For years, acoustic guitarists have looked for the perfect-sounding acoustic, using the best mics to record them in all of their complexity only to be dissatisfied when they bring them onstage. It is true- undersaddle and soundhole pickup systems can never capture that same complexity the microphones can. And using mics onstage is almost impossible as long as there are other sound sources and monitors onstage. The solution for the longest time was to plug the output of the acoustic guitar into a DI box, and go right to the board.
This worked fine, although it reduced that guitar into sounding like a honking, plinky mess through the PA. You can EQ at the board, and add effects, but if you are starting with a less-than-ideal sound to begin with, no amount of fixing it after the fact was going to make that acoustic sound great.
The D-TAR Mama Bear seeks to rectify that, as we will soon find out. First, a little history: D-TAR is a sister company of Seymour Duncan, and consist of partners Rick Turner, co-founder of and luthier to the stars, and Seymour Duncan, the electric pickup maker. D-TAR stands for Duncan-Turner Acoustic Research and focuses on acoustic guitar products like pickups and preamps.
The Mama Bear is sort of a specialized digital preamp and direct box for acoustic guitar, but it really does much more than that. It uses a process of EQ, which D-Tar calls Acoustic Guitar Emulation. That is, it takes the sound from a piezo or magnetic pickup, and then can impart sort of a ‘sonic-signature’ of 16 world-class acoustic guitars, transforming a boring signal into something very different. To do this, D-Tar meticulously recorded some of the best guitars in the world for these ‘impressions’. Will it make your $100 cheapie sound like a 1930’s Martin? Well, no, but it makes good guitars sound great through a PA system. And it really transformed the 3 instruments I threw at it (and they were a tough test).
First, you set the Mama Bear’s input source knob to the type of guitar pickup you have. There are 16 to choose from, and you don’t have to get it exact. In fact, it is fun to play around with this and see how it changes the sound.
You then set the Target Instrument knob to what you want your guitar to sound like. This is where it gets fun. You have 16 to choose from:
2 Small Body Fingerstyle
3 Small Body Blues
4 Mahogany Orchestra Model
5 Rosewood Orchestra Model
6 Boutique Fingerstyle
7 Slope-shouldered Dreadnought
8 Grand Auditorium
9 Slope-shouldered Jumbo
10 Mahogany Dreadnought
11 Rosewood Dreadnought
12 Super Jumbo
13 Hollow Body Archtop Jazz
14 Gypsy Jazz
15 Biscuit Blues Resonator
16 Tricone Resonator
Now my test subjects and sound clips. I chose 3 tough guitars to transform when plugged in. The first was a mid-priced Dean import steel-string, that had a typically quacky piezo pickup. The next was a solid-body Ovation Viper, which uses acoustic strings, an acoustic bridge, and is made of a thick chunk of mahogany like a Les Paul. The third guitar was a Brian Moore C55, which has a high-end piezo bridge. It is a solid-body electric, and you are supposed to route the magnetic pickups (a Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro and a Custom Custom) to an electric guitar amp and then the piezo output to an acoustic amp or PA.
Since I couldn’t do every combination with every guitar, I chose 4 examples for each guitar. In the soundclips, you will first hear the pickup recorded directly to the computer, and then the same phrase with the D-Tar Mama Bear. In the titles of the pieces, I included what guitar I used and what Mama Bear model I imposed on it. The only thing added after the fact was a little bit of reverb on both the dry and effected clips.
Dean with a Grand Auditorium model:
Dean with the Rosewood Dred model:
Dean with Biscuit Blues Resonator model:
Dean with Parlor model:
Now for the Ovation Viper…
Viper with Boutique Fingerstyle model:
Viper with Hollow Body Jazz model:
Viper with Rosewood Orchestra model:
Viper with Slope-Shoulder Jumbo model:
And last, the toughest of all to ‘correct’, the solidbody Brian Moore with piezo bridge:
Piezo with Boutique Fingerstyle model:
Piezo with Small Fingerstyle model:
Piezo with Super Jumbo model:
Piezo with Tricone Resonator model:
The Mama Bear improved the direct sound of each type of pickup, and I didn’t even include using it for any high-end acoustic guitars in this roundup. This, of course, is just what the recorded sound is like, and doesn’t capture what it sounds like through a PA system in a room, which is one of the main things the Mama Bear is designed for. You can read more about the Mama Bear in the downloadable manual.
We may not have access to a roomful of expensive hand-built acoustics, but D-Tar has made sure we don’t have to. Great sounds are in this little table-top box, and you can get them easily by turning a few knobs. I wish I had it while recording the acoustics for my last CD!
What kind of guitars do you have that could benefit from the Mama Bear’s voodoo? How do you amplify them now, and what do and don’t you like about the amplified sound?