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Acoustic Amplification: The Newbie's Guide


Gayla Drake
June 8, 2012

Theres no getting around it these days: If you want to gig with your acoustic, sooner or later youre going to need to plug inand
long gone are the days when a good instrument mic and a small PA system will suffice. Now youve got competition from the coffee
grinder, espresso machine, blender, the cell phones, portable video-game systems, laptops, and any other stupidly noisy electronic
devices a person can carry with them.

The only way youre going to make your trusty flattop(s) conquer the cacophony of the digital age is to arm yourself with some
equally stellar guitar technologiesand a little acoustic amplification know-how. To that end, weve put together this handy guide
with all the gear and real-worldapplication knowledge you need to make your gigs as easy and trouble-free as possiblewhether
theyre on a street corner, in a coffee shop, or at a big outdoor extravaganza.

Pickups

When youre assembling an acoustic rig, youre putting together all the stuff that makes you sound like you. And to break down the
process of getting your sound waves into electrified form, lets start with the question of how to get your lovely guitars signal into
wires that can then send it on to units that allow you to shape the tone, add effects, and ultimately amplify the glorious sound.

Many guitars currently in production are called stage-ready, meaning they have electronics built in. Some of these guitars are
remarkably good, but be sure you plug them in before you buy: The fact that a guitar sounds great acoustically doesnt mean its
pickupthink of it as basically a microphone that captures the acoustic soundwill do it justice. The reverse is also true: Some
guitars sound great plugged in but only sound so-so unplugged.

When you start to shop around for (or read about) acoustic pickups, it can seem as though there are as many on the market as there
are guitars. One important consideration to keep in mind is that there are several different types of pickups, each with different pros
and cons.

Passive vs. Active


Passive pickups are those that dont require any electronics to alter the sound (for example, by adding bass frequencies) before
sending it to an amplifier or PA system. Of all pickup types, passives are the most analogous to a simple microphonethey pick up
the signal and pass it through a cable to your guitar amp or direct-insert (DI) box (more on those later). Most electric guitar pickups
are passive.

Active pickups require battery power, and have a certain amount of gain (essentially, the ability to boost volume) built in. If you have
an acoustic that has a control panel (also called a preamp) on its side typical controls would be volume, toneshaping EQ knobs or
sliders, anti-feedback controls, and perhaps a tunerthen chances are it is also equipped with active pickups. (Some guitars also
offer a tiny soundhole-mounted preamp with controls you access with your fingertips.)

If your acoustic doesnt have a pickup but you really want to use it for your foray into amplification, almost any pickup or pickup
system you decide to use is going to require some sort of modification that youll probably want a trained professional at your local
guitar shop to handle. That said, there are some very good options that require little to no permanent mods.

Magnetic and Soundhole Pickups


Soundhole pickups are some of the most common and easy-to-installpickup options out there. These units simply slide into your
guitars soundhole, though typically you do need to have your end-pin (the strap button on the fat end of your guitar) drilled out to
accommodate a 1/4" jack for the instrument cable. Despite the simplicity of this pickup type, there are some fantastically good
models to choose from. There are both passive and active models, and they tend to cost between $150 and $300. Check out these
models: DiMarzio The Angel ($159, dimarzio.com), Shadow SH 145 Prestige Active ($188 street, shadow-elecronics.com), L.R.
Baggs M80 ($250 street, lrbaggs.com), Fishman Blackstack ($250 street, fishman.com), Seymour Duncan Mag Mic ($229 street,
seymourduncan.com).

Contact Pickups
Perhaps the leastinvasive pickups at your disposal are contact pickups (aka bottlecaps), small, passive units that adhere to the top
of your guitar with a sticky tack material that wont harm your axes finishand that comes off easily. No muss, no fuss. These
pickups tend to be very microphonic, meaning they are more prone to generating annoying, high-pitched feedback at high volumes.
For players who only perform once in a while at lower-volume gigs, these can work really well. Just be sure you try them on your
guitar before you buy. Some can be rather thin and brittle sounding, so watch for that when youre auditioning them.
Another class of contact pickup mounts inside the guitar with glue under the
bridgeplate (the dark piece of wood surrounding the area where the strings are
anchored to your guitars body). One of the best known is the K&K Sound Pure
Mini ($91 street, kksound.com). This passive system sounds terrific, creates very
little feedback, and, if installed properly, provides virtually trouble-free use. Here
are some others to try: Pick-up the World PUTW #27 ($150,
pickuptheworld.com), Schertler DYN-G ($608 street, schertler.com), LR Baggs
iBeam (passive/$90 street, active/$140 street), B-Band Acoustic Soundboard
Transducer ($75 street, b-band.com).

Undersaddle Piezo Transducers


If youve ever seen an acoustic guitar that had one of the aforementioned built-in
preamps (the control panel mounted on the upper side), you may have wondered
how the heck the sound gets from the strings and into that preamp. Most guitars
like this have either a passive or an active undersaddle transduceran invisible pickup that is installed under the white piece of
bone or plastic (aka the saddle) in your bridgeplate. Undersaddle transducers are typically made of strips of tiny piezo crystals that
sense vibrations and transform them into an electrical signal.

If you have an acoustic that sounds great, having an undersaddle transducer installed may be a worthwhile part of getting a
satisfactory amplified tone. The procedurewhich should be performed by a qualified professional requires drilling a tiny hole for
the pickup wire to pass through, as well as end-pin-jack installation. Some more affordable options (especially those that come in
entry-level guitars) are prone to what guitarists often refer to as piezo quackan artificial-sounding tonal artifact that often makes
the guitar sound thin, annoying, and not very acoustic-like. Undersaddle piezo transducers are frequently paired with other types of
pickups or microphones (see the Multi-Source Systems section below) for a richer, more natural sound and more versatility.
Examples to try: B-Band Undersaddle Transducer ($43 street), D-TAR Undersaddle Series ($80-$115 street, d-tar.com), L.R. Baggs
Element Active System ($129 street), Fishman AG Series ($90 street), Fishman Matrix Infinity ($150 street).

Internal Mics
High-end guitars sometimes come with preamps that incorporate a microphone mounted inside the guitars body to capture a more
natural acoustic sound. Internal mics usually work best in concert halls and places where you dont need to get really loud. If the
volume gets too high, they will feed back in a manner thats unpleasant, distracting, and even painful. That said, the sound quality of
internal mics can be extraordinary. If you decide to explore mics, be prepared to spend a few hundred dollars for both the equipment
and the installation. We advise getting the highest quality and most feedback resistance possible, and consider a multi-source system
for situations where your mic alone is problematic. Here are three examples in varying price ranges: B-Band Condenser Microphone
($75 street), Highlander Internal Mic ($175 street, highlanderpickups.com), Miniflex 2Mic ($490 direct, miniflexmic.com).

Multi-Source Systems
Multi-source systems are setups that combine two or more pickup types and
control them via a single preamp. For versatility and sound quality, theyre hard to
beat, because different pickup types respond to and transmit your guitars
frequencies differently. For example, piezo undersaddle transducers provide a lot
of articulation, definition, and feedback-free volume, while microphones do a
better job of capturing the warm bass and midrange frequencies that make your
acoustic sound airy and, well, acoustic. Blending the two typically requires using
either an onboard or an external preamp (see the Preamps and DI Boxes
section below for more on these), but it also usually captures the best of both
worlds, yielding a much richer, fuller sound. These three models are similarly
priced: LR Baggs Dual Source ($209 street), L.R. Baggs iMix ($229 street),
Fishman Rare Earth Blend ($310 street).

Preamps and DI Boxes

If your guitar came from the factory with a pickup and onboard preamp, then you
can ignore this section because you already have a preamp. But if youre having a pickup installed in your guitar, then you may need
to consider whether to purchase a preamp to add into your signal chain. Another scenario that may prompt you to purchase a preamp
is if your guitar has a passive pickup (one that doesnt require battery power). A preamp gives you the ability to add extra volume
and shape the tones before they hit an amp or PA speakers. This is particularly useful if you frequently find yourself drowned out
when you play with other musicians (or if you get a lot of feedback when you turn up to compete), or if you dislike the overall
frequency response (bass, midrange, and treble) you get when you plug in. However, even active pickup systems can benefit from an
external preamp.
Preamps come in different configurations, but the most common is the little box on the floor variety, such as the Fishman Aura
Spectrum DI ($329 street), the L.R. Baggs Venue DI ($299 street), Ruppert Musical Instruments Acouswitch IQ ($TBD, rmi.lu), and
the D-TAR Mama Bear ($349 street, d-tar.com). There are also rackmountable preamps that offer studio-quality sound and greater
control over more parameters, and there are some guitarists who swear by them. But for most situations, those are overkill. Small
and easy are two of the working acoustic guitarists favorite words.

DI means direct insert, and that means it provides enough tone-shaping capabilities to let you safely and satisfactorily insert your
guitars signal directly into a soundboard (or recording console or interface) thats feeding PA-system speakers. For a lot of gigging
acoustic players, their DI is one of the handiest pieces of gear they will ever own. They range from super-simple conversion boxes
(devices that transfer your guitars 1/4"-cable signal to an XLR output you can plug into the PA systems mixing board) to elaborate
and comprehensive sound-enhancement preamps like those mentioned previously.

The L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI ($169 street)with its easy-to-use 5-band EQ, phase-invert switch, and super-clean signal
qualityis an industry standard. The L.R. Baggs Venue DI also enables you to add up to 6 dB of clean volume boost in a footswitch,
which is incredibly handy for lead acoustic guitarists in any kind of ensemble, or for switching from strumming to fingerpicking. Here
are two thrifty alternatives: Whirlwind IMP 2 DI (passive $50 street, whirlwindusa.com), Radial ProDI (passive $100 street,
radialeng.com).

Location, Location, Location


Where you play has a lot to do with both what gear you need and how you approach your gig.
Here are some tips for venues of all sizes.

Church Gigs
Many people start their gigging careers with Sunday church gigs, and this can be great if not
simply because the supportive and appreciative audience can really build confidence. Small,
older, intimate, or low-tech churches dont always have sound systems that will handle live
music, so they often use sound systems that only allow one signal to pass through at a time. In
this case, a personal amplification system is absolutely necessary for the congregation to be able
to hear every detail of your joyful noise. There wont be a lot of distracting noise, so you wont
need anything massive. Usually, a 50- to 60-watt, 2-channel amp will do the trick unless its a
very large room in which case youll want something more powerful.

Big, modern churches frequently have theater-style sound systems with jacks built into the stage
and speakers distributed throughout the house. For these venues, youll need your axe, a guitar
cable, and whatever EQ, effects, or preamp rig you prefer. Gotta love that simplicity!

Coffee House
Eating/drinking-establishment gigs can be some of the most frustrating performances ever. But
because listening-room and concert-hall dates are few and far between for most of us, were
forced to make the best of playing at venues where were simply part of the atmosphere.

An acoustic amp (with vocal channel, if thats part of your thing) will probably suffice in most
places. However, if theres a lot of ambient noise from the kitchen and clientele, you may want
to consider a PA system. A versatile, affordable system can be assembled with a small mixer
such as a Yamaha MG102c ($99 street, yamaha.com), two powered speakers, and possibly a
floor monitor. This is a time-tested way of making a lot of noise while sounding as much like
yourself as possibleand its a preferred option if youre working with an ensemble bigger than
two. Entire publications have been devoted to PA systems, so we wont dwell on that beyond
presenting it as an option.

If you dont need that much power but do need monitors, check out the Fishman SA220 or the
Bose L1, both of which can be placed behind you to provide monitoring and the main signal at
the same time. Either system can be used as a standalone uniti.e., you can plug your vocal mic
and instrument directly into themor with a small mixing board to increase the number of
channels.
Concert-hall and Festival Gigs
It goes without saying that hall and festival datesthe gigs where people actually show up
specifically to hear you do what you doare dream gigs for most acoustic aficionados. You
almost always get to sound fabulous with a minimum of effort at these gigs.

Most of the time, the venue or event will supply the PA system, so all you have to do is show up
with your rig early enough to get in a really good soundcheck. Many acoustic amps have a
direct-out (DI) output on the rear panel. This is handy because it allows you to send your signal
to the PA and retain control of your EQ and effects settings, while letting the sound tech simply
handle levels. If you dont know the sound tech (or perhaps if you do), this can be a great way to
ensure you sound like you, rather than a craptastic version of you. (If you havent already
discovered this, you will eventually: There are some wonderful sound techs in the world but
there are also guys who end up running the board because the regular guy has the flu.) Even
better, if you use your amps DI function, it also enables you to use the amp itself as a monitor.
Another option is to mic the cabinet, but this can be tricky with acoustic guitar amps, and should
only be done by a really good, experienced sound tech.

Concert halls are usually optimized for


acoustic music usually classical or
jazzand therefore minimal sound
reinforcement is needed to present the full
harmonic and dynamic range of the music. In
these scenarios, a less-is-more approach is
often the way to go. If ever you are going to
simply mic your guitar, this is the placethat
is, if you or the venue has a high-quality
stage condenser that can capture all the
detail that wooden baby has to offer.

Conversely, at an outdoor festival, the sound


seems to leave your instrument and
disappear. Depending on the configuration of
the stage, it can be hard to get enough of a
monitor mix without getting feedback, which
makes it hard to know how you actually
sound to the audience. As you can imagine,
this can be very frustrating. Not being able to hear yourself causes a multitude of problems, not
the least of which is wearing yourself out by overplaying and oversinging. Be patient, be willing
to compromise, and have respect for the sound techthats the best way to handle these
situations in a way that doesnt look unprofessional to the crowd and make enemies with the
sound crew. The last thing you want to do is alienate the guy who controls how you sound out
front.

The other festival frustration for acoustic artists is that the acoustic stage is frequently stuck with
leftover gear so that the bigger- drawing electric bands can have the good stuff. I once played a
festival where my awesome hi-tech active pickup was overdriving the antiquated and poorly
maintained board so badly that you could hear nothing but distortion. I now have a guitar with a
passive K&K Pure Mini pickup for these kinds of situations, and I never leave home without an
L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI. Lesson learned.

Amps

If you plan to play in situations where youll need your own amplifier either
with a group of jamming buddies in your basement or in a smaller venue (see the
Location, Location, Location sidebar, opposite page)there are many options.
Besides varying in power output, speaker configuration, sound quality, and
processing features (e.g., effects), they can also have varying numbers of
channels (inputs for multiple sound sources). If youre just playing guitar, there
are 1-channel amps, or you can get multi-channel amps that enable you to plug in
your guitar and a friends, and/or a microphones XLR cable for singing along.
(Remember, if your amp has a single channel with both an XLR and a 1/4" input,
youll only be able to use one at a timebecause there will only be one set of
volume and EQ controls.)
If youre looking for a small, affordable, great-sounding amp, we recommend you check out the ZT Lunchbox Acoustic ($399 street,
ztamplifiers.com). For great sound and excellent versatility at a very attractive price point, be sure to look at the Fishman SA220 Solo
Performance System ($999 street). If professional-quality sound is your priority, check out the AER AcoustiCube ($2,999 street,
aer-amps.com), the Schertler Unico ($1,308 street, schertler.com), and the L.R. Baggs Core 1 ($1,199 street). And if youre going to
need a lot of sound but dont want to carry around an entire PA system, check out the Bose L1 Model 1 Single System/Single Bass
Package ($1,999 street, bose.com)and be sure to get the bass module, because it is necessary to accurately represent your acoustic
guitars sound. Heres a couple more options: Behringer Ultracoustic ACX450 ($218 street, behringer.com), Ultrasound Pro250 ($980
street, ultrasoundamps.com), Genz-Benz Shenandoah Shen ProLT ($1240 street, genzbenz.com).

Acoustic vs. Electric Amps


Acoustic amps and electric amps are at least as far apart on the evolutionary tree as acoustic guitars and electric guitars. Yes, you can
plug your acoustic into an electric-guitar amp and get sound out of it. But because electric-guitar amps are tuned to emphasize
midrange and treble frequencies and because they are usually designed to provide rock-approved distortiontheyre not going to
accurately represent your acoustic guitars unplugged sound. That said, just as with effects, if youre not a purist and you dont mind
risking a little feedback in order to give your acoustic a little attitude, give it a try. You wouldnt be the first to get a sound you like
out of a nice vacuum-tube-driven guitar amp famous players such as Ben Harper and Monte Montgomery have been known to do
so.

Effects

Many acoustic guitar amps now come with built-in effects processing that enables
you to augment your guitars sound with reverb, echo (aka delay), and/or
modulation effects that can run the gamut from thickening up your sound to
lending it an almost psychedelic feel. The Trace Acoustic TA-100 ($999 street,
traceelliot.com), for example, features modulation (chorus, flanger, phaser),
tremolo (a hypnotic oscillation in volume), and a few different delays, while the
more affordable Fishman Loudbox Mini ($329) has chorus and reverb. If your
amp does not have effects and its something you want to explore, there are
staggering numbers of effects pedals available. However, the lions share of them
is made for use with electric guitarsthough that doesnt necessarily preclude
them from being used with an acoustic. In fact, if youre adventurous and not a
purist, we encourage you to check out as many as you can. If you are more
traditional acoustic fan, remember that a lot of effect boxes (aka stompboxes or
pedals) can color the wound in a way that you'll probably find too radical.
However, some effects typesparticularly chorus and delayshouldn't adversely affect your guitars essential tone. In addition, some
companies make effect pedals specifically geared for acoustic guitar, including these: Zoom A2 ($100 street, zoom.co.jp), Boss AD-3
($169 street, bossus.com), Aphex Xciter ($200 street, aphex.com), Fishman AFX Reverb ($279 street), D-TAR Solstice ($329 street).

Go Forth and Plug In


The array of amplification options for acoustic guitarists may never be quite the smorgasbord it is for our electrified brethren, but
theres never been a better time to decide to plug in your flattop. From pickups to DIs/preamps, effects, and amplifiers, the buffet of
smart, practical, great-sounding products is extraordinary and ever growing. With this guide in hand, a healthy dose of test-driving
and research, and the advice of an experienced player with good ears, youre bound to find gear thats perfect for your jams and gigs.
Sounds like a lot of fun, huh?