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Acoustic Amplification: The Newbie's Guide

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Acoustic Amplification: The Newbie's Guide

There’s no getting around it these days: If you want to gig with your acoustic, sooner or later you’re going to need to plug in—and long gone are the days when a good instrument mic and a small PA system will suffice. Now you’ve got competition from the coffee grinder, espresso machine, blender, the cell phones, portable video-game systems, laptops, and any other stupidly noisy electronic devices a person can carry with them.

The only way you’re going to make your trusty flattop(s) conquer the cacophony of the digital age is to arm yourself with some equally stellar guitar technologies—and a little acoustic amplification know-how. To that end, we’ve put together this handy guide with all the gear and real-worldapplication knowledge you need to make your gigs as easy and trouble-free as possible—whether they’re on a street corner, in a coffee shop, or at a big outdoor extravaganza.

Pickups

When you’re assembling an acoustic rig, you’re putting together all the stuff that makes you sound like you. And to break down the process of getting your sound waves into electrified form, let’s start with the question of how to get your lovely guitar’s signal into wires that can then send it on to units that allow you to shape the tone, add effects, and ultimately amplify the glorious sound.

Many guitars currently in production are called “stage-ready,” meaning they have electronics built in. Some of these guitars are remarkably good, but be sure you plug them in before you buy: The fact that a guitar sounds great acoustically doesn’t mean its pickup—think of it as basically a microphone that captures the acoustic sound—will do it justice. The reverse is also true: Some guitars sound great plugged in but only sound so-so unplugged.

When you start to shop around for (or read about) acoustic pickups, it can seem as though there are as many on the market as there are guitars. One important consideration to keep in mind is that there are several different types of pickups, each with different pros and cons.

Passive vs. Active
Passive pickups are those that don’t require any electronics to alter the sound (for example, by adding bass frequencies) before sending it to an amplifier or PA system. Of all pickup types, passives are the most analogous to a simple microphone—they pick up the signal and pass it through a cable to your guitar amp or direct-insert (DI) box (more on those later). Most electric guitar pickups are passive.

Active pickups require battery power, and have a certain amount of gain (essentially, the ability to boost volume) built in. If you have an acoustic that has a control panel (also called a preamp) on its side— typical controls would be volume, toneshaping EQ knobs or sliders, anti-feedback controls, and perhaps a tuner—then chances are it is also equipped with active pickups. (Some guitars also offer a tiny soundhole-mounted preamp with controls you access with your fingertips.)

If your acoustic doesn’t have a pickup but you really want to use it for your foray into amplification, almost any pickup or pickup system you decide to use is going to require some sort of modification that you’ll probably want a trained professional at your local guitar shop to handle. That said, there are some very good options that require little to no permanent mods.

Magnetic and Soundhole Pickups
Soundhole pickups are some of the most common— and easy-to-install—pickup options out there. These units simply slide into your guitar’s soundhole, though typically you do need to have your end-pin (the strap button on the fat end of your guitar) drilled out to accommodate a 1/4" jack for the instrument cable. Despite the simplicity of this pickup type, there are some fantastically good models to choose from. There are both passive and active models, and they tend to cost between $150 and $300. Check out these models: DiMarzio The Angel ($159, dimarzio.com), Shadow SH 145 Prestige Active ($188 street, shadow-elecronics.com), L.R. Baggs M80 ($250 street, lrbaggs.com), Fishman Blackstack ($250 street, fishman.com), Seymour Duncan Mag Mic ($229 street, seymourduncan.com).

Contact Pickups
Perhaps the leastinvasive pickups at your disposal are contact pickups (aka “bottlecaps”), small, passive units that adhere to the top of your guitar with a sticky tack material that won’t harm your axe’s finish—and that comes off easily. No muss, no fuss. These pickups tend to be very microphonic, meaning they are more prone to generating annoying, high-pitched feedback at high volumes. For players who only perform once in a while at lower-volume gigs, these can work really well. Just be sure you try them on your guitar before you buy. Some can be rather thin and brittle sounding, so watch for that when you’re auditioning them.

Another class of contact pickup mounts inside the guitar with glue under the bridgeplate (the dark piece of wood surrounding the area where the strings are anchored to your guitar’s body). One of the best known is the K&K Sound Pure Mini ($91 street, kksound.com). This passive system sounds terrific, creates very little feedback, and, if installed properly, provides virtually trouble-free use. Here are some others to try: Pick-up the World PUTW #27 ($150, pickuptheworld.com), Schertler DYN-G ($608 street, schertler.com), LR Baggs iBeam (passive/$90 street, active/$140 street), B-Band Acoustic Soundboard Transducer ($75 street, b-band.com).

Undersaddle Piezo Transducers
If you’ve ever seen an acoustic guitar that had one of the aforementioned built-in preamps (the control panel mounted on the upper side), you may have wondered how the heck the sound gets from the strings and into that preamp. Most guitars like this have either a passive or an active undersaddle transducer—an “invisible” pickup that is installed under the white piece of bone or plastic (aka the saddle) in your bridgeplate. Undersaddle transducers are typically made of strips of tiny piezo crystals that sense vibrations and transform them into an electrical signal.

If you have an acoustic that sounds great, having an undersaddle transducer installed may be a worthwhile part of getting a satisfactory amplified tone. The procedure—which should be performed by a qualified professional— requires drilling a tiny hole for the pickup wire to pass through, as well as end-pin-jack installation. Some more affordable options (especially those that come in entry-level guitars) are prone to what guitarists often refer to as piezo quack—an artificial-sounding tonal artifact that often makes the guitar sound thin, annoying, and not very acoustic-like. Undersaddle piezo transducers are frequently paired with other types of pickups or microphones (see the “Multi-Source Systems” section below) for a richer, more natural sound and more versatility. Examples to try: B-Band Undersaddle Transducer ($43 street), D-TAR Undersaddle Series ($80-$115 street, d-tar.com), L.R. Baggs Element Active System ($129 street), Fishman AG Series ($90 street), Fishman Matrix Infinity ($150 street).

Internal Mics
High-end guitars sometimes come with preamps that incorporate a microphone mounted inside the guitar’s body to capture a more natural acoustic sound. Internal mics usually work best in concert halls and places where you don’t need to get really loud. If the volume gets too high, they will feed back in a manner that’s unpleasant, distracting, and even painful. That said, the sound quality of internal mics can be extraordinary. If you decide to explore mics, be prepared to spend a few hundred dollars for both the equipment and the installation. We advise getting the highest quality and most feedback resistance possible, and consider a multi-source system for situations where your mic alone is problematic. Here are three examples in varying price ranges: B-Band Condenser Microphone ($75 street), Highlander Internal Mic ($175 street, highlanderpickups.com), Miniflex 2Mic ($490 direct, miniflexmic.com).

Multi-Source Systems
Multi-source systems are setups that combine two or more pickup types and control them via a single preamp. For versatility and sound quality, they’re hard to beat, because different pickup types respond to and transmit your guitar’s frequencies differently. For example, piezo undersaddle transducers provide a lot of articulation, definition, and feedback-free volume, while microphones do a better job of capturing the warm bass and midrange frequencies that make your acoustic sound airy and, well, acoustic. Blending the two typically requires using either an onboard or an external preamp (see the “Preamps and DI Boxes” section below for more on these), but it also usually captures the best of both worlds, yielding a much richer, fuller sound. These three models are similarly priced: LR Baggs Dual Source ($209 street), L.R. Baggs iMix ($229 street), Fishman Rare Earth Blend ($310 street).

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