Guitar players—we’re basically born insane—and the nice thing about insanity is that you never have to explain yourself. But that doesn’t stop us from long-winded sermons about stellar guitar tone and how best to achieve it. Historically, such timbre tantrums have been the province of electric guitarists due to the myriad tone-shaping options available to them. For acoustic guitar, tone was pretty much the result of the combination of tonewoods used and whether or not the luthier was having a good day. That was, of course, until acoustic guitar makers trespassed into electric lady land and began building in preamps, EQ, and pickups. So, you Eric Johnson battery-sniffing, tone-snob types, step aside—it’s our turn to go nuts over tone. Or, in the words of Jimi Hendrix, Move over Rover and let Fishman take over.
If you’ve been in and around the world of acoustic-electric guitars, doubtless you’ve heard the name Fishman, a maker of acoustic guitar electronics that’s associated with the top names in luthiery. Its mission is to bring forth the best possible sound from an acoustic-electric guitar. The Aura Imaging Pedals are the latest result of that effort.
The concept behind these pedals is to evoke the best possible sound from your instrument, as though an experienced engineer using the best mics and preamps available recorded it in a world-class studio.
To work their particular brand of magic, Aura Imaging Pedals implement Fishman’s Acoustic Imaging Technology, leveraging principles of convolution processing. In simple terms, convolution is like multiplication. You take two waveforms and multiply them, resulting in a sound that is the product of the two. Carrying that concept to the guitar, each Aura Imaging Pedal contains acoustic Images of a specific guitar chosen for its combination tone woods and body shape. Its acoustic image is recorded through a number of premier mics (including Neumann, DPA, and Schoeps) and a high-end preamp (the Millennia HV-3D-4, chosen for its transparency and ability to preserve acoustic nuance). The idea is to then process (or convolve) your guitar’s output with acoustic Images to add back the resonances that are lost by an undersaddle piezo pickup, along with the sonic character that certain mics impart.
These pedals are for acoustic-electric guitars, preferably with undersaddle piezo pickups, but also work well with magnetic soundhole pickups. Acoustic-electrics with soundboard pickups and soundhole condenser mics need not apply. Electric guitars? Well, it won’t give them an acoustic sound, but read on for some interesting observations where they’re concerned.
At present, Fishman has six pedals: Dreadnought, Jumbo, Orchestra, Concert, 12-String, and Nylon. To get the most out of these pedals, select the one that correlates to the body style of your guitar.
Physically, the pedals have a modern, stylish, stainless steel look, and as far as build quality goes, wing one of these bad boys at something and you’ll do serious damage. The pedal, however, will emerge victorious. AC or battery powered, the pedal’s controls include volume, blend, a 16-position rotary Image selector, and a bypass/mute footswitch with an on/off indicator light. There’s also a phase reverse switch that helps to restore bass in low volume settings and reduce feedback when playing loud. There are no descriptions of the Images, which are just numbered on the unit itself. Fishman doesn’t want you to get caught up in selecting an Image based on preconceived notions of a given mic’s performance. The idea is to find the right Image for your guitar.
I centered my tests on the Dreadnought and Nylon pedals. The guitars used were a Takamine EG522C Classical Acoustic-Electric, a Martin Custom Adirondack dreadnought (the result of a collaborative effort between Martin and Musician’s Friend), and an Alvarez Professional Series PD80SC Dreadnought Cutaway. I chose these instruments based on a price range of $500 to $1,500 to cover the widest variety of ownership. I was particularly curious to see if Fishman’s Dreadnought pedal would work on the cutaway since body shape plays an important role.
I based my conclusions on whether the sound of the pedals would compare favorably with a miked sound from quality mics and preamps. After all, if you can get similar results from a $199 pedal as you can from $4,000 worth of mics and preamps, sans hours of setup, you’re golden. My setup employed a Royer 121 ribbon mic, BPM CR-10 condenser (handmade German) mic, and Summit preamps. Each guitar was recorded in four passes, one with the Royer, one with the BPM, direct through the Aura, and one with the mics set up in mid-side stereo.
Starting with the dreadnoughts, my first discovery was that by merely running through the Aura pedal with the blend control turned all the way down, the sound of the guitar was immediately improved. Better still, the Dreadnought pedal worked equally well on the Alvarez cutaway as it did with the traditional Martin dreadnought. On every A/B test between mics and Images, the Aura pedal easily held its own. In fact, the Image that I felt worked best on both guitars was nearly indistinguishable from the sound produced by my condenser mic.
Moving on to the Aura Nylon pedal, I found that it yielded the most dramatic results. Almost every Image was eminently useful. I believe that this is due to the diminished resonance of a nylon-string guitar, which allows the Acoustic Imaging to work more effectively (it’s a phase thing). The overall effect of the pedal is just marvelous. You get depth and presence that are not usually forthcoming on a nylon-string guitar, along with a number of timbral options to tailor your sound.
Finally, I tried mixing pedals and body styles. The results were as Fishman predicted—interesting, but not as satisfying as the direct match. Just for fun, I tried the Orchestra pedal with my PRS CE 24 electric, which I always felt was a little thin sounding. Bonus! I actually got a really sweet, extra-sparkly sound in the out-of-phase pickup position, and it added a nice thickness to the neck position pickup. It was exactly the sound I felt I was missing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that you should get an Aura pedal for your electric, but if you get one for your specific acoustic and have an electric lying around, you just might be pleasantly surprised.
These pedals breath the rarified air of products that make something sound better just by passing a signal through them. If you have a nylon-string guitar with a piezo pickup, you shouldn’t even consider plugging it in without a Fishman Aura Nylon String Pedal. The same applies to those who perform live, regardless of which body style guitar you have. Once you hear it onstage, you won’t want to be without it. Overall, I’d say that anyone who has been disappointed with the sound of their piezo pickup, or has a good one but wants great, the Fishman Aura Imaging Pedals are the best and only way to bring your piezo sound up to world-class standards without spending a king’s ransom.