As Published in Autoharp Quarterly, Fall 2010 edition. Click Here For PDF

An Interview With Sound Guru Bill Belz

By Holly Towne

Photo by: Jane Toohey

I was on break from the pre-Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering (MLAG) workshop when Neal Walters started to chat, and the conversation turned to sound and making the autoharp sound good. Walters started telling me how they had hired Bill Belz's company, Pleasant Valley Audio (PVA) out of Conshohocken, Pennyslvania for the first year of MLAG.

They were thrilled at the results and hired him again the following year, but after set up, Belz went to another job and left someone in his place to actually run the sound. Things just did not sound as good that year, so Walter told Belz that he needed to stay at MLAG for the entire gathering or lose the contract. Belz chose to stay, and that began a warm relationship between MLAG folks and Bill that has run for 20 years.

As it turns out, PVA has been providing services all the way back to the first public gathering at the Orthey Farm, which is how Bill and Neal first met.

I mentioned to Walters that it was not easy to work sound with an autoharp, and he said that Belz had a secret method. I wondered aloud whether Belz would share his secret in the interest of helping new autoharp players, and Walters said he was not sure, but thought it was something about how Belz placed the mics in a criss cross pattern. He agreed to introduce me.

Later that day, workshop completed, I went to the Rec Hall to register and find the right slot for me to volunteer some time. There was my friend John Dettra from Capital ‘Harpers helping to set up the sound with Belz, and Walters was seated beside Belz lining out the requirements for the first night’s concert. I sat down nearby until they were done, and then Walters made an introduction. Belz was understandably hurried, but agreed to an interview later in the week when things had calmed down.

I have a little background in stage, lighting, sound, video, etc., so I figured I’d help John run cables and set up mics and stands. The first thing I noticed was that with the exception of the Master of Ceremonies mic, the mic's were set up in pairs, an upper mic and a lower mic, stands pretty close together. The upper mic was a Shure SM 58, the lower mic was a Shure SM 57. The lower mic had a windscreen, the upper did not. These are the industry workhorses, rugged and relatively inexpensive at around $100 ballpark.

Let us cut to the evening's concert. I took a seat behind the sound table to watch both the talent on stage as well as the man running sound.

As British friend Heather Farrell-Roberts observed, he never took his focus off the performer. He worked all the time, always balancing and supporting the performer, literally performing a subtle dance with sound and the performer.

Subsequent evening concerts showed this to be his continual pattern. He was not a "set it and forget it" guy. His was a continual ballet, a duet with the talent, enhancing and supporting, evening out the instruments, blending them with the vocals until there was a beautiful mixture of music, everything perfectly balanced. And yet, unless you were able to watch from the back, you would never be aware that anything had changed, except that the performer or group sound just got better and better. And that is the true secret of Belz's artistry. His changes are so elegant and smooth that even the performer is unaware that things have changed except to know that he sounds great!

It was Saturday afternoon before we had a chance to really discuss Belz’s thoughts on enhancing autoharp performance with sound. Belz has asked for the opportunity to read through this article because he wants to be sure that you get the most accurate information.

What you are reading will have Belz’s blessing, and there may be some addendum at the end directly from him, which I welcome.

As it turns out, the mics are placed carefully in what Belz calls ‘touching, or just crossing in an xy configuration. The upper mic, the SM 58, would be tilted upward and to the right to catch the vocal. The lower SM 57 would be angled to the left and downward, pointing to the harp. Belz says that this is a fundamental studio recording technique that avoids phase cancellation, a condition where two mics placed close together can develop a hollow quality. The distance between the top and the bottom mic is not as important as that they are touching at the rear end of the mic.

"Regarding mic placement -whether or not the mics touch in an x-y configuration is not so important as that the mics cross at the bottom, where the cable connects. In fact touching is not necessarily optimal, as when they get bumped, it creates mechanical noise. Almost touching is better. Maintaining a 45-90 degree angle between them is the really important thing. Actual angle will be in relation to the vocal mic, keeping in mind that harp construction and the player's technique will vary. This means the angle between the two mics may vary from performer to performer. It may be possible to use a single stand with a clip-on adapter to hold the second microphone", Belz said.

So there you have the secret, straight from a master of audio, the guy renowned for making Autoharp players sound good!

Of course, this is only one of a number of approaches to micing. A Lapel mic on the strap behind the harp is great for improving gain before feedback. This is how Belz works with Lindsay Haisley. Sometimes he'll add a front mic just to add some of the brilliant high frequencies back into the mix.

I asked about the distance a performer should be from the mics. Belz said it depends on technique. With the SM 58 you can benefit from getting closer to the mic, especially if you feel you have a thin vocal, where a bassy voice can be further away. He suggests getting the harp as close as practical without hitting as you play.

We discussed plugging the harp into a sound system. He suggests that for a person working in loud environments, a magnetic pickup is the better choice as opposed to a piezo electric. Depending on the quality you're after, a direct connection between harp and sound system may provide a suitable solution. It definitely will provide more volume without feedback. He recommends learning the difference between speaker cable and instrument cable and being clear on where the instrument cable should plug in on your equipment.

Having noticed how many of the performers moved the mics on stage, I gave Belz a chance to comment on his experiences with performers and how they work with mics.

Here are words to remember, "I used to be strict with performers, telling them that the mics are placed for a reason. You can't always gauge the height of a performer, but a gross movement of the mic does not always result in a better product for the performer."

I wanted to ask his recommendations for a basic recording system for newcomers, but that would put him in an awkward position since PVA also sells these products.

He suggests that you head to a store like Musician's Friend, Guitar Center or any large music and sound retailer (Sweetwater, ZZounds, etc.) and check for handheld field recorders. There are many entirely suitable recorders that can do the job. He did tell me that he uses Marantz and Tascam. Most large retailers have a selection to choose from. He said that Alesis makes an interesting unit, the ProTrack, which records to an iPod. He also advises that you choose something that has intuitive controls, and not too many layered menus. When I checked their website, I noticed that they have a used equipment for sale department and that they have some nicely priced SM57 and SM58 mics, as well as mixers, etc.

Finally, I asked Belz what he'd like to tell an autoharp player who sits down on his stage.

"The performer needs to be attentive, and to listen to the way their performance interacts with room acoustics, sound system, audience, etc. Bowers is a good example of knowing how his sound is interacting with his audience. A lot of performers close their eyes, disappear from view, but they lose a connection with the audience as well as with the sound of their own instruments. A good sound man tunes into the performer and what the performer is feeling and hearing and sensing. A bit of a dance."

And dance he did. I do know that if you ever find yourself up there on the stage at MLAG, you'll be in a close partnership with a guy who knows his business, knows good sound, and really cares about enhancing your sound to the highest standards.

He's genuinely fond of the folks at MLAG. "There's always a bit of sadness as I pack up to leave. I won't let anyone else do Mountain Laurel. This is my family."

It's funny, when I first walked into the Rec Hall on Day 1, I kept hearing wolf whistles, but they were from women. I figured it was a private joke. On Day 5, Belz's working garb was memorable. Cindy Harris told me a most fascinating story of odes to bike shorts and stage performances and blushes.

I suggest that you ask her privately for the whole story, but if you have the Commemorative DVD, there's documented proof.

Bill Belz is President of Pleasant Valley Audio 1013 Conshohocken Road Suite 217 Conshohocken, PA 19428 Phone 610-941-9661 Fax 610-941-9261