Of course I’d like to think the good reception was entirely based on my playing (!) but in fact a big part of how I sounded was thanks to that Carvin AG-100 amplifier. My quest at most gigs these days is to be just loud enough to be heard but never be obtrusive and for my guitar to sound like, well, my guitar, without any extraneous modifications of the sound like chorusing or excessive reverb. As the years have passed I’ve found those sounds – which are very popular with some performing acoustic guitarists – to be distracting to the point of being annoying. Chorusing in particular sounds to my ears very fake and I’m sure some performers use it to cover up mediocre playing. Then there is the subject of “looping,” which is very popular right now. That is a subject that I have mixed feelings about and will no doubt be the subject of a blog entry at some point in the future.
In recent years it has come to pass that there are lots of choices in acoustic amplification. It is certainly possible to use a regular guitar amp to boost the sound of an acoustic guitar but due to their very high gain they almost always cause severe issues with feedback when an acoustic guitar with a pickup is anywhere near them. Feedback is of course that high, screeching sound of a certain frequency emitted by the guitar signal “feeding” on itself, growing louder and louder until the sound is like something out of a bad horror movie. Avoid using electric guitar amplifiers with acoustic guitars!
All of the big name amplifiers companies now make acoustic guitar amps, with highly variable rates of success. Some are OK and have enough on-board features like equalization to tailor the sound to the point of being fairly representative of what the guitar really sounds like. Gain in the “mids” – the midrange area where acoustic guitars are most prominent – is a good feature to have. Sadly, I’ve heard very few acoustic amps that have reverb that is anywhere close to the rich reverb produced by the separate tube-based reverb units incorporated into electric guitar amps like those classic tube amps from Fender and Ampeg. I am not an expert in amplification so I have no idea why “tank” tube-type reverb is not available on acoustic amps. Perhaps it has something to do with feedback issues…. In any case, don’t expect a solid state reverb function to sound better than barely passable. There is an alternative solution that I’ll get into in a bit, however.
I’ve owned and/or tried out about a dozen models of acoustic amps by various manufacturers. Here are my conclusions, for what they’re worth!
First the bad. As I said above, I want my guitar to sound as natural as possible, just louder. Fender makes a line under the “Acoustasonic” label that I found to be very, very disappointing. Granted, I have not tried their top-of-the-line model, but that thing is HUGE – more of a “stack” rather than a “combo” amplifier. The three other models from that legendary company sounded muddy, artificial and the reverb was terrible, very fake sounding. I tried various adjustments on each of the three models and had no luck improving the sound. Plus, two of them had a cabinet shaped with a bottom that was larger in depth than at the top; they were very heavy and the shape made them difficult and borderline painful to carry, with the thing knocking my leg every time I took a step.
The other big name in acoustic amplification is Fishman and I found their models to suffer from the same deficiencies as the Fenders, with the addition of a very thin and abrasive sound.
I bought a Roland AC-90, which is part of a series from that company that gets great reviews and was severely disappointed in its muddy sound. I returned is almost immediately.
In a more positive vein, I was moderately impressed with the sound of a couple of the slightly less expensive models from Behringer and Kustom, both of which had a wide range of controls to tweak the sound. They didn’t sound fantastic but I could recommend them with a clear conscience to someone who was not a professional but wanted to try out acoustic amplification.
There are quite a few “boutique” amps out there by companies like Rivera, AER, and other even smaller companies that are supposed to be wonderful but alas, they are not something I can afford at this time. Also, some of the mid-priced companies like Genz-Benz and Acoustic make some higher priced models that from all reports are quite fine. I have not heard of tried them so I really can’t say one way or the other.
What you definitely want in an acoustic amp are at least two enclosed speakers in the unit, one at least 8” in diameter to handle lower frequencies and a smaller “tweeter” for the higher end. More speakers is probably better, but not necessarily. At least 40 watts of power is required, in my opinion.
So how can you make a mediocre amp sound better, or improve that weak and artificial sounding reverb? With effects boxes. I almost always use a small tube-type pre-amp between my guitar and amplifier, which “warms up” the sound quite a bit, making the nice acoustic overtones from my guitar more noticeable. There are plenty of reverb units available, most of which sound at least somewhat better than the on-board reverb in the amp. None of the solid state units can match the sound a spring/tube reverb however. In any case, I feel that reverb should be something that is unobtrusive and should be used sparingly.
A whole separate issue here is the type of pick-up your guitar has. That is a huge discussion but I can say without hesitation that the passive pick-ups from K&K are in my opinion the most natural sounding units out there and I’ve had them in many guitars. You may need a “direct box” to match the impedance between your guitar pick-up and the amp however. This allows the maximum amount of gain and the purest sounding signal.
But the bottom line, quite simply put, is that NO acoustic amplifier sounds as good as your guitar’s sound being picked up by a good quality microphone and run through a good quality PA system. Problem is, for the recreational player this is just not practical from a space and expense standpoint, and besides, learning to use a mic to its maximum capability is an art unto itself. Then there are those nasty feedback issues too (!).
So I’ll just stick with my trusty, tried-and-true Carvin AG-100. It sound pretty damn good, it isn’t too heavy or unwieldy even for an old guy like me, and it has a mic input too so I can use it as a mini PA system if needed. If I happen to discover something better I’ll let you know.
If you’ve never tried your acoustic with amplification I think it’s worth the investment even if you just play in your living room. You will hear things you haven’t heard before in your playing, and it’s just plain fun too!
Peace & good music,