One of the most important pieces of gear you can own if you’re an acoustic musician is an acoustic guitar preamp, a device which can dramatically change your tone for the better.
If you’re unsure about what an acoustic guitar preamp does, or you’ve just come here to figure out which one you should buy, you’re in luck. This article is going to give you all the information that you need to make an informed purchase as well as give you a few great recommendations on finding the best acoustic guitar preamp for your needs.
What is an Acoustic Guitar Preamp?
An acoustic guitar preamp is a device which allows you to either add volume or shape the tone of your guitar. Most of you reading this are actually probably already familiar with acoustic guitar preamps, believe it or not. You know those black control panels you see on acoustic guitars? Those are preamps! A lot of aftermarket preamps are either marketed as DI boxes or combination DI and preamp units, though the distinction between the two isn’t going to make much of a difference in this situation.
While a lot of the time preamps are built in, some manufacturers ship passive pickups. Passive pickups don’t feature a preamp, so the signal they output is very low. This results in a weak and compressed tone, which while functional in some instances really isn’t ideal.
The cool thing about aftermarket preamps is that they give you more control over your tone than the preamps included with most acoustic guitars. So even if your guitar already has an active acoustic pickup system, if you’re not satisfied with the tone you may want to look at getting a preamp.
In addition to being able to control high, mid, and bass frequencies, many also include a phase inversion switch, which in some situations can help to eliminate unwanted artifacts from your tone (like the dreaded “hum”). Higher-end models can offer features like notch filters (which help to eliminate feedback), or control over different frequency bands such as low-mids or high-mids.
Lastly, acoustic guitar preamps are similar to acoustic amps in that they can help guarantee you a consistent sound. Because you can fine tune your tone to a high degree, you can also be more sure that when you plug into a P.A. that you’re unfamiliar with you’re going to have a sound that is at least somewhat reminiscent of your preferred tone. If you gig (this also includes things like open mics), odds are you’re going to get a lot of value out of an acoustic guitar preamp.
Having access to a consistent tone is a benefit that should not be understated, because part of what makes gigging so hard is the fact that certain factors can push even the most seasoned musicians out of their comfort zone. Knowing that you’re guitar is generally going to sound how you want it to will help to increase your confidence, and having the ability to potentially eliminate feedback or hum will go a long way in helping your next performance go smoothly.
Top 5 Acoustic Guitar Preamps
LR Baggs Para Acoustic D.I.
The weapon of choice for musicians the world over (the list is too long to include everyone, but notable adoptees include Peter Frampton and The Lumineers), LR Baggs has quickly gained a reputation as being one of the premier manufacturers of acoustic amplification solutions. The company has designed and manufactured some of the most innovative pickups and D.I. boxes ever, and their constantly moving the industry forward through their dedication to consistent improvement.
The key thing to note about this D.I. is that its intended for musicians who are going to be gigging consistently. It packs features that are incredibly valuable to gigging and recording musicians, but the associated con is that this increases the overall price.
With that out of the way, the Para Acoustic has a lot of powerful features for its diminutive size. The D.I. boasts a notch control and “tune” knob, both of which allow you to eliminate frequencies which can contribute to feedback in certain situations. In addition to a three-band EQ (bass, mid, high/treble), the Para Acoustic also includes a presence control. Basically, a presence knob controls the character of high end frequencies and can boost the frequencies above what the treble knob controls. Basically, you can either make your high-end sound aggressive and cutting or manipulate it to have a more warm and creamy character.
The LR Baggs Para Acoustic D.I. is powered through either an included AC adapter or a 9-volt battery. A helpful feature of the device is that it also includes an LED status light, which shows you the current status of your battery. The device also includes phantom power functionality. LR Baggs products are almost universally loved in guitar playing circles, because they always do what they say they’re going to do. The company doesn’t make a product that doesn’t function as advertised, and the Para Acoustic is no exception.
Provided you properly use the EQ it will have a very pleasing effect on your tone. The device doesn’t really have its own character because its intended to shape the existing tone of your instrument, which it does well.
As far as reliability is concerned, there’s nothing bad to say. The casing is considered to be very durable, and the controls and input jacks are very solid. And just in case something does happen to go wrong, the device does include a 1-year warranty. However, keep in mind that like most warranties operator error is not covered. If there are flaws in workmanship you can send it in and either get your money back or receive a replacement, but if you modify it you’re on your own.
The LR Baggs is a powerful device for gigging musicians, and it gives you a degree of control over your tone that you’re going to need if you’re serious about live performance.
Fishman Aura Spectrum DI and Acoustic Guitar Preamp
Fishman is one of the leading brands in amplification technology. They are to amplification what Gibson and Fender are to electric guitars, producing some of the most innovative and powerful acoustic amplification solutions currently on the market. The company has partnered with a variety of manufacturers, and if you’re playing a guitar that came from the factory with a pickup installed odds are pretty good that it’s a Fishman designed product.
While the company may be best known for their acoustic pickups, they’ve actually had their hand in a pretty impressive variety of amplifications technology. They make solid all-in-one P.A. units, acoustic amplifiers, and DI boxes and acoustic preamps.
Fishman has a great track record for producing quality technology at a price that the majority of musicians can justify. No exception to this trend, the Fishman Aura Spectrum DI and Acoustic Guitar Preamp is a solid option for anyone looking for a way to take their acoustic instrument’s tone to the next level. The most notable feature of the Fishman Aura Spectrum DI is that it models Helmholtz resonance. In layman’s terms relevant to what we’re currently discussing, this is essentially the tone produced by an unplugged acoustic instrument. Because of how pickups function many of them lose that “acoustic” sound and dynamic range, leading to an inorganic sounding tone. The Aura Spectrum doesn’t replicate this to the point where it compares to an unplugged instrument, but it does have a positive impact nonetheless.
While the Fishman does have controls reminiscent of a modeling amp, the “image” selector is intended to get you in to the ballpark of whatever instrument it is that you’re playing. While you can obviously select whatever preset you think sounds best, this parameter is intended to allow you to faithfully reproduce the tone of your instrument. You can control the ratio of Helmholtz resonance through the blend knob. The Fishman does include a standard three-band EQ, which while not quite as powerful as a five-band EQ does still give you the ability to fine-tune your tone. The pedal also comes with a one knob simple compressor, feedback suppression functionality, and a chromatic tuner.
Basically, think of this unit as an acoustic dynamic and tone enhancer. If you don’t like the sound of your pickup to begin with you’re probably not going to be in love with the sound you get from this unit even though it will have a positive impact. However, if you have a pickup that you do like and you just want to increase the representation of tonalities exclusive to an acoustic instrument you’re probably going to end up pretty satisfied.
The unit does have the capability to produce a good tone you just have to spend some time dialing in a tone that works with your gear. It can do a very good job of eliminating the dreaded piezo “quack.” The Fishman Aura Spectrum DI and Acoustic Guitar Preamp offers a lot of utility for musicians who are looking to make their instrument sound more organic and natural when amplified.
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Behringer V-Tone Acoustic ADI21
Founded by Uli Behringer in 1989, Behringer is a company noted for catering to musicians on a budget. Behringer started as a result of Uli not being able to access equipment at his alma mater the Robert Schumman Conservatory. The university had a limited amount of equipment that students were able to use, so in order to have the equipment he needed to further his studies and abilities he started designing and producing digital effects of his own.
While Uli was only intending to build products for his own use, his fellow students also purchased gear from him due to the shortage of quality instrument accessories available at the school. Soon enough the demand for his products outpaced his ability to produce them, leading to the formation of Behringer Inc. While the Behringer we know today is a far cry from its humble roots, Uli has never lost his commitment to making quality instrument accessories available to musicians on a limited budget. A perfect example of the company’s ethos is the Behringer V-Tone Acoustic Adi21 Acoustic Amp Modeler/Direct Recording Preamp/DI Box.
While this preamp does have an EQ, its most notable feature is that it emulates the warmth of analog components and the natural response of a miced instrument. While it would be unreasonable to expect that this device would be capable of truly replicating an organic tone, considering as how no preamp currently available has been able to do so, it does have a positive impact on the tone. The presence of the mic/tube emulation can be increased or decreased through the blend knob.
The EQ on the device is functional, though it is only a three-band EQ. It’s enough to offer plenty of control, but it’s obviously not going to let you fine tune your tone to the extent you’d be able to with a five or seven band EQ. The presence of the EQ does help to eliminate feedback when used appropriately, but it should be noted that the unit does not have a dedicated control to reduce feedback. It does have a ground lift, so at the very least you should be able to reduce the amount of hum present in your signal should it occur (if not eliminate it completely).
The unit does come with a boost so that you can increase the signal on passive acoustic pickups. As previously stated, the V-Tone does a passable job of making the tone of acoustic pickups a bit more organic.
While it doesn’t have as many features as high-end preamps, this preamp does an adequate job and you can pick one up for a third of the price you’d pay for a boutique option. So if you're on a budget, the Behringer absolutely deserves consideration.
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Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre Acoustic Preamp
Established in 1991, Radial Engineering is a brand noted for its commitment to quality. The company focuses on producing high-end products directed at gigging musicians, and as such has received acclaim in all of the markets in which they operate for their reliable and durable devices. The Tonebone line in particular focuses on guitarists and bass players, featuring a substantial collection of boutique quality pedals and pre-amps.
A perfect representation of both the Tonebone line and Radial as a whole is the Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre Acoustic Preamp. The product is one of the most fully featured preamps currently available, and in the right situation it has the potential to be an irreplaceable part of any gigging musicians rig. The Tonebone PZ-Pre is essentially six distinct devices in a single unit. It features the functionality of a DI, preamp, feedback reducer, an A/B-Y (a pedal which allows you to plug two guitars into the same line-in simultaneously), a booster, and an EQ.
A notable feature of this unit that you’d have a hard time finding elsewhere is that as stated above it’s a fully featured feedback reducer unit. It also has a high pass filter to reduce electronic hum. Essentially, a feedback reducer cuts certain frequencies that cause feedback. The Tonebone gives you the option to adjust the frequency range that is being cut. It’s generally ideal for a feedback reducer to have the flexibility to isolate different frequency ranges, because depending on the circumstance it could be several different frequency ranges that are causing the problem.
A potential flaw in the device is that it doesn’t have separate EQs for the A and B inputs. What this means is that you’re stuck with the EQ settings on the device when you switch back and forth between instruments. Depending on what guitars you use this can prove to be pretty inconvenient. Say you’re using two acoustics for a show, one with a passive piezo and another with an aftermarket active soundhole pickup. These two types of pickup produce an intensely different sound from one another, so if you do plan on switching from one instrument to the other it’s possible that you’re going to have to adjust the settings each time you switch instruments. This isn’t a big deal on a well-lit stage, but it can be inconvenient to try and adjust the settings of a device mid-gig in less than ideal lighting.
This pedal is an industry standard among professional musicians, and is a good value for gigging musicians looking for an incredibly versatile preamp. It’s more expensive than many options, but it justifies its price by essentially being several different premium products in one.
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BBE Acoustimax Sonic Maximizer/Preamp Pedal
Founded in 1985, BBE has been one of the premier manufacturers for high end digital equipment for more than two decades. The company is among a host of others who were inspired to design and create equipment for musicians that was vastly superior, more versatile, and more portable than the expensive and unwieldy studio-quality effects of their time. BBE is notable in that addition to producing boutique quality effects pedals they’ve also launched a few products that are incredibly innovative in their own right. They’re not a company that’s content with just enhancing an existing effect, rather they’ve shown a commitment to furthering the technological advancement of music as a whole.
A perfect example of the company’s dedication to innovation, the BBE Acoustimax Sonic Maximizer/Preamp is a perfect for any musician looking to transform their guitar’s tone. To learn more about what this effect does and how it stacks up to the competition check out the specifications below.
The first thing to know about this preamp is that it’s an effect known as an “Exciter.” Without getting too technical, an exciter enhances harmonics present in a tone. It was originally a rackmount effect used in early studios, because tracks have a tendency to lose their crispness in the high-end following repeated overdubs. While exciters aren’t going to be used for this purpose by the average musician, they do have a lot of utility for any guitarist or bassist looking to enhance they’re tone. They’re really good for dull sounding pickups, that while have a pleasing tone overall, that just don’t have enough clarity. This also holds true for piezos, which can have a tendency to have an underwhelming high-end.
As implied by the name of the product, the Acoustimax also has the functionality of a preamp. It has a three-band active EQ (this means that it can cut and boost frequencies), an XLR equipped Direct Box, a tuner output, as well as a notch filter. A notch filter is really important if you’re an acoustic musician because it’s a lifesaver if you’re having issues with feedback. The way it works is that it cuts a narrow frequency range, which allows you to target the frequency that’s causing the feedback and eliminate it. It’s not a cure-all, but it will definitely help in most situations. The Acoustimax includes a 12v power supply and comes outfitted with non-slip rubber feet.
This pedal can help to increase the representation of treble and high-mid frequencies present in a quality pickup. So long as it has a base level of quality to work with it can make your tone more articulate and clear without making it piercing. The BBE Acoustimax Sonic Maximizer/Preamp Pedal is a good investment musicians who already have a quality acoustic pickup that they’re looking to enhance.
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