Fishman Transducers has become the leading manufacturer of pickups for acoustic instruments over the last 25 years, and they have also made a small line of amplifiers that have probably been the most valuable on-stage tools I have ever used in my 30 years of performing acoustic music. This is a description and hopefully a clear explanation of what they can and can't do. In my opinion, neither the magazine reviews, blogs, nor the web site and literature from Fishman do a proper job of explaining things, which is why I am writing this.
Because a big part of the market for these amps is people who have never bought a PA system before, and who do not speak the "lingo" it will be hard to explain things so they can understand and so that I don't also bore professional musicians and sound people. I'll try to make this precise but interesting...
EQ- "equalization," which means adjusting different frequencies of sound. Most commonly, this means bass, mid-range and treble. With a GRAPHIC EQUALIZER you can slice up the sound spectrum into as many as dozens of regions that can be adjusted separately, and the powerful but confusing PARAMETRIC EQUALIZER allows you to select a frequency (and also usually select the width and shape of the band surrounding that frequency) and then adjust the volume of just that segment of sound.
Most speaker systems you encounter have more than one component that makes sound, with the "woofer" making the lower pitched sounds (a SUB-WOOFER makes even lower sounds, usually for drums, keyboard and bass) and the "tweeter" makeing the high-pitches sounds. The "crossover" is the electronic gadget that decides what part of the sound gets sent to the woofer and the tweeter. a FULL-RANGE speaker (speakers are sometimes called "drivers") makes the whole sound spectrum without the woofer/tweeter division.
PIEZO PICKUP There is no standard pronunciation of this word, and it refers to a substance that makes a weak electric current when compressed or vibrated. It has come to be the most common type of on-stage "pickup" for things like acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments, and though it appears in a number of forms, including film and ribbons, most piezo pickups share certain properties, advantages and drawbacks. The sound of the piezo pickup has come to mean "acoustic" and also "unplugged," though neither of those words can really be defined rigorously.
ACTIVE & PASSIVE- Devices that have batteries or A/C power are called "active" which means that they have the ability to boost and amplify the signals going through them. "Passive" devices have no power source, and can only remove energy to the signals, not add it.
MAGNETIC PICKUP Other than microphones, this is the other fundamental category of instrument pickup, and it dates back to the 1930's. It involves placing a vibrating metal string in the field of a magnet to generate an electric current. It's what the classic electric guitar uses. (Some new-fangled hybrid guitars have both magnetic and piezo piclups.)
PA SYSTEM- Short for "public address," this means a speaker system, powered by an amplifier, that is in turn fed signals from microphones or instruments.
MONITOR- A speaker, usually on the floor (though sometimes on a mike stand or even in the ear of the musicians) aimed at the performer that the audience hears little of, but that are all-important for the musicians on stage
FEEDBACK- the tendency of sounds coming out of a PA system to be heard by the microphone, causing a loop, usually heard as a very loud howling or shrieking sound. If you keep turning up the volume with a live PA, you will eventually get feedback, and it sets the upper limit on how loud you can get on stage. Monitor systems make feedback worse, since if the performer is going to be able to hear the amplified sound while they play, the mikes they are singing into can also hear that sound. You can get more volume before feedback if you have no monitor. The way that sound gear is made, selected, positioned on stage, and operated by the sound man, as well as the properties of the room, instruments and singers determine how much volume you can get before. feedback.
MIXER & PRE-AMP- Usually microphone signals and instrument pickup signals are too weak to be fed right into an amplifier, and they also have problems traveling down long cords without picking up noise or interference. You often need to combine more than 1 or 2 signals to amplify a band, so a MIXER is usually what the mikes are pluggd into. Mixers let you adjust the level and EQ of each of the separate signals that are fed into it, and also have a dizzying range of knobs and features to allow those signals to be grouped and routed in and out of various jacks for sending to recording, monitors, etc. A mixer is usually a PRE-AMP itself (unless it is "passive" ) and the purpose of a pre-amp is to boost the weak instrument and mike signals before they go on their journey through the PA system to the speakers. Pre-amps used to be little boxes on or near the instruments, though nowadays they are being put inside most guitars.
DIRECT BOX A pre-amp and impedance-changing device that converts the signal from a piezo style instrument pickup into something that resembles a microphone signal, so it can be sent down a mike cord and sound good over a PA system. A guitar pickup can be plugged into an amp or PA system if it does not have to travel through more than about 10 feet of cord, but to get across a stage and into the mixer, it needs a direct box, preferably an active one. (with a battery)
The Fishman line of amps (and the other types of on-stage solo amps) grew out of what has become a 25-year struggle by makers of sound gear to make piezo pickups sound good on stage. The end result is that you can now play a nice instrument with a pickup on it in almost any venue and be heard, enjoy the sound, actually hear yourself well on stage when you perform, and control it all easily yourself by bringing along one small amp. It has taken an amazing amount of technology, skill and energy from a huge number of people and companies to develop the gear to do this seemingly obvious and ordinary thing.
Traditional PA systems were designed to accept sounds from microphones, amplify them and then project them into the air to reproduce faithfully what went into the microphone. When electric guitars showed up, it turned out that they sounded much better when played through a "guitar amp." which is essentially just a midrange driver. Guitar amps are usually miked on stage for bigger sound. They don't have tweeters or crossovers, and when you sing through one or try to use one as a PA system they sound pretty awful and feed back a lot. Likewise an electric guitar played right into a mixer and on into the PA system does not have that distinctive electric guitar amp sound, so from the 1940's until the middle 1980's there were essentially two types of speaker systems on stage: PA systems and guitar amps. (Bass amps are just a variation of the guitar amp.)
The first piezo stype pickups showed up in the 1970's, and the leading manufacturer of them was Barcus-Berry. They were originally stick-on devices, and people started puttying and gluing them onto various places on and inside of acoustic instruments, with varying results. One thing they all shared was a need for some electronic help from a pre-amp, and a much-wider sound spectrum than an electric guitar amp could deliver. It turns out that they also has a different IMPEDANCE than electric guitar pickups, which made them less compatible when plugged into mixers, amps and even standard pre-amps. They tended to sound more like a "real guitar" than magnetic guitars pickups, though they also tended to feed back more. They also needed a PA system and not an electric guitar amp to sound their best.
Two advances in the 1980's allowed so called "acoustic" amplification to make a quantum jump forward. One was the "impedance buffering pre-amp" (whch the Fishman company was a leader in) and the other was the under-saddle or "thinline" style of piezo pickup. These tools allowed someone with an acoustic guitar to be vastly louder than a miked guitar or even a guitar amplified with a stick-on piezo pickup. This ushered in the era of the Ovation guitar and the use of so-called "acoustic" guitars in loud bands, which was impossible before. The Ovation guitar, made by Kaman, was (and still is) a very reliable, sturdy and feedback-resistant stage guitar that has an active pickup system, thinline style pickup, and can be heard over the din of even a rock band.
In the 1980's a number of companies including Peavey, Fender and Yamaha started making "acoustic guitar amps." They looked pretty much like electric guitar amps, being rectangular speaker boxes on the stage behind the performers, but they usually had tweeters, input impedances and a number of special controls designed to optimize for the quirks of the piezo-style guitar pickups. These hybrid-type amps are still being made, and they are confusing, since they don't sound very good with an electric guitar or a voice mike. They can usually be spotted because of their special "brightness" or "brilliance" knobs.
Here is an idea of how many of them are out there.
A breakthrough came in 1989 when the English company Trace-Elliott made a small "acoustic" amp that also had a voice mike input, so a singer with a piezo-style guitar pickup essentially had a small PA system.
It actually had two "channels" and a mixer, where the channel for the voice had the pre-amps and EQ suited for voice mikes, and the guitar channel did the things the guitar pickups needed. What made this a breakthrough was that it was the first self-contained system that a singer/guitarist on stage could control what they needed to hear to do their best performance. For the first time, it was possible for an acoustic musician to get a good sound on stage without depending on a sound man, who could not even hear the monitors he was controlling from the back of the room, because they are pointed at the musician on stage.
THE FISHMAN AMPS
The first Fishman amp, called the "Acoustic Performer" showed up shortly afterward, and I still have 2 of them that I have used constantly and traveled with.
I use them as a miniature PA system for small gigs like coffee shops, classrooms, churches & weddings, and as an on-stage monitor for bigger shows. The newer models of Fishman amps are not fundamentally different than the original one, except that they are getting tougher, better and cheaper, and have a few new features. (Though the first generation amps had more than most of the modern ones.)
The Fishman amps were cheaper, lighter, cleaner (less noise), and had better EQ, pre-amps, reverb and more features than the Trace-Elliott and other amps that started showing up in this new sub-class of guitar amps. The problems with the first Fishman amps were 1) they were kind of fragile, and could be blown up by heavy handed people who mistook them for rock guitar amps and 2) They were too expensive for average working musicians, and never sold really well.
However, the Fishman amp (which retailed for $2000, and never sold for lower than $1300-1400 ) was loaded with features, like 220v ability for touring in Europe, 2 kinds of PHANTOM POWER to power vocal and lavalier-style instrument mikes, effects loops, tweeter and trim controls, a parametric EQ "notch filter" for minimizing bass feedback, and most important of all, 3 built-in direct boxes. Most on-stage amps other than the Fishman still do not have this feature, and it is the one that is vitally important to me as a performer. It means that you can send a mixed signal with your voice and guitar together out one of the outputs and connect it to a standard mike cord (which all the other ampos do also), or you can send two separate mike-level signals for the voice and the guitar, to be mixed by the sound man. (Which almost none of the other amps do) This is a subtle but all-important feature. The volume and tone knobs on the amp do not affect the signals going out of the individual channel direct boxes, which means you the musician can adjust the on-stage sound the way you like it, and the sound man gets a "split" signal that he can adjust and mix in the main PA mix. So everybody can get what they want, quickly, and without arguments and misunderstandings.
Fishman amps have always had this feature, and it solves the greatest problem in on-stage sound: The musician and sound man are listening to different sets of speakers, and neither one hears what the other is hearing, so discussions are often pointless. A lot of language, skills and patience are often required. For the last 15 years or more I have been amazingly happy on stage, because I have been able to bring a small amp with me, put it on a chair or a milk crate near me (or on the floor) and get the sound I am used to on stage in seconds. I can then send 2 signals to the PA system and say "make it sound good." Even if it does not sound good and the sound man and the PA are awful, at least I had a great sound and enjoyed myself, and it allows me to be smile and to play well since I can hear what I want to hear. In those situations, I usually place my Fishman amp in front of me (facing the audience) rather than behind, and I can fill the front of the room with good sound and give the audience what I want them to hear without having to tell the promoter and the sound man that I think their PA stinks.
The 3 classes of stage amps look quite alike. being rectangular boxes on the floor, yet they serve different purposes.
1) Electric guitar amps, for electric guitars and basses. (There are also keyboard amps.)
2) Acoustic guitar amps, made to correct problems with piezo-style pickups, and not good for much else
3) Full-range PA systems. All the Fishman amps do this, and it means you can sing through them or play your iPod, and they faithfully reproduce what you put in. If your piezo pickup sound needs help, you have a few tools in some of these amps to fix the sound, include properly buffered pre-amps, mid-range controls (the mid-range is the most common source of problems with piezo pickups) and tweeter controls.
THE EVOLUTION OF FISHMAN AMPS
Though the first Fishman amp sounded great and did a lot, the company had trouble with people (especially rock stars and music store employees who loved their rich sound!) breaking them by cranking them too loud. So the next line of amps were intended to be really loud and "bulletproof" to satisfy people who needed to really crank their amps. I never owned any of these, since the first couple iterations did not even have a vocal mike input.
The next version of Fishman amps were the Loudbox series.
The Loudbox 100 and Loudbox Performer are both superb stage amps that I have happily used ever since they first came out. The model 100 is only 15 pounds, and I carry one in a suitcase when I tour, and I use it everywhere as my monitor system. I also use it for my whole sound at small gigs, up to 50 people or so. I love the way my voice mike sounds in these, and they have a nice reverb, and surprisingly good low-end and a noticeably more musical sound than the first generation Performer amps.
THE SOLO AMP
The newest and most popular amp, the Solo amp, was introduced in 2008.
Though it does the same basic thing as all the previous Fishman amps, the fact that it is intended to sit on a speaker pole up in the air finally makes it clear that it is a PA system and not a guitar amp. People have had trouble with the concept of a PA system in a rectangular box on the floor, and also because of the success and huge marketing push behind the Bose L1 PA system, that is also a single vertical speaker pole. (The BOSE system costs about 3 times as much as the Fishman Solo, weighs much more, and to my ears sounds pretty heavily "processed" and less nautrual and musical. There are some forums on the web where people are discussing some comparisons between the two if you are curious, though there is a lot of hot air and not much information.
The Solo amp is a brilliantly executed piece of engineering, and an amazing tool for the working solo acoustic musician. It sounds noticeably richer than even the best of the Loudbox amps, and would be suitable for use as a PA system for a gig with up to 100 or more people. It comes in a sturdy zipper bag, and with the speaker pole (also included) it barely weighs 30 pounds, and you can truly carry your guitar and your whole PA system (there is even a Velcro holder for your mike stand) in a single trip.
A great advantage of all these mini-PA systems, that is particularly noticeable with the Solo and the Bose system is that a single PA system provides the performer and the audience with the sound, and there is no need for an extra monitor system, assuming of course that the musician is operating it properly. I have used the Acoustic Performer and the Loudboxes this way for almost 20 years, and can vouch for the fact that it is a great solution for a solo performer in a relatively small venue.
I intend to keep using the Loudbox 100 on stage on my concert gigs, since its on-stage appearance is so low-profile and it looks so much like what people have been seeing on stage next to performers for half a century or more. I doubt I will want to have the Solo amp towering 6 feet above me on stage, even though it sounds considerably better than any of the Loudbox amps. I also doubt I will take the Solo on plane trips, since it weighs twice what the Loudbox 100 does, and won't fit into a suitcase.
The Solo amp has a few new features worth noting.
1.) It has an extraordinary bass response that has to be heard to be believed, and there is no need for a sub-woofer (a huge difference between the Solo and the Bose L1, which requires a sub-woofer even for a solo guitar sound) unless you are playing bass, baritone guitar or keyboard through it.
2.) Although it does have a small tweeter, it is essentially a full-range speaker system that uses an array of six 4-inch drivers. I have always been a fan of the sound of the Bose 402 and 802 speaker systems (also full-range arrays of 4 inch drivers) to deliver voice and guitar sounds. Drummers and bass players like the woofer/tweeter and sub-woofer systems. Since the lowest sounds that singer/guitarists make don't really require sub-woofers, and because the crossover frequency where most crossover systems split the sound (sending part to the tweeter and part to the woofer) are often right in the middle of an important part of the sound of an acoustic guitar, I have always felt that this kind of speaker system delivers clearer music, and it is easier for the audience to hear the words and the articulation of notes than in a standard PA. The drawback to the arrays of small speaker drivers is that they don't "throw" sound as far as horns, and are most suited for "near-field" listening situations rather than big auditoriums or outdoor concerts. So the Solo amp and things like it are great for small clubs, churches and intimate gigs, which is clearly what they are intended for.
3.) The Solo amp has a special monitor channel, which is something that is very helpful in a duo or a band. This is a little complicated to explain. If 2 people on stage each have a Loudbox amp and are singing and playing through them, you get a feedback loop if you try to send an EFFECTS out signal from one amp to the AUX input of the other. With 2 Solo amps, you can have your partner's mixed output coming into your Solo amp in its own MONITOR channel (and vice versa) and each of you can decide how much of the other person's sound you'd like to hear. Because the MONITOR IN channel does not get included in the MONITOR OUT signal, there is no feedback loop. If you perform in a duo, this is huge, and might even save a marriage or two.
4.) There are now 2 XLR-style mike inputs, instead of the single mike input that the Fishman amps have always had. Unfortunately, though Channel 1 and Channel 2 each have a 1/4" guitar-style input jack and an XLR mike inpout, you cannot really have two people play through a Solo amp (unless you are clever-- see next section!) , since when you plug into the 1/4" input or the EFFECTS IN on either Channel 1 or 2 of the Solo it cuts off the XLR mike input.
SPECIAL BULLETIN FOR BANDS AND DUOS USING FISHMAN AMPS
The Fishman amps have always been able to accept a total of 3 input signals, which until the Solo came along, meant 1) an XLR mike input, 2) a 1/4" instrument channel, and 3) an AUX input with just a volume control and no EQ. It was possible to use the channels for 3 mikes (using transformers to get them into the 1/4" input jacks) or 3 pickups, and some of the amps have even allowed a slick stereo input jack to carry two signals in one wire and route them to the 2 channels, in case you had 2 pickups or a combination mini-mike & pickup system in your instrument. The Solo amp now lets Channel 2 be a mike or a instrument direct, but though it looks like you could have 2 mikes and two directs at the same time, you still have only 3 inputs at one time. (Except the mysterious 4th input, the MONITOR IN, which is a line-level and need to come from a mixer or another Solo amp, and not a mike or instrument pickup.)
There is actually a sneaky way to get 5 inputs (and actually 6 with the MONITOR IN), and it is not in any of the manuals that come with them. Because the EFFECTS IN jack in the back of the Solo amp (and this also works on Loudbox amps!) is a stereo jack, meant to allow you to send the signal out of the amp, through some effects and then back into the amp. So if you plug 2 mikes into the XLR jacks in the front of the Solo amp, you can plug 2 instrument directs into the back, in the EFFECTS IN jacks of Channel 1 and 2, BUT YOU DON'T PLUG THE WIRES ALL THE WAY IN. This is an old trick in Mackie mixers, to only plug halfway into the stereo input jacks, so you are just touching the tip of your 1/4 " cable to the RING of the stereo input jack and not hitting the TIP of the 3-piece jack.
You have no way to mix these signals, and you need a volume control on your instrument directs you are plugging into the back so you can get the relative volume of the voice & instrument in each of the 2 channels. You also get a reduced volume in the channel when you mix the extra signal in, but you can just crank up the channel and main levels to compensate.
ONE FINAL HOT TIP
It is actually a bit tricky to plug a cord halfway into the back of the amps, and a slight tug can pull the cord out. There is a workaround, which is to use a stereo cord. Make sure you mute the amp while plugging it in, since it makes a loud noise while you are plugging it in. This is confusing, since it only works long as you are connecting to the Solo amp or Loudbox from a pedal or pre-amp that has a mono output jack. Most guitars now have a stereo jack, (which allows them to have an on/off switch for the internal pre-amp built into the endpin jack,) which means that if you have one of these you will need to plug into a tuner or something first with a mono guitar cord, then into the back of the Fishman amp with a stereo cord. If you want to perform with 2 people using a single Fishman amp, you both will have to do this.
You can do this same trick with the Loudbox series of amps, and have other people jam along with you, as long as they have volume controls on their instruments, and can either plug halfway intoi your EFFECTS IN or use a stereo cord.
DRAWBACKS OF THE SOLO AMP
So far the only thing that bugs me is that it is almost impossible to get the reverb low enough. Even the lowest setting of the shortest reverb is as much as I would ever want, and I can't imagine who would need as much reverb as this offers, and wish the difference between "just right" reverb and "way too much" wasn't a tiny bump of the knob. Must be some 60's guitar-reverb-crazed guys who designed this... The nice-sounding Unico amp (distributed by Schertler) has a similar problem, and I don't even like its reverb.
It is also slightly too bad that the way the amp sits on the speaker pole, you can't spin it around and look at the back when the pole is at its lowest setting, because the knob on the speaker pole bumps the casing of the amp. You have to raise the pole up a few inches to give the Solo amp room to spin around so you can look at the back. Very minor complaint.
Those of you who run house concerts or small gigs where you would have a solo performer and up to 100 people or so, this is your chance to have a beautiful sounding sound system that takes up about as much room as a small set of golf clubs in your closet, and sets up literally in seconds. If you want to have a party, or fill up a church, lecture hall or even a decent-sized auditorium, this is a great product and a marvelous addition to the toolbox of performers.
©2008 by Harvey Reid
This web site concerns the music and life of acoustic musician & music educator Harvey Reid.
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