I recently had the opportunity to discuss the development of the Fishman Nashville Series pickup for resophonic guitar and the Jerry Douglas Aura Pedal with David Fournier, Director of Product Management at Fishman Transducers
SJ: On behalf of Squareneck resonator guitarists everywhere, thank you for developing the Nashville Series pickup/Aura rig! Over the past 20 years we’ve seen a variety of different approaches to amplifying a resonator guitar but none of them have worked as well as this one. How did the NSP/Aura combination come about and what were some of the technical hurdles you had to overcome to make it sound as good as it does?
DF: We have also been aware of the lack of a single effective solution to amplifying a complex instrument like the Resonator guitar. We had previous pickup offerings for both Spider and Biscuit style instruments but have always continued to work behind the scenes to create something more effective. A pickup that is located in the saddle or bridge will give you a string oriented response but miss a lot of what is going on with the cone, which of course is the heart and soul of the instrument. Alternately, a cone mounted transducer can be a bit vague and lack the detail of the string response. This has been a tough issue to solve with multiple pickups or microphones for obvious reasons. We feel with the Aura Imaging technology and our new spider pickup designed to work with Aura, we have hit on an effective solution which is working well and has been met with great acceptance.
SJ: How much experimentation went into the type of material you use for the saddle? How do the different materials affect the pickup signal and/or the acoustic sound of a resonator guitar?
DF: Our goal was to use materials true to the architecture and original design of the instrument. Rather than fabricate using man-made materials we chose to continue with a standard maple bridge with an ebony top, but ran into some road blocks. The one obvious change we did make was to replace the ebony top of the saddle with a phenolic material. While Ebony is a great tone wood, it is very brittle and we experienced failures due to cracking and chipping during manufacturing. The phenolic gives us a more stable assembly with no noticeable change in the acoustic properties of the instrument. We have also had great reviews from installers who find the new material easier to work with during installations. Working closely with Paul Beard was a huge benefit in developing this pickup.
SJ: What is imaging? How does it work? How do the recordings of Jerry Douglas playing his guitar through a variety of different studio microphones wind up blending with the signal of me playing my guitar and making my guitar sound more acoustic?
DF: Aura uses digital algorithms developed in Fishman’s audio laboratories to create an Image of the natural sound that your acoustic instrument emits when mic’d in a professional studio. This Image, when played through an amp, mixer or PA, blends with your instrument’s pickup to produce an immediate and dramatic improvement in your amplified sound. Basically, we empower you to have an array of studio mic sounds you can blend in with your pickup for live playing without the issues that accompany using mics live, such as feedback. This give the basic pickup signal an additional spatial and dynamic element which replicates a great studio recorded sound.
The Images made with Jerry Douglas and his Beard Resonator were accomplished using recordings done at Bil Vorndik’s legendary studio Mountainside Audio Labs just outside Nashville. Jerry, Bil and Larry Fishman spent many hours sifting through Bil’s amazing collection of classic studio mics to capture the true essence of Jerry’s instrument. Some of the best of these Images are now featured in the Jerry Douglas Aura Imaging Pedal and can be used by any resonator player out there to enhance a pickup signal.
SJ: Would there be any advantage to an individual having Fishman create images from recordings of them playing their own instrument? Has anyone ever done this?
DF: There is an advantage to having Images created for your specific instrument, but not simply by recording your own instrument in front of a studio mic. The recordings must be done at the Fishman studio. There is a very specific protocol for how the recordings need to be done for use with the Aura algorithm. We have had folks send us their instruments for this purpose and the completed Images are then uploaded to our Aura Gallery library so the consumer can download and install them into an Aura pedal for their use. The main benefit of this is that the Images match the instrument exactly to give you the best possible result when blending the Image with the pickup signal.
SJ: Are there specific recommended settings for getting the best sound out of the Aura pedal? It seems as though the trim pot settings don’t change the sound coming out of my guitar no matter where they are set.
DF: The trim pots are there for you to be able to set the input gain of the signal from your instrument into the preamp. This allows you to get the hottest signal into the preamp without overdriving the input. Instructions on how to properly set the input trim are included with the Aura pedals.
As far as getting the best tone from the Spectrum, begin by treating it as you would any other Preamp/DI. Start with the EQ set flat, get your best signal before feedback and then adjust EQ to taste. When blending in an Image with your pickup, start at full pickup and then slowly add in the Image until you achieve a level of microphone characteristic that works for you. A general rule of thumb is that a lower Image blend, say 30% to 50% is a comfortable place to end up for live performance. You may want to go to a richer Image blend for recording, but it’s all very subjective and personal based on what you want to hear.
SJ: When the pickup first came out there were a few reports from players who experienced balance issues – with one string ringing out louder than the others. What caused those early issues? I never hear about them anymore so I’m assuming they have been resolved?
DF: See below
SJ: I believe the design of the pickup changed slightly in 2013, by removing the metal piece that was part of the saddle? What was the reason for the change? What are the differences between those 2 generations of pickups?
This will actually answer both this and the previous question:
DF: We originally experimented with a few different ways to integrate our pickup into the saddle. Our original design incorporated a metal channel which housed the piezo material between the maple base and Ebony top. This was mostly successful but as you mentioned, the occasional unbalanced response was reported. Through experimentation and hours of work in the lab, we made the change from ebony to phenolic for the top piece and also devised a way to seamlessly install the pickup into the saddle without adding any additional material. The result is a better sounding acoustic tone and an even, balanced pickup response.
SJ: Is Fishman currently exploring new technologies for amplifying resophonic guitars? Do you anticipate any changes to the design of the current pickup in the future?
DF: We have just recently released a Biscuit-style pickup which is also a new design and optimized for use with Aura. This is a complete replacement biscuit sold with the saddle and mounting screw and it incorporates a Fishman pickup built right in. It simply gets fitted as any standard biscuit and saddle and you’re ready to plug in. This gives us current offerings that we feel are the leading pickups for both the spider and biscuit style instruments.
While no plans are in place to replace either of these soon, we are always looking to improve and continue to look for ways to make our pickups the best they can be.