Premier Guitar

Fishman Aura Spectrum DI Review

October 21, 2009

Fishman’s Aura Spectrum DI is a revolutionary beast. It’s not a modeler, designed to make your guitar sound like something it’s not, so get that idea right out of your head now. What it does is return things like Helmholtz resonance to the sound of your pickup, in order to restore the sound of the guitar as heard when professionally mic’d in a pro studio. And if you didn’t know, Helmholtz resonance is basically the sound of the air coming out of your guitar, and is one important piece of what defines the sound of a guitar. It’s what a mic pics up when you place it just to the northeast of the soundhole in a studio— that amazingly complex and rich tone that sounds so deliciously guitary. No matter how good your pickup is, it’s not going to deliver that tone, so the clever wizards at Fishman decided to create software images that allow you to blend that resonance into your sound. This was the impetus of the Fishman Aura system, and now the Aura Spectrum DI.

According to Fishman, they recorded several hundred guitars with a generous sampling of mics in different placements and at the same time recorded the output of the Fishman Acoustic Matrix undersaddle pickup. Then, using a proprietary computer algorithm, they created what they call Images. When you use an undersaddle or soundhole pickup to play back through an Image, the microphone recording is restored. Because every guitar has a signature sound, Fishman stresses the important of using the exact image (or as close as possible) for your instrument in order to achieve the most realistic sound.

The Aura Spectrum DI can be used to go direct to a PA system or a mic preamp for recording, or you can use it with an acoustic guitar amp. It uses either a 9V battery or a DC power supply, but cannot use phantom power. The Spectrum DI comes with a CD containing additional Images and the Aura Image Gallery software to install them into the User Images bank.

Be Not Afraid
It’s an overwhelming array of buttons, knobs and selectors, but it’s really pretty intuitive. There’s Volume and Blend, and between them there’s a big knob with a bunch of numbers, and a curved slider with the different banks printed alongside that allows you to choose from Dreadnought, Orchestra, Concert, Jumbo, Nylon, 12-string, Bluegrass or User images. The Bluegrass bank actually includes images of fiddles, mandolins and dobros.

The next row of knobs is the 3-band EQ section (Low, Mid and Hi), and the compressor. The EQ section default is for the guitar’s pickup only, but if you want to EQ the images you can do that, too. The bottom row includes an effective and easy-to-use anti-feedback switch and the tuner switch, and a panel in the middle that tells you what settings are currently active or if you are in program mode. I found the tuner to be a little frustrating, but tuners always frustrate me. It was a little too slow to respond, and a little difficult to read from five feet six inches away. I didn’t have an opportunity to test the anti-feedback, but according to the manual all you have to do to use it is turn it on. Easy is good.

The unit also includes an effects send and return, and both 1/4" out and XLR out, which can be used simultaneously, for example if you want to send the 1/4" out to a guitar amp that will act as a monitor on stage and send the XLR out to a house board. There is a ground lift that kicks on when both outputs are active so you don’t have any hum.

The Nitty Gritty
Now to the Images themselves. This is kind of a hard concept to understand. Basically, these Images blend with the sound of your guitar and pickup to give you more of a studio-mic’d tone. It’s not trying to emulate any other guitars, or make your steel-string dreadnaught sound like a nylon-string guitar. Its purpose is simply to enhance your pickup by allowing you to blend in the Image of what your guitar might sound like mic’d in a studio.

I have an L.R. Baggs iMix pickup in my spruce and rosewood Gallagher GA-70, so I set the pickup blend to the saddle transducer only. According to the manual, I need to choose the “orchestra” bank, which is done by moving the slider next to the big knob on the top row. Now I have sixteen Images to choose from in the orchestra bank. The manual contains tables of all the Image banks. You choose the type of wood your guitar is made from (cedar or spruce and mahogany or rosewood are the defaults), and then choose the microphone that was used to create the Image. For an orchestra model made of spruce and rosewood, there are five mics to choose from: a Schoeps CMC64, a Neumann M147 and KM84, a Soundelux E47, and a Shure Beta 58A.

I decided to download some additional Images. The Aura Image Gallery software gallery installed onto my laptop in a snap, and I was surfing through the available Images for other similar guitars in no time. I decided just for the heck of it to snag a few Images from one of Laurence Juber’s guitars, in addition to a couple other models that seemed close.

Back to the guitar again, I ran through the models. Laurence Juber’s Images sounded great (big surprise), and I had fun switching between bypass and image to hear how much difference there really was. It was quite dramatic. I have to say I didn’t care for several of the Images, but that’s okay—it’s a personal taste thing, and your guitar may sound fantastic with Images that don’t work for my guitar.

Record Time
The Aura Spectrum DI has multiple uses in studio as well as onstage. It can be used to “reamp” a dry, pre-recorded guitar, or it can be included in the initial signal chain. If you record with a pickup and a mic, you can use the DI to sweeten up the pickup, or you can apply the Images after the fact. Either way, it gives you a much bigger sound. You could even make several copies of your pickup track and apply different mic Images to each track, giving you a “wall of acoustic guitar” type sound.

The Final Mojo
If you’re looking for a way to recapture a mic’d sound in a mic-unfriendly environment (which is sadly where most of the gigs are these days) Fishman’s got you covered. It’s a remarkably clever idea, and honestly the difference between the dry signal and the “Imaged” signal is very dramatic. If I have any complaints, they’re visual: the print on the unit is very hard to see in low light, and the knobs just have a notch to show where they’re set, which you can barely see even in good light. It’s not just the young folks with good eyesight buying gear! Overall, I’d say this is a versatile piece of gear that’s got a lot of potential. And according to Chris DeMaria, Fishman’s Director of Marketing, you can send your guitar to Fishman and they will image your guitar and send it to you on a disc. Sweet!
Buy if...
you long for the tone you get with a mic, but have to use a pickup onstage most of the time.
Skip if...
you are one of the lucky bastards that still gets to mic your guitar on stage.

Street $330 - Fishman Acoustic Amplification -