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Acoustic Amplification: The Newbie's Guide

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Acoustic Amplification: The Newbie's Guide

Preamps and DI Boxes

If your guitar came from the factory with a pickup and onboard preamp, then you can ignore this section because you already have a preamp. But if you’re having a pickup installed in your guitar, then you may need to consider whether to purchase a preamp to add into your signal chain. Another scenario that may prompt you to purchase a preamp is if your guitar has a passive pickup (one that doesn’t require battery power). A preamp gives you the ability to add extra volume and shape the tones before they hit an amp or PA speakers. This is particularly useful if you frequently find yourself drowned out when you play with other musicians (or if you get a lot of feedback when you turn up to compete), or if you dislike the overall frequency response (bass, midrange, and treble) you get when you plug in. However, even active pickup systems can benefit from an external preamp.

Preamps come in different configurations, but the most common is the “little box on the floor” variety, such as the Fishman Aura Spectrum DI ($329 street), the L.R. Baggs Venue DI ($299 street), Ruppert Musical Instruments Acouswitch IQ ($TBD, rmi.lu), and the D-TAR Mama Bear ($349 street, d-tar.com). There are also rackmountable preamps that offer studio-quality sound and greater control over more parameters, and there are some guitarists who swear by them. But for most situations, those are overkill. “Small” and “easy” are two of the working acoustic guitarist’s favorite words.

“DI” means “direct insert,” and that means it provides enough tone-shaping capabilities to let you safely and satisfactorily insert your guitar’s signal directly into a soundboard (or recording console or interface) that’s feeding PA-system speakers. For a lot of gigging acoustic players, their DI is one of the handiest pieces of gear they will ever own. They range from super-simple conversion boxes (devices that transfer your guitar’s 1/4"-cable signal to an XLR output you can plug into the PA system’s mixing board) to elaborate and comprehensive sound-enhancement preamps like those mentioned previously.

The L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI ($169 street)—with it’s easy-to-use 5-band EQ, phase-invert switch, and super-clean signal quality—is an industry standard. The L.R. Baggs Venue DI also enables you to add up to 6 dB of clean volume boost in a footswitch, which is incredibly handy for lead acoustic guitarists in any kind of ensemble, or for switching from strumming to fingerpicking. Here are two thrifty alternatives: Whirlwind IMP 2 DI (passive $50 street, whirlwindusa.com), Radial ProDI (passive $100 street, radialeng.com).

Location, Location, Location
Where you play has a lot to do with both what gear you need and how you approach your gig. Here are some tips for venues of all sizes.

Church Gigs
Many people start their gigging careers with Sunday church gigs, and this can be great if not simply because the supportive and appreciative audience can really build confidence. Small, older, intimate, or low-tech churches don’t always have sound systems that will handle live music, so they often use sound systems that only allow one signal to pass through at a time. In this case, a personal amplification system is absolutely necessary for the congregation to be able to hear every detail of your joyful noise. There won’t be a lot of distracting noise, so you won’t need anything massive. Usually, a 50- to 60-watt, 2-channel amp will do the trick unless it’s a very large room— in which case you’ll want something more powerful.

Big, modern churches frequently have theater-style sound systems with jacks built into the stage and speakers distributed throughout the house. For these venues, you’ll need your axe, a guitar cable, and whatever EQ, effects, or preamp rig you prefer. Gotta love that simplicity!

Coffee House
Eating/drinking-establishment gigs can be some of the most frustrating performances ever. But because listening-room and concert-hall dates are few and far between for most of us, we’re forced to make the best of playing at venues where we’re simply part of the atmosphere.

An acoustic amp (with vocal channel, if that’s part of your thing) will probably suffice in most places. However, if there’s a lot of ambient noise from the kitchen and clientele, you may want to consider a PA system. A versatile, affordable system can be assembled with a small mixer such as a Yamaha MG102c ($99 street, yamaha.com), two powered speakers, and possibly a floor monitor. This is a time-tested way of making a lot of noise while sounding as much like yourself as possible—and it’s a preferred option if you’re working with an ensemble bigger than two. Entire publications have been devoted to PA systems, so we won’t dwell on that beyond presenting it as an option.

If you don’t need that much power but do need monitors, check out the Fishman SA220 or the Bose L1, both of which can be placed behind you to provide monitoring and the main signal at the same time. Either system can be used as a standalone unit—i.e., you can plug your vocal mic and instrument directly into them—or with a small mixing board to increase the number of channels.

Concert-hall and Festival Gigs
It goes without saying that hall and festival dates—the gigs where people actually show up specifically to hear you do what you do—are dream gigs for most acoustic aficionados. You almost always get to sound fabulous with a minimum of effort at these gigs.

Most of the time, the venue or event will supply the PA system, so all you have to do is show up with your rig early enough to get in a really good soundcheck. Many acoustic amps have a direct-out (DI) output on the rear panel. This is handy because it allows you to send your signal to the PA and retain control of your EQ and effects settings, while letting the sound tech simply handle levels. If you don’t know the sound tech (or perhaps if you do), this can be a great way to ensure you sound like you, rather than a craptastic version of you. (If you haven’t already discovered this, you will eventually: There are some wonderful sound techs in the world … but there are also guys who end up running the board because the regular guy has the flu.) Even better, if you use your amp’s DI function, it also enables you to use the amp itself as a monitor. Another option is to mic the cabinet, but this can be tricky with acoustic guitar amps, and should only be done by a really good, experienced sound tech.

Concert halls are usually optimized for acoustic music— usually classical or jazz—and therefore minimal sound reinforcement is needed to present the full harmonic and dynamic range of the music. In these scenarios, a less-is-more approach is often the way to go. If ever you are going to simply mic your guitar, this is the place—that is, if you or the venue has a high-quality stage condenser that can capture all the detail that wooden baby has to offer.

Conversely, at an outdoor festival, the sound seems to leave your instrument and disappear. Depending on the configuration of the stage, it can be hard to get enough of a monitor mix without getting feedback, which makes it hard to know how you actually sound to the audience. As you can imagine, this can be very frustrating. Not being able to hear yourself causes a multitude of problems, not the least of which is wearing yourself out by overplaying and oversinging. Be patient, be willing to compromise, and have respect for the sound tech—that’s the best way to handle these situations in a way that doesn’t look unprofessional to the crowd and make enemies with the sound crew. The last thing you want to do is alienate the guy who controls how you sound out front.

The other festival frustration for acoustic artists is that the acoustic stage is frequently stuck with leftover gear so that the bigger- drawing electric bands can have the good stuff. I once played a festival where my awesome hi-tech active pickup was overdriving the antiquated and poorly maintained board so badly that you could hear nothing but distortion. I now have a guitar with a passive K&K Pure Mini pickup for these kinds of situations, and I never leave home without an L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI. Lesson learned.

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