Once upon a time, acoustic guitarists needed to haul a van’s worth of gear to a gig to amplify their
instruments and vocals. Today’s sound-reinforcement gear is far more compact, yet it offers more
features and clean headroom.
In my previous column [“Context is
Everything,” January 2012], we were in
the middle of a tale about a singer-songwriter—
perhaps you—who was entering
the world of solo gigs and wrestling with
the many gear decisions we all face when
performing onstage with an acoustic guitar.
We left off where our hero had done a successful
coffeehouse gig and was now preparing
to buy the requisite gear for a series of
pub gigs on a much bigger stage. Now, let’s
continue with our story…
While you’re not really a gear guy, you
realize that the boom-mic setup that worked
so well in the coffeehouse just won’t cut it
at the huge brewpub. So you head off to a
music store to talk to Stevie, the acoustic
guitar specialist. Once you explain your situation,
you’re relieved to see he clearly understands
your gigging requirements and is able
to recommend a number of intelligent solutions.
Not only does he talk you through the
various available pickup options, but he also
offers to set you up in the acoustic sound
room so you can get first-hand experience
with some of the gear and explore different
approaches to amplifying a flattop.
The room is quiet and well organized.
Because there are loads of acoustic-electric
models from various manufacturers hanging
on the walls, a nice variety of acoustic amplifiers,
direct (DI) boxes, and effects pedals,
you’re able to try the different options before
deciding what type of pickup to have installed
in your guitar. Also, having a top-notch repair
and service technician right in the store is a
real plus. After setting you up, Stevie tells you
to take as long as you like with the gear, and
to give him a shout if you have any questions.
While trying different combinations of
guitars and amps, the first thing you discover
is that you’re getting hooked on playing
plugged-in guitar. The expanded dynamic
range alone is enough to sell you on the
concept, and the additional colors the effects
make possible are just more icing on the cake.
Okay, you’re having fun, but an hour has
slipped by and it’s time to make some final
decisions. First, you decide you’ll be buying
an amplifier with effects, so part of your
budget will be reserved for that purchase.
Next is the pickup decision. Using the different
guitars in the sound room, you’re able
to try all the available styles and you find
that most of them sound pretty good. In the
process, you take notes on the different sonic
personalities of each pickup type. And you
take their price into account, as well.
Playing some guitars equipped with
soundboard transducers (SBT), you enjoy
their woody and organic amplified tone,
but discover that at high volume—the levels
you anticipate at the brewpub—the SBTs
accentuate guitar-handling noise and can be
prone to feedback. The magnetic pickups
you test seem quite impervious to feedback,
but have less of that woody quality in their
tone. Offering minimum controls—sometimes
just a volume dial—mag pickups are
super-easy to use and hold up sonically even
when you bash out chords and riffs.
The majority of the guitars you play have
factory-installed undersaddle pickups paired
with an onboard preamp and EQ system.
Undersaddle pickups prove to be good at
resisting feedback and handling noise, and
sound more acoustic than the mag pickups.
When you play with a light touch, they’re
responsive and detailed, though vigorous
strumming introduces some harshness to
the tone. You like several guitars equipped
with undersaddle pickups and digital “imaging”
or mic-modeling electronics, but realize
they’d stretch your budget too far.
Ultimately, you resolve the pickup dilemma
by choosing a hybrid system that features
an undersaddle pickup, a miniature internally
mounted mic, and a blending preamp.
This setup allows you to add some “air” from
the internal mic to the undersaddle pickup’s
crisp sound. A real bonus: The soundholemounted
controls don’t require extra drilling.
You find Stevie, and he agrees that the
system you selected will work well at your gig.
So you follow him to the repair department
for the installation, which they agree to do
that afternoon. Next, you tell Stevie you want
an amp, and ask for his help in choosing the
right model at the right price. In particular,
several brands of line arrays catch your attention,
but you quickly see they’re out of your
price range. Stevie then walks you through the
features of a half-dozen acoustic combo-amps
that fit your budget and you end up choosing
a compact, 2-channel, 100-watt model with
onboard effects and a DI output. The second
channel can handle a microphone, and this
will come in handy for announcing songs at
small solo gigs that don’t offer a house PA.
As you cash out, you grab a high-quality
instrument cable, a clip-on tuner, and a folding
guitar stand. You have three more days
before your gig—enough time to get comfortable
with your rig before you put it to the test.
In my next column, we’ll continue our
story and see how everything works out at
the pub gig!