information than you’ll ever need so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that these are great elements, and because of their “magnet and coil” construction, they have tended to last much better than crystals. Many players are still using the dynamic elements from vintage Electro-Voice microphones as well.

Dynamic elements are the most common among modern microphones as well. They are used in the majority of mics marketed to amplified harp players (Shure 520DX, Peavey Cherry Bomb, Bushman Torpedo, etc.) as well as the most popular instrument and vocal mics like the Shure SM57 and SM58. There is a huge range of dynamic elements. The newer they are, the more likely they are to appeal to acoustic players and the less they will to amplified players. This is because they have extended high frequency response which can be harsh and they don’t tend to “break up” as easily, making it harder to induce distortion at the amp. However there are exceptions. The Shure SM57, for example, actually breaks up very nicely and makes an excellent harp mic.

Which are the most desirable Crystal elements?

The most desirable crystal elements craved by harp players are the Brush Crystal, the Shure 99-131 aka “R7” element that came in the Shure 707, and the Astatic MC-151 element that came in the JT30. The Brush and Shure elements are all but extinct. The MC-151 element was made for a much longer period of time, but has still been out of production for many years. They are available (I still collect them for my customers) but their prices are going through the roof.

Over time, any crystal absorbs moisture and softens until it literally falls apart. If you buy an “untested” crystal on eBay, it is practically guaranteed not to work. Often, if you shake them they rattle. This is what is left of the crystal bouncing around inside the element. Along the way, they become more and more susceptible to damage from drops, temperature extremes, or even very aggressive playing (I once ruined a crystal, which undoubtedly was getting ready to go anyway, by drawing really hard with a tight cup. The vacuum pulled too hard on the diaphragm, and broke the connection to the crystal).

How do I get one?

Ah the million dollar question. If you like to gamble, you buy them on eBay. If you don’t, buy them only from a reputable dealer who knows harp and knows elements. eBay is filled with deception and ignorance. If you see a crystal element available (usually in a mic shell) with a description that says “I have no way to test it” you can assume it is dead. Of course this isn’t always the case, but it is generally true. Crystals don’t always fail all the way at once. Their output can simply get lower and lower. So even one that “works” may not work well at all. The only way to know is to try an element by hooking it to an amp. And the only way to know then whether it is in truly great shape is to know how loud they’re supposed to be. I buy crystal elements to provide to my customers. I charge a high price for them. Why? Because I’ve had to eat the cost of a lot of lousy elements I will not resell. If you buy from me, you get a good element, or your money back!

You’ll often see eBay vendors showing you the resistance measured across an element. However, you should never hook an ohm meter to a crystal – you can damage the crystal this way. But across a dynamic element, the fact the resistance is neither zero ohms (a short) or infinite (open) tells you that the coil in the element is still working. The value will also tell you something about the element’s impedance. 50-100 ohms indicates a low impedance element, somewhere around 1000 ohms indicates a high impedance element, and somewhere in between can indicate a medium impedance element. These are rare, but should be avoided as it is difficult to find a proper impedance-matching transformer for them.

The ohm meter’s reading, however, will not tell you anything about the tone of a particular element. Do not believe that 1.1K ohms is better than 1.2K ohms, or vice versa – it simply isn’t true. It is also not proof that the element is good. An element that’s corroded or squashed may not work or will work poorly, even if the coil is OK.

If all this talk of impedance leaves you just a little bit in the dark, don’t worry. I’ll explain more in our next article.

Greg Heumann is curating our Harmonica Microphones section. Read his previous articles here. You can find more from him at www.blowsmeaway.com.

15 thoughts on “Microphone Elements Explained – Part 2

  • May 23, 2011 at 6:01 am

    I have been playing harmonica for over 40 years. Don’t be confused by all this high tech. info. You can spend tons of money on amps and mics trying to find that sound someone else is playing. Until you can have good tone playing without amplification you will never have it playing pluged in,garbage in garbage out!! I have a 150 $ fender champ tube amp with a line out and volume control a friend set up for me,plugs directly into the PA and use a jt 30 mic. Has the sound i want for blues,country anything. No one ever said they didn’t like the sound from this combo.

  • May 26, 2011 at 5:57 am

    Hello Kevin. I’m sure our microphone article curator would agree with you re: the effectiveness of good unamplified tone. His articles do make reference to it, and this one in particular has lots of comment along those lines.

  • May 26, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Hi Kevin. I remember speaking to Jerry Portnoy about exactly this and it was the basis for my recent Whammer Jammer workshop for the National Harmonica League (UK NHL). Jerry says you can knock the fast dudes off the park and kill an audience with one good note. While less is more, it’s still something you have to work at though. Tone, an understanding of song structure and timing count for a great deal. Magic Dick maintains too that attention to detail is what makes you different/better as a player. I hope to start my video selection soon – one of which will involve the search for good tone. This could also be the theme for the next Indiana Jones movie. Meanwhile you can read the interview with Jerry here. https://www.harpsurgery.com/jiving-with-the-greats-jerry-portnoy-boston-2april-2009/

  • May 28, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    You guys have a great web-site for harmonica players. I’m sure it’s hard work,but also very enjoyable. Keep up the great work, and thanks from all us harp play’in soul seek’in gunslingers!!

  • September 10, 2012 at 2:37 am

    I have a dead Shure Element 99-131, and so what is an inexpensive replacement? I have a Microphone I would to keep original with the unit. It’s from a Packard Bell PhonOcord. Any information will help, thanks in advance.

  • October 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    Jack I don’t have an answer for you off the peg, but let’s see if anyone else can help.

  • February 20, 2018 at 5:53 am

    I want to use my Astatic Silver Eagle D-204 with my harp. I’m in the process of converting it over to an XLR connector. Not yet sure if the element is good, but if not should I go to a ceramic. And how is that mic for playing harp? I don’t see it alot. Sure seems like a great shape for cupping. What are your thoughts?

  • April 18, 2018 at 1:37 am

    hi, I have a good one for you, I play upright bass in blues bands among other styles, and use an ampeg 800s mic which is inside the bass on the end of the end pin. also has a mic in the circuit that sits under the bridge to pickup vibes from the top of the bass. the kicker is that both mics are shure crystal elements number 99b94 dated fl (dec 1967?) . they both are barely audible and sometimes are dead. will any cm elements replace these? thickness of the element is a limiting factor on the inside mic since it has to go thru the f hole to install. the f hole is appx 1.12 in wide. any suggestions?

  • August 27, 2018 at 7:09 pm

    Hi Cordell. Er, one for a bass players’ website I reckon :o)

  • August 27, 2018 at 7:14 pm

    Stand by Charles, I’ll just check with my mic guru and get back to you asap.

  • August 30, 2018 at 11:58 am

    Ok, we managed to reach mic guru Greg Heumann and he very kindly offered the following advice..

    Be sure you’re connecting these mics to a high impedance input (unless there’s a built in impedance matching transformer) before judging their output. A low impedance input will suck the output level WAY down. I don’t know how these are physically mounted. The closest thing you could get in size would be an Astatic MC151 crystal – those were made for another decade and there are still a number of the “newest” ones that are still functioning 100%. I think I have some though I don’t collect them actively any more. I also have Brish puck crystals from their BA-106 (and similar) mics. The are a little smaller in diameter and a little thicker but would still fit easily. You’re right – I don’t think a CM would fit through the f-Hole.

    I am not the cheapest place to get elements but you do take a large risk if you buy off of eBay. People sell crystals claiming they work when they’re actually near death and have very low output. But here are my element prices:

    99S556 Dual Impedance CM (what was in a Shure 520D) $89 in stock
    The Heumann Element * $159 in stock
    99A86 / 99B86 CM (what was in a Shure 520) $159 in stock
    99G86/99H86 white label CM’s, Other “premium” CMs $199 in stock
    99H86 / 99G86 white label CR’s $249 in stock
    99A86 / 99H86 / 99G86 black label CR’s $299 in stock
    Astatic MC-151 Crystal 100% output $249 in stock
    Astatic MC-127 Ceramic $269 in stock
    Shure R7 Crystal – 80% output $349 in stock
    Shure R7 Crystal – 100% output $399 out of stock
    Brush Puck Crystal – 80% output $249 in stock
    Brush Puck Crystal – 100% output $329 in stock
    Brush EV920 Crystal $369 in stock

  • August 30, 2018 at 12:00 pm

    Hi Charles, we managed to chat with Greg Heumann and he kindly offered the following advice..
    It is way too big for hand holding. If you intend to use it on the stand for acoustic, should be OK. But you can’t just connect an XLR connector and plug it into, say, a PA type amp. The is a very high impedance mic and you’d be connecting it to a low impedance input. You need to run through an impedance matching transformer, which, when going high-to-low like that is more commonly called a “DI Box”. (The thing we call an impedance matching transformer is for low to high – same guts, but the connector sex is opposite.

  • February 12, 2019 at 12:12 am

    Love this website! What a community of palpable good will! Hope this my ”huntin’ and peckin’ at the keyboard will amount to a worthy contribution and maybe one of you extraordinarily erudite gentlemen (or ladies!) can answer a question.. It’s surely true that no ”magic mic” or mojo hand amp will give the fat tone, and smooth, creamy, ”brown sound” (an old phrase from the tolex on a vintage Princeton!), so sought for by post Little Walter era harmonica players. Yet, as Gary Smith pointed out in a classic 90’s video cassette I still keep, even though I have no way to view it, ”gear” is absolutely a large part of the equation. Or so it seemed until the last decade. A paradigm shift of Copernican proportions has made life so much easier and awesome tone obtainable far earlier than the ”10,000 hours” so often given as the base line of virtuosity on one’s chosen ax. Kid’s have it a lot easier than in my day when only Tony Glover’s book (always missing the accompanying record!) was all that a library might have on blues harmonica. In my experience, Lonesome Wolf’s pedals going directly into the P.A. have made the back line obsolete. Sure, the first generation of amplified harp players often did this anyway (and those were tube driven), but it was because of the necessity of adequate volume and not by choice. I’ve had/have vintage amps and ”boutique” amps and even they are enhanced by these pedals (I’m using a ”Boogieman” at present), but I leave them safe at home and just go straight into the P.A. What a pleasure- the sound men marvel at having to fade my channel so as not to swamp the guitars (I NEVER thought I’d hear those words!). And then there is the pursuit of tone via the mic. I’ve got a grey (paint worn off before I was even born!) Green Bullet and an Astatic Model 30 ”half biscuit” mic , and have used many other vintage models and NONE sound better than Greg Heumann’s Bulletini. NONE have the adaptability to various mic and amp combinations (it actually makes all my experience in that area obsolete!) And NONE have the possibilities inherent in the fine point response of his volume control. I actually think it might be a disservice to sell the Bulletini mic w/out the VC, because old timers were used to only using that old Switch Craft adapter for feedback control (I’ll concede it looks really cool!)- but Heumann’s knob is responsive, and useful for textures and emphasis through almost the full range of rotation. I’m in ecstasy ”rolling on and off” for effect, like a guitarist, for crying out loud. Yet were it not for one of the demo videos on his site, where the endorsee made and demonstrated this breakthrough, I’d have bought the model sans the VC! Meanwhile I have 5 (still in the white box labeled PMC 151) (oddly enough stamped as MC-127!), NOS crystal MC-151elements. Or are they ceramic elements- which were MC-127? Anybody know? I heard the mold broke so even stamped MC-127, if they have the white MC-151 sticker, they are crystals. Now I believe these were some of the last ones Astatic made (in Mexico, was it?) during the 90’s, and I bought up a mess of them believing it was the end of the line. I think they did stop making the JT-30 around that era, and that’s why I panicked and bought them up. Maybe I should sell them because the Bulletini is where it is at! I was so tired of agonizing over the danger of dropping the vintage crystals or having them stolen in the confusion of a gig. And even with huge ”carpenter” hands, that tiny Bulletini sans the old Switch Craft adapter (thank heavens Greg counseled me to go with the screw on cord, or again, my ”stone age” mentality would have led me to miss a great improvement- all my ”Tom Ellis” vintage mics used the Switch Craft, mic to 1/4 ” jack adapter and I just assumed that was the way it had to be. I think this is the golden age of the blues harp! I’ve been grinning like a fool since I combined that pedal and mic. And it has renewed my passion. Economics has had me playing as a one man band for more than a decade, so all of my harp playing has been in the rack. If I did sit in with a band, I’d usually play ”off the mic” like Rice Miller (I flatter myself- I mean I TRY to sound like ol’ Sonny Boy (I or II- either one is fantastic). But I ;left Hawaii, after 26 years and ”down” in Va. when these bands hear that Chicago style high compression hand held sound, I’ve got standing invitations to sit in and follow my long dormant passion. I’m back to blowing a couple hours a day to get my tongue blocking chops back and once again studying (rather than just passively listening) to the Walters, Sonny Boys, Big George and Bill Clarke (plus my deep weakness for Hammie Nixon (John Lee’s mentor), Papa Lightfoot and Jerry McCain! It’s a renaissance for me and is an example of how the music interacts with technology. What if Jimi had come before the changes in amps and the advent of effects blossomed? What if Elvis had come before the great clarity of sound recording was possible. I love Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and 7 recordings, but the fidelity leaves a lot to be desired and the technology made having a drummer too much of a risk. (plus Pops just had so much power, that he had to hold back, don’t you just know!). So, in my opinion, there is no discounting the importance of the right rig no matter how fine one’s tone and technique might be. And with what’s available today, nobody has to spend a small fortune (plus the hassel) of experimenting with all the vintage mic and amp combos. Let me end by thanking anybody who knows and can school me on this crystal vs. ceramic MC 127 and 151 labeling issue and for the joy I’ve found in this site. Anyone traveling through Tidewater Virginia, give me a call- you got a friend and will be guest of honor at any Westside Smitty show (even though it might be only some juke joint, roadhouse, hole in the wall dive, I’m playing in that night. ”And then (we’ll) mellow down easy”!

  • February 12, 2019 at 12:31 am

    Dang! I reviewed my ramblings several times trying to get it all edited correctly, but now that I’ve pressed ”post”, my errors come straight at me. Sorry for the punctuation errors but also under website- I don’t have one! I typed in YouTube or Facebook and I always answer all comments (on my channel). Actually, ya’ll are most welcome to publish my email in case anyone wants to send word off site. I’ll certainly answer/thank anyone who responds on this site. But, yeah, when I reviewed what I’d written, I saw that under ”website” my ”YouTube or Facebook had somehow changed to something like ”20%youtube’ etc. etc. and I’d never get the query. When I was a kid, I’d write to this one or that one (I’ll leave out the actual names), and never even get so much as a form letter. So I make durn sure to show my appreciation to everybody (and not all the comments on my YouTube videos are exactly what you’d call ”praise” (or sometimes, even half way civil), but I still acknowledge them if only to disagree. I should have left ”website” blank. Maybe you can fix that. Thank you!

  • May 26, 2021 at 10:38 am

    Love your site, its great to have all this extremely interesting information all in one place. About 11 years ago I got Greg Heumann to build me a custom harp mic, what a beut, and the depth of tone ,truly wonderful, I was living in Brisbane at the time (I’m a Kiwi) and playing in a jazz combo, suffice to say the mic came in for some harsh treatment (after I moved to China and was playing in a Chinese Rock Band), now back on the farm in the south island playing every Saturday night with some truly accomplished Covid refugees , BUT, my custom mic suddenly stopped working, I was left with a somewhat underwhelming Madcat ring mic as backup. I contacted Greg and he has been truly remarkable, what a back up service, he’s had so much patience with me pulling the thing to bits and testing all the component parts, turns out to be the cable (the weak link in the chain). If you want to invest in a amazing bit of kit, go no further than Greg

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