That pretty much defines my search for sound quality. In my guitars, amplifiers and most recently for my online live sessions that I’ve been doing weekly for about two months on my Facebook Cape Cod Acoustics page. This is not really something new with me on one level. I’ve known since I picked up my first guitar 50+ years ago that some guitars sounded better than others, and of course like all guitarists I wanted one that sounded good. The quest for the best sounding guitar has been long and filled with surprises, a few dead ends and a pretty much constant reevaluation of my definition of “good.”
These days and really for the last ten years since I’ve been doing a single almost all the time – and therefor don’t have to worry about how others will sound when amplified – my focus and quest for sound excellence has been related to electronics. Oh, to return to the old days of just one microphone for the vocals, one for the acoustic guitar and a sound reinforcement system that was simplicity itself! Once in a while I’ll hear someone who still clings to that formula and sometimes the results are passable, even quite good. But usually there is one element that is lacking in terms of fidelity and issues such as feedback and/or being exactly the right distance from the mic are a constant battle.
Along with my diminishing hearing are other issues related to – gulp – my age. Gone are the days of carrying big amps and speakers. I just can’t do it, no matter how good the resulting sound may be. Fortunately, manufacturers of amps designed for acoustic guitar and vocals must be aware that a significant number of their potential customers are like me and they have been putting out some great compact and relatively light gear for the past few years. I have been using ACUS amplifiers for the last three or so years and I positively love the sound they produce. They are handmade in Italy and not too common in this country but like the great Italian sports cars, they are made with only the best components, built to deliver the optimum output and are also undeniably beautiful with hand-rubbed multi-ply birch cabinets. The one I’m using now is their top of the line model, the ACUS Onforstrings AD. It has all the power, inputs and sound shaping technology I could possibly need, although I do use a Red Eye pre-amp to boost the sound of my K&K pick-up equipped Martin guitars. It sounds heavenly.
Microphones are another issue that I kind of took for granted for decades. The old standby Shure SM58 and SM57 where standard equipment for just about every musician I knew and I owned them too, of course. Built like a tank, delivering reasonably good (if a bit muddy) sound and pretty good at rejecting feedback they served me well for a long, long time. But about ten or so years ago I noticed that when I did a gig that required a lot of singing my voice was pretty beat by the end of the gig. I figured that yes, this was probably another age-related issue. And then someone lent me a Shure Bets 87A low impedance mic and wow, all of sudden I didn’t have to work as hard, clarity I’d never heard was there and the overall tonality was much improved. I still use one from time to time but also like my Blue Encore 300 (even more clarity but slightly feedback prone) and my Ear Trumpet Edwina, a very cool mic that is good at picking up both vocals and guitar if placed correctly, plus it looks so retro cool! You can see this mic in action on any of the MPR Tiny Desk Concerts online.
I’ve talked a lot about pick-ups in past entries here so I won’t go through that again but in a nutshell, after trying many, many acoustic guitar pick-ups I keep coming back to the K&K Pure Mini for its pure, natural acoustic sound and absolute simplicity with passive output (no batteries to worry about). As I said earlier, I do use the Red Eye pre-amp to boost the signal at bit and add some treble as needed.
So I feel like for now at least I’m getting the sound I want. Based on what I’m hearing, anyway. But what about for those Facebook broadcasts? I won’t deny this has been a huge challenge. At first when I was doing them from my studio I tried using a nice mixer, that Ear Trumpet mic and running the signal into my Macbook Pro laptop. I tested it out with headphones and it sounded quite good. But then….. when I tried my first couple of broadcasts it turned out that what the listeners were hearing was sometimes distorted, bass-heavy and really not very good at all. I’d heard a few other online live broadcasts by both well-known musicians and some people I know and the results were variable, to say the least. After much research I learned that (duh!) what it really comes down to is how Facebook processes the sound. Apparently their equalizers and sound boosters are configured for speech, not music, and the best results are achieved with using only a smartphone! So a few weeks ago I started doing this, using my relatively new IPhone 11. Much, much better….not perfect by a long shot but much better balance and clarity with practically no distortion. I am still singing and playing through my ACUS AD, which is what the phone mic is picking up; I guess I just don’t trust a pure acoustic guitar and no amplification of my vocals. This past week I added a IRig Mic, a very cool little condenser mic that attaches magnetically to my IPhone and plugs directly into the lightning input. My phone recognized it immediately and the mic has a small gain adjustment on it that shows the optimum amount of gain before distortion. My son Matt who is a great drummer and musician and has a very critical ear (and does not hesitate to tell me where improvements need to be made, thank goodness!) said yesterday’s broadcast from the Daily Brew was my best yet in terms of sound. Hooray!
As a little sidebar here, a tip for anyone who’s going to be playing in public. Even after all these decades of performance I still get a bit nervous when I play out. I figured out long ago that this is really a good thing – it keeps me focused and as long as I don’t screw up too badly I can channel that nervousness into an even better performance. Strange thing though. Doing these live remote broadcasts on Facebook are even more nerve wracking than playing in front of a big audience because I have no idea how many people (and who) are watching! So here’s my tip of the day.
If you start playing and find you’re a bit nervous, try strumming or fingerpicking farther back toward the bridge. Because the string will feel tighter there and you have to exert more force, you can channel that nervousness into playing harder. This totally works for me and after a couple songs I can shift back up closer to the sound hole and all is well. Try it!
Peace & good music! Stay strong, stay well, stay safe,