Lou Hinkley

Amplifying the Acoustics

articles from Acoustic Musician Magazine

Amplifying the Acoustics #5


Dear Lou,

I realize that the various amps on the market are ideal for acoustic steel-string instruments; however, are they ideal for amplifying classical guitars and lutes? One well-known lutenist and lute expert…states that the cheapest guitar amps actually produce a more natural tone with a lute than the more expensive systems. Of the component systems you are familiar with, which would be the best for my use? David C.

.David C. ,

Thanks for your note, I will try to answer your questions as best I can, feel free to write if you have any more questions. Amplifying acoustic instruments is challenging for everyone, and to make it even more difficult we must sift through a great deal of misinformation.

Most component systems are based on dedicated acoustic instrument preamplifiers. There are only two rack-mount full function pre-amps I know of; Pendulum and Rane, both are well suited for just about any application. For a high end classical guitar or lute (I don’t know of any inexpensive lutes), you should probably stick to top shelf amplification and signal source (transducer/mic) gear.

I would be curious as to which "expensive" systems this person has worked with? The expensive ($1,500 to $3,000) one-piece acoustic guitar amps do appear to be designed for steel string guitar and sometimes tend to have a bright tone quality to help cut through the mix. Because of this some instrument/pick-up combinations may actually sound "warmer" though a less expensive amp. On the other hand, studio quality electronics and speaker systems will provide a much more "natural" and accurate reproduction than guitar amps. This level of electronics and related component amp systems will also reveal any inadequacies in the pick-up system of the instrument. Something like lifting the veil from a painting and exposing all the detail, if the painting is artful this is a beautiful thing, if not ... better to leave the veil in place. For example when we use a $79 pick-up to amplify a $5,000 instrument and we listen to it through a high quality amplification system, we are likely to hear more of the $79 pick-up than the $5,000 instrument! By the way, this can be perfectly valid if the ‘tone’ of that pick-up is the sound you want. But, if you are trying to "hear" your instrument then listening to an inexpensive pick-up instead, can be frustrating to say the least.

A basic rule in amplifying acoustic instruments is to look at the application and the whole system; e.g., the amp, sound source (instrument/pick-up/mic ), and pick-up installation. I know people who use a bass guitar amp for their violin in order to get a full tone, when the real problem is a faulty pick-up installation. I have also seen comparisons of guitar pick-ups using inexpensive guitars for the test; most of the less expensive pick-ups sound about the same in whatever guitar they are in, while the expensive pick-ups more accurately reproduce the tone of the actual guitar they are installed in… go figure.

Too much string noise may be accurate from a certain perspective, but it isn’t musical; the subtle details and nuances of a plywood top may actually sound better if slightly "out of focus. Whether you have a handmade guitar, or a perfectly good guitar it’s important to know what is the week link. A $400 pick-up system in an $800 guitar is like putting a big block eight cylinder engine in a Volkswagen; it shakes and rattles. A Volkswagen engine won’t do much for a Rolls Royce either. The better the gear the more detail you will hear, but there should be a certain balance and synergy within the whole instrument-amp system to make this become musical.

Acoustic Musician / June 1997