Amplification Strategies for the Performing Acoustic Musician

by Harvey Reid
used by permission

Harvey Reid has played and taught guitar for 30 years, was a former national Fingerpicking Guitar Champion, and has released 14 solo recordings of original, traditional, and contemporary acoustic music. In 1980 he wrote the first college textbook for folk guitar. He now lives in Southern Maine.

About the Author

One of the most frustrating and common experiences for any performer is to walk on stage, ready to play music, and then have the performance defused by sound problems. It might be feedback squealing all though your quiet song. Or you might not be able to hear yourself. Your voice and instrument may not be balanced properly. Or you may be in a group and not be able to hear the other members. The easiest response, and one that many seasoned professionals employ is to blame everything on the equipment or the soundman. This does not help the audience hear any better, and creates bad politics at the gig. If you and your instruments are properly prepared for each performing situation, you can do a lot to make sure that you spend your time on stage playing music and not fighting with sound.

Deciding what specifically to do or what equipment to buy depends on a number of factors: the kind of music you play, the instruments you use, the volume level you want, and the performance setting itself. There are so many variables and tastes that there is no simple answer or piece of equipment that will make you sound good in all situations. Yes, folks, this means that you will have to learn something and make agonizing and expensive decisions, rather than just learn or buy the answers. In this article we'll try to get a quick overview of the choices you'll have to make.

Unless you are lucky enough to only perform for quiet groups in acoustically excellent rooms, you will have to use a PA system for performances. Even concert halls that have been built specifically for music listening tend to be designed for operas or symphonies, and are really too large (in spite of what anyone says), for a truly effective performance with just an unamplified acoustic guitar. Those of us who play and enjoy music must learn to cherish those times when we have a great acoustic setting at home, at a party, at the beach or at a bluegrass festival out in a field with the bass thumping through your feet and the sound of all the instruments and voices projecting through the air like magic. And we must learn to accept all the shortcomings and trade-offs that come with the use of a sound system. Only a few people can crowd around the bluegrass band in the field before the sound that reaches outer listeners becomes muffled and changed. With the use of amplification and recording, many more people can share in the experience of the performance. Although an amplified performance or a recording can never capture the true spirit and content of the music, it captures something of value. Every person who performs or enjoys music must decide how picky they wish to be on matters of "purity" and reproductions. Some people are happy just listening to a small kitchen radio, while other people have compact disc players in their cars and are still unsatisfied. If you've never been in a small room with a skilled musician playing a quality instrument, you've missed something. But it also is undeniably fun to listen to your favorite song on your Walkman as you walk through the woods or to be at the concert, even if you are in the back row.

Looking for "natural" sound is not really the point; what you are looking for is good sound. And the decision as to what is good is maddeningly subjective. In a quiet coffeehouse, all you need to do is mike your guitar and make sure you are behind the speakers to minimize feedback. But if you try to mike a Martin D-35 with a Shure vocal mike like they do at most coffeehouses, you will not get the best of results, because in order to get the maximum stage volume, you'll want the guitar as close to the mike as possible. But directional mikes (almost every mike you'll ever encounter; the opposite of omni-directional mikes) have a property known as the proximity effect which means that when you get the sound source closer to the mike, the bass response increases. Singers love this, but it makes a guitar, especially one with lots of bass like a D-35, roar and rumble excessively in the PA. So you need to EQ the mike to remove some of the bass or choose a mike that is better suited for the instrument's sound. And mikes designed for vocals have an EQ curve built into them that makes singers sound better but that can make guitars feed back.

Now this same mike setup might make you completely happy at the coffeehouse, and it might give enough volume for a lounge gig at the Holiday Inn, but there you run into some other problems. Because the last 20 people that played that gig all had pickups in their guitars, and because the kind of music you would be expected to play at a Holiday Inn lounge relies considerably on signal processing, you would simply sound wrong to the audience if you tried to do the gig with your Martin and your Shure mike. And it would be a fashion thing more than anything. You would sound like a coffeehouse. And if you try to run a mike signal through a chorus box or compressor it sounds dreadful I think.

So you might decide you need a pickup, to get more volume and that modern sound. There are several types of guitar pickups: magnetic sound hole style pickups, piezo-electric pickups that attach to the body of the instrument, and piezo-electric pickups that fit under the saddle. For sound and convenience you might think about installing a pre-amp and control knobs on the guitar. Then again you might not want to drill holes in your 1956 Martin, and you might just want to just use an endpin jack and use external controls. More decisions. And the best answer depends on what you need or can afford, and not on some world standard.

You might like the natural sound of a mike, and want to use a mike and a pickup together on stage. This is often an excellent choice, but if there are 5 people in your group that all want 2 instrument channels and a vocal mike, you need a 16 channel mixer and a 30 minute sound check for even a short showcase gig. Or if you use wireless gear, this means two wireless units at double the expense, bulk and double the risk of something going wrong. You might want to install a mini-mike inside your guitar. This adds volume and convenience, but causes some new wiring problems, and can be expensive if you use several instruments on stage. If you play in a band with a drummer, a lot of your choices are made for you. You pretty much have to give up the idea of miking the guitar because of the stage and monitor volume, unless your band's PA can allow you to send only the pickup signal to the monitors and the mike and pickup both to the house. At extreme volumes you might even have to stuff your guitar with towels to lessen its resonance and feedback.

If you want to be heard, you might as well do your homework and keep informed as to the best way to amplify yourself. New equipment comes out every year. Ignoring the problem doesn't make it go away. Musicians who spend years learning to play their instruments often don't realize that it is of almost equal importance to learn to use the sound system when performance time comes. Choosing not to deal with the issue is still making a passive choice, and if you don't use your PA properly, it still makes a statement to the audience, just as you make a fashion statement when you dress sloppily. You might be playing great music or speaking deep truths, but if the mikes are feeding back and the tweeters are blown in your speakers the effect of the truth and music may not be felt. Another performer with a great sound system and less truth is likely to connect better with the same audience.

The more that you the musician yourself understand what is coming out of the speakers, the more effectively the whole music will come across to the audience. Artistic decisions underlie all the technical talk, and artists should make them. You really owe it to yourself and your listeners to spend some time and care learning how to make yourself heard properly. In future articles in this series we will look at the specifics of how to choose the right equipment for your needs and how to use it to your best advantage in various performing and recording situations.


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About the Author

Harvey Reid


Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Harvey Reid has honed his craft over the last 30 years in countless clubs, festivals, street corners, cafes, schools and concert halls across the nation. He has been called a "giant of the steel strings" and "one of the true treasures of American acoustic music." He has absorbed a vast repertoire of American contemporary and roots music and woven it into his own colorful, personal and distinctive style. His 15 recordings on Woodpecker Records showcase his mastery of many instruments and styles of acoustic music, from hip folk to slashing slide guitar blues to bluegrass, old-time, Celtic, ragtime and even classical.

Reid's skills and versatility on the guitar alone mark him as an important new voice in acoustic music. He won the 1981 National Fingerpicking Guitar Competition and the 1982 International Autoharp competition. Yet he's also a veteran musician with a long list of studio and band credits, a strong flatpicker who has won the Beanblossom bluegrass guitar contest, a versatile and engaging singer, a powerful lyricist, prolific composer, arranger and songwriter, a solid mandolin and bouzouki player, and a seasoned performer and entertainer. And he plays the 6-string banjo and the autoharp like you've never heard.