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Once upon a time, acoustic guitarists needed to haul a van’s worth of gear to a gig to amplify their instruments and vocals. Today’s sound-reinforcement gear is far more compact, yet it offers more features and clean headroom.
In my previous column [“Context is Everything,” January 2012], we were in the middle of a tale about a singer-songwriter— perhaps you—who was entering the world of solo gigs and wrestling with the many gear decisions we all face when performing onstage with an acoustic guitar. We left off where our hero had done a successful coffeehouse gig and was now preparing to buy the requisite gear for a series of pub gigs on a much bigger stage. Now, let’s continue with our story…
While you’re not really a gear guy, you realize that the boom-mic setup that worked so well in the coffeehouse just won’t cut it at the huge brewpub. So you head off to a music store to talk to Stevie, the acoustic guitar specialist. Once you explain your situation, you’re relieved to see he clearly understands your gigging requirements and is able to recommend a number of intelligent solutions. Not only does he talk you through the various available pickup options, but he also offers to set you up in the acoustic sound room so you can get first-hand experience with some of the gear and explore different approaches to amplifying a flattop.
The room is quiet and well organized. Because there are loads of acoustic-electric models from various manufacturers hanging on the walls, a nice variety of acoustic amplifiers, direct (DI) boxes, and effects pedals, you’re able to try the different options before deciding what type of pickup to have installed in your guitar. Also, having a top-notch repair and service technician right in the store is a real plus. After setting you up, Stevie tells you to take as long as you like with the gear, and to give him a shout if you have any questions.
While trying different combinations of guitars and amps, the first thing you discover is that you’re getting hooked on playing plugged-in guitar. The expanded dynamic range alone is enough to sell you on the concept, and the additional colors the effects make possible are just more icing on the cake.
Okay, you’re having fun, but an hour has slipped by and it’s time to make some final decisions. First, you decide you’ll be buying an amplifier with effects, so part of your budget will be reserved for that purchase.
Next is the pickup decision. Using the different guitars in the sound room, you’re able to try all the available styles and you find that most of them sound pretty good. In the process, you take notes on the different sonic personalities of each pickup type. And you take their price into account, as well.
Playing some guitars equipped with soundboard transducers (SBT), you enjoy their woody and organic amplified tone, but discover that at high volume—the levels you anticipate at the brewpub—the SBTs accentuate guitar-handling noise and can be prone to feedback. The magnetic pickups you test seem quite impervious to feedback, but have less of that woody quality in their tone. Offering minimum controls—sometimes just a volume dial—mag pickups are super-easy to use and hold up sonically even when you bash out chords and riffs.
The majority of the guitars you play have factory-installed undersaddle pickups paired with an onboard preamp and EQ system. Undersaddle pickups prove to be good at resisting feedback and handling noise, and sound more acoustic than the mag pickups. When you play with a light touch, they’re responsive and detailed, though vigorous strumming introduces some harshness to the tone. You like several guitars equipped with undersaddle pickups and digital “imaging” or mic-modeling electronics, but realize they’d stretch your budget too far.
Ultimately, you resolve the pickup dilemma by choosing a hybrid system that features an undersaddle pickup, a miniature internally mounted mic, and a blending preamp. This setup allows you to add some “air” from the internal mic to the undersaddle pickup’s crisp sound. A real bonus: The soundholemounted controls don’t require extra drilling.
You find Stevie, and he agrees that the system you selected will work well at your gig. So you follow him to the repair department for the installation, which they agree to do that afternoon. Next, you tell Stevie you want an amp, and ask for his help in choosing the right model at the right price. In particular, several brands of line arrays catch your attention, but you quickly see they’re out of your price range. Stevie then walks you through the features of a half-dozen acoustic combo-amps that fit your budget and you end up choosing a compact, 2-channel, 100-watt model with onboard effects and a DI output. The second channel can handle a microphone, and this will come in handy for announcing songs at small solo gigs that don’t offer a house PA.
As you cash out, you grab a high-quality instrument cable, a clip-on tuner, and a folding guitar stand. You have three more days before your gig—enough time to get comfortable with your rig before you put it to the test.
In my next column, we’ll continue our story and see how everything works out at the pub gig!