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This article was originally published in issue #31
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Give someone an acoustic guitar and at some point they will inevitably want/need to amplify it, and that opens a whole can of worms. In my experience the best sounding option is to stick a good couple of mics in front of it, as this tends to yield the most natural tone. However, this option is not always practical. Many acoustics come fitted with electrics, built-in tuners and pickups, but what if you have just a standard acoustic guitar and miking is not always an option? Well there are many acoustic pickups available on the market and you should take your time choosing them as they can drastically alter the tone of the instrument. You also need to think how you want the pick up to be fitted, do you want to be taking a drill and jigsaw to your beloved expensive acoustic or would you rather have something that fits under the strings?
In this review we are looking at three options from one of the leading acoustic pickup manufacturers, LR Baggs: the M1, Element and iBeam. We also have a guitar that's fitted with all three to give a quick test and comparison, be sure to check out the video so you can hear them each and see how they fit. Let’s take a look at each one individually, their spec and most importantly what they sound like.
LR Baggs M1
The M1 is a traditional across-the-soundhole under the strings type. It's a patented humbucking pickup with a twist. In a common stacked humbucker, the lower coil cancels hum, but this pickup claims to unlock the lower coil with a “carefully tuned support that allows it to capture higher frequency resonances”. The idea being that as the pickup moves with the guitar's soundboard, a body signal is created in the suspended coil that should add presence and realism to the amplified sound.
This is the type of after fit pickup we are used to seeing on acoustics. It's very simple to attach and even comes with a special cable to come straight out of the sound hole should you not wish to install a jack socket. There is an individual volume control toggle on the pickup that was very sensitive and responded well to micro adjustments, the pole pieces are also adjustable enabling you to tune it perfectly to your guitar and style. The one on our test guitar had been installed well, giving a perfect balance between strings, the pickup although quite large wasn’t obtrusive, although it does stand out like a sore thumb... Sound wise, this produced the biggest sound out of the three: a big acoustic tone with high feedback resistance, giving punchy string attack. If getting up on stage and belting out a few big strummy numbers is your thing, then this could be the perfect pickup for you. It also handled the picked quieter playing well, but you always got the feeling that it really wanted you to attack!
LR Baggs Element
The one size fits all Element under saddle pickup is the complete opposite of the M1 in terms of visibility. Unless you look really closely it's hard to see. Hidden in the saddle slots is a class A endpin pre-amp and a soundhole-mounted volume control, which is the only thing you can just about see. I have my own personal opinion on these discrete volume controls, which is that they are great for the looks, but not so practical for volume changes on the fly. Most under saddle pickups are dependent on string compression for their sound, the element was engineered to mirror the soundboards actual movement as you play. A flexible film sensor only two thousandths of an inch thick picks up the guitar's most delicate nuances.
In use, this is a highly dynamic pickup that responded to both attacking strumming, delicate picking and everything in between. It also generated one of the clearest tones with pristine highs and sweet mids. You would need to dig in a bit more to get the type of volume generated from the M1 but it is possible.
LR Baggs iBeam
The iBeam design employs a matched pair of virtually weightless film sensors that flex much like diaphragms in a stereo mic. A key advantage over typical bridge plate sensors is that the iBeam's response pattern that inhibits feedback and string squeak. Weighing less than 1/3 of an ounce, the pickup should not alter the guitar's natural acoustics and easily mounts to the bridge plate with peel and stick adhesive. Out of the three this pickup for me was the most natural, and closest to mic sounding. There was great dynamic response and a feel of air being moved with the natural qualities of the guitar being picked up just like a mic would. Once again this set-up uses the little volume wheel that I'm on the fence about, but aside from that it really was faultless. Probably the lowest output of all three, but that's a small price to pay for the rewarding, warm authentic tone.