Traveling beyond the world of pickup magnets to an optical galaxy for musicians.
I wrote a column touching on optical pickups a few years back ["Piezo and Optical Bass Pickups," October 2012], but every once in a while a new or upgraded concept enters the stage that warrants digging deeper. So, to refresh, what sets optical pickups apart from standard magnetic pickups?
Our classic combination of magnet and coil comes with a trait you can call either character or a limitation: a pickup-specific roll-off frequency that cuts off the upper range, mainly depending on the electric, magnetic, and geometric specs of the coil. Many of my non-musician friends are surprised that traditional magnetic pickups are commonly rated as low as 5 kHz, and ask why they should pay attention to the upper frequency limits when getting new hi-fi gear. Replying with "we have crash cymbals, too," is sometimes enough of an answer, but if they saw a real magnetic pickup's frequency-response curve, their hi-fi world would simply collapse. And—especially unfortunate for us bassists—these classic, magnetic designs also have limits in their lower frequency response.
Piezo pickups breaks these barriers on both ends of the spectrum. However, piezos often come with a rather harsh and dominating upper end that's not always pleasing to everyone's ears—especially when used with steel strings.
It may come as a surprise to some, but optical pickups actually first appeared in 1969 at the summer NAMM show in Chicago.
This is where optical pickups chime in. It may come as a surprise to some, but optical pickups actually first appeared in 1969 at the summer NAMM show in Chicago. A patent was granted to inventor Ron Hoag in 1973, but with Hoag's eventual retirement and his patents running out, the only optical pickups on the market in recent years have been made by LightWave Systems, for exclusive use in their own line of basses. However, this was different in their early years, when Lieber Guitars collaborated with Stanley Clarke and equipped a Spellbinder bass in 2001 with LightWave's bridge and massive circuit board (Photos 1 and 2).
One of the basic advantages of optical pickups is that their frequency range is theoretically unlimited—far out on both ends of our audible spectrum. Our hi-fi friends would be overwhelmed by the frequency response curve. And while every magnetic pickup sucks vibrational energy out of our strings—whether we switch them on or not—there is no interference between the pickup and string in any form with optical pickups (theoretical radiation or light pressure aside, of course).
In the same way we have different types of magnetic pickups with different electric and magnetic arrangements, there are also specifics that set optical pickups apart from each other. They all require some basics, like a light source and a light sensor, and can operate with visible or invisible and wide or extremely limited frequency ranges of light, but there are some basic constructional differences.
Early LightWave pickup systems came with a huge circuit board that didn't leave much wood on the backside.
Photo by Milo Stewart Jr.
Until recently, all available optical pickups were built for "transmission" mode, which is an arrangement where the source and sensor are on opposing sides of the string. What the sensor "sees" is the varying amount of shade from the vibrating string. Sounds simple, but the problem here is the positioning and calibration of the elements. As the string vibrates, there shouldn't be a complete coverage of light on the sensor. The result would be comparable to common clipping and you can't simply blow up the sensor's area to allow for more amplitude since your signal-to-noise ratio goes down significantly. The amplitude limits are why these pickups are often positioned close to—or even built into—the bridge and fully covered to shield them from ambient light. Worth noting is that even though the pickup elements are actually rather small, the large-ish covers required for shielding can get in the way when palm muting.
Light can sense all kinds of magnetic or non-magnetic string materials, so it's easy to switch between roundwound, flats, or even nylons, but this still often requires different setups. In transmission mode, you'll need to recalibrate whenever you're switching string gauges or readjust the bridge to optimize source and sensor usage. That said, the LightWave system's internal circuitry nowadays can support this setup process with LEDs that shine when the bridge sensors are correctly adjusted.A second optical-pickup construction and design arrangement is called "reflection" mode, which we'll discuss next month. Reflection mode does make some of the aforementioned transmission-mode drawbacks easier to deal with, but the arrangement also comes with a load of new drawbacks of its own.
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Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
Flare is a dual-function pedal with a tube-like booster and a 1970s-style ring modulator effect that can be played separately or together.
Flare’s ring modulator is based on the iconic tone of the original Dan Armstrong Green Ringer. This vintage classic was made famous by Frank Zappa who loved the unusual modulations created by generating a harmonic octave over notes. Messiah’s version offers two control knobs: a “Sparkle” tone attenuator and output Level control. Its taupe-gold body, purple and green knobs and stick-figure rock ’n’ roller holding up a flame convey an appropriately rockin’70s vibe.
In a unique twist, Messiah’s Flare pairs the ringer with a warm tube-style boost instead of a fuzz. Flare feeds the booster into the ringer for an extra punch, while preserving the Green Ringerspirit. The ringer side also turns any fuzz into an octafuzz, and it has the ability to quiet signal background noise fed through it.
The booster side features a single Boost knob to control the MOSFET circuit, making it very tube-amp-friendly with a warm, organic boost and gain of up to 32dB.
The pedal is a distinct improvement over the 1970s pedal that inspired it. “Most ringer pedals don’t track well,” Tom Hejda, owner of Messiah Guitars. “The player can’t rely on repeating the same effect even with the most consistently played notes. We carefully matched the components, so our ringer follows your every move, producing that slightly dirty octave you expect on demand.”
Messiah developed this vintage octave pedal with flexible features so that people who love that messy, dirty Zappa-esque sound can get there with ease but there’s also something for those who have not fallen in love with fuzz or the Green Ringer alone. Flare offers an array of sonic options while retaining simplicity in the controls.
Each Flair Pedal Includes:
- 3 control knobs: Boost, Sparkle, and Level
- Two effects – Ring Modulator and Boost – can be used together or separately
- Space-saving top side jacks
- Durable, cast aluminum alloy 125B enclosure with fun artwork
- Easy to see, illuminated True-bypass foot switch
- Standard 9V pedal power input
Flare Pedal Demo
Messiah Guitars pedals are designed with an explorative player in mind. Like their custom guitars and amplifiers, Messiah’s pedals are hand-crafted in Los Angeles for a long life with guaranteed quality.
Flare retails for $199.00 and can be purchased directly at Messiah Guitars or you can hear it in person at Impulse Music Co. in Canyon Country, CA.
For more information, please visit messiahguitars.com.
This feathery little guy is a joy to play because of its incredibly quick response to your right hand - much faster and more expressive than your typical auto-wah pedal.
If it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, and QUACKS like a duck, then it must be a duck. That's how we came up with the name for our new envelope filter. This feathery little guy is a joy to play because of its incredibly quick response to your right hand - much faster and more expressive than your typical auto-wah pedal. Trevor explains how this is possible in the launch video, as well as gives a demo on Le Canard’s operation.
The attack control determines how quickly the filter responds to the envelope, and the decay sets how quickly the filter releases afterward. The range controls which frequency spectrum the filter does its magic on. Add to this relay-based full-bypass switching with failsafe, and you've got one crazy little quacky beast. It is so expressive that you'll want to give up on your rocker-wah forever.
The MayFly Le Canard envelope filter features:
- Super fast responding envelope follower. Touch it and it jumps!
- Range control to dial in the character of the filter
- Attack control to control how fast the filter moves on that first touch
- Release control to control how slowly the filter slides back to baseline
- Full bypass using relays with Fail SafeTM (automatically switches to bypass if the pedal loses power)
- Cast aluminum enclosure with groovy artwork
- MSRP $149 USD ($199 CAD)
Introducing the MayFly Le Canard Envelope Filter
All MayFly pedals are hand-made in Canada.
For more information, please visit mayflyaudio.com.
Outlaw Effects introduces their next generation of NOMAD rechargeable battery-powered pedal boards.
Available in two sizes, NOMAD ISO is a compact, versatile tool that offers the convenience of a fully powered board plus the additional freedom of not having to plug into an outlet. NOMAD ISO is ideal for stages with limited outlet availability, quick changeovers, busking outdoors, temporary rehearsal locations, and more.
NOMAD ISO builds upon the legacy of the ultra-convenient and reliable NOMAD rechargeable pedalboard line originally launched in 2018. The brand new NOMAD ISO editions feature eight isolated outputs (1 x 9V DC, and 1 switchable 9V/12V DC) for even more versatility and clean, quiet power. With an integrated lithium-ion battery pack boasting 12800mAh capacity, NOMAD ISO can fuel a wide array of pedals, and will last over 10 hours* on a single charge.
Each NOMAD ISO pedal board includes adhesive hook & loop pedal-mounting tape, eight (8) standard DC connector cables, and one (1) reverse polarity DC cable, giving you everything you need to build your ultimate "off-the-grid" rig. A rugged, road-ready padded gig bag with shoulder strap is also included, to safely protect your gear while you're on the move.
NOMAD ISO S
NOMAD ISO S: MSRP $309 / MAP: $249
Dimensions: 19 ¼" x 5 ¼"
NOMAD ISO M
NOMAD ISO M: MSRP $349 / MAP $279
Dimensions: 19 ¼" x 11"
More info: https://www.outlawguitareffects.com.