Musings on Acoustic Guitar pickups
||Nov 12th 2012 - 19:31:37
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So, I've been looking for the holy grail of Live acoustic guitar sounds.
Call me a dreamer, or call me crazy, but I wanted something that actually sounds like an acoustic guitar.
Well after some experiments with a variety of pickup types, a lot of on line research, including blending pickups, I came to the following conclusions:
1. The most natural option is a microphone that is outside the guitar. It doesn't have to be very far outside the guitar, but it does need to be outside the guitar. (If it's inside the guitar it WILL sound boxy!) There is a very cost effective tie clip microphone from radio shack. Clip it to your soundhole, and you get a really useful acoustic guitar sound. (There. My guitar recording secret is out.) Sadly, it isn't particularly feedback resistant, and it picks up sound from everywhere.
2. The Magnetic and Undersaddle Piezo pickups. Magnetic pickups sound Metalic, and tend not to give much of the sound of the guitar body. Undersaddle Piezo pickups sound Quacky and offer some of the sound of the guitar body, but not of the top. There are all sorts of variations on them both, all trying to reduce their "bad bits", (Make the Undersaddle Piezo sound less Quacky, Make the Magnetic sound less Metalic), and if you pay a lot of money, you can certainly improve on their inherent problems. But you will never remove them.
3. Acoustic Pickup Modelling. The various versions of these do improve the situation, to various degrees, but none are particularly cheap, and none of them will fully convince you.
4. So. Now to the controversial bit. Piezo contact pickups. If you hunt around the internet, you can find these for about a fiver. Stick them onto your guitar, plug them in, and you'll be amazed. They sound really horrible. However, this seems to be more about their frequency response, than anything else. Dial in a "smile curve" on your favourite equaliser (prefferably about three bands of parametric), and you start to have a really natural acoustic sounds. However, it has a tendency to pick up more "contact" noise than anyone would normally want. Also, I'm not sure how susceptible to feedback it would be, if it were trying to amplify loud enough to fill a venue.
5. And now we get to the alchemy!!! Most Magnetic Pickups that I've tried tend to have a strong bottom end, and very zingy top end, and be missing some "complexity" around the middle. Whereas, as mentioned above, the Piezo contact mics tend to be very mid heavy, with a lot of complexity and richness. This means, that if some kind of musical magician were to blend a magnetic pickup, with a Piezo contact mic, they would have strong bottom end, complexity, and richness associated with the top of the guitar, and a zingy and clear top end. I did a little bit of investigation into this mix, and was delighted, with the most natural sound I've ever heard without a microphone. It wasn't perfect, but in the context of a live gig, or a busy mix, I don't think I could have differenciated it from a microphone. Also, I wasn't in a position to equalize both channels independently, which probably adds more scope.
So, especially for those of you who already use a magnetic pickup, and/or those of you who use external multi-channel pre-amps, one of these pickups will cost less than the price of a good set of strings, and may take you a step closer to your holy grail. Can you afford not to give this a go?
Additionally, for anyone who's recording Acoustic Guitars in a "live" band situation, who want an acoustic guitar track, that sounds like an acoustic guitar, with minimal spill, seems like recording a signal from a Contact Piezo may be a sensible "safety net". Worth a shot?