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Performing acoustic guitarists can be divided into two camps: those who plug in, and those who don’t. For purists, there’s no alternative to playing into an external microphone, which sounds great under ideal circumstances. Unfortunately, most of us gig in less-than-ideal settings, which makes plugging in a necessity.
Acoustic players who plug in can be subdivided into two more categories: those seeking sounds closest to a pure acoustic voice of their guitar, and those who embrace the opportunities of going electro-acoustic. The latter group sometimes uses pedalboards that electric players would envy, and signal chains comprised of a tuner, a preamp/DI box, some sort of EQ, and perhaps a reverb unit are common. Chorus, compression, and delay are also popular, as are modeling or imaging processors like Fishman’s Aura.
With the A3, Zoom is betting that one box can replace those individual components for convenience-minded acoustic players.
One with Everything
“Like a Swiss Army knife” is an overused term, but it’s hard not to make the comparison here. All the components I mentioned above? Check. A second channel for a vocal or guitar microphone? Check. Anti-feedback function? Check.
The A3 packs a lot of features into a little box (about 6" x 4" x 2"). It may also take the prize for most knobs and jacks per square inch. The unit’s face alone is home to 11 dials, three pushbuttons, three footswitches, and an LCD display. On the right side are a standard 1/4-inch guitar input and a switch that optimizes the unit for use with piezo or magnetic pickups, or leaves the input flat. The left side is home to a pair of 1/4-inch jacks used for mono, stereo, or headphone output, and a USB connector for firmware updates. Finally, the A3’s forward-facing panel features a combined XLR and 1/4-inch input optimized for microphones (including the option for 24- or 48-volt phantom power), a jack for the supplied power adapter (the unit can also be powered with four AA batteries), an on/off switch, a ground lift button, and balanced XLR output.
The A3 has three footswitches, which, due to the unit’s compact size, are worryingly close together. The center switch activates the selected patch and engages a chromatic tuner. Another switch turns on a boost function, which can be useful for solos or switching between flatpicking and fingerstyle. The third switch controls an automatic feedback reduction function—welcome news for players who deal with loud stage volume.
Intuitive in Use?
When I check out a new piece of gear, I like to see how far I can get without cracking the manual. (I think of it as the “I have two minutes to grab a sound on a dark stage” test.) With the A3, I happily discovered that the fundamental preamp/DI box functionality doesn’t require scrolling through menus.
Here’s the basic signal flow: A large dial selects from 16 different guitars styles (such as Dreadnought, Round Shoulder, Orchestra, Double 0, Resonator, etc.), and you choose the setting that most closely matches your guitar. Then there are two input gain knobs for the unit’s twin channels, each with an LED peak indicator. Next are a 3-band EQ, master level, and a balance control to set the blend between dry and effected signals.
I plugged in a Martin OM with an L.R. Baggs Ribbon Transducer undersaddle pickup, selected the “Orchestra” input setting, and connected the A3’s output to an AER Compact 60 amp via the 1/4-inch mono output. The result was a clean sound that allowed me to raise the pickup’s gain a bit before it hit the amp. While the EQ is not the most powerful, it enabled subtle and useful adjustments.
The A3’s real muscle lies in its software-driven functions, including digital modeling of various acoustic guitar types and microphones, plus a wide array of effects and EQs.
You can use two effects and one guitar model simultaneously and save your combinations for instant recall.
The A3 features 28 acoustic guitar models, including 16 in the input section. This enables two different approaches: You can match an input selection and a model similar to your guitar to create the most accurate amplified representation, or mix and match to experiment with different combinations.
My Martin OM has an Adirondack spruce top and Indian rosewood back and sides, so I was happy to see that the Zoom offered two OM models with similar wood combinations: an OM-28, and an OM-42. My guitar sounded great with both models, and I got the best results with about a 50/50 balance setting. (Using much more of the model revealed trace digital artifacts.)
How did the models work for simulating the sound of a different guitar? I tried an OM-18 patch (based on a guitar with mahogany back and sides) and could detect the extra brightness I’d hear from a typical OM-18. Dialing up dreadnought settings provided more bass and a little more punch, while a parlor model provided a smaller, more midrange-heavy sound.
Reverb may be the most important effect for many acoustic players. The A3 offers 12 different varieties, of which the hall and room types are most useful for enhancing acoustic sounds. None were so pristine that I’d choose them over a high-quality dedicated reverb unit, but I’ve played plenty of gigs where I’d have preferred the Zoom’s ’verbs than those of the venue’s mystery PA.
The digital graphic and parametric EQs are also impressive. The latter provides surgical control over offending frequencies. There are several lush sounding choruses, and aggressive strummers will welcome the available compressors. The unit’s delay, tremolo, phaser, auto-wah, and flanger effects work well, sound good, and are easy to edit.
The Zoom A3 is a pretty amazing little box. It can genuinely enhance the plugged-in sound of less-than-premium acoustic-electrics. For players who need to cover a lot of territory, it’s a powerful tool when space, weight, and convenience are paramount.