Home   Contents   About   Links

Monday, December 6, 2010

Funky and Uncommon Recording Gear: Piezo Pickup

This is a really practical tip for the home recordist who works sporadically. MIDI, automation, and DAW's have brought a lot of easy recall into reach. But it only goes so far. Micing is hard to do a recall on, unless it's an instrument that lives in a spot and mics that are planted around it. Most acoustic guitars aren't in a fixed position through downtime.

Pickups minimize how critical the mic position and position in the room are. But most pickups are designed for live use and not recording. Some magnetic pickups can do moderately well on realism, and some are just a cool sound on their own terms; for me, I like mag's as a deliberate choice for their specific vibe, especially if I want some impact off of the low strings. Under-saddle piezo pickups are designed for gain before feedback, and they are placed in about the deadest spot on the guitar, harmonically speaking -- advances have been made, but a lot of it seems like electronic band-aids on a sound that isn't about tone but about easy going live. Internal mini-mics never seem to turn out well -- the sound resolves outside the instrument, not inside it, and catching a good set of modes in a box is hit or miss.

My choice is an antique, easy, and cheap technology. This is as old as the Barcus Berry "Hot Dot" pickup of the 70s, where the piezo crystal pickup is just in a lump like a fat quarter and stuck to the soundboard, either inside or outside the guitar. Mine is a John Pearse pickup for small-body guitars (discontinued, but I got it on clearance so get whatever's available) inside my Seagull Grand parlor-sized guitar, connected to an endpin jack. I run it into a DI box into a console pre and eq to taste, but generally not a lot of eq. Does it sound as good as a good placement of a large diaphragm condensor? Well, it certainly doesn't sound the same -- more mellow, less etched, but pretty real and life-like. If you take some time to dial in the gain structure when you set up, there's no piezo "quack" and it's much more alive than an under-saddle job.

A cool aspect is that these pickups can be really cheap, and many are designed to be a detachable outboard accessory so you can switch instruments. Not the best thing for playing live and loud, and they can pick up other instruments if you're cutting a band live. But a really nice solution for doing a solid plug-and-play sound for home recording or overdubs.

--Bear's Gone Fission

No comments: