Tools for the Task: Under-Saddle Pickup Systems
Check out 10 acoustic setups built to capture your guitar’s organic sound.
So, you and your acoustic are in need of an amplification makeover and you’ve determined an undersaddle system is the way to go. The good news is that there are plenty of excellent options to choose from, and we’ve put together a list to get you started on your search for ideal acoustic tone.baggs.com
The pickup in this system is ultra-thin, to not interfere with the string vibrations passing through the saddle and bridge. The design also makes for easy mod-free installation.
This system’s pickup is sensitive to pressure changes from all directions and captures the tonal qualities of the wood and the structure of the instrument, not just direct string sound through the saddle.
This engineered saddle contains micro-electro-acoustic structures within itself, which allow for sound reproduction that does not amplify microphonic noise from the instrument’s surface.
This system features switchable voicing to accommodate all guitar body sizes, soundhole-mount rotary dials for volume and tone, and an LED low-battery indicator.
The six piezo crystals in this pickup are surrounded in a flexible, ultra-thin material that ensures the guitar’s vibrations reach the crystals with virtually no interference, so the string signal is not overemphasized.
AK 15 Plus
This two-source system aims to capture the true sound of an instrument by utilizing both an undersaddle piezo pickup and a condenser mic that is integrated into the endpin preamp.
Battery changes aren’t required for this undersaddle pickup/class-A preamp combo that requires just a 60-second charge via the output jack for six hours of acoustic amplification.
This system’s AT93 pickup uses piezo film in a layered (bimorph) format that allows for lower-output impedance. Because the film runs the length of the pickup, any number of strings or any string spacing can be used.
Lydia EQ ST
Designed with natural sound and dynamics in mind, this system’s class-A internal preamp allows for on-the-fly tweaking via the volume, treble, and bass pots that attach in the soundhole.
Element Active System VTC
This system features a proprietary circuit that incorporates a low-frequency suppressor and a streamlined pickup design that substantially improves the sensitivity of the transducer.
Ernie Ball Music Man Caprice Review
Long known primarily for their classic active basses, the historic builder debuts a strong new passive 4-string.
Clip 1 - Neck pickup soloed, tone dial wide open (maxed)
Clip 2 - Bridge pickup soloed, tone dial wide open (maxed)
Music Man is one of those brand names that spark instant tone identity. From Flea punishing his basses into our hearts to Pino swelling his fretless magic like no other, we’ve all grown to recognize the high-end sparkle of those big-poled pickups, the fat bottom, and the slight mid scoop that is the quintessential Music Man tone. So, what would happen if Ernie Ball Music Man decided to save bassists a few dollars on batteries every year and develop a passive bass? For the first time in its storied history? It’s true. The Caprice—along with its single-pickup sibling Cutlass—represents the first fully passive bass offering from Music Man, and we recently had a chance to spend some quality time with one.
Primed to Play
Out of the case, the Caprice had a familiar look, yet it’s a departure from typical MM lines. Finished in a stunning white that matches up well with its mint pickguard, our test bass had an instant-classic vibe. The natural aged-yellow finish on the maple neck also adds to the moxie. And as if you need another reminder that you are holding a Music Man, the large-pole split humbucker and in-line bridge humbucker stare you down with ominous force. They just look ready.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the most overlooked features in bass design that has been included on the Caprice. The thumb-saving engineers at Music Man rounded the plastic pickup covers where the screws pass through and, more importantly, where the thumb sometimes rests. This may not seem like a big deal, but I’ve often wondered why we bassists are too often forced to rest our curved thumb on a pointed surface.
Other design highlights on the Caprice are plentiful. The thin, maple neck (1-1/2" at the nut) felt amazing thanks to the ultra-light satin-poly finish, and fans of Jazz necks will feel right at home with its comfy 7 1/2" neck radius. The oversized headstock is still there and it’s loaded with Schaller tuners. This bass is a well-put-together machine with clean seams and tight joints, and at about 8 1/2 pounds, its weight speaks comfort for those long-gig nights.
Look Ma, No Batteries!
Unplugged, the Caprice sings. Even though the chrome-plated Vintage Music Man bridge is top loading, the bass resonated full and balanced across all four strings and through all 21 frets. The factory setup left our test model super-quick and even playing with no dead spots, so positive forces were already coming together before I plugged in. But let’s get electric.
I set up a big rig for this run-through: an Eden WTP900 pushing Eden 410XLT and 212XLT cabs. The controls on the Caprice are straightforward with a volume/volume/tone layout, and I started out with the neck pickup all the way up, the bridge pickup off, and the tone dimed. The bass hit just under MM tone, which is pointed and lively, and leaned a hair towards a P-like sound. The alder body and maple neck combo certainly helps achieve this snappy result. Pulling the tone back a little moves the bass into a more mellow zone, but the Caprice went completely dark only after the tone was rolled all the way down. So if you need a thuddy bass approach, go ahead and roll off a lot of tone, but I really liked the Caprice when it was wide open and allowed to sing.
Snappy tone, well made, lightning-fast neck.
Limited tonal options compared to its active cousins. A bit pricey.
Ernie Ball Music Man Caprice
To check out the other end of the spectrum, I soloed the bridge pickup and pushed the tone back up to full tilt. The snap that allows articulation and precision—and draws many to a Music Man instrument—is there, but with a bonus. A bridge pickup running by itself can generally be weak and thin, but I found the Caprice can be used in quite a few musical settings with just the bridge wide open. It’s very responsive and tight, which will speak to my fingerstyle friends and the R&B faithful.
With all the controls dimed to bring the two tones together, the Caprice sounded like what a bass should sound like in many situations: clear, rounded, and full with just the right amount of articulation and bottom. If one were to rip the knobs off the Caprice and leave it in this setting, this bass would still find a home just about anywhere.
Many revere the sound of a Music Man, but the company’s “traditional” tone definitely falls into its own category. It’s undeniably remarkable, but not for everyone. The Caprice isn’t necessarily meant to nudge aside anyone’s favorite passive bass, but it will allow players to get into a Music Man without, well, getting into “that” sound. It’s about as straight-ahead as a bass can get, and I like that. I can’t help but compare the Caprice to other Music Man offerings, but I feel they have successfully crafted an instrument for passive-bass devotees who want a more distinctive tone.
The meaning of the word caprice is “a sudden and unaccountable change of mood or behavior.” That seems fitting enough for a company steeped in its own legacy that decides to break from their usual model. The body is different, the neck a little thinner, the feel is more traditional Jazz, and the tones are passive, but it is still a Music Man. The Caprice has made a strong entrance by both remaining true to its roots and setting itself apart to bridge the gap between the passive and active faithful. The Caprice may not have the shimmer or boom of its active cousin, but it can definitely hold its own in most any musical situation.
Watch the Review Demo:
Speaker Geeks: Why Graphs Matter and When They Don’t
In this new column debut, amp guru Steven Fryette discusses how to make sense of the speaker data manufacturers spend so much time and money on.
Guitar speakers are like car tires. They all function basically the same way, but small differences in materials and design can produce noticeably large differences in performance. Given the wide range of currently available speaker choices and consumers’ insatiable appetite for information, most speaker manufacturers offer graphical models of their products to help us navigate the options. So what do these graphs tell us and how useful are they in helping plan our next speaker purchase? To answer these questions, let’s look at how those graphs are created and what they really say.
Here’s how my good friend, Eminence’s Anthony Lucas, explains the graphing process: “To plot speaker response, the speaker is mounted on a baffle that is open on the back and facing an anechoic chamber in front. This ‘infinite baffle’ configuration ensures minimum environmental coloration of the speaker under test. The speaker is driven by a solid-state power amp fed by a frequency sweep generator with a microphone placed one meter away from the center of the cone. The microphone is specially designed for this test and is connected to a software-based measurement system. To eliminate distortion artifacts from the test results, the solid-state power amp is chosen for extremely low distortion and high linearity. The speaker is driven at 1 watt to minimize external reflections and mechanical distortion. A final step in this process involves a ‘correction file.’ This is a compensation filter that prevents any remaining room artifacts, known as room signature, from impacting the results.”
This test simply measures frequency response (and sometimes a speaker’s corresponding impedance curve, a subject we’ll explore later) in an idealized environment, so the test power amp is important. When comparing two different manufacturers’ speaker graphs, we assume that different speakers are tested under similar conditions to assure a realistic comparison. Makes sense, right? Sure, as long as all manufacturers use the same procedure. Which begs the question: Do they? Theoretically yes, assuming they use similar equipment and test environments. In reality, there are procedural and technical variations from manufacturer to manufacturer. Absent a rock-solid baseline, that makes the comparison somewhat subjective. This sounds discouraging until you consider that what happens to a guitar speaker in a tube amplifier makes much of this testing precision seem rather moot.
A solid-state power amp is going to depart in performance from a tube power amp in a couple of important ways that turn out to be crucial in choosing a speaker for a particular tube amplifier. First, as explained above, a solid-state amp is relatively distortion free, and secondly, its low effective output impedance reduces its interaction with the behavior of the speaker.
Most players assume that power tubes have a unique “sound” that’s largely responsible for the sound of their amplifier. This is one of two common myths about tube amps. If that were true, how then do you explain all the “linear” hi-fi tube amps of the ’50s and ’60s? The simple fact is, tubes are generally neutral regardless of type, with the most obvious differences in behavior being attributable to their operating environment—meaning the circuit design, operating voltages, and transformer designs associated with them.
Eminence’s Anthony Lucas generating a SPL (sound pressure level) versus frequency graph. Image courtesy of Eminence
The second myth is that tube amp sound is due to special added distortion. The fact is that any amplifier can be induced to add distortion of one kind or another. The question is, what kind and how much? I’ll cover this in more detail in an upcoming column, but here’s what we need to know right now: How you operate a power amp determines how much distortion it produces, and in this respect distortion can be set aside for the purposes of our discussion.
When discussing speaker behavior, the most important difference between solid-state and tube power amps is source (output) impedance. Our solid-state amp, having a very low effective output impedance, will force a speaker to behave in a more linear fashion. Conversely, a tube power amp exhibits a much higher output impedance, and this allows the speaker to influence the behavior of the power amp. In other words, the solid-state power amp will restrain speaker behavior, producing a flatter graphical profile, while a tube power amp and speaker form a system in which each is an integral part of the sonic result we all know and love.
In addition, the special reactive relationship between the speaker and tube power amp is influenced by the size, shape, and resonance of the speaker cabinet itself. At this point it should be apparent that the test environment described above seeks to eliminate that resonant reactive behavior. So now is a good time to ask: How helpful is a graph of speaker performance stripped entirely of its normal operating environment in making an informed speaker choice? The answer: It depends.
This graph shows the frequency response of Eminence’s EJ-1240, the company’s 40-watt Eric Johnson signature alnico 12". The red line represents frequency response and the tan line indicates the speaker’s corresponding impedance curve. Image courtesy of Eminence
It may surprise you to learn that many amplifier manufacturers don’t put a lot of initial stock in these graphs when deciding which speaker to use for a given amp design. While they’re very useful in making a final decision between two candidates with very similar signatures, the real work takes place long before we ever get to the nitpicking graph comparison stage. That means we, the amp manufacturers, have made the most critical decisions about sound, application, and overall performance much earlier than that. Once we get close to final production design, we may pay a little more attention to the graphs to fine-tune the amp/speaker/cab relationship in ways that the player would be wise to think about before replacing the stock speaker with another unit.
What a speaker graph shows is that most guitar speakers perform similarly on paper, and all bets are off when you install them in your amplifier. With that in mind, the first step in making a speaker purchase should be to establish your desired outcome. Then look at the manufacturer’s recommendations about the models you feel line up with your goals and fit your budget. Forums can be a valuable resource, but try to avoid getting into the weeds when soliciting opinions online by carefully vetting responses that address your specific application.
After you’ve narrowed your search, it’s time to have a look at those graphs. Pay particular attention to the more prominent peaks they reveal. Those are the areas that are most subject to operational variables like output impedance and cabinet resonance. The higher the impedance, the greater the impact those peaks will have on your amplifier’s performance and, consequently, the more they will drive cab resonance. And since internal feedback (more on this in a future column), as found in most power amp designs, plays a role in output impedance. A power amp designed with low or no feedback—such as in AC30-style amps—will exhibit higher effective output impedance and further exaggerate those curvalicious peaks!