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October 11, 2007 | What to look for in an acoustic amplifier

In exploring the myriad of good amplification alternatives, there are several personal "application" considerations to ponder. A good acoustic amp is simply not a "one size fits all" answer, and anyone who tries to convince you they have the single best solution is guilty of extreme shortsightedness.

Range (power). The more watts you have, the more sound you can fill the room. A 30 watt amp can fill a small coffeehouse adequately, but in a concert hall or bar stage in a room of noisy people even a 50 or 60 watt amp won't be adequate. 100 watts is something to consider, but keep in mind how you will need to interact/compete with your bandmates as well. Erring on the side of more power can give you better sound, too, but you have to contend with packing a heavier amp.

Ensemble constitution. It's not just the size of a band that matters. Sure, a string duo will require less power, but you also need to factor in what other instruments are there. A blazing Hendrix wannabee on electric guitar, drummers with 22" ride cymbals, and any heavy two-fisted keyboard player will call for not only power, but brilliance in the EQ to cut. Be prepared to make a lot of tone sacrifices in the case of the latter round of usual suspects.

Monitoring Stage vs. audience volume. If you're playing with the benefit of a good soundman and extra monitoring system, your world opens up significantly. At this point, you're concern may well be ONLY what you can control, in particular, the stage level. You'll want a sound level and quality that allows you to hear you, and the hall level is a whole other kettle of fish. Be prepared to run the sound out of an XLR connector out to the board into the house and kiss your EQ settings goodbye. From there, it doesn't matter what you've done to color the sound, it will be totally in the hands of the soundman (though you do want to send something basically good to start). Matter of fact, you're probably better off not even worrying about anything but your own stage level; you don't know how your sound is interacting with hall dynamics and audience absorption. You aren't there physically, and your sound man is.

Acoustic vs. Electric. Piezo pickups amplify the sound of wood vibration, strings, and the air column inside the instrument. Magnetic pickups are much about they way the string interacts with the pickup. It's an entirely different color, nebulously referred to as "that electric" sound. A Fender Stratocaster will never sound like a Martin D15 acoustic, so don't expect the same character out of an electric p/u. Consider, the more you attempt to capture the nuances of your instrument, the more you set yourself up for feedback. This is the give and take of power in the p/u, a topic unto itself.

Tube verses Solid State. In electric guitar, the rage is tube amps for rich, fat tone. There is also the opportunity to saturate or "overdrive" the tone, but that's not necessarily the goal of the acoustic mandolinist. That's not to say plenty of good players out there aren't using tube amps, it's just Solid State, high-end digital circuitry is capable of if nothing else, tonal accuracy. Still, may consider the digital or solid state to be "harsh" or sterile. Like everything else there are trade-offs for going either way.

Ergonomics (ease of set-up, mounting, and weight). Power is good, until you reach age 40 and start down the ever-declining physical ability to haul an awkwardly big amp. Technology has made great strides the last decade in making powerful amps out of lighter materials. An amp that's easy to haul, easy to plug in, and easy to put closer to ear level is worth its weight in, well, weightlessness. (or something...) Maybe you don't think of this when you're purchasing an amp, but you will years hauling it across a large parking lot.

Outboard capability. We mentioned EQ already, and processing can be a good thing for controlling stage character. The versatility to adjust to hall and other band personnel WITHIN your amp can be a convenient thing, but you're more likely to use some other outboard tool, an EQ, FX processor, or other gear that can give you more potential multi-band control (8-10 not just 3 or 4) over your sound shape and color. You might be better off with a barebones amp, and a processor with dials on the periphery of your rig.

Multi-use potential (small PA). Some of the larger acoustic amps can easily double as a small PA system, especially if you're group is small and acoustic in nature. Multiple inputs, some XLR inputs for microphones, and phantom power can give you a versatile rig in a small coffeehouse environment. This can be a good thing as in very small venues; unplugged won't be loud enough if your audience is carrying on a conversation, and a small PA system is decibel overkill.

EQ control/Notch Filtering. In addition to 2-5 bands of EQ, many amps come with what's called "Notch Filtering." What this does is isolate a narrow band of frequencies that cause the amp to feedback (or warble) at certain pitches. This is at worst, a nice bonus, and at best a complete necessity. The more "acoustic" in character your set-up is, the more you'll be dealing with the ravages of feedback, so this isn't something to overlook.

We mentioned a lot of issues without going into much detail or concrete examples. Our goal is to offer some reviews of a range of amps that we'd recommend for mandolin. We'll be introducing this very soon in our "Recommended Listening" section. The most important thing to keep in mind, there are many solutions for many different needs. What works for some will not always work carte blanche for other mandolinists. Consider all the above factors when you go shopping. You may need a couple different amps for different environments, or compromise with some features in just one. Bear in mind, each instrument can vary significantly in results, so don't be afraid to experiment when you have the opportunity.

Posted by Ted at October 11, 2007 1:59 PM

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