For some players, the sound of an acoustic guitar through a monitor or PA could be compared to nails on a chalkboard when plugged directly in. This has led to bad associations for many acoustic guitarists.
I can’t say it has been my LEAST favorite experience. There was also plunging toilets, cleaning hair from a drain, and a particular corporate gig I once did that are competing for that title.
When I was younger, I clocked in a lot of acoustic gigs. Before I moved to NYC, my bread and butter for many years was playing in an acoustic duo. This was challenging in some ways. For one, I often didn’t feel like the amplified acoustic guitar was an extension of my playing. The things I could do sans amplification were not being represented.
This tended to be the opposite when I played electric guitar. I found my subtle expressions were much more accessible and audible.
After I moved to NYC, I would get asked to play all kinds of gigs. Some with electric guitar and some with acoustic. As much as I loved acoustic guitar, my first thoughts were, “How can I talk them out of asking me to play acoustic on this gig?” Before we would hang up the phone (remember when we actually CALLED people for gigs?), I would pitch electric rather then acoustic. Yes, it made me feel a little dirty and my HD-28 gave me thee cold shoulder for a week. But I had valid reasons.
Change of Perspective
This began my journey into investigating other tools for improving acoustic DI tone. I started noticing that using a great DI/Preamp into the board could give me quite a great sound.
It also made the acoustic guitar presentable in stage monitors. Anyone that knows me knows I have a love/hate relationship with stage monitors: I love to hate them. Let’s face it, they don’t always sound so great. They need a little romancing.
When playing an electric guitar into a guitar amp, it’s a bit easier to present your sound to the sound person (FOH). But with acoustic guitar, you’re often sending a blank slate to the FOH. Using a preamp/DI allows me to send a more accurate representation of what I want my tone to be.
FOH Gathering of the Minds
I still sometimes have to have a conversation with the sound person about tone. I work with an artist named Abby Ahmad, who is a fantastic acoustic guitarist. She tends to play the full sonic spectrum of the instrument. If a sound person cuts too much in either direction, it will truncate part of her guitar storytelling.
My approach to getting a sound? I take some time to sculpt the tone with our DI/Preamps before the sound person adjusts any EQ.
Let’s look at five of my favorite options for elevating your acoustic guitar tone live.
The most basic box one could get for acoustic guitar would be a straight DI box. As a rule of thumb, I really don’t like to rely on the house DI. You never know what they’re gonna have and what condition it will be in. You may show up and begrudgingly have to play the classic party game, “Guess If That’s The DI or a Crunched Up Beer Can!”
I have shown up to a few gigs where my guitar didn’t get along with the house DI. This is when I started bringing my own.
Although we don’t have any options for EQ or phase invert, we do have a pad and a ground lift. It’s a very simple yet good sounding box that doesn’t require phantom power.
The Radial Pro DI passive Direct Box is a solid choice. You know your guitar will make it’s way to the board in a predictive manner.
Made in Canada
Price: $99 street
Pros: simple, rugged and sounds good
Cons: no control for EQ or phase.
Modtone Acoustic Line Acoustic Preamp
This Preamp/DI gives us two bands of EQ (bass and treble) as well as a phase switch, ground lift, and a tuner out.
It’s the only box I reviewed that includes a mini jack line in, so you can tie in your iPhone audio.
Modtone was really thinking of practicality in a small box for acoustic players. It’s an acoustic survival box that includes reverb and chorus.
It is a handy small pedal to throw in your bag or fit onto a stuffed pedalboard. It’s not that much bigger than the Radial DI either.
The pedal has a pleasing tone. It’s perfect for when you need just a little more control over your acoustic guitar tone but don’t need to get surgical.
If I know I’m going to play somewhere that doesn’t have any reverb, I’ll also reach for my Modtone so I don’t sound like I’m playing in the Sahara desert.
Made in China
Pros: Basic EQ with reverb, chorus, phase invert, and tuner out.
Cons: Chorus boosts the signal and changes the tone quite a bit. The tuner out doesn’t have a mute switch. So, when you tune, it still comes through the PA.
LR Baggs Venue DI
The LR Baggs Venue has one of the brightest visual tuners I’ve seen. This may seem like a rather small detail to get excited about, but you would be surprised how many times I play outdoor venues where I can’t see the tuner because of sunlight. This is a welcome feature.
The pedal itself is the largest of all the DI/Preamps in this article. I don’t think of this as a negative per se. It definitely makes more room for comfortably pressing the tuner or boost button without bumping anything.
In the EQ section, we have bass, notch (for cutting feedback), low mid freq (and gain adjust), high mid freq (and gain adjust), presence, and treble adjustments. That’s quite bit of EQ control! You should have everything you need to sculpt you tone.
The Garret Null anti feedback notch filter allows you to cut out feedback frequencies quite effectively. The Venue allows you to notch out anywhere between 60-320hz.
The Venue also has an effects loop. This is great for tying in reverb delay pedals. Oh yes, my friends. That means you have the green light to start making your acoustic effects pedalboard.
The LR Baggs Venue requires either a 9v battery or power supply. This unit does not take phantom power. This is due to the tuner requiring a fair amount of power. I recommend a power supply as to not deal with dying batteries. But if you must be difficult, LR Baggs did include a battery check button to test your battery strength which is helpful.
When plugging into the Venue and comparing it to plugging straight into the board, there is a considerable difference. The Venue has an elevated sound without even cutting or boosting any EQ.
Made in USA
Cost: $299 street
Pros: More control over your sound with the addition of a tuner and effects loop.
Cons: Large footprint for a pedalboard. (However, it comes with a nice carrying bag.) There is only one mode for the tuner.
Fishman Platinum Pro EQ/DI Analog Preamp
The Fishman Platinum Pro, like the Venue has a built in tuner, boost, phase invert, effects loop, and options for notching EQ to prevent feedback.
One unique feature the Platinum gives us is a compressor. The compression circuit has preset ratio, attack, and release. The knob only adjusts the threshold.
It’s a really nice sounding compressor and is very flattering to the acoustic guitar. Even at its max, it was quiet and musical.
The Platinum also gives us the option to send a clean signal (pre EQ) to the DI output. The could be useful in times where you need to drastically EQ your guitar for stage but want to send a raw sound to the PA.
The EQ section gives us options for adjusting the low cut filer, bass, midrange frequency (and gain adjust), treble, and brilliance. There is also a notch knob to dial out feedback that can be turned on or off.
As mentioned, for midrange we have one less frequency select and cut/boost knob than the Venue. I believe the sacrifice was made to include the compressor, which I think is a fair trade.
To my ears, it wasn’t a matter of the Venue or Platinum sounding better than the other. I feel they are each voiced uniquely.
As I was testing with a series of guitars (you see, it was necessary I bought ALL those guitars. I tell myself that everyday), I found I preferred certain guitars with one or the other DI.
You could be completely happy with either as they are very flexible. But it might be worth testing both with your rig to see what flavor best suits your needs.
The Platinum also requires a power supply or 9v battery. I actually prefer this rather than having to rely on phantom power from the board. I can’t tell you how many soundchecks I’ve attended where someone had to figure out why phantom wasn’t reaching the acoustic preamp.
The tuner in the Platinum has five tuning modes to choose from. Fully chromatic, ukulele, bass, guitar, and violin. You can also change the tuning reference from standard A440 if you need.
Made in the USA
Pros: Compression and a tuner.
Cons: Less control over midrange. There is more plastic utilized on the Platinum than the other models (sides and bottom).
Grace Designs Alix
The Alix is a single channel version of Grace Designs acclaimed Felix Preamp/DI. I must say, I was quite delighted when I pulled the Alix out of the box and plugged it in. You know it’s a great piece of gear when you immediately get inspired by a sound.
The Alix is one of those pieces of gear that is actually hard to make sound bad. The overall tone is just lovely.
This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Grace Designs has been making some of the best mic preamps for quite a few years now.
If you walk into classy recording studio, you’ll likely find a Grace preamp or two. Now imagine being able to have studio level audio quality in a pedal for an acoustic guitar on a gig.
This is exactly what they did with the Alix. It can be both precise and intuitive at the same time. Because I think the overall tone is flattering, it makes it easy to tweak. It becomes more about how you’re shaping the sound rather than making it not sound bad.
I was also highly impressed with the natural dynamics. It really allowed me to play my guitar just as I would when I’m not plugged in. The acoustic guitar sounds like it has more dimension with it in my signal chain.
The feel is really natural. Some DI/Preamps can make notes feel sticky while you’re playing. The Alix allows for a completely smooth playing experience. I’m not sure how they did it, but they made it not feel like a DI.
Grace Audio managed to pack in quite a few useful features without making it too complicated. The features are well thought out to suit a slew of configurations.
Like some of the other DI/Preamps in this article, the Alix has a boost button, phase switch, and effects loop. Although with the Alix, the TRS insert for the buffered effects loop has the option of a Pad (via adjusting internal buffers) for lower headroom effects.
We start to get off the beaten path with a pickup impedance switch to accommodate a wide variety of pickups. As well as a switchable 12v phantom power that is required by some acoustic pickups.
The Alix gives more surgical options in our relationship with midrange too as it’s fully parametric. We can choose whether our midrange frequency knob will adjust from 70-880hz or 670-8khz. From there, we can adjust the Q (amount of surrounding frequencies that also get boosted or cut) as well as adjusting the cut or boost of the selected frequency by +/-12db.
Unlike the Venue and Platinum, the Alix doesn’t have a built-in tuner. There is a muted tuner out though for silent tuning on stage.
The Alix does not accept power from batteries or phantom power. It comes with it’s own IEC cable. One nice touch is there is a 9v power out that you can power other pedals with up to 500 mA. You could even daisy chain a few pedals as long as they don’t exceed 500 mA.
The Alix was the only pedal to include soft switches. This is a welcome addition. It’s common for some acoustic gigs to be fairly quiet. Stepping on loud foot switches can disrupt a performance. These still make some noise, but probably less than half of the buttons that click.
This pedal excels in listening environments. It’s the most expensive of the DI/preamps reviewed and may be overkill for playing a bar gig. The Alix is quite rugged though. I’m sure it could take it. But I would still wince every time a drunken bar patron stumbled up and hovered their beer above my beloved preamp requesting whatever song I’ve already politely mentioned I don’t know.
Made in the USA
Pros: High quality refined tone, very flexible for many configurations.
Cons: Expensive. Requires a little more skill to use. No tuner.
Tips on Usage
Whether demoing these pedals or using them live, start with making sure you’re not adding any EQ or Boost from your acoustic guitar if there is a preamp on it.
Now, move to the pedal and make sure all EQ is set to its neutral position. Take a few seconds to acquaint yourself with the natural tone. From here, I start cutting frequencies rather than boosting. Always try cutting before boosting.
Spend time with each band of frequency to really hear how it influences your tone. Don’t just rotate every knob at the same time. Often, small adjustments make a big change.
I’m not saying to never boost. I definitely do sometimes. But it’s not my first move. One trick that works for me is to cut a lot of the treble and boost the presence or brilliance. It gives the guitar more air but cuts some of the shrillness.
When finding a troubling frequency, I will heavily boost and move the knob until I hear the offending sound increase greatly. Then I move the frequency gain knob to cut instead of boost.
Don’t negate the phase switch. The phase switch could drastically change your tone. I always A/B to hear which position best suits the environment I’m in.
Watch your gain staging. This means not sending too hot (or too low) an input signal into the preamp. To get the best out of your acoustic DI/Preamp, you don’t want to clip it. Don’t assume each preamp has the same indication for optimal gain staging. Check the manual.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey into acoustic guitar preamps as much as I did. It has left me with the hope that greener pastures exist for acoustic guitarists.