Pickups and Gamechanging Technology

July 2017

I can only imagine the potential for confusion regarding acoustic guitar pickups, as there are so many pickup offerings from so many manufacturers available, and there are so many differing needs amongst different players. I am frequently asked for my opinion regarding brands, types, combinations, etc. I have benefitted from being in a position to have personal experience with most everything on the market, from the late 60’s to present day. That experience does not rubber stamp me as an expert on the topic, by any means. It has, however, allowed me to gain a fairly broad perspective of the topic. What follows is an attempt to summarize what I currently understand about acoustic guitar pickups.

The Guitarist

There are guitarists out there so pragmatic (you know who you are) that they have done the research, compared the features and benefits, weighed the consequences, made the decision(s) and moved on, having enjoyed decades of performing amplified. Others have never really thought much about it; they plug in their guitar(s) and that’s that - the guitar is louder. The rest of us are on some form of quest, a regal mission, to achieve a particular sound. Some know what they are looking for and may actually find it one day, others have only a vague idea of what they are after, and that will likely change over time, and the rest have nary a clue, but will spend years (and loads of money) searching for it. For some, such a quest is downright fun, while for others it is a source of constant anguish, of unrequited love.

If you listen much to live music it should be relatively obvious that not all professional musicians believe they need to accurately reproduce the sound of an expensive acoustic guitar via a pickup in a live setting. Some may not even play an expensive guitar. Others may own expensive guitars, but don’t play all that well. Just as there are casual guitar players (and perhaps even a few owners, but not players) who may have stunning guitar/pickup combinations that rival the best of the best, and many more who are actively hunting for a way to improve their sound.

Opinions vary widely on the topic of acoustic guitar pickups, just as one would expect. But consider this: a given consensus may be formed under an entirely different set of circumstances, potentially having non-applicable criteria, and it would benefit all but the most casual of buyers to know the difference(s). My ears are not your ears. Your volume-level needs are not mine. My need for feedback control does not apply to you. Your idea of convenient is not mine. You may not truly like the sound of your guitar, only louder (you could actually prefer the color added by a given pickup, pre-amp, effect, etc). That does not mean you should be dismissive of another opinion on the efficacy of a given pickup. But you should bear in mind that the factor(s) that may be influencing my decision may not apply to you.

The Choices

There are three dominant sources of pickup technology: Magnetic, piezo crystal, and microphonic.

Magnetic pickups for acoustic guitars are not new, with early versions appearing in the 1930’s. A passive magnetic pickup is often described as having a more natural (organic?) sound, taking on some of the characteristics of the instrument, but is very prone to hum, feedback and something of an irregular (not-so-balanced?) frequency response. An active magnetic pickup overcomes much of the drawbacks of it’s un-powered sibling by adding a replaceable power source and, often, some pre-amplification. In so doing it takes on another character altogether, tending to sound very similar regardless of which instrument it is installed in (the pickup, not so much the guitar, is what I hear amplified). Being active, there is the additional matter of having to replace the battery. The more popular versions of magnetic pickups are soundhole mounted, where a few take the form of so-called body sensors. I have/had nearly all of them, and have invested countless hours in manipulating soundhole positioning, pole piece presence and height, preamp combinations, etc. I most definitely prefer some brands/models over others. I also conclude that, when considered all by themselves, magnetic pickups still sound like magnetic pickups. For soundhole pickups in particular, fingerstyle players have to learn how not to hit these things with their nails, and most units tend to add a lot of weight to the guitar. These are not bad things, but they are things to consider.

Magnetic Soundhole Pickups:

  • Dean Markley ProMag (passive)
  • Seymour Duncan Woody (passive)
  • Bill Lawrence FT-145 (passive)
  • Fishman Blackstack, Neo-D (passive)
  • Sunrise S-1, S-2 (passive)
  • LR Baggs M80 (passive or active)
  • LR Baggs M1 (active)
  • Fishman Rare Earth (active)
  • Schertler Magnetico AG6 (active)

LR Baggs M80
LR Baggs M80

Piezoelectric transducers sound like piezoelectric transducers, whether in the form factor of an Under Saddle Transducer (UST) or a SoundBoard Transducer (SBT). The well-known piezo quack is more pronounced in some pickups than others. In various attempts to diminish that effect, manufacturers have introduced their own enhancements. DTAR believed a secret was to be found in adding headroom (requiring more power), Baggs believes a secret is in track top motion as opposed to direct string attack…caused by compression. Barbera incorporates individual piezo crystals directly into a proprietary saddle design, resulting in a passive pickup having a very hot signal. The list goes on, with each manufacturer supplying their own sounds better than… solution. Piezo-based pickups, UST’s in particular, are highly regarded for their ability to endure relatively high stage volumes without feedback, and to cut through the mix, a feature worthy of serious consideration for group players. As with the magnetic pickups, I have my favorite piezo pickups. As ubiquitous and convenient as they are, I am resigned to the fact that piezoelectric transducers, considered all by themselves, still sound like piezoelectric transducers. Again, that’s not a bad thing, but it is a thing.

UST examples include:

  • Fishman AG (passive)
  • Pickup the World UST (passive)
  • Fishman Matrix Infinity (active)
  • LR Baggs Element (active)

LR Baggs Element
LR Baggs Element

Saddle Pickups:

  • LR Baggs LB6 (passive)
  • Barbera Soloist (passive)

SBT examples include:

  • Ultra Tonic (passive)
  • Dazzo (passive)
  • K&K Pure (passive)
  • Pickup the World #27, #54 (passive or active)
  • LR Baggs iBeam (active)
  • Trance Audio Acoustic Lens, Amulet (active)

For my impressions on the recently released Ultra Tonic pickup from James May Engineering, see my article The Ultra Tonic Pickup

JME Ultra Tonic Pickup
JME Ultra Tonic Pickup

Onboard microphones, mounted inside the guitar, add so-called air for a more realistic sound, yet are prone to horrific feedback at higher volumes. The Lyric, from LR Baggs, is a recent departure from the traditional internal microphone approach. An active system, it mitigates feedback relatively well while still providing for a very natural sound. However, many don’t care for the perceived lack of thunderous bass response (especially at higher volumes). Externally mounted microphones overcome much of the feedback danger by simply not residing inside the box, and typically offer a more precise frequency response, but present some issues of their own that make them less appealing for the masses: One still must be mindful of positioning and volume, and they (the good ones) are not inexpensive. Need I add, none of these are bad things, but they are still things.

Internal Microphone examples include:

  • K&K Trinity (active)
  • LR Baggs Anthem (active)
  • LR Baggs Lyric (active)

LR Baggs Lyric
LR Baggs Lyric

External Microphone (guitar mounted) examples include:

  • Audio-Technica Pro 35
  • t.bone Ovid
  • K&K Meridian
  • DPA 4099

Many of today’s most appealing pickups are dual or triple source combinations of magnetic, piezo, and/or microphones, along with built-in and/or accompanying preamps. This list is large and constantly changing, as manufacturers and/or players experiment with new combinations. By taking a highest and best use approach, blending two or more technologies can often yield a much more accurate representation than can be had from any one technology, alone.

One of my favorite systems was an LR Baggs Dual Source that I had in my venerable F-50R for a long time. It combined a UST, a miniature mic affixed to the inside back of the guitar, a battery-powered preamp and a soundhole-mounted blender and volume control. I performed with that setup in small venues for years, and always had compliments on the quality of the overall sound (playing through Bose 802 speakers helped with that, I’m sure). But I had to be ever mindful of the volume and positioning in order to avoid feedback. There was something rather unique about that particular guitar/pickup system install, something I have never quite been able to reproduce.

Reinforcement

I lean heavily upon pre-amplification to shape the pickup/mic/pickup-mic combo sound. Whether I believe a preamp is a necessity in the signal chain or not, an active pickup requires one, however rudimentary or comprehensive it may be. I tend to think that a passive pickup without any pre-amplification sounds, well, anywhere from blah to awful. Onboard units tend to sacrifice features and, dare I say, quality, in trade for lower cost, but there is a convenience factor that is hard to argue with. The more expensive outboard units (which can range from a couple of hundred dollars to the price of a nice guitar, still only take us so far. And they are one more piece of gear to lug around. Most importantly, a preamplifier does not overcome the fact that a pickup is still a pickup.

In addition to matching the input impedance of a given pickup, boosting it’s signal, and providing some form of equalization, many preamps add features such as sweepable mid-frequency EQ, a notch filter (a straightforward parametric eq for cutting an offending frequency), phantom power (for powering the preamp, and/or use with condenser mic’s and/or pickups having phantom power capability), boost (for soloing), tuner, and proprietary sound shaping.

Acoustic guitar preamps come in several shapes and sizes, and are either onboard (endpin jack mounted, so-called barn door mounted, or attached to the inside of the guitar) or outboard (separate from the guitar, footpedal or rackmount).

Footpedal preamplifier examples include:

  • Fire-Eye Red-Eye
  • BBE Acoustimax
  • K&K Pure, Quantum, Trinity Pro Preamps
  • Tech 21 SansAmp
  • Fishman Aura Spectrum DI, Platinum Pro, Stage
  • LR Baggs Para DI, Session DI, Venue DI
  • Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre

LR Baggs Session DI
LR Baggs Session DI

Gamechanging Technology

The concepts of digital sampling and imaging have dramatically altered the sonic landscape. Suddenly, digital keyboards (or keyboard controllers with sound modules) could sound like vintage analog synthesizers, and footpedals, rackmount devices, and computer plug-ins could provide vintage analog amplifier sounds (in many cases indistinguishable from the real thing!). Even microphones have joined the revolution.

Fishman introduced the Aura, an imaging solution for acoustic guitars that offered the ability to play one guitar, but have it sound like another - in real time! Several years ago (early 2012?) I plugged an Ovation Elite into one of the early Aura pedals, selected a Guild F-50 jumbo image, and enjoyed the dropped-jaw look from my wife as it dawned on her that what she was hearing did not fit what she was seeing.

As of this writing, Audio Sprockets has recently re-released the ToneDexter. Advertised as a new preamp… that restores the missing body sound to an instrument’s ordinary piezo pickup, this footpedal changes everything. Plug a guitar outfitted with a simple piezo pickup (UST, SBT, other) into the ToneDexter. Plug a microphone into the ToneDexter. Select one of several slots (storage locations), tap a button and begin playing. ToneDexter will listen to both the mic and the pickup signal, correcting deficiencies in the pickup signal (contrasted with the microphone signal) and store it as a WaveMap. Put the mic away and, with the ToneDexter in the signal path, your amplified pickup takes on the characteristics of a mic’d guitar.

ToneDexter
Audio Sprockets ToneDexter

Onboard Feedback Suppression

The Ultra Tonic for steel string guitars from James May Engineering is a passive (no power required), brideplate-mounted, 5-transducer pickup with on-board feedback suppression. To date, this pickup is the closest representation to a mic’d guitar I have yet encountered. See my article on The Ultra Tonic Pickup

The Ultra Tonic Pickup
The Ultra Tonic Pickup

Battery-Free

There may be nothing worse than battery failure during a performance. For some, it could be a judgement call to risk failure and not replace the battery prior to curtain call. Are there alternatives?

Trance Audio’s Amulet M Phantom removes the need to worry about battery failure by relying on phantom power, albeit you are obliged to be using the Amulet pickup system.

A relatively new player in the market, Mi-Si has introduced another potential gamechanger. By combining a low power onboard preamp with new energy sources (a capacitor) and an endpin jack, a battery-free solution is created for active pickups. A 60-second charge using a specially-designed 1/4″ plug (or a 9-volt battery, if there is no electricity nearby) provides 8 to 16 hours of play time. 60 seconds is all that is needed... I have tested it, and it really works! If, for some reason, you fail to invest the 60 seconds prior to your gig, you could be punished with having to recharge it. But then, you would probably have been that player that had to change your battery in the middle of a set, anyway.

Mi-Si Acoustic Trio
Mi-Si Acoustic Trio