Some thirty odd years ago active pickups hit the market and they were doing something amazing. Lots of output paired with no hum, noise or buzz. What else could you ask for? As time went on, players demanded more and more. More tone, more dynamics, more nuance in their playing. And yet it’s still a common idea among some players that active pickups ‘always sound the same,’ that they sound flat and compressed compared to passives. But why are active pickups perceived as such? In this article I want to closer examine active pickups compared to passive pickups and perhaps find an answer that’s satisfying to some degree.
The most obvious difference between active and passive pickups is that you need a battery for your actives. It’s a common misconception that the battery powers nothing more but a boost. That’s something I hear a lot, even from luthiers who are in this business for decades. Active pickups sure have a booster built in the internal circuitry, but that’s not the only thing that’s going on. Let’s compare active pickups with passives on a very basic level. As you already may know, in order to make a pickup silent you need some way of canceling the hum, and the most obvious and traditional way is having two coils. One is wound in the opposite direction of the other, and by running the two coils in series you effectively cancel out a lot of hum and noise. Unfortunately that’s not 100% perfect. Even though most players can live with those imperfections just fine, some need even more silence. Maybe because they play in a lot of clubs and joints where the electricity is a bit dodgy, maybe because their stage lighting and other stage trickery messes up the ambient radiation, I don’t know. But for those players there are many choices in the active pickup-department.
That dual coil configuration I just mentioned is something that all active pickups use as well but instead of routing the combined signal directly to the switch or through a booster, the individual signals of each coil is being processed by a special preamp. This preamp is able to tweak specific targeted frequencies, so the final result is as clean and noise free as possible. That’s the magic that happens inside an active pickup. That unique preamp is what gives you the power, coupled with immense clarity. Unfortunately a lot of the tone you got when playing with a regular passive pickup is lost if the preamp isn’t designed properly. In other words, if it’s designed to be as silent and hot as possible, you’re left with a super-hot pickup without much of a dynamic range!
But, to paraphrase a quote George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm: “All preamps are created equal but some are more equal than others.” Seymour Duncan’s unique differential preamp for their Blackout series is completely different from anything on the market. Each coil is being processed individually and separately, each getting a unique ‘sonic’ treatment. In turn, the Blackout pickups are just as tight as your average, ‘run of the mill’ active pickup but with the added dynamics, harmonic range and vocal qualities of a passive pickup. Just listen to this clip to hear the different tones of several active and passive pickups!
Whatever you choose, active, passive, Blackouts, Livewires, it’s all subject to taste. There is no tonal chameleon: a ‘One to Rule Them All’ Pickup, although the ‘Blackout EMTY’ may bind them in Darkness! Here’s more info on the different Blackout models.
Oh, and if you’d like to experiment with turning any passive pickup into an active one, check out the BMP-1 Blackouts Modular Preamp, which does just that by taking the award-winning, low-noise Blackouts balanced differential preamp out of the pickup and integrating it with a high-quality volume pot.