Friday, November 28, 2008

Fishman Solo Amp review on Fishman home page

Hi folks. I'm proud to announce that my SoloAmp review has caught the attention of the folks at Fishman Transducers and you can find it reprinted on their website by clicking the link that appears on their home page. What an honor to have my photo appear right next to Jerry Douglas who is one of the best dobro players in the world! 

For those of you that aren't sure whether to take the plunge, I can honestly say that I love my SoloAmp. A recent Google search revealed that I'm only one of many happy SoloAmp owners. I think it's a great product that fills a need, and I'm glad to see that so many others agree.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Review of the Fishman SoloAmp

When I told my buddy Richard Malcolm about the new Fishman SoloAmp he asked, "How are you going to get any exercise if you don't haul a lot of heavy equipment up and down stairs?"

To give Richard his due... if you're a working musician and the only exercise you get is hauling sound equipment then the new Fishman SoloAmp isn't for you. The SoloAmp is an all-in-one sound system designed for the gigging singer-songwriter. It weighs about 25 pounds complete and comes in a padded gig bag with wheels on one end. You can load in and set up for a gig in about 5 minutes without breaking a sweat.

The Solo Amp utilizes linear array technology to pack a lot of sound into a compact package measuring about 6" x 6" x 40". The speaker array consists of six specially designed 4" drivers and a single soft dome tweeter. This sits on a single collapsible stand that is included. The downloadable manual tells you to place the SoloAmp behind you and to one side. The front of the SoloAmp features a two channel mixer. If you are a singer-guitarist you'll play into one channel and sing into the other. The mixer includes, digital reverb, phantom power, phase reverse switches, and notch filters for feedback control. The rear of the SoloAmp provides an output for a guitar tuner and a monitor output which can be used as a send to another SoloAmp in case you are working as a duo with another musician also using a SoloAmp. There are also effects sends and returns for each channel in case you want to use external effects. 

I'll admit that I was skeptical when I ordered my SoloAmp. I had read a couple of positive user reviews on the internet and had talked at length with Fishman's Customer Service Manager Frank Padellaro. I've also had experience with Fishman products in the past and have found them to be of professional quality. Nonetheless it just doesn't seem possible that something so compact and portable could really put out enough sound to fill a room.

The first place I set up my SoloAmp was in my photography studio. I set up the amp according to the instructions and started playing and singing. In a few minutes there was a big smile on my face as I called up my musician neighbor Frank Farentino to come over and give me a reality check. In short, the SoloAmp works as advertised. It reproduces the full range of guitar and vocals and distributes the sound evenly throughout the room. When Frank arrived I put him in the performer's seat so I could move around the room and listen from various locations. The sound level was constant throughout the room and there were no hot spots or dead spots. At first the sound was a little bright for my taste but it was easily tamed with the tweeter control on the back of the amp. Now that I've put in a couple weeks of playing time I find the sound of the amp has opened up and smoothed out a bit--not unusual with brand new speakers.

Any working musician knows that the real test of gear is how it performs under real world conditions at an actual  gig. So I scheduled an afternoon concert at the PD Bean Coffeehouse here in Santa Fe. I've performed there before and thought it would be a good test for the SoloAmp. When I arrived and set up the SoloAmp Dan, the owner, asked if I wanted him to turn off the refrigerators. Apparently he was concerned that the compact SoloAmp wouldn't be heard over the ambient noise generated by his kitchen appliances. I told him to leave everything as it usually is. 

When I sat down and started to play and sing Dan's eyebrows went up and he smiled. I asked if he could hear me OK and he said that it might be a little louder than necessary. I turned the volume knob down to about 8:30 (7:00 is off completely). Customers around the room all indicated that they could hear fine and that the sound was good. 

One of the customers present that afternoon was Michael Kott, a virtuoso cellist. Michael is classically trained but his musical taste spans several galaxies. Michael offered to sit in on viola so I gave up my vocal channel and plugged his viola in. For about an hour we jammed out on various modal patterns and folk melodies. We could hear each other perfectly well and according to other folks present the sound quality and the music were both to their liking. It's obvious that the SoloAmp delivers what the folks at Fishman promise and that it has plenty of power and headroom to spare for small and medium sized rooms. That includes most all of the hotels and bars here in Santa Fe.

Next came the ultimate test of any sound system--breaking down and loading out quickly. At closing time Dan announced that he need to get out fast so that he could pick up his tax forms and get them to the Post Office before they closed. In a few minutes I had the SoloAmp and stand in the gig bag. Michael grabbed my guitar and mic stand which left me with one hand free to unlock the back of my trusty Subaru. If you've ever worked bars or cafes you know how it is at the end of the night when the staff are ready to go home. If they have to wait while you pack up and load out they will remember it forever. With the SoloAmp it's never going to be a problem. Oh how I wish this marvel of a sound system had been available back in the days when I was gigging five nights a week and working those tiring doubles on weekends! 

I love my SoloAmp. It makes gigging so painless that I'm going to start playing out more often. The folks at Fishman understand that it's all about music... not gear. The gear should make things easier for the musician.The SoloAmp does just that. They've hit a home run this time. 

The Fishman SoloAmp is available from most major music retailers at a street price of around $1,000.00 U.S. You can get more info about the SoloAmp and other Fishman products at their website at

Monday, October 20, 2008

Review: Telefunken USA's New ELA M 80 Dynamic Microphone

During the past twenty years I've tried most of the popular stage vocal mics including offerings from Shure, Beyer, AKG, and Neumann. In every case I found myself giving up the "better" mic and returning to my old standby the Shure SM57 with the optional windscreen. When you're singing in bars, hotels, and cafes the Shure mic gets you through the four set nights. It's presence peak cuts through the ambient noise and lets you get across without singing yourself hoarse. However, it's a compromise. The low end is soft and you don't get the clarity and detail that you hear on good recordings made with large diaphragm condenser mics.

Recently I was reading at mic guru Klaus Heyne's microphone forum and I noticed an ad for the new ELA M 80 stage microphone from Telefunken USA. Despite my loyalty to the venerable SM57 I'm always interested in trying something new. The ELA M 80 is advertised as a dynamic mic which features the clarity and mid-range resolution of a high quality condenser microphone. So I contacted the good folks at Telefunken USA and a week later I received my review sample of the M 80.

I won't keep you in suspense... the M 80 is a wonderful mic. It's new and it's unique in my experience. It has a lovely clear, sweet midrange which has a bit of that 3D quality that one finds in only the very best microphones. The proximity effect is toned down compared to my SM57, but the bass extends lower and is solid and tight. It handles my bass-baritone low notes just fine. It's pickup pattern is a tight cardioid pattern which eliminates feedback without introducing the nasty off axis coloration that I've experienced with super-cardioid mics. As you go off axis with the M 80 the sound stays consistent until you reach the null point. Achieving this kind of performance is a delicate balancing act and the folks at Telefunken deserve kudos for their success.

I thought it would be interesting to get some other opinions on the ELA M 80 so I took it down to my local music store on a Saturday afternoon and let a couple of local musicians try it out through the store's PA. For comparison we used a Shure Beta 58. We auditioned the Beta 58 first and I could tell by their attitudes that the guys didn't expect to be impressed by the newcomer. When we plugged the M 80 and demoed it you could see eyebrows going up and eyes bugging out. The M 80 was the favorite. It wasn't even close.

Now let's look at the build quality of the M 80. In short, it's built like the proverbial tank. It's solid, weighty and feels like it will take anything you can dish out. This is obviously a mic that is designed to withstand the rigors of the road. Judging by the advertising, Telefunken USA is targeting this mic at young rock bands who want a mic that cuts through in a dense mix and is as sturdy and roadworthy as the classic mics. The mic comes standard with a silver grill and there is an optional package available which includes a black grill which some folks will prefer for video use. Personally, I like the silver grill. Also worth noting is that the body of the mic has a rubber coating which ensures that it won't slip out of your hands. If you've ever dropped a mic, you'll appreciate this feature. The M 80 looks like it could probably survive a drop, but chances are that you won't put it through that test. 

How did the designers achieve this level of performance in a dynamic mic? First they designed a capsule which features a low mass diaphragm. Then they had transformer maven Oliver Archut design a custom output transformer. The result is a mic which gives you a generous helping of high resolution sound without the harshness and artificial presence of most of the condenser mics designed for stage use. In fact, I found that the M 80 sounds great with minimal eq. Fitting it into a mix couldn't be easier.

It's not a perfect world and live sound always involves compromises. My only criticism of the M 80 is that it exhibits a slight sensitivity to handling noise. Since I play guitar and sing with my mic on a stand that's not an issue for me, but if you are a singer who hand holds your mic you may have to use a little care to avoid unwanted noise. It's a small trade-off when you consider the mic's sensitivity and tone. My only other criticism of the mic is the packaging. The M 80 comes in a colorful red and yellow tube picturing a firecracker (scroll down to my previous post to see this in a photo). I understand that this mic is targeted at rock and rollers. The packaging is aimed at that group. I'm a middle aged folkie singer-songwriter. So my taste in packaging and graphics is a bit more traditional. In the photo above I put the M80 next to an old Telefunken vacuum tube box. The packaging for the ELA M 80 has a bit of the retro flavor of the original Telefunken graphics. Let me just say that this mic is not only for rockers. It's a great all around mic.

The M 80 retails for $239.  While that's considerably more than the SM57 and SM58 it's about half the price of a Beyer M88. Considering it's quality, the M 80 is an excellent value. I feel that no one should buy a mic based on a review or recommendation. The only reason to buy a mic is because you have tried it yourself and you love it. That said, I bought the review sample and it's now my vocal mic of choice for live performance. I expect it will also be put to use in my project studio. You can use this mic anywhere you would use an SM58 or SM57 and where you want clarity and well defined bass. That includes guitar amps and snare drums. The ELA M 80 can be purchased directly from Telefunken USA or from one of their dealers.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Preview of Upcoming Reviews

Just a quick post to let folks know what to expect in the next week or two. I've just received a review sample of the recently released Telefunken M80 dynamic mic and will be posting a complete review here very soon. You will be able to read about this exciting new mic and how it compares with some of the classic mics. Coming soon.

Also, I'll be reviewing the Fishman SoloAmp which in August won a "Best in Show" award at the Nashville NAMM show. This innovative compact sound system is designed especially for singer-songwriters by the folks at Fishman Transducers. I'm still waiting for my SoloAmp. This new product is in such demand that I couldn't get a review sample... so I bought one and am waiting for delivery. The SoloAmp uses linear array speaker technology to make a compact sound system optimized for voice and guitar. It weighs in at about 25 pounds and sets up in just a few minutes.  By placing it behind you on stage you hear what the audience hears while the sound is evenly distributed throughout the audience. Reports from musicians who have already received a SoloAmp are positive. Stay tuned to read more about it here soon.

Also planned for the coming weeks is a review of the Fishman Aura Acoustic Imaging Pedal. This digital processor allows you to recreate the sound of an acoustic guitar played into a microphone in a recording studio... live, on stage and without the feedback problems normally encountered when trying to mic an acoustic guitar on stage. I've read mixed reviews by consumers. Some of the reviews are extremely favorable. So I'm eager to try the Aura pedal for myself to see how it works in conjunction with Fishman's new SoloAmp.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Review: Classic Dynaco Tube Amps - Upgrades and Mods

Tube be or not tube be... sorry... couldn't resist. The picture you see here shows a pair of restored, original factory assembled Dynaco Mk III amplifiers. I purchased this pair from a neighbor who had them stored in has garage. He needed some cash and I was looking for some tube equipment to sweeten up my stereo system.

With a little help from my friends I cleaned up these amps, replaced old selenium rectifiers, installed new power supply capacitors and of course installed all new tubes. James Demeter and Kevin from were both generous in providing their expertise and encouragement. Kevin also supplied replacements for the original Dynaco can type capacitors. These replacements increase the capacitance and voltage rating of the original power supply caps. That makes the power supply safter and it also give you a performance boost. Kevin sells complete kit amps that are excellent replicas of the original Dynakit amps. Like the original Dynakits the prices are reasonable and the quality is first rate.

Dynaco amps were some of the most popular hifi amps ever sold. Their popular models include the Stereo 70, Stereo 35, Mark III, and Mark IV. These amps were sold factory built or as kits. I was fortunate to get a pair of the 60 watt Mk III amps that were factory built. The original workmanship was good and they didn't need a whole lot of work. The sound of these amps is lush and sweet. You know right away these aren't your typical transistor amplifiers. Voices and instruments take on a three dimensional quality that brings the music alive.

There a folks such as self-proclaimed Dynaco guru Dynaco Doctor aka Joe Curcio who will tell you that the Dynaco amps perform poorly unless modded. Curcio audio has for sale a number of "upgrades" that he promises will allow you to realize the "full potential" of your classic Dynaco amp. It makes me wonder how these amps became bestselling classics in the first place without any help at all from Mr. Curcio and his fellow tube gurus. Could it be that they sound pretty darn good with the stock circuitry designed by David Hafler? Are the commercially available mods really going to sound better than the classic Dynaco sound? 

My buddy Dennis and I have, between us, built most of Mr. Curcio's designs and we've each been disappointed with the final results. The tube magic was lost. The modified amps may measure well but they they sound somewhat cold and uninvolving. It's also worth noting here that the Dynaco amps are collectable and that they are most valuable in their stock form. Perhaps monetary value is significant as an indicator of optimal sound quality–it depends on who you listen to.

Curcio is now advertising some newly designed mods. He says these mods will preserve the tube sweetness of the original Dynaco circuits. We exchanged some emails and he persuaded me to place an order. However, after thinking it over, I cancelled the order and opted to keep my Mk III amps stock. The 6922 tube driver stage favored by Curcio may be accurate and may measure well, but 6922 tubes tend to sound cold compared with the original Dynaco drivers. If you're dead set on modding your vintage Dyncaco amps, there are a number of popular mods available these days. You can do some Googling and you will find the commercially available Curcio Audio mods, the Roy Mottram mods and the Poseidon mod plus all kinds of DIY mods. 

In my opinion, David Hafler got some things very right in the original Dynaco designs. Therefore my advice is to do only what is necessary to keep them running well and then sit back and enjoy the magic. (By the way, be warned... when I cancelled my order for Joe Curcio's Mk III upgrades, he deducted a whopping twenty percent "restocking fee" from my refund. When I complained about that his response was adversarial bordering on belligerent. He doesn't deal with returns graciously.)

I'm using a Conrad-Johnson PV5 preamp and my Mk III amps to drive a pair of Thiel CS 2.2 speakers. While Thiel's are not considered to be especially tube friendly these CS 2.2's sound great with the Mk III's. There is plenty of power to spare. 

If you are fortunate enough to own a pair of Klipsch horn loaded speakers, you should seriously consider finding or building a tube amp. Many music lovers consider Dynaco and Klipsch to be the path to musical nirvana. Kevin from tells me the Dynakit Stereo 35 paired with some highly efficient horn speakers is some of the best sound he's ever heard. The Klipsch forums are another good source of info about Dynaco amps.

The original Dynaco designs are among the best tube amps ever made. You can buy better tube amps, but you had better be prepared to spend a whole lot of money. If you absolutely must have the best of the best and you can afford it, then look for some Conrad-Johnson tube hifi gear. If you are willing to believe that you can convert a Dynaco amp into an amp that rivals the very finest amps that money can buy then Joe Curcio and the other Dynaco gurus will be glad to take your money. Although I haven't tried every possible mod, I would urge you to be skeptical of these claims. They sound too good to be true and in my experience that's usually a sign that they probably are too good to be true.

In the meantime consider this: In the world of tube amps, second best is still a darn sight better than just about anything else available. If you are fortunate enough to stumble across an old stereo Dynaco tube amp or a pair of Dynaco tube monoblocks my advice is to restore them, keep them as original as possible, and enjoy them for their classic sweetness and richness. I guarantee you will rediscover your favorite music and hear subtleties and shadings you never noticed before.

As a musician I believe that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Before you blow your hard earned money on expensive "upgrades", hear what the original Dynaco amp designs can do. I'm willing to bet that if you do that, you'll stop right there. It doesn't get much better. So save yourself some money, skip the mods, and spend your extra cash on some new recordings. Music is one of life's greatest pleasures and even more so when you play it through some great classic tube amps like the Dynaco Mk III's.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Alan Acuff, Folksinger

It occurs to me that I haven't properly introduced myself here on this blog of mine so here goes... 

My name is Alan Acuff. I entertained professionally for about twenty years. During that time you could find me pickin' and grinnin' at resorts, saloons, and cafes throughout Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California. I also produced national radio spots for Budweiser beer, opened for Bonnie Raitt, performed live on various public radio broadcasts, and when times got tough I worked at odd jobs here and there.

As a youngster I had an ambition to be a painter when I grew up. After high school I attended California Institute of the Arts where I wound up making video art instead of painting. I was pioneer in the early days of multimedia and performance art. In 2008 my art and music video's were feature by the Getty Museum and Research Institute in their landmark show California Video. They also interviewed me and included me in their book California Video: Artists and Histories.

In the early days of multimedia you couldn't make a living making music videos so after a brief stint in TV and radio advertising, I decided to pursue my interest in American folk music. In 1979, my good buddy Fred Walecki introduced me to Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Jack crashed at my Venice Beach pad for a while. 

Later on Jack returned the favor by driving me around Texas where he introduced me to Townes Van Zandt and Mickey White. Not long after that I started performing at Austin open mics. From there I progressed to bar gigs... I sorta got stuck in that rut for about two decades. Guess I should have been more ambitious but there I was playing the music I loved and making a living at it. Plus the joints where I played gave me cool T-shirts and free cheeseburgers. It just doesn't get a whole lot better than that.

Around 1981 I left Austin for Los Angeles where I studied acting, appeared in TV commercials and films, and continued to perform music. By 1987 I was suffering from a combination of Los Angeles smog and bad allergies. A doctor talked me into moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico where the  clean high desert air brought me some relief.

Pretty soon after moving to Santa Fe I was performing at the Santa Fe Hilton, the Bishop's Lodge, El Farol, the Coyote Cafe, and other local music spots. That's about as far as you can go in Santa Fe. Santa Fe didn't provide anything much in the way of other musical opportunities. So I returned to my art school roots. I took some photography classes and started a photography business. As a photographer I've worked for Car and Driver, Charter Bank, Lucchese Boots and many other clients.

Meanwhile some of my friends were encouraging me to study up on digital audio recording and to record some of the songs I wrote back in my checkered past. That's something I somehow never got around to in the old days. Could have been fear of success or just plain lack of ambition... I dunno... 

...and that brings us pretty much to the present. I'm just about finished converting part of my Santa Fe loft into a recording studio and then I'm going to make some recordings and videos which you'll find on my music website... coming soon! Please stay tuned!

This blog is a hodgepodge of memories, music reviews, and equipment reviews. It's dedicated to Ramblin' Jack Elliott and to everyone else who ever took the wrong road and just kept going because they were curious to see what was down the road and around the bend. I hope you'll enjoy visiting and reading, and I look forward to your comments.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Santa Fe Music Blog Update

Hi folks! Been too darn busy to post much in recent weeks. Just want to let you know that I'm making some progress and that I haven't forgotten all y'all. Stay tuned for some new music, some new equipment reviews, and more. As Ramblin' Jack Elliott always sez, "To be continued..."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ira Ingber - Here Is Where

While my own music project is moving slowly forward I want to take a moment to point your attention at Ira Ingber. To quote musical luminary Van Dyke Parks, "Ira Ingber's debut album isn't really his debut album. The 'Man-Behind-The-Curtain' for artists such as Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, and... 'your name here' emerges as singer/songwriter in his own right."

Ira's CD, Here is Where inspired me to pick up my own guitars after a long layoff. He sounds like he is having sooooo much fun and he makes it all seem deceptively simple. Trust me folks, it ain't as easy as it looks. It takes talent to make something extremely difficult and complex appear to be as easy as falling off a log. Follow the link above to Ira's website and listen for yourself.

You can purchase Here Is Where at

Friday, April 18, 2008

New Beginnings Sprouting From Old Roots

I was looking through my scrapbook photo album and ran across this old picture of me holding Ramblin' Jack Elliott's guitar. (You can see Jack over my shoulder reading the newspaper.)

Well, after some years away from it I find myself returning to music. I gave it up for a while to start a photography business and settle down. About the same time this picture was taken, Townes Van Zandt introduced me to a Houston lady named Rutherine. She educated me in what she called, "The Rules Of The Road." Well, I was never much good at rules but Rutherine steered me around a few obstacles with her down home wisdom. I wish just she had also warned me about the perils of New Mexico real estate... especially water issues... it's a long story... It always makes me smile when I think of Rutherine and her Rock and Roll Hotel. Sometime soon I'll do a post devoted the her "Rules of the Road" lesson.

Been getting restless to play some folk music and maybe ramble around the globe a little. Guess the wanderlust has grabbed ahold of me. No telling where it's gonna take me. In the meantime I've been doing a bunch of song writing. I'll be doing some recording soon as I get up to speed on digital audio technology. Check back here once in awhile and there may be something new here that all y'all can listen to... or maybe even a video... ya never know...

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Oasis Follow Up - A Cold Dry Winter

A couple months back I wrote a review of the new Oasis guitar humidifiers. I just want to follow up here by saying that the darn things work exactly as promised. We're having the coldest driest winter in memory here in Santa Fe, New Mexico and my acoustic guitars are happy and healthy.

The guitars have even been doing some song writing recently and are rumored to be working on a CD with the artist formerly known as Alan Rogers. More on that soon. Or as my pal Ramblin' Jack Elliott says, "To be continued..."