My buddy Dave calls himself a semi-pro musician. He plays 15 to 18 gigs a month, singing and playing guitar at retirement centers and nursing homes. He plays songs that people know, mostly sing-along standards from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s including cowboy songs, pop favorites, and a gospel tune or two. He really likes the sound of his current setup—an acoustic guitar amp, a PA with a powered amp/mixer with two 15" JBL speakers, and another amp that serves as a monitor. But lately Dave has realized he has more equipment than he needs, especially for some of the smaller rooms he plays. Loading and unloading the gear into his SUV is cumbersome, especially the 15" speaker cabinets. Even using a cart to haul his gear, it takes 20 to 25 minutes to set up, with 10 to 15 minutes spent just setting up the PA. Some days there are only 45 minutes between gigs. Dave would like to cut down on teardown time so he can safely drive to the next gig, set up and have time to socialize with the audience—a key component to building rapport.
When I told Dave I was writing a Hands-On Review of the new Fishman SoloAmp, he agreed to critique it. When he stopped by to pick me up for the gig, I used the SoloAmp's rolling carrying case to bring it out to his waiting SUV. Expressing surprise over its compact size and light weight, he observed that he could have put the SoloAmp in the trunk of his Jetta, which gets better gas mileage. At 35 pounds, he easily lifted the SoloAmp into his SUV. Dave had left his PA rig at home, but brought along his acoustic guitar amp and monitor in case the SoloAmp didn’t meet his sonic requirements. He learned soon enough that there was no need for them.
As we drove over to the gig, Dave told me he was looking for clarity and deep low-end response that’s soft, yet full. He wanted a PA that easily adjusts to the size of the room. He explained that dining rooms with high ceilings can be too echo-y while rooms with a low ceiling can create dead zones. He wanted a PA that fills the room but isn’t too loud and overpowering. He wanted a system that supports his voice and fills in the background so he can lay his voice on top. He emphasized that lack of depth and bass for his guitar was a major concern. He had tried another portable PA system but thought it lacked depth, which is why he bought a system with 15" cabinets. His old-school thinking dictated that bigger speakers equal better sound. But as he would soon hear for himself, that’s not necessarily true. Instead of giving Dave a big sales pitch, I decided to step back and let him discover for himself what the SoloAmp offered.
At the retirement center Dave set up in the upstairs recreation room with a 25' cathedral ceiling—a setting where sound could easily get swallowed up. It took about a minute for him to remove the stand and combination speaker column/amp/mixer from the carrying case and set it on its stand behind his stool and mic stand. While examining the forward-facing array of six 4" midrange drivers and 1" neodymium tweeter, he told me he had expected the speakers would be mounted all around the column. He would soon appreciate the wisdom of the forward facing array. Taking just a minute to look over the inputs and controls, he then pressed the phantom power button on the panel and plugged in his vocal mic using the XLR input of Channel 1. After setting the master volume at 10 o’clock, he adjusted the high, mid, and low frequencies and selected the first and lightest of the four reverb settings. Dave then plugged his Taylor guitar into the 1/4" input of Channel 2 and, after setting the EQ, used the guitar’s volume control to set the balance between voice and instrument.
For the next hour Dave took his audience down memory lane with such favorites as “Babyface,” “Waltz Across Texas,” and “All of Me.” Because the speakers were positioned right behind Dave the vocals and guitar sounded centered and natural—not disembodied coming from speakers to the right or left of the audience. The SoloAmp does what a PA is supposed to do: make the voice and guitar loud and clear without coloring the sound or overwhelming the audience with artificial “PA sound.”
On the drive back, Dave gave me his evaluation: “The SoloAmp was better sounding than I expected. It had more depth and more bass than I thought was possible. I was also worried that with its speaker array it would be too treble-heavy. But that wasn’t the case. It has plenty of power and should easily handle any of the venues I play. I liked having the speaker column right behind me so I could hear everything just the way the audience did. I liked the acoustic guitar sound. It reproduces both the guitar and vocals clearly with no distortion. It took only five minutes to set up the SoloAmp versus 15 minutes for my PA. Because it’s so light and compact I can use my Jetta to haul it.”
Here’s the kicker: I asked Dave to give me a price range for what he would pay for a SoloAmp. The actual price was at the bottom of his range. Could there be a PA trade-in on the horizon for Dave?l