Microphone — The Egg-Static Harp MicBy STEVEN PAGE, The Believer, 1st June, 2005.
$20 on eBay.
When I was a teenager, my parents would occasionally go away for the weekend, leaving the house to my younger brother and me. Instead of throwing wild parties, I would rent a four-track cassette recorder, and my best friend Geoff and I would record songs that we’d improvised, laughing from Friday night until Sunday afternoon.
Later, it became part of my job to make records, and other people began choosing the microphones and the outboard processors, and large bills were rung up in expensive studios around the world. Still, when I got home, I would slink down to the basement and record ideas and fiddle with equipment. Before I knew it, I had a collection of my own recording gear.
For a while, I was content collecting the same German microphones as everyone else. But there comes a point in every collector’s life when the Holy Grails of collecting give way to esoterica: The collector of first growth Bordeaux moves on to the unknowable mysteries of Burgundy; the collector of Beatles rarities becomes a specialist in South American psychedelia. Now I find myself squatting naked in the aisles of eBay, searching for recording gear both unique and cheap. Which is how I came across the Egg-Static Harp Mic.
Built in a garage or a basement somewhere in America for blues harmonica players to plug into a guitar amp, it is an old-fashioned solid metal tea ball (the kind with holes stamped into it, not the mesh type) with a ceramic element inside and a quarter-inch jack on the bottom. It cost twenty dollars, so I bought two.
I decided to record an entire song with the Egg-Static mic, to see what it could really do. I felt like Bryan Ferry crooning suavely into that slender microphone I remember from photographs as a child, although I suspect I looked more like Gene Rayburn from Match Game.
When I listened back, I couldn’t hide my disappointment. Because the Egg-Static amplified handling noise, the slightest movement of my fingers would render a track unusable. But more than that, I had hoped the Egg-Static mic would carry with it some kind of underground mojo, some kind of extra sauce that would add soul and dirt to my music. I stupidly imagined that it would infuse my own voice with a weathered wisdom and sadness I could never otherwise possess. It didn’t. I just sounded kind of plain and exposed and a little noisy.
My bandmates, over to do some recording at my place, saw it lying on top of a gym bag. Jim asked me what it was. “Oh, it’s just a mic I picked up,” I told him, instantly feeling guilty for selling it short, but I needed to protect myself; he could either want one for himself—which would remove its cachet—or he could laugh at me for thinking a tea strainer was a microphone. As expected, he thought it was great. And so small! (Jim dreams of miniature versions of things that usually satisfy most people at full size.) “Well,” I told him, “it’s a pretty specialized mic—not really an all-purpose one like you’d want for on the road.”
I felt terrible about squashing Jim’s enthusiasm, but I felt even worse for the Egg-Static. Because of my fragile collector’s ego, I demeaned this small, hardworking utensil, and kept it from doing what it was meant to do: transmit music to other people. I needed to make things right. I plugged it back in and tried some guitar, letting the mic dangle inside the sound hole of my acoustic. It sounded suitably old-timey, and I chose to ignore the hissing and humming—some things are just not worth dwelling on, especially when you’re trying to make a microphone feel some modicum of self-worth.
The moment I cupped the harmonica and the Egg-Static in my hands, I realized that this was how it had needed to be held all along. Cradled gently in my hands, it made no erroneous rustling noises, no thumps or hums or hisses; it just made music. Instead of trying to treat it as if it were some microphone it was never meant to be, I should have held it, protected it, whispered into it while it slept in the warmth of my palms.
Click here to hear an mp3 of the song that Steven recorded with the Egg-Static Harp Mic.