Gearing Up: External Pickups, Preamps, and Other Amplification Accessories
Splitting the Difference: Removable External Pickups
External pickups, such as the Schatten Dualie and the Schertler Dyn-G, offer an interesting compromise between the convenience of internal installation and the non-invasive nature of microphones. Although they lack the airy detail of the latter, external soundboard pickups can sound surprisingly natural. I’ve used one for many years with satisfactory results and zero feedback issues—I still consider them the best solution for extra-noisy situations (cocktail hour?) and outside, possibly windy gigs. Although the Schertler is quite pricy, it can sometimes be found used for a reasonable rate, in which case it should find a permanent place in your gigbag or microphone locker.
Chains of tone
Unfortunately, the quest for excellent amplified tone doesn’t end at the choice of transducer or microphone. In an ideal world, performing in a plugged-in situation would automatically entail a top-notch PA system and live sound engineer—suffice to say, the reality will oftentimes be much different. Retaining some degree of control over your tone will save you many a headache and embarrassment. On the other hand, you also want to keep your setup simple—the less items in your signal chain, the less chances you have of running into problems at showtime, and the easier it will be for you to keep your tone clean and pure (another case of the KISS rule, for the engineers amongst us).
What I consider absolute necessities in a live preamp for guitar:
- The right input for your pickup or microphone of choice. That includes the input impedance (which should be roughly 2-3 times the output impedance of your pickup), and the availability of the right Phantom Power voltage if you’re using a condenser microphone.
- A powerful EQ section. EQ will help you fight feedback, counter any shortcoming in your mic or pickup (such as the proximity effect with a closely placed cardioid mic), and adjust the overall sound for room acoustics, if needed. Especially useful are parametric or semi-parametric midrange controls, given how the real “quality” of a given guitar’s tone lies in that section of the spectrum.
- Ground lift and phase reversal switches can save the day. You never know what kind of electrical system you’ll be plugging in, and a ground buzz will simply destroy your acoustic tone—being able to flip a switch to get rid of that nasty hum is one of the few true joys of amplification. Similarly, reversing the phase of your signal by 180° can give you an ulterior line of defense against feedback, especially in cramped, difficult rooms.
- A plethora of output connections. You want to have the choice between sending a balanced XLR signal or an unbalanced line—that way you can plug into whatever input is available.
There are several terrific preamps available by dedicated acoustic amplification companies—the undisputed king of the field is the Pendulum SPS-1, but at almost $2k that’s not exactly a budget-friendly solution. Among the most reputable are the L.R.Baggs Venue, the D-TAR Solstice, the Radial PZ-Pre, and the Headway EDB-1. Some of these preamps allow you to blend two separate sound sources, so you could blend an external microphone with a soundboard pickup for a sound that’s both natural and reliable in terms of feedback resistance.
Speaker Placement and Monitoring
If you have ever performed with a rock band, you’re probably used to using stage monitors to hear you bandmates as well as yourself. One of the tricks to improve your amplified tone as a classical guitarist is to nix monitoring altogether, and rely on the acoustic monitoring you get from the instrument itself. You will also hear some reverberated amplified sound coming back at you from the room, but try to ignore it—it’s not a faithful representation of how you sound out front. Keeping stage volume as low as possible will be the most effective thing you can do to help avoid feedback.
Another crucial anti-feedback technique, especially when playing with an amp, is to make sure that you are behind and/or to the side of any loudspeaker you are using. Placing the amp behind you might sound like a good idea, but when using a microphone it’s flirting with disaster. Once again, the acoustic sound of your guitar should be more than enough for you to hear yourself and act as a monitor.
I hope you have found these guidelines on classical guitar amplification useful. It’s a complicated and ultimately personal choice, but with some experimentation (good old trial and error!) everyone can find a solid plugged-in tone. Feel free to comment or contact me if you have any questions on amplifying your favorite guitar.
On the cheap end of things, I’ve had good luck using an AXL pickup ($10 from Amazon) that attaches with suction cups. It sticks to my french polish well enough (YMMV), although I press it back on after every piece just to be sure, and it hasn’t marred the finish. For an amplifier, I have an old Peavey KB60 that I bought used for <$100.
You can get drastically different results by positioning it differently on the guitar. It takes some experimentation to get it right because some places sound better than others and some are more feedback resistent than others.