By Dave Eichenberger
Using pedals with an acoustic guitar is a pretty counter-intuitive thing. After all, it is an acoustic guitar, and it gets its name from the sound of the guitar in a room, with the reflections blaring out from the soundboard in all directions of the room. A pickup or even a microphone might come close to sounding how a good acoustic sounds in a room, but nothing quite nails the sound of a great acoustic in an awesome –sounding room. However, since most acoustics produced and bought are not those iconic models we all wished we owned, we might have reason to modify the sound of the acoustic guitar in the room we are sitting in. This article is about how I designed an acoustic pedalboard to compensate for having both a less-than-ideal guitar in a less-than-idea room.
What This Isn’t
My goal in building an acoustic board is designing one that gets me the sound I like to hear through an acoustic amp (or PA) at the acoustic gigs I do. My acoustic gigs are instrumental, and consist of plenty of hybrid-picked solo guitar and looped performances. Someone who sings or plays a different style of music might need something completely different. I use three different acoustic guitars: a carbon fiber-topped Adamas SMT, a nylon string Yamaha with string spacing like a steel string, and a Line 6 Acoustic Variax 700. Yes, I couldn’t have picked three different instruments, but I use them because they sound amazing through my acoustic rig. Hopefully, some of my ideas can help some of you who are looking to solve a common problem: that thin-sounding piezo sound common in most amplified acoustics.
Squeeze Just a Little Bit
My guitars vary greatly in output, and I pick very lightly. I find that a compressor in the front of my chain evens out the sound between purely picked pieces, and fingerstyle pieces. I usually don’t like compressed acoustic on a recording, but playing live is very different. I want to be able to hear everything, but I don’t want the attack to be clamped down too much. I always use a compressor pedal with a blend knob, and the Seymour Duncan Vise Grip is a perfect pedal for keeping the presence on the acoustic guitar. I generally keep the Sustain up to about 11:00, and the Blend right up at 12:00. I want high notes to sustain, and low notes to be heard balanced with the high strings. I set the volume to be the same volume when off as when the pedal is on. No matter how hard or soft I pick, a compressor allows every part of my playing to be heard.
A good EQ can help a strange sounding room, or a guitar that sounds too thin. I always have a slight bass boost on my EQ, and a slight dip in the mids. It is the sound I generally like in purely acoustic guitars, and it seems to help instruments with less-than-ideal piezo pickups. This EQ shape seems to work with all of my acoustics, and they sound dull without it (when plugged in). The compression before the EQ helps even out the frequencies before they are boosted or cut.
Mod It All to Hell
Acoustic guitars with modulation of some kind can be the worst sound in the world for some people, which is precisely why I like it! I don’t slather gobs of flanger and phaser on it though. I like a little subtlety (sometimes). Currently, I am using the Catalina Chorus, which is a dynamic pedal. This allows the chorus to be varied according to how hard (or soft, your choice) you pick. I like a little chorus to creep in if I snap the strings hard, and disappear as soon as I quiet down. It is a subtle effect that really sounds great in stereo, but rocks in mono as well. To my ears, it gives a slightly double-tracked sound with the rate set low, and the depth set higher. I don’t like a lot of warbling in my chorus, and the Catalina Chorus makes it so I can leave it on all the time and control it with my dynamics.
Echo Me Timbres
A slight echo (300-500ms) mixed very low expands the sound, and it helps if it isn’t a direct copy of the incoming signal. The Seymour Duncan Vapor Trail Analog Delay has that characteristic slightly-darker delay sound that doesn’t interfere with the original signal. I set it for one repeat, and quiet enough so you barely hear it. In fact, while playing you don’t notice it at all, but you hear it creep in if I suddenly stop.
Guitars in Space
Next is a reverb pedal, and I usually choose one with a good plate setting. I generally test these out in the store by setting the direct sound to 0, and listening to the tail of the reverb (an awesome sound in itself). If it sounds like listening to someone sing at one end of an empty concert hall, I’m in. I don’t want to hear any splat, or artifacts, in the reverb tail. No, I don’t play with that much reverb, but it will make the shorter reverb times sound that much better. I like a reverb time around 3 seconds, but set very low.
Loop It Real Good
I send this signal to a looping device. At the very least, for me, a looper should have control of the loop volume, so I can seamlessly combine looped and live playing with my feet. The best pedal loopers have control of loop feedback as well, and allow me to control the fade of repeats while adding new material to the loop. For my style of looping, the verse/chorus/verse patterns are not important, and either is drum tracks, etc. I’ve been using a Line 6 M9 or an Oberheim Echoplex Digital Pro for loops.
Send it to the PA
I have sent this signal to the PA many ways. Sometimes I just go straight from my last pedal. Sometimes I use a special direct box called an Aural Xciter which adds some lower overtones to the signal. I have also used the Mama Bear, which is like a special acoustic DI that imparts the models of several acoustic guitars onto the signal. I find that either the Mama Bear or the Xciter outputs via XLR, and sends a balanced signal to the PA. This lowers noise, and helps the soundperson (yes, sometimes that is me) interface with their mixer, and will give an overall better sound.
Yeah, I Know…
My acoustic pedalboard isn’t for everyone, but it isn’t supposed to be. I wasn’t trying to replicate any sound other than what was in my head. Most of my effects are ‘always on’, so there is no tap dancing (except the looper), and it works no matter which acoustic guitar I am playing and no matter what room I am in. I got sick of being at the mercy of a factory piezo pickup, and in acoustically- compromised rooms. Your acoustic pedalboard is probably different, and it should be! Give your acoustic sound some love, and you are bound to come up with your own unique vision.
Who has your favorite acoustic sound? What is your favorite acoustic guitar?