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Guitarist 03/1998

By Matthew Wig, Guitarist, March 98

EMF Acoustics of Finland is setting its nets for a big catch with this radical new acoustic under-saddle pickup and preamp.

EMF pickup

Names like Fishman, EMG, LR Baggs and Shadow will be familiar to you if you've investigated the options for an acoustic pickup and/or preamp, as they are the most widely known and well distributed manufacturers, all producing high quality hardware.

Although materials vary, the systems usually consist of a piezoelectric, pressure-sensitive strip, normally hard-wired into a preamp / EQ system via its slender, shielded connecting cable. The resulting sound captured is usually fairly similar, Other companies, like Ovation, Takamine and Yamaha have evolved some unique designs for both the transducer/ saddle and preamp ends of this setup, but keep them exclusively for their own guitars.

Now, along comes EMF Acoustics, with a pickup made from a new material known as EMF, invented in Finland and exclusive to the company. With this patented discovery, EMF has tweaked the typical arrangement enough to warrant investigation. Innovations aren't always improvements, but any rethink is as welcome as it is necessary.

Build Quality

The pickup itself is made from EMF; an incredibly thin plastic electric film that carries a permanent electric charge. Under pressure, it responds to vibration by producing a small current (as do all piezo pickups). Within the structure of the film are tiny lens-like gas bubbles, an important factor in the accuracy, definition and dynamics of its flat response, and match the pickup's acoustic impedance with that of wood.

The pickup is a multi-ply laminate of these films, creating a more rugged structure that withstands the permanent pressure exerted on it.

Sound

I had the opportunity to give this pickup about as good an evaluation as it could get. The acoustic guitar that carried the review system was a very fine Landola, also from Finland, and I monitored it using the Carlsbro Sherwood Classic combo.

My immediate and overwhelming sensation was I'd heard this sound before. It's reminiscent of the top-edged tone that the infamous Takamine AccurAcoustic system generates, only this B-Band / Core duo manages it without all the knobs. This doesn't mean that bottom end is lacking, in fact the Landola's particularly rich bass came through well, without being too boomy. However, the treble frequencies do penetrate, sending me rushing for the appropriate amplifier knob to improve matters. As a general point here, it's always easier to cut than add, and once things sounded a little flatter, I could appreciate the more pleasant, transparent impression lurking beneath.

Despite counter claims from its manufacturers, it's not a warm reproduction, but a clinical and precise sound that would undoubtedly have no problem asserting itself in a live band situation.

The system produces a healthy signal and is generally responsive to string vibration. However, on this review guitar, I noticed string-to-string volume isn't spot on, and I'm sure that bedding this transducer is tricky. This partly explains the boosted high frequencies, since it's the bottom strings that register inconsistently.

Overall, it's not a million miles away from other transducer systems I've heard. Not so much a revolutionary sound, but easily ranking among the best of the rest. The connection between the transducer and preamp is an integrated clamp, so no soldering is required.

It remains, however, an exceptionally thin strip which will enforce a mere 0.3 mm (maximum) height increase on your saddle. You'll probably never notice the difference, saving the bother of critical and easily bodged adjustments. Once fitted, there's no wiring between the transducer and the preamp with the long, flexible strip bending its way from the bottom of the saddle slot, through the soundboard and into the preamp housing. The connection between the two is an integrated clamp, so no soldering is required, a definite plus if you're not a handyman.

The Core preamp is mounted on an endpin jack. This comes in the shape of compact black box with a decent, sturdy jack socket. Its metal housing has a screw-on lid, which enables access to the pickup clamp and circuitry. Three holes in the sides cater for the connections to the pickup, the optional volume pot and remote battery clamp. The battery is quite removal friendly, although not ideally, sited, on the top block (the piece of wood inside that the neck is jointed to). This means no super-swift changes, but it does at least negate any detrimental modifications to the body. The pickup also comes in various widths to fit different types of acoustic guitar.

Value for Money

At $99 the B-Band/Core combination is in direct competition with the highest quality systems like the EQ-less Fishman Matrix, and can be seen as a bona fide alternative. If you're getting a shop to fit it for you, it'll probably charge a standard fee even though there's slightly less work involved. It's this sheer simplicity of design that would certainly give me the confidence to fit it myself, representing better value than the price alone suggests.

Verdict

This isn't the saviour of amplified acoustic reproduction I'm waiting for, but as it stands, it's made some improvements on an established concept. When you've got an acoustic guitar playing and sounding just how you want it, you don't want to jeopardise that in any way by fitting a pickup. EMF Acoustics has, I think, a sound understanding of this fact, making its product about as discrete and unassuming as is possible. The EMF film is exciting technology, and will hopefully develop further in the future, but in the meantime you should bear this system in mind if you're thinking of plugging in. The sound is reminiscent of the Takamine AccurAcoustic system, only the B-Band manages it without the knobs.

Features

This arrangement is obviously a basic one, so there are no dynamic sound-shaping features to discuss. However, EMF Acoustics will soon offer a more sophisticated, and slightly more expensive system, incorporating the New Frontier sound enhancer. This is an optional replacement for the Core preamp and will supply you with some powerful EQ capabilities. On a more general level, the most outstanding feature is the ease of installation - thanks in part to very comprehensive and easy-to-follow instructions. Even the non-technically minded would have little cause for head scratching, particularly if you're not adding a volume control. Personally I'd leave it out, since I rarely alter the volume away from maximum on my electro. Only two or three holes need drilling, there's no soldering and if your saddle is already well adjusted, you shouldn't need to alter it.

Matthew Wig

© Copyright Matthew Wig / Guitarist