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Now, I know some of you will be tempted to stop reading right here, but please resist the urge. For some, the mere mention of the words “digital” and “guitar” in the same sentence is seen as sacrilege. This sentiment isn’t entirely unfounded. Those of us who were around to see and hear the earliest iterations of digital recording technology know that there was a lot to dislike. The crunchy, warbly, artifact-filled, 8-bit birth of digital recording could be a horrible-sounding thing, and some of the ways in which companies have tried to combine analog and digital concepts have been downright disturbing. But we’ve come a long way since then.
Over the years, companies have spent millions of development dollars in the pursuit of digital tone. Whether you call it “emulation” or “modeling,” the goal and focus of these efforts has been to digitally recreate the characteristics and tone of existing analog technologies, namely amplifiers and effects pedals. The objective has been to achieve something that sounds just as good, but not necessarily better. (Peavey’s ReValver is a notable exception, as it allows you to replace and design your own virtual circuitry. To really take full advantage of its capabilities, however, one needs at least an associate’s degree in electrical engineering.)
Are there advantages to software-based amps? Certainly. They’re much lighter and arguably more flexible than their physical counterparts. They don’t break down and they always sound exactly the same, regardless of age. Modeling is a worthwhile endeavor, but it isn’t the type of digital convergence that excites me as a musician. No, when I sit down to play I’m more interested in creating something new, something that’s never been heard before, and yet something that is also, at its core, still familiar and retains all the elements of my guitar that I like. One of the best examples I’ve found of this vision is the Fishman Aura system.
Since its inception, Fishman has been dedicated to the pursuit of amplifying acoustic instruments as accurately as possible. My favorite acoustic “baby,” a 1985 Alvarez Yairi DY-45, has a Fishman piezo system installed. While it is better than the soundhole pickup that preceded it, it’s still a far cry from what I hear when I sit down to strum unplugged. If you have a traditional acoustic pickup you’re probably very familiar with the feeling: When you record using the pickup and then listen to the track, you hear a guitar but it isn’t necessarily your guitar. Being somewhat of an acoustic purist, I was admittedly quite skeptical when I first heard of the Fishman Aura system. My fear was that it would be another digital failure. But once I had the chance to put it to use in my own studio I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The system works by recording a wide variety of guitars with several mics and capturing “images” of each guitar. This information is loaded into a pedal and used to process the output from your guitar’s pickup. When I listened to the playback of my tests, I heard my guitar as I’d never heard it before. The direct signal from my piezo pickup always sounded brittle and crispy to me, but I liked the underlying clarity. The Aura-processed signal captured the snap and attack of the piezo, but also contained the full-bodied warmth and richness that I’d thus far been unable to capture without hours of trial-and-error mic placement.
So, in a completely pure sense, was it my guitar? Yes and no. There wasn’t an exact preset match for my particular model, so I had to choose something similar. (Fishman does offer a service that will image your personal guitar.) At the end of the day, the only thing that mattered was that it sounded amazing and the result was something that would never have been possible had I not been willing to give a new digital concept a chance.
This is the type of convergence that relights the spark that got me into playing and recording my guitar in the first place. Is it a complete replacement for a $5000 guitar, mic’d with any number of high quality microphones in a perfectly treated acoustic environment? No, of course not. But it isn’t intended to be. It is a new meeting point along the analog and digital paths, something that is both pure and synthetic, and also completely pleasing.
Ultimately, you don’t have to sacrifice the things you love about your analog guitar tone in order to embrace or befriend digital technology. “Digital” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. You can be an acoustic guitarist and plug into a digital device and not betray your core values. There is a happy medium— a convergence—of digital and analog. If you let go of your preconceived notions and past negative experiences, and open yourself to a little bit of experimentation, you too can discover a voice of your instrument that you’ve never heard before.
Alan Carter is a sales engineer at Sweetwater Sound, a life-long musician, and the proud father of one beautiful daughter. He is also the bassist for the Tim Harrington Band (www.Tim-Harrington-Band.com). He can be reached at Alan_Carter@Sweetwater.com.