Friday, February 25, 2011

The Electrified Dark Side

Years ago, I had a buddy who fancied himself the next big musical poet. He'd crank up his guitar at the drop of a hat to caterwaul his original songs to anybody within earshot. 

One day, he got a gig doing some fill at an event at the local U. Warm afternoon, an outdoor amphitheater, ten minutes, as I recall. I happened to be in the neighborhood, so I stopped by.

My buddy hauled his little amp onstage, plugged in his twelve-string, and commenced to strumming his three-chords and doing his bad Dylan imitation. (Those of you who aren't fans, Bob Dylan's voice is, um, already not the example one holds up of how to sing well. My buddy's croak made Dylan sound like an operatic tenor by comparison.)

To make matters worse, the sound wasn't the best. 

Audience members remarked loudly upon this: "Turn it up!" 

He turned it up.

Then it was too loud. "Turn it down!"

Never the most patient of men, he finished his second song and elected to show his irritation: "Listen, I can turn it up or I can turn it down, I can't do both! Which is it?!"

Such a straight line to a college audience. I groaned when I heard it.

You know what is coming, right? Somebody with a good set of lungs and volume yells out, "Turn it off!"

I offer that to illustrate that I am about to enter the realm of amplification, at least in a small way. 

The group with which I jam varies in composition, but most of the time, the instruments include another guitar, a harmonica, a mandolin, banjo, and keyboard. Sometimes there are two keyboard players, and now and then the keyboardists swap off on an electric bass. There comes a woman who does washboard. We've had visits from a ukulele, and promises of a fiddle player. Most of the instruments are acoustic, save for the bass and keyboards, but the mandolin, banjo, and second–sometimes a third–guitars are all steel stringed. Unamplified, they aren't all that loud, but they are all considerably louder than my nylon-stringed classical. Which means I can barely hear myself playing, and none of them can.

Which, you might point out, and I certainly have thought, is maybe not such a bad idea. A flubbed chord change goes unnoticed, thank you very much. I can hit clams all night, and nobody hears them but me.

The host, who has several guitars, has offered me a steel string flattop to play, so that I might be heard, especially on such songs as I fingerpick–"House of the Rising Sun," say, for the arpeggios, but those skinny, narrow necks aren't my forte since I'm used to the extra-wide classical neck. 

Since I won't do that, they have offered that I should consider some kind of electric pick-up. They also mention that, if, by some miracle, we ever do an open-mike, or otherwise get up on a stage, they will plug in, and I might as well bring my air guitar for all the sound I'll make.

So. To bring myself to parity with the louder instruments, I am going to become a gearhead. At least on a little scale. Since I don't want to punch holes in my guitar, which you must do to install onboard pick-ups and straps and all, I'm going to get a clip-on internal microphone and an itty bitty amp. Doesn't have to be much, I'm not looking for a stack to reach the cheap seats, only a slight rise in volume. Thus I expect I'll be making a run to Guitar Center or ordering some stuff online in the near future.

For those of you who care about such things, a short discourse on how best to make a quiet classical guitar louder.

First, you want to maintain as much of the woody-tone the instrument has, and the best way is a mike stand with a good condenser mike pointed at the strings from a foot or so away. Through a mixer/pre-amp for the phantom power, into the amp, presto! 

It isn't so good with magnetic pick-ups, since the strings aren't steel

Unfortunately, the dedicated-mike method works best when the guitarist is alone and in a nice, quiet studio; for the gain on the mike needed for enough sound by itself also results in it being too high when the other instruments crank. The mike picks them up, overloads the amp, and the result is feedback, i.e., that awful, ear-smiting squeal you've heard when somebody steps up and swallows the mike: "Hello? Is this thing on? Testing–EEEEEEEE–!"

"Turn it down!"

"Turn it off!"

The don't-punch-holes-in-the-guitar method that seems to best alleviate feedback is a small clip-on mike mounted inside the guitar, usually on gooseneck, so that you can move it around for the best sound. It's not a perfect, all-around solution, but for a jam out in the clubhouse, it should do the trick. 

Neither the mike, nor the micro-amp, which can be battery-powered, need be all that expensive, since we aren't talking recording-level quality. 

TMI, but what can I say? I blather on like this to make my living. 


Jason said...

You can also get transducer mikes that mount behind the bridge and whose jack mounts in the place of the strap peg on the bottom, taking over as your strap peg. Thus re-using the strap peg whole and not needing another one.

Of course that assumes you have a bottom strap peg...


Steve Perry said...

I don't have an endpin, classicals don't come that way, but I decided to get a transducer anyhow. Dean Markley Instant Mount.

Cost less, offers less feedback, so they say, and the one I got you can stick on with something like plumber's putty, only a little stickier, that doesn't seem to hurt the finish when you take it off. I can run the cable through the neck-up strap and keep it from moving around, and it has a fairly good sound quality, certainly for what I want.

Got the little Roland Micro Cube amp, too, which runs off the wall plug or batteries. Talking two watts, which won't be blowing the doors off the building, but it's more than enough to cut through the acoustic steel strings and be heard. Even got a few EFX, though I probably won't be doing a lot of shredding and stomping on a wah-wah pedal ...

Jason said...

That s a pretty cool rig.

I play steel string acoustic, but I have thought about getting a bitty amp and a transducer pickup. I like the sound on the transducers better than the sound on the magnetic pickups that I have heard.

I'll be interested to hear what you think of the Markley once you have had a chance to rack up some bars on it.

I do have an endpin so I was thinking about using the internal transducer with the endpin replacement jack that I mentioned. But I think they are the same basic transducer.

Looking forward to the month or so later review of the new gear after you have had a chance to break it in.

Steve Perry said...

There are way more spendy mikes and transducers, but since all I wanted was to kick the volume up a notch, I think this one will do the trick. I'll have to see how it does in a crowd.

I went to Guitar Center, and my total cost for the amp and pick-up was $168. I could have shaved that a bit by buying it online. You can find the same amp twenty five bucks cheaper, and maybe a couple less on the stick-mount, though shipping eats half that, and you have to wait. Plus if it hadn't worked, I could have taken it back.

I'd guess that internal mount would be much better, because everything would be anchored more securely, and you could leave the thing in place without worrying about the finish or the look, plug and play.

You have to find the sweet spot for the transducer. They show mounting it on the bridge, treble-side, externally, but my guitar has a scalloped-out bridge and that doesn't work at all. I tried several places, bottom, bass-side, and where I have it gives me the best tone. Braces are different on nylon stringers than steel strings because there is less tension on the top.

Jason said...
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Jason said...

That is not a bad price.

You can, of course, spend as much as you want to on musician gear. The trick is buying at the "good enough" level so that you don't have to spend an arm and a leg and you can still be happy with the sound.

Seems like you did that, assuming you remain happy with the sound and the function. :)

My main reason for interest in the internal mount is the easiness to manage. I think there is a real chance I'd lose a removable one. :p

Plus I have played a few and they sounded good. Better than seemingly higher end magnetic sound hole pickups for sure. I haven't played the surface mounts like yours.

I like the look of that cube amp as well.

Like I said, I am interested to see how your opinion fares once you get some miles on 'em.

I am in the middle of moving so any music purchases will be quite a ways out. Plenty of time for you to field test for the rest of us. :D