Do you need a preamp for your acoustic guitar? No. You don’t. Any decent acoustic-electric or pickup-equipped acoustic can be plugged directly into an amplifier, studio mixer, or live-soundboard and deliver a good tone.
However, if you don’t explore the enhanced sonic capabilities of a first-rate preamp, you are likely cheating yourself—and your guitar—out of a whole new level of transcendent tone.
Consider this: When you hear a magnificent acoustic tone on a favorite recording, you’re not solely hearing the guitar. You are hearing a signal path.
That guitar—the source sound—is being captured by one or more microphones that add traces of their own aural personalities. The mics are routed through the microphone preamps and channel electronics of a mixing board, all of which further alter the signal. In addition, whether it’s a live or studio recording, the guitar is being documented in an environment that may be ambient (such as an outdoor stage or a room with hard, reflective surfaces), dead (such as an area with carpets and sound-deadening materials mounted on the walls), or anything in between.
The location itself effects the character of the source sound. Then, there are decisions made by an engineer or producer that can transform the guitar tone in large or small ways. For example, they may add EQ, compression, reverb, or other types of signal processing. Ultimately, every element in the signal chain adds an audible imprint that collaborates with the other elements to create the final sound.
So, when you perform live through a P.A. system, or record tracks in a studio, right from the get-go, the “pure” sound of your instrument is being messed with by various devices and the ears of someone who isn’t you.
Is that not enough of a clue as to why using a preamp to craft your tone is a fantastic idea? Well, let’s be clear. It’s your sound, and you should be in control of it. While all artists are somewhat at the mercy of the people behind the board, so to speak, savvy performers typically provide sound techs with the most complete execution of their tone possible. The best-case scenario is that the house mixer or recording engineer listens to what you provide them, and says, “Wow. That’s a killer tone! Nothing to do here. I’ll just take what I’ve been given without adjusting it any further.”
But perhaps even more important than taking charge of your sound so that it’s difficult for engineers to mess around with it, is having enough respect for what you do to dig in, go deep, and really make a sound all your own. It’s important to be curious, to experiment, to try things and fail, to chase the timbres you hear in your head and bring them out into the open to share with everyone.
None of this happens unless you have control of the parameters required to build a sound. None of this happens without a good preamp.
Some mic preamps are super simple (just gain and output knobs), as they aspire to model vintage channel strips from ’60s or ’70s studio gear. The mojo factor of these devices is usually pretty remarkable, but acoustic guitarists looking to seriously upgrade their tone should seek out instrument preamps with more signal-processing options.
At a minimum, the preamp should offer a balanced XLR output (for sending a robust signal to a professional mixer), a level control (for ensuring the mixer or amp is getting optimum signal strength), and a basic tone knob. But you can really polish your sound with more comprehensive frequency controls that let you tweak the bass (to delete muddy lows with a cut, or dial in some heft with a boost), sweep midrange frequencies (to precisely hone in on pick and finger dynamics and attack, or contour the sound of piezo pickups), adjust highs (to clarify jangle and shimmer, or tame searing edginess), and maybe even modify high-end presence (to add “air”).
Compression is another indispensable feature to have on a preamp, as it’s great for making a guitar sound balanced, solid, articulate, and impactful. Basically, compression raises the low-level elements of an audio signal, reducing the span between the signal’s soft and loud parts. When a compressor gets the dynamic range under control, the signal can be louder (there are no wild volume peaks necessitating your turning the overall level down), and the full attack of a performance is front and center (you don’t “lose” soft passages, so notes and chords ring out with near equal impact). You can overdo compression, so it’s usually a good idea to review some of the excellent beginner and intermediate tutorials on compression basics and power-user tips.
Other preamp goodies include feedback-suppression controls (you are, after all, holding a box constructed of resonating wood against your body), a phase switch (for managing signal integrity), a boost (for those times when you want a solo or riff to take center stage), and a chromatic tuner. With these tonal and performance controls at the ready, you can easily deploy a preamp to deliver truly stunning sounds.
Five Acoustic-Preamp Options
There are lots of marvelous instrument preamps available, to be sure. But as Fishman has spent more than 40 years researching, manufacturing, and innovating systems for amplifying acoustic and electric guitars—from pickups to preamps and beyond—we believe we have earned the privilege to say we are an outstanding resource for high-quality tone. Here, then, are five, real-world use cases we identified for our preamps, and the models we developed to be the right stuff for each.
Use Case #1: Magnificent Miked Studio Tones Without the Mics… or the Studio
The Aura Spectrum DI Preamp
The Aura Spectrum isn’t just a preamp. It’s a super-powerful processor that uses Aura Acoustic Imaging technology to realistically capture the sound of various miked acoustics in a floor pedal. We’re not talking solely about EQ or compression here—although the Aura preamp includes both. This preamp actually delivers faithful sonic images of dreadnoughts, jumbos, nylon-string models, and other instruments miked in a professional recording studio by experienced audio engineers using top-quality microphones. It’s perhaps the most “produced” acoustic sound you can get—even before you start tailoring the tone to your specific needs with the onboard 3-band EQ and one-knob compressor. The Aura Spectrum comes factory loaded with 128 acoustic images, and you can control the blend (or mix) of your guitar and the Aura image.
Use Case #2: Portable Preamp for Moving Musicians
The Platinum Stage EQ
Performers who jump onto drum risers and leap into the lights to engage audiences and fire-up their band mates are obviously going to want a preamp that won’t stand still, either. The Platinum Stage EQ is a mini preamp that can clip onto a belt and go wherever you go. Sonic control isn’t sacrificed for portability, as the Platinum Stage EQ offers dedicated guitar and bass voicing modes, 4-band EQ with sweepable mids, and boost and phase switches.
Use Case #3: All-in-One Fly Rig
The Platinum Pro EQ/DI Analog Preamp
Pop the Pro EQ/DI into a gig bag, briefcase, or backpack, sling your guitar and case across your shoulder, and you’ll have the means to craft gorgeous sounds wherever you play. You get a 5-band EQ with sweepable mids and a low-frequency filter, a one-knob compressor, feedback control, dedicated guitar and bass voicing modes, and an onboard chromatic tuner. You literally only need the Platinum Pro EQ/DI and a guitar to bring your show almost anywhere. (Well, you’ll need a couple of cables, too.) Don’t stop me now, indeed…
Use Case #4: Wisdom of the Dobro Master
The Jerry Douglas Signature Series Aura Imaging Pedal
Dobro players need not be envious of guitar preamps—especially when a dobro legend personally creates Aura images just for those who play resophonic models. The Jerry Douglas Signature Series pedal serves up 16 custom images, which, much like the Aura Spectrum DI Preamp, were recorded in a pro studio with excellent microphones. These images, of course, were produced by Douglas for his own use, and yours. If that isn’t enough, the JD Signature includes feedback suppression, volume and blend controls, and a mute/bypass switch.
Use Case #5: Go for Effects
The ToneDEQ Preamp EQ
Tone shaping with EQ and compression is more than sufficient control for those who desire natural and organic acoustic sounds. But what about those who walk on the wild side of acoustic sound? In addition to 4-band EQ, compression, boost, and feedback control, the ToneDEQ Preamp EQ offers five types of effects to unleash your creativity: Two reverbs, two delays, two choruses, a flanger, and a tremolo. Players who want to explore unhinged acoustic tones, soundtrack-like textures, surprising timbres, and general sonic wackiness will find something here to produce thrills. And, hey, even devotees of organic sound may appreciate having the option to bathe a natural acoustic tone in a bit of reverb.
Gear for the Ears
Like it or not, musicians are living in an era of VR goggles, meta-spheres, AI, and hyper reality—all of which is changing audience perceptions of art, film, gaming, stage production, and, yes, music. You may be comfortable with an acoustic tone that could have been created in 1973, and that’s not a bad thing at all. But if you want to grab the ears of today’s difficult-to-impress listeners with some gloss, impact, surprise, and dimension, a good instrument preamp can be the key to conjuring musical grandeur.