Faking Acoustic Tones

There are times in both studio and live performance situations when an acoustic guitar tone might be needed, perhaps just for one brief piece of music, or one section of a song. However, perhaps an acoustic guitar is either not available, or the logistics of acquiring one, miking it up, and using it for just one or two short pieces of music are prohibitive. If the music is primarily electric guitar-based with only an occasional acoustic interlude, it usually doesn't make sense to expend the necessary time and effort to get set up for proper acoustic tones—particularly in a live situation where travel may be involved, and time and efficiency are crucial. In times like these, having the resources and know-how to fake a passable acoustic tone with an electric guitar can save the day. Some players would be inclined to settle for just playing the section with a clean electric, and that approach can certainly get the job done, but there are other tools and tactics one can employ to do the job of faking acoustic tones a bit more convincingly, or at least with a touch more pizzazz. Let's review a few of the possible options for pretend acoustic tones:

Acoustic simulators

There are a handful of acoustic simulator pedals available, from Boss, Mooer, Behringer, and Digitech, among others. The Boss AC models—the discontinued AC-2 and the newer AC-3—have been around the longest and are the most well-known of these pedals. In my own experience, acoustic simulators work pretty well for lending the guitar a more acoustic character, though they certainly won't make a Strat sound like a pre-war Martin. The technology just isn't there yet. They can make a Strat sound about as acoustic as the average plugged-in acoustic-electric guitar, though, and in as much as we are discussing fake acoustic tones, I'll assume that if you're still reading the article, "close enough" is what you're after. In this case, something like the Boss AC-3 is a solid choice. It offers a line out for the acoustic simulation tone, which can be run directly to a mixer or recording device, and a dedicated guitar amp output that directs your unmolested tone straight to the amplifier as normal. The AC-3's four modes; Standard, Jumbo, Enhanced, and Piezo, are powered by Boss's COSM modeling technology, and tone controls are offered in the form of Top and Body knobs to shape overall resonance. There's also an on-board reverb to add a bit of ambient realism to the direct sound. The Boss AC-3 can certainly be a useful acoustic alternative for the player that recognizes its inherent limits and knows what to expect (which is "not too much," by the way).

Piezo pickups

LR Baggs Piezo Pickup

A better option than the acoustic simulator pedal, especially for players who have a regular need to access passable acoustic-like tones on stage, is the piezo pickup. The piezo, sometimes referred to as a "contact mic," is basically a tiny microphone that sticks to the body or bridge of the guitar and senses the vibrations, transducing them into electrical signals that can be sent through an amplifier or into a recording device. Piezos are not sensitive to vibrations in the air, unlike other microphones, only sensing vibrations through solid structures. They can be made quite small, allowing them to be integrated into a normal looking bridge. Many guitar companies, such as Parker, Carvin, PRS, Epiphone and Fender, build guitars with piezo pickups already installed, and many acoustic-electrics come with them as well. If faux acoustic capability is important to you, you might consider adding one of these guitars to your arsenal.

Another option is an aftermarket piezo bridge and preamp, like those made by Graph Tech, Fishman, and L.R. Baggs. These are typically drop-in replacements for standard bridge varieties, like Strat-style bridges and Les Paul Tune-O-Matics, but with tiny piezo pickups under each saddle that pick up the vibrations of the strings and send them out to a small preamp. Depending on the setup, these preamps are usually installed in the guitar, and allow the player to switch over to piezo tones instantly, or even blend piezo and magnetic pickup tones together at the guitar's output. Piezo pickups on an electric guitar tend to sound substantially better than an acoustic simulator effect, with the only downsides being that minor modifications to the guitar are required, and the cost for a piezo bridge and the necessary preamp is often in the 200 to 300 dollar range.

Miking up an unplugged electric

This trick is typically only practical in studio and recording situations, of course, but close-miking an unplugged electric guitar can often result in a very interesting, and sometimes surprisingly convincing, acoustic tone. The quality of the sound depends mostly on the guitar being used, with hollow and semi-hollow body guitars being the most natural choices for this application. Just about any electric guitar that has a good, lively resonance when unplugged will be a qualified candidate, however, especially when miked closely with an appropriate microphone. Hollow and semi-hollow guitars will generate some amount of natural acoustic bass and "body", so these can often be miked just like a standard acoustic guitar, but when using a Tele, Strat, or other solid-body instrument, a cardioid microphone placed very close to the guitar, to take advantage of the bass-boosting proximity effect, is probably the best option. Miking in stereo, with one mic near the bridge/body area and one near the twelfth fret, can also enhance the realism, and a little compression and EQ after the fact will help as well, mostly to tighten things up and fill out the low end. Regarding microphones, a condenser mic will probably be the best tool for recording an unplugged electric, as the volume will be rather low, and a good condenser will be sensitive enough to achieve appropriate recording levels without unnecessary noise.

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