Maximizing Your Acoustic Rig
Preamps, compressors, and space—these are the staples of acoustic setups. But be prepared to adjust your settings to fit the room you’re playing in.
If you’re just starting to work effects into your acoustic rig, I would recommend starting subtle. I’ve heard several avant setups with overdrive, phaser, and ring modulator, but if you’re headed to an in-the-round, singer-songwriter performance, these effects may prove unsuitable. Instead, focus on what I would call the basic food groups for acoustic processing: preamp, compression, and space.
“What you hear in the practice room or from playing position does not necessarily translate to what the audience will hear.”
Your preamp takes your instrument’s pickup system and conditions or otherwise manipulates it before further processing. Preamps can blend multi-element pickup systems together, provide acoustic imaging via impulse responses, and use equalization to minimize or bolster whatever frequencies are required. Your instrument may have an onboard preamp whose output could be connected directly to a direct injection (DI) box that then feeds into the PA. Other preamps, like Fishman’s Aura, have their own direct output. A simple EQ pedal could be added to an onboard preamp to round out its utility.
Compression is a great effect for acoustic guitars. Your mix engineer will undoubtedly have thoughts on how much and what type of compression is suitable, so keep a light touch on whatever you dial and know your gear well enough to tailor it to meet everyone’s needs. The Universal Audio MAX Preamp is great on acoustics, with two types of potentially unobtrusive studio compression and the ability to add subtle texture via its 610 preamp model. You’ll likely want to stick with compressors that are designed for studio use, as the more traditional guitar effect compressors like the MXR Dyna Comp are often too colored for typical acoustic applications. A compressor will help control dynamics of non-linear pickup systems and/or undisciplined strumming hands.
The space category is a bit more open. Reverb and delay can be used to make the instrument sound less dry, and the ambience supplied is more like hearing an instrument from the other side of a room instead of in the body of the guitar. Longer delays may be more intrusive as their overtly rhythmic nature can detract from what a potential band mix requires. Another space-maker is something like the TC Electronic Mimiq, which creates an artificial double-tracking effect to produce acoustic sounds as they often appear in recorded music.
Dial in your pedal sounds at home with an eye towards how they will work in a performance context. If it is a solo acoustic performance, take up as much sonic space as you like. However, if you’re working in a band, you may want a slight low-frequency cut, with a shorter reverb and decay, to have a better fitting sonic footprint. If you like a very ambient sound, but it doesn’t suit the mix your audience hears, ask for an extra mixer channel. You can connect your core effects, like compression and EQ, to a DI that goes directly to front-of-house—and then run through that DI to your space-making effects to a separate DI that can strictly feed your monitor mix. This will give your mix engineer a dry signal to process as they see fit, and you can have all the cavernous reverb you’d like.
However you setup your acoustic rig, know that it may change on the gig after accounting for the room and sound system. Know how to dial things back when asked, but don’t be afraid to take advantage of pedals to make your acoustic sound your own.