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This article was originally published in issue #31
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The general design of the electric guitar pickup has remained much the same for the last 80 years. There have been small innovations here and there but all types are primarily based on the same principle of a copper wire wrapped around a magnet with individual pole pieces to convert the vibrations of each string into an electromagnetic signal. Now Fishman, whose reputation has been made at the forefront of acoustic instruments pickups (most recently with the Triple Play Wireless MIDI pickup, reviewed in Issue 22) has taken those 80 years of pickup design and totally rethought the concept. In essence, it has retained the elements that we all love but removed the issues such as noise, hum and inductance issues that even the best traditional pickups can suffer from. Impressed? You should be!
Fishman's Fluence pickups are essentially based on modern circuit printing technology, which allows the company to ‘print’ wire coils onto a circuit board in a highly reliable and controllable manner. By printing the coils in this way you can ensure that each coil is exactly the same as the next and can be consistently re-produced from pickup to pickup. Fishman prints 48 layers of coils and stacks them on top of one another to produce pickup capability, then attaches another 48 layers below this with the coil direction perfectly reversed. It places a spacer in between both sets of layers so that they can’t communicate and the result is a totally noiseless system, since each set of layers are perfectly matched opposites of one another and cancel any hum or noise.
The single coil versions that Fishman sent us for review use Alnico IV rod magnets in the core of the pickup but magnets can vary fairly widely from specimen to specimen, giving differences from pickup to pickup even with the same type of magnet. To counter this, Fishman set about using its own methods to flatten out the properties of each magnet so that it had a perfect platform to then tailor the frequencies of the pickup, boosting certain frequencies while attenuating others, so that every pickup will be identical.
In order to achieve this level of frequency control a pre-amp has to be used and this means that the system must be active and battery powered. As with all active systems there are advantages and some small disadvantages to this. The first huge advantage of this system is that Fishman can store two completely different frequency settings for each pickup with different voicings selectable at the flick or push of a switch. For the single coil version there is a vintage single coil tone and a ‘Texas Hot’ mode, both available in any position using a three single coil set-up. Voice 1 has a peak frequency of 4kHz while Voice 2, Texas Hot, has a lower peak frequency of 3kHz for more midrange and cut and an overall boost to the level. The voice selection can be done via a push-pull switch on a tone or volume control, or mapped to a separate switch if required, although this involves more installation issues. Voice switching is a true first in the pickup world, achieving two unique voices from a single pickup with no digital modelling involved at all and is an amazing addition to have on a guitar.
Another big benefit of an active system is that cable capacitance is no longer an issue, allowing you to run long cable lengths with no loss of tone to speak of. You will also no longer experience a loss of high end whilst lowering your volume control allowing constant tone at all volume settings. Of course, some players like this effect, so this has to be borne in mind.
The downside is that active systems require some form of power, which in this case means a battery. Guitar players historically shy away from such systems due to short battery lives and the added expense of changing batteries all the time. However, Fishman has developed its own lithium ion batteries that can either act as backplate replacements or fit underneath a pick guard and which offer up to 250 hours of play from a single charge. The battery features a mini-USB slot and can be charged using the included charger cable and wall socket, but you could charge from a computer equally well. 250 hours represents 10 days and 10 hours of play time, not bad at all from a single battery pack, which takes around two hours to charge fully from our tests. It should be stressed that you don't have to use this power source. If you'd rather, you can drive these pickups using a standard 9V battery.
Tonally, the single coil models are superb performers with amazing clarity and dynamic response from both voices. Our sample set came fitted to a superb Fret-King guitar but you can take it as read that the vintage mode is everything you could want from a '60s style Strat pickup, while the ‘Texas’ mode adds some serious ‘girth’ to the tone for that Stevie Ray tone that is so coveted by many players. Check out the video to hear what I mean.
At the time of writing, though Fishman has announced a range of humbuckers, prices for these haven't been announced and none were available for review, so we're looking forward to trying them later and will report as soon as we can. In the meantime, for Strat and Strat-like guitar owners, having both of these tones at your beck and call is incredible and the fact that Fishman can guarantee each pickup is identical to the last is an amazing achievement in a market place full of mystery and snake oil. If we can get over the hangup about using batteries in our guitars (and after all, compared to the pathetic battery life of most smart phones these days, 250 hours is a great achievement!) then this system represents an incredible advance in pickup design that every guitarist should be seriously excited about, especially as the prices aren't hugely different to those of other replacement pickups. Highly recommended!