November 1, 2001
These days, the typical way to amplify an acoustic guitar on stage is with the use of an under saddle pick up. In the sterile environment of the studio, most of us want to record with a condenser microphone, but on stage, a properly installed under saddle pick up is most often the right tool for the job.
Our most popular pick up installation is a ceramic crystal pick up which is wired directly to a combination end pin/ jack. The ceramic crystal pick up is the most difficult to properly install, but we believe that it has several advantages over the various polymer film pick ups that are on the market today. The crystal pick up delivers more gain before feedback than all other under saddle pickups. The crystal pick up produces a sufficiently strong signal that it does not require a signal boosting pre amp inside the guitar and, from our view, it also gives you the advantage of a rounder, fuller bottom end than you get from most others.
The only disadvantage of the crystal pick up is that it requires a careful, professional installation to get the best results. An exact mating of the saddle slot, pick up and saddle are required in order to produce an even string balance. Proper support of the saddle is also critical for good performance. Over time, the walls of the saddle slot sometimes wear into a D shape that must be corrected prior to an installation. Often times, we find the bottom of the slot a bit irregular even on new instruments. In order to maintain adequate structure, it is usually necessary to also increase the depth of the slot enough to accommodate the additional space required by the pick up itself. After having installed hundreds of pick ups, we routinely start the installation by re-routing the saddle slot to insure a smooth, flat bottom and perpendicular side walls. A new bone saddle is then made to precisely fit the slot as part of the pick up installation. Once in place and under string tension, the pick up is tested and balanced using banana clips. After we are assured that the crystal spacing matches the spacing of the the strings, and that we have otherwise done a good installation, the wiring is soldered to the end pin/jack and the instrument is ready for set up.
Because of the time required to install a crystal pick up,the musical instrument manufacturing industry asked for an acoustic guitar pick up that produced consistent results as well as one that could be installed without the skill and effort required of the crystal under saddle pick ups. In the last few years many new products have been introduced to the market, most notably the polymer film pick ups that have been universally adopted by the American guitar manufactures. Having tried numerous installations of the variety of products now available, we have come to two undeniable conclusions: First, you can routinely get good results from most of these products, but only in isolated instances do they match the warm sound of the crystal pick up. Second, all of the non crystal devices are considerably more susceptible to feedback than the crystal pick ups. An additionally disadvantage to these alternative pick ups is that, inherently, they each have very low output and consequently require an attached, internal, signal boosting pre amp.
Many instruments come straight from the manufacturer with an under saddle pick up factory installed, while many guitarists add a pick up to an instrument after the fact. If you are considering the purchase of a high end, solid wood guitar, we would recommend that you shop for the instrument that delivers the sound that pleases you, then, if need be, add a pick up. You need not limit your choices to only those instruments that come with a pick up installed. An additional consideration is that many factory installed units also come with controls permanently installed into the side of the instrument. Things change quickly in the electronics business, and the on-board pre amps become obsolete. Recently, we were seeking the help of an American guitar manufacturer in the effort to repair one of their own products. We were told that the on-board pre amp was no longer available. The remedy was to return the instrument to the manufacturer who would remove the existing pre amp, patch the side of the instrument, re-finish the sides, and install the current on-board pre amp into the instrument.
In spite of the previous story, we will agree that there are often significant advantages to using a pre amp in conjunction with an under saddle pick up, but we think that the choice of an external model makes the most sense. First of all, an external pre amp can be pulled out of the loop if there is a problem, but a bad on-board pre amp simply puts an end to the show. Once installed, the pick up itself will seldom go dead. Sometimes we do see noisy jacks, but, unfortunately, the majority of the problems that we encounter are related to internal pre amps. Next, customers often complain about problems which are subsequently traced back to a wire harness, 9 v. compartment, or another component of the pre amp causing a vibration inside the instrument. One final advantage of the external unit is that, with a ceramic crystal pick up installed in your own instrument, you can listen to and directly compare your choice of products by the momentary change of external pre amps.