Though they’ve become a more common
sight again in the last decade,
magnetic soundhole pickups for acoustic
guitars were, in many quarters, regarded as
verging on obsolescence. But before undersaddle
pickups ruled the roost, chrome
DeArmond soundhole pickups were used
by bluesmen like Lightnin’ Hopkins, folkies
like John Renbourn, and such rockers
as Neil Young (check the iconic gatefold
image in the After the Goldrush LP). And
Dean Markley’s inexpensive soundhole units
were many acoustic player’s first pickup and
remain a fixture among indie acoustic players
on a budget.
While soundhole pickups like
DeArmonds weren’t exactly accurate, they
did impart warmth to an amplified acoustic
sound that was in many ways lost when
piezo pickups came into vogue. And while
undersaddle pickups are great for capturing
the detail of fingerstyle technique, they can
sound downright gnarly in the strum-heavy
contexts of pop and rock. In recent years,
few companies have done more to resurrect
the magnetic pickup than L.R. Baggs. The
newest evolution of their soundhole line,
the M80, capitalizes on the many design
merits of the company’s successful M1.
But it’s a considerably more body-sensitive
unit with switchable active/passive circuitry
that represents a significant step forward in
terms of sonic sophistication and versatility.
If you dig the old-school look of a soundhole
pickup, there’s a lot to like about the
M80. The vaguely trapezoidal, crème-colored
pickup housing simultaneously evokes
the look of a DeArmond and a Gibson
P-90. The brown center section is home
to the pickup’s pole pieces, which are easily
adjusted with an included hex wrench.
A small blink-and-you’ll-miss-it button
that you can use to test the battery—and
four very small LEDs that indicate battery
strength—are situated on the bass side of
the pickup housing. The volume control,
which only works in active mode, is on the
housing’s treble side. And while it’s unobtrusively
placed, having to reach across all six
strings to make a volume adjustment can be
tricky business in a performance situation.
The battery and passive-to-active switch are
mounted on the underside of the pickup.
And while it’s wonderful that you can switch
from active to passive mode depending on
your performance situation, it can be a challenge
to get your hand deep enough into the
soundhole to actually switch modes.
Installation of the M80 is so simple
(provided your soundhole is adequately
sized—if not, you’ll want to have a pro guitar
tech take you through the process) that
you’d be forgiven for assuming there’s not
much to the device. But as the unit’s significant
depth suggests, there’s some rather
interesting technology at work. Like the
M1, the M80 is a humbucker with a noise-cancelling
coil that’s, in effect, suspended
and therefore more sensitive to body vibration.
The M80’s second coil is even more
completely and effectively suspended and
separated entirely from the coil bobbin to
lend even greater sensitivity.
Detractors in the acoustic community tend
to dismiss magnetic pickups as inorganic
and “un-acoustic.” Given that any pickup
system renders an acoustic instrument very
distinctly non-acoustic, that assertion is
pretty subjective. And the M80’s remarkable
warmth and sensitivity are bound to help
close the perceived gap between the natural
sounding qualities of undersaddle or dual-source
systems and magnetic units.
Fundamentally speaking, the M80 has a
beautifully airy quality and immediacy that’s
reminiscent of a good dual-source system.
Whether you’re flatpicking arpeggios or
engaging in nuanced and even quiet fingerstyle
work, the pickup delivers a very natural
ambience. This touch sensitivity and dynamic,
lively quality is doubly apparent with
the active mode engaged. And the bump in
output that accompanies a switch to active
mode makes very detailed and delicate picking
on high strings exceptionally present and
rich with overtones. If you’re at all inclined
to use reverb on your acoustic signal—judiciously
or liberally—the almost atmospheric
overtones from the M80 make the Baggs and
a reverb processor a beautiful match.
One of the real strengths of magnetic
pickups is how forgiving they can be in
aggressive strumming situations. They aren’t
plagued by piezo quack and aren’t nearly as
prone to feedback as undersaddle pickups.
Married with the harmonic richness of the
Baggs humbucker voice, these qualities
made the M1 a hit among high-profile rock
strummers like Tom Petty and Jeff Tweedy.
The M80 does all of this beautifully too,
but with the same airiness that you can hear
when you use the pickup for say, delicate
fingerstyle. It’s a great sound for capoed
work and 12-strings, and in these contexts,
the M80 reveals high harmonic content
almost like a dual-source system.
At just over a hundred bucks more than a
passive M1 and about 70 bucks more than
an active M1, some players might debate
whether or not they should spend the extra
bread. The simplest answer: The M80 gives
you both pickups in one, with the benefit of
an appreciable extra airiness and ambience
that makes it the superior pickup in Baggs’ M
line. Guitarists who exclusively engage in flatpicked
strumming in a loud band may in fact
prefer the simpler and less expensive M1. But
if your gigging life finds you moving between
detailed and technical fingerstyle and rollicking,
locomotive strumming from night
to night—or even in a single set—the M80
is a worthwhile investment that represents a
pretty sweet value for any application.