Wednesday, October 23, 2013

ACOUSTIC Pick Ups...What you really need to know.

Today we are going to talk about acoustic guitar pickups, what's good, and maybe not so great.

Years ago, when people like Les Paul and Leo Fender and DeArmond first started to develop different types of pickups for their own guitars and for the companies they were representing, it was common practice to install a magnetic pickup into either the sound hole on an acoustic, or like John Lennon's J-160 and J-45 Gibson guitar, permanently fixed up against the fretboard at the sound hole.
These seemed to work okay for that period of time, but the problem was that a magnetic pickup only picked up the sound of the string and amplified that. It gave the guitar a more 'electric' sound than what it should sound like acoustically.

Barcus Berry was the first company to realize that an acoustic instrument should be amplified to sound like it does acoustically. So they invented the Barcus Berry 'transducer' pickup. What was different about this pickup was that it didn't amplify just the string sound, but also the vibration of the sound board, and that gave the instrument a more 'real' sound than it's earlier counterpart.
Now this pickup was widely used in the industry for live performance on upright basses, violins, mandolins, resonators and banjos.
The Barcus Berry,although it was a great answer for these other instruments, was not a favourite of guitar players. Why? Well, among other issues, the biggest issue was feedback.
In order to get the acoustic up to speed with the volume of the other instruments, the pickup would howl, and cause strings on the acoustic to vibrate, even when you weren't playing them.
The other reasons these guys never became a popular choice for acoustic players was that, in order to get the instrument to sound half decent, one would have to mount the pickup close to the bridge. It was always in the way of players, and when it was mounted internally, well, that is where a lot of those sensitivity issues would arise.
Also the cord they gave you with the pickup was never really long enough to get you to any amplifier, and it always dangled from the guitar. So this became just some of the reasons they never caught on for acoustic players.
Most acoustic artists just decided to go back to the microphone, and would try to get it as close to the instrument as they could, so that their instruments could be heard along with the others in the band.
Innovation continued for quite a few years, until the Japanese designed a pick up that would work, and would do that, rather trouble free.
What was this new-found gem? The piezo pickup.
Piezo is basically an electrical charge that accumulates in certain solid materials. It really wasn't something new, it was originally designed by two French physicists in the latter part of the 19th century.
What makes the piezo pickup better than their electromagnetic cousins is that they pickup, not just the string's sound, but also it's vibration. So, on an acoustic guitar, they emulate through an amplifier, what is audibly a sound that is very close to what the human ear hears acoustically.
Now, some companies use these exclusively on their acoustics. Some choose to use these, along with a live internal microphone to blend the sound that goes to the amplifier.
Both have their benefits and their short-comings.
There are also different ways you can mount this pickup to your guitar. Under the saddle, under the bridge plate, or a combination of both of these, as well as a combination of fixed places on the underside of the sound board.
All of this would not be possible without the use of an on board pre-amplifier, that buffers the signal between the guitar and the amplifier. This small pre-amp features basic tone and volume controls, as well as anti feedback and notch-filtering, graphic equalization and much more.

These usually operate on a 9 volt battery that is attached somewhere on the guitar. Though they basically operate on m/v (mini volts) the voltage and current this larger battery provides this pre-amplifier will work for extended periods, trouble free.
Companies like Takamine, (who by the way developed this technology) chose to mount their electronics on their guitars initially on the sidewall of the instrument. This usually meant there was this large device mounted on the sidewall of the instrument, which really didn't ever look that appealing. Newer design has electronics mounted so that you would not even know the guitar was an electric / acoustic instrument. Non-obtrusive and rather attractive. These are the kind I like to see installed.

Who make the best, and what should you stay away from.

There are many now to choose from. If you are looking at electrifying your acoustic, here are a few of my favourites, and why.

#1 – L.R. Baggs - (Anthem, Element or I-Beam)

James Taylor uses this system. Need I say more?
L.R. Baggs are a relatively easy install, even for the rank amateur. They are what I feel to be the best in the industry today. Companies like Larivee, Olsen, Boucher and Martin would probably agree, as this is what they use exclusively on their instruments.

#2 – MiSi – (Align, Cutless)

I am a big fan of these pickups. They are not unlike a lot of others as far as their install goes, but these pickups feature 'battery less' technology. You basically never have to change the battery in these units.
MiSi utilizes a stored capacitor, which is charged by means of a stereo cable / charge transformer. You simply charge the guitar through the end pin adapter for about two minutes, and you can play your guitar, without a re-charge for several hours. MiSi pickup technology is state of the art.

#3 – K&K – (Definity System)

Nice product. Relatively easy install. Will work on most acoustic instruments. An incredible true tone experience!!

#4 – Fishman – (Expression, Matrix, AG Series, Ellipse, Prefix, others)

Fishman is a good product as well, andthey have been at this for many years. In fact, the original Takamine technology was developed by Fishman. They are probably the best marketed, and widely known transducer pickup on the planet today. That being said, this doesn't make them the best.
I believe their 'Expression' system is one of the best in the industry today. This system is used on the higher end Taylor guitars. It is a beautiful, well designed system for acoustic instruments. However, this is where they fall short. The other items in their catalog do not measure up to their Expression system. I believe Fishman falls short in tone and reproducing the ultimate acoustic tone that L.R Baggs seems to be able to do, without having to break the bank. Another reason why the old adage 'bigger isn't always better' should be thought about here. 

Fishman needs to start playing 'catch up' with some of these other companies, or they will just fade away into obscurity.
Remember, Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, EMG, Lindy Fralin, TV Jones, and so many others wouldn't be around today if Gibson and Fender were still making good pickups.
Hope this helps in your search for that 'true' acoustic sound.
I have shared my own personal favourites here in this blog. I don't usually do this, but in this case I really couldn't get to important stuff, without naming names.

All that being said, when an acoustic is recorded in the studio today, it is still recorded by use of a live microphone. Why? Regardless of technology, there is nothing that can duplicate the true sound of an acoustic guitar like a live microphone can.
Cheers for now!

Brett McNaueal

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