Things have come a long way for squareneck resonator guitarists. When I got started an OMI Dobro was the only choice in guitars, pickups for resonator guitar were poorly designed or non-existant and every gig was a sonic adventure in trying to dial in the sound I was looking for. Over the years I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time and money chasing after a live performance rig which would give me the sound I was looking for and I’d like to share that story with you.
Long before the “who makes the best squareneck resonator guitar” discussions on the reso forums, one of the great debates centered around the use microphones vs. pickups for live performances. Advocates of microphones argued that only a good microphone could faithfully reproduce the sound of a resonator guitar. Pickups were viewed as a necessary evil, or worse, depending on one’s point of view.
FWIW, I lived on both sides of that debate and, starting with microphones, over the course of time I’ve experimented with a wide variety of different makes and models, including the Shure SM57, SM98, KSM137, AKG C1000, C535EB, Rode NT5, AKG C414, Audix F9, DPA 4099G and finally settling on a Shure KSM32, which I still use today.
One of the missing elements from those discussions, a fact of life that I had to learn for myself – is that the only thing consistent about live performance venues is their inconsistency. Everything in the signal chain contributes to live performance sound – in order of importance – venue acoustics, your guitar, microphone or pickup, amplification system, speakers, sound engineer (or lack thereof), even the number of people in a room and their attentiveness (or lack of).
It all matters.
“The sound heard in an auditorium by a listener is a complex combination of the sound produced by the gear and the way that it interacts with the room. It’s a fact that most of the sound heard by any listener gets there only after many, many interactions with the room’s surfaces. Each reflection modifies the sound a bit, and after several interactions, it looks nothing like what left the loudspeaker in the first place. The room places its own signature on all sounds radiated into it, which can either enhance or corrupt the sound. Good gear doesn’t sound good when used in a bad room.” – Audio expert Pat Brown
In a great sounding room even a mediocre microphone will sound good and a high quality microphone might sound amazing. One of my favorite places to play where I live in Chicago is at the Old Town School of Folk Music which was formerly a library which was donated to the school by the City of Chicago. The building has classic architecture with tall ceilings, wide open spaces and classrooms of many different sizes, and also includes a 425 seat theatre. As a sidebar – I’ve played in the theatre many times, but truthfully I love playing my resonator guitar acoustically in almost any room in that building. The natural reverb of playing in those spaces is a wonder to behold. A great joy. For resonator guitarists, playing in a great sounding room is the equivalent of an electric guitarist playing on a big stage through Marshall stacks. It doesn’t get better! The problem with live performance sound is that there are far more bad sounding venues than good ones – big echoey halls, small dead rooms, bars with low ceilings and noisy crowds, electric guitarists and loud drummers. If you’ve ever played in those types of environments using only a microphone you’ve experienced this inconvenient truth firsthand: any microphone, regardless of brand or quality, will feedback if pushed beyond a certain point.
When I got started playing squareneck resonator guitar my first gig was playing in bars with a country band with two electric guitarists, a bassist and a drummer. Just a few months prior to joining the band I had spent a small fortune outfitting my OMI D60 Dobro with a Bill Lawrence guitar pickup (which I stuck on my guitar with double sided sticky tape) and an internally mounted Shure SM98 which I ran through a Pendulum acoustic instrument preamplifier. I was really excited that I’d be getting a chance to plug in and rock out with the boys in the band. This was the day of the two-pronged approach to acoustic instrument amplification – getting the best of both worlds by blending the acoustic tone of a microphone with the reliability and consistency of a pickup. Although that rig was one of the more advanced approaches for its time, the truth is, it didn’t work very well. The pickup made my guitar sound like a lap steel and I found it difficult to get enough volume through the internally mounted microphone to cut through the mix. I used that rig in a lot of different venues but I never could dial in the tone I was looking for, not to mention getting enough volume to compete with electric guitars, a bassist and a drummer.
Since that time the market has exploded and the technology for amplifying a squareneck resonator guitar has evolved – from the early days of magnetic pickups to the McIntyre Feather, Schertler Basik, Fishman Classic Series Passive Resophonic Pickup and finally to a piezo pickup like the Fishman Nashville Series pickup which is designed to be used with the Jerry Douglas Aura pedal and based on acoustic imaging technology. The Fishman pickup/Aura combination may not be inexpensive – retail price for the pickup is $199 while the JD Aura pedal retails for $319 (street prices may be lower) – but it comes very close to replicating the sound of playing through a good microphone and resolves the shortcomings of previous pickup technologies. In my opinion, the Fishman Nashville Series Pickup/Aura rig is the best sounding pickup for squareneck resonator guitars currently available. A word of caution: unless you are a handy person and familiar with these sorts of things, professional installation is recommended for the Fishman pickup.
Since installing the Fishman Nashville Series Pickup in my guitar (I had the work done by noted luthier Kent Schoonover using his modular spider) I’ve done a lot of experimenting with different preamps and spatial effects – reverbs and delays – to dial in the sound I like. In future posts I’ll provide reviews of the Radial PZ Pre Acoustic Instrument Preamp, Neunaber Stereo Wet Reverb, TC Electronics Flashback Delay, TC Ditto 2X, Peterson Stomp Classic and the Electro Harmonix Freeze.
One of the reasons the mic vs. pickup debate has faded from popular discussion is because the technology in amplifying a resonator guitar with a pickup is no longer an issue. The debate is no longer a case of “either or” but a matter of personal preference and/or needs. There will always be a place for microphones for the resonator guitarist. At the very least, having a pickup installed in your guitar is like having an insurance policy – you can always try using a microphone and plug in as needed. At their best, however, pickups provide superior consistency in live performance sound and go a long way toward helping you to cut through the mix. In addition, if you are willing to experiment, playing with a pickup opens up a brand new world of possibilities with looping pedals, reverb, delays and other sound shaping devices which, if used tastefully, can really enhance creativity and help you communicate your music to your audience more effectively.
Howard Parker shares the following key takeaways:
Several of observations as an early adopter myself:
1. As Rob pointed out it’s not a question of p/u -or- mic. It’s often a question of p/u -or- nothing. Either the environment is not suitable for a mic or the music requires the player to modify the signal with spacial or dynamic effects, something very difficult to accomplish with a microphone.
2. Amplification does not mask bad technique either from the player or the band. If fact poor player technique will be more obvious. I hear “where did that pick/string noise come from?”. The answer is pretty obvious. 😉
“I can’t hear myself in my bluegrass band” is a poor reason to go down the amplification rabbit hole. Identify and correct the problem be it player technique, uncooperative band mates or poor sound reinforcement.
3. The Nashville pickup and Aura pedal do not make a complete setup I’m afraid. Rob detailed the basic expenses but be prepared to pay much more. At the very least be prepared to add spacial effects (reverb & delay) back into to the signal chain. Those effects allow you you emulate a natural space. That natural space will cost you….
So…Think before you leap. Amplification is a valuable tool. When required there is not an alternative.
When not absolutely required it’s just a waste of money.
Rob Anderlik is a professional musician specializing in dobro and Weissenborn guitar. He is an active member of the music scene in Chicago and a frequent collaborator with players in a variety of musical genres and maintains an active schedule of gigs and studio projects. He can be found on the web at http://www.robanderlik.com