Saturday, December 19, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Here is a classic Christmas cartoon from 1939. It's a different look at the theme of "peace on earth".

In a lighter vein, here are Leon Redbone and Dr. John with their rendition of 'Frosty the Snowman'. Lord Buckley must be here in spirit...

Wishing you all a happy holiday season and a great new year!

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Brief Personal Note: Dia de los Muertos 2009

I went to the event in Albuquerque yesterday. It had special meaning this year because my father died a few days ago. He was 90.

The people at the celebration in Albuquerque were great. Especially the kids. They cheered me up a lot. Looking around at twilight it's easy to believe that the ghosts of the dead are here among us. I know my dad will always be with me in spirit.

With digital capture there is always a lot of "darkroom" work to do. I ran this photo through quickly so that I could show you something right away. Hope you enjoy it. (Click to see a larger picture.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Searching for the Holy Grail

After reading DR's recent post to the comments for a previous article I did some thinking. Here I am gearing up after a ten year hiatus. My life is somewhat balanced compared to the old days when I was playing the couch circuit. That means I've had a few bucks to spend on equipment instead of just barely enough for food and gas to get me to the next town. Although for some folks this lifestyle of mine might be uncomfortably close to the poverty line, for me it's been Fat City. (If you ever took refuge from the rain under a railroad bridge in the middle of the night then you'll forever be grateful for a warm dry place to sleep and a hot soapy shower in the morning. Everything else is extra!)

I have a buddy Ray Doyle from Dublin, Ireland who is a wonderful musician and an old and trusted friend. During the past year Ray has endured many long distance phone hours listening patiently to me telling him about my various trials and tribulations with recently acquired recording and stage gear. During this time Ray has released a great solo CD and a music video. That's on top of touring all over the world as the spotlight performer in Wylie Gustafson's band.

Every time we talk Ray asks me two things. "How much practice time are you putting in?" and "Have you written anything new?" If my conscience wore a cowboy hat and boots it would look like Ray Doyle. Something like this:

Well, I guess Ray has gotten through to me because this weekend I took a different approach to my musical chores. Instead of fiddling around with the latest gear trying for the perfect sound, I pulled out my trusty 1963 Gibson LG-1 (with it's 25 year old Sunrise pickup) and plugged in to my Fishman SoloAmp. Then I pulled out my recently neglected SM-57 for duty as a vocal mic and plugged that in to the other channel.

For two days I made myself play bar sets. I worked on arrangements. I transposed songs into different keys and much to my surprise found that I could hit those previously unreachable high notes. (Thank you Brett Manning! Those vocal exercises on your CD's really do work if you practice them assiduously.) I played very fast. I played very slow. I played till my fingers hurt and then kept on playing.

Now here I am on Sunday night thinking about what I've learned in the past two days. I can only speak for myself but I'm guessing that it's safe to say that most of us singer/songwriters who've been at it a while have all the equipment we need. Yet we continue to try everything new that hits the market. We are always thinking that if we upgrade our gear we will sound better and get more gigs and better gigs. At this point in time I find myself thinking that the best gear is the tried and true workhorse equipment that we already own. And the best way for us to upgrade is to push ourselves creatively.

Art doesn't happen when we stay secure within our comfort zone. When I push myself and take creative risks some very interesting things start to happen. An old folk song suddenly takes on different shades of meaning and becomes exciting all over again. Sometimes before you can play a song well you have to play it badly. When you make mistakes, just make sure that they are interesting mistakes. An interesting mistake can take you places you'll never find if you play it safe and stick to the cliches that you've already mastered.

I never meant for this blog to focus on gear. I've meant all along for it to be about music. It's important to have a few good tools and some extra guitar strings. It's even more important to have good material and to perform it the best you can. So today I'm thinking that it's time for me to eBay a few things and get back to the basics.

Before I call it a day here, I want to recommend an instruction DVD called Doc's Guitar. I just received my copy last week. It's a gem! If you're looking to "upgrade" this may be the answer. There is so much good stuff in this one set of guitar lessons that it will keep you busy for months... or even years.

Here's some vintage video footage showing Doc Watson at his fingerpickin' best to whet your appetite a little bit:

Well, that's about it for now. Keep on pickin' and grinnin' folks. Until next time...

Yer pal,
Al Acuff

Saturday, August 22, 2009

DPA 4099 Guitar Microphone - Follow-up Review

Like any microphone the performance of the DPA 4099 is somewhat dependent on the quality of the mic pre that it goes through. I recently acquired a John Hardy M-1 mic preamp and after recording with my 4099 through the John Hardy I found myself wondering if the mic was performing optimally. It sounded good but the sound wasn't as solid as I would have liked.

I decided to call DPA service at their US headquarters in Colorado. I spoke with Jed and he asked me to send my mic to him for evaluation. Wthin a day of receiving my mic Jed got back to me. It turned out that with some preamps my mic failed to power up completely. Two days later I received a brand new replacement for my 4099. Does it sound better? You bet it does! The defective mic I had before sounded pretty good but now the sound is all there. The bass has more weight to it. The output is higher so I need less gain from my preamp. The air and sparkle is there without any eq boost needed.

I've seen a few forum discussions where players are questioning whether the mic is worth the retail price of $600. When I consider the incredibly fast and thorough customer support I received, I have to say that it's worth every penny. When you are gigging accidents happen and gear sometimes needs service. In my experience customer service is one of the most important considerations when buying pro gear. DPA came through for me with flying colors.

A reader asked me whether there is any audible self-noise with my DPA 4099. I fingerpick with the pads of my fingers and my fingernails so it's safe to say that my playing volume is on the soft side of the volume range. With my Hardy M-1 which is extremely revealing there is no self-noise from the mic at all. Furthermore the sound quality rivals the best acoustic guitar recordings in my music collection. I wouldn't be surprised to see James Taylor or Paul Simon using a DPA 4099 on stage or even in the studio.

With my Fishman SoloAmp and Martin OOO-18GE 1937 the DPA 4099 works beautifully. You just can't get this quality of sound from a guitar pickup or from a mic inside a guitar. The phase reverse switch on my SoloAmp eliminated a feedback loop with the top of the guitar and I could play without fear of the dreaded wolf tone. For me it's a big plus that I don't have to drill or modify my guitar in any way to use the DPA mic. And if I want to play my 1963 Gibson LG1 it only takes a minute to switch the mic over to that guitar.

For the singer/songwriter with a project studio the DPA 4099 Guitar microphone is no brainer. It's sound when paired with a good preamp is natural and uncolored with superb dynamics and plenty of detail. You would be hard pressed to find a better mic for recording your acoustic guitar. When you consider that you can carry it in your guitar case accessory compartment and use it for live gigs it certainly earns it's keep. For half the price of a used KM84 (if you can find one) you are getting a first rate recording mic and an excellent acoustic guitar pickup for use on-stage.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Mystery of Microphone Preamps

Those of you who have been reading here these past few months have no doubt observed that I've been testing and selecting equipment for a small DAW based project studio. The next and hopefully the final item on my shopping list is a first rate microphone preamp.

I've been doing some research on this subject and have found something that I want to share with you. There are a couple of excellent articles by John Hardy which provide an excellent introduction to the world of high quality dedicated microphone preamps.

You can access the articles from Mr. Hardy's informative links page and you can also go directly to the articles by clicking here on the titles (or right-click to download the PDF files):

These articles cover the topic much better than I can so I won't even attempt it. I would just like to say a quick thanks to Sean at Mercenary Audio for suggesting the John Hardy M-1 Mic Pre-amp to me. It was while reading up on the M-1 that I came across these excellent articles.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Singing With Your Eyes Closed

When I was growing up one of my musical hero's was Rick Nelson. Every week on Ozzie and Harriett he would appear with his band (including guitar legend James Burton) performing a song. Rick was the first person I ever saw sing with his eyes closed.

Recently, I viewed some Rick Nelson clips on and sure enough there he was singing with his closed. It doesn't look to me like he was doing it for effect. It looks like he was getting into the music and didn't want to get distracted. But who knows... maybe the bright TV studio lights hurt his eyes.

Anyway, that's where I learned to sing with my eyes closed. Another Rick Nelson fan who sang with his eyes closed was the late Townes Van Zandt. A fan once asked Townes why he sang with eyes closed and in true Townes-speak he answered, "If the audience would all close their eyes, then I wouldn't have to close mine."

Over the years I've found that when I close my eyes it allows me to get deeper into the song. Be warned though that this form of intense concentration is not without it's hazards. As an example I remember one night when I was singing in the bar at the Santa Fe Hilton. I had my eyes closed while singing Gentle on My Mind. Just as I was conjuring up an imaginary campfire scene by a desolate bit of railroad track I felt a hand on my shoulder. A very drunk bar patron had wandered up on stage. I snapped out of my reverie and looked him straight in the eye. He responded by asking for directions to the Albuquerque airport.

I wonder if Rick Nelson had to put up with stuff like that. Probably not. TV audiences were no doubt restricted from walking up on stage during a performance. I did meet Rick Nelson once at a party as Billy Al Bengston's Venice, California studio. He was a nice guy and seemed as glad as me to find another musician at among the stuffiness and pretension of the L.A. art crowd.

I'd like to think that if Rick had been on stage at the Hilton that night he would have done what I did... I gave the customer directions to the airport... then I closed my eyes, called up the image of my lost love, and sang the rest of the song... "I dip my cup of soup back from the gurgling, crackling cauldron in some train yard. My beard a roughening coal pile and a dirty hat pulled low across my face. Through cupped hands 'round a tin can I pretend to hold you to my breast and find. That you're waving from the back roads by the rivers of my memory ever smilin' ever gentle on my mind."

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A hands-on review of the new DPA 4099 Clip Guitar miniature microphone

Danish Pro Audio has released a new line of miniature performance microphones. DPA is a long established, well known company that makes some of the finest studio mics in the world. So when I read about the DPA 4099 Guitar Clip Microphone, I called them to request a review sample. After a short wait, it has arrived. I won't keep you in suspense. It's wonderful! So if you're wondering whether it lives up the the advertising, the answer is "YES!" If you buy it you won't be disappointed. If you'd like to learn more about this marvelous minaiture microphone... read on.

My name is Alan Acuff and I'm  a singer/songwriter living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I started blogging after my friends David GrayIra Ingber, and Ray Doyle persuaded me to take my first steps into the world of digital audio recording. In the past I have worked as a guitar tech, folksinger, and broadcast music producer. Now, after running a small photography business for the last ten years, I find myself getting back into music in a serious way. Sometimes absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

Music is a craft and like any craftsman I've been stocking my tool chest with the best tools I can get my hands on. The DPA 4099 Clip Guitar Microphone is the most recent addition. My buddy Utah Phillips taught me that folksingers travel light. So I'm extremely selective about the tools I carry with me.  

About twenty-five years ago I worked for a while as an assistant to a guitar tech in Venice, California. At the time my boss was experimenting with various approaches to amplifying acoustic guitars. That's where my education about acoustic guitar amplification began. After trying some of his best in-guitar microphone set-ups, I concluded that the on-board guitar mics that were available at that time didn't sound very good and weren't practical. They were overly bright and they were prone to feedback at low volumes. So for my own gigs I chose a Sunrise Pickup in combination with a Demeter Tube Direct preamp.

For about 20 years I made a meager living performing as a folksinger in the southwest and California, and my Sunrise/Demeter system proved itself to be reliable and the sound quality was also pretty good. It sounded more than a little like an acoustic guitar and that seemed to be the best you could expect from an acoustic guitar pickup. 

At various times I tried out newer systems. Some of them, like the Fishman pickups, were also good but none of these pickups really reproduced the entire rich and complex sound of high quality acoustic guitars. Don't get me wrong... they were darn good, but they all fell short if you compared them to a good microphone. The best way to record or amplify an acoustic guitar is with a microphone in front of the guitar. Unfortunately high quality studio mics just aren't practical on stage. They are delicate, highly susceptible to feedback and if you don't sit perfectly still the sound will be inconsistent. 

Let's digress briefly and examine the problem of acoustic guitar amplification from a mechanical viewpoint. What we think of as the sound of an acoustic guitar is actually a combination of sounds that come from several places on the guitar. The main part of the sound radiates from the top of the guitar. The air inside the body of the guitar adds bottom which emanates from the sound hole. The strings themselves provide fundamental tones and harmonic overtones that make the sound shimmer and sparkle. You can compare a guitar to a 3-way speaker–the sound hole is like a woofer, the top of the guitar is like a midrange driver, and the strings are like a tweeter.

On-board acoustic guitar pickups, also called transducers, used by professional musicians fall into three basic categories:

1.Soundhole pickups sense the string vibrations magnetically. They sound similar to the pickups on a good archtop jazz guitar and are very resistant to feedback. 

2. Piezoelectric pickups, which include the popular under-saddle pickups, sense the physical vibration of the strings through the saddle, bridge, or top of your guitar. They sound bright and have a bit of sparkle. These are the most popular acoustic guitar pickups because they are invisible and don't block the soundhole. They are less resistant to feedback than the soundhole pickups but they still provide good volume before feedback.

3. Miniature microphones inside the guitar reproduce the sound of the strings and top as they sound listening from inside the guitar. The dominant sound is that of the air mass. It's a bassy sound and these mics feedback at relatively low volumes. They are usually used blended with one of the first two types of pickup. This reduces feedback and inproves the sound of the pickup by blending in some of the acoustic sound of the guitar.

As you can see, the only pickup that senses the strings, the top of the guitar, and the air mass inside the guitar is a good microphone aimed at the guitar. The DPA 4099 is just such a microphone. For a high quality microphone it is surprisingly resistant to feedback. What makes it practical is this feedback resistance combined with the clever mounting system that allows you to position the mike in your guitar's sweet spot.

A couple of years ago I found the guitar of my dreams at Martin guitar expert Fred Walecki's legendary Westwood Music in Los Angeles. It's a Martin OOO-18 that is the biggest sounding concert-size guitar I've ever heard. It's a fingerpicker's dream come true. For the past year I've been recording it with various microphones in my home studio. This has been quite a challenge because after decades of performing live I find it awkward to track my guitar and vocals separately. It doesn't feel natural to me because I balance the sounds while I play and sing. It's difficult to find a sensitive instrument mic that provides good isolation and still gives you good sound. Some rather expensive, high quality studio microphones have proved impractical for me simply because they pick up too much of my vocals. So when I read about the new DPA acoustic guitar mic, I jumped at the chance to try one out. 

When I began performing in clubs in Austin, Texas I used to bill myself as "the world's least known folksinger" So when I called DPA it was no shock that they didn't know of me. Nonetheless, the DPA folks were quite gracious. After we talked it over they kindly agreed to provide a sample microphone for review. 

When the mic arrived I was immediately impressed with the elegant and functional hard shell carrying case that contains the microphone, cable, XLR adapter, and mounting hardware. Also included is a soft padded gig bag that will fit nicely in your guitar case. Overall, the packaging is well conceived. It's both elegant and sturdy.

So what's the big deal about this new miniature guitar microphone? Haven't other companies made clip-on guitar mics? Well... yes and no... This microphone is truly something new. As far as I know, the DPA 4099 is unique among miniature instrument mics because it is actually a miniature shotgun mic. As far as I know, no other miniature intrument mic is based on shotgun microphone technology. Kudos to the engineering and design folks who conceived and developed this novel microphone. It does the job!

If you've ever seen a movie crew at work, you've probably seen them using shotgun microphones to record the dialogue. A shotgun mic is extremely directional. The new DPA mic is a very very small shotgun mic. It comes attached to a flexible lightweight boom arm which attaches to a light, stable mounting bracket the gently holds it in place on your acoustic guitar. The slender microphone cable terminates in a belt clip which includes a high pass filter and XLR cable adapter. The microphone come with an adapter ring that replaces the belt clip on the adapter so that you can plug it directly into the XLR input on a preamp or mixer. 

Various other adapters are also available. The 4099 Clip Guitar microphone is compatible with any type of audio connection you can think of. It should also be noted that with the different clips and mounting brackets available the 4099 can be mounted on trumpet, saxophone, violin, mandolin, dobro, banjo, etc. The DPA 4099 mics sold for use with trumpet and saxophone are modified to be a bit less sensitive than the guitar and violin mics so that they can handle the high sound pressure levels of brass instruments.

No doubt you're thinking, "Enough already... what does the mic sound like?" Well, what does your guitar sound like? That's what the microphone sounds like. It's that accurate. No joke! It really is!

I first tried the mic at home in my studio with my Martin OOO-18 and Fishman SoloAmp. It sounded awesome! I was able to play at club and coffee house volumes with the Soloamp at behind me, and to the left just an arm's length away. Incredible but true! The sound was without a doubt the best acoustic guitar sound I've ever obtained from a club-sized sound system. You could easily play a room of 150-200 people with this set-up.

While a mic selling at a street price of about $600 is priced within reach of musicians working small venues it's clearly designed to meet the needs of professional musicians who play on larger stages. So I called a friend of mine who runs a concert venue here in Santa Fe. He's a bit shy of personal publicity so I agreed not to mention his name... I'll call him Bob. I asked Bob if he would be interested in trying out the mic on stage at his club. By the way, Bob is also a world class acoustic jazz guitarist. How could he resist?

Bob, like me, was at first skeptical as to whether the DPA mic would be able to provide sufficient volume before feedback. On his stage with the mains and monitors playing at concert volume it was no problem getting a loud and clear guitar sound. It sounded like an accurate, natural reproduction of Bob's little Yamaha classical guitar. 

Next, we compared the DPA mic with the onboard pickup system in Bob's guitar. Bob likes the Yamaha pickup system because he can make his guitar sound bigger and fuller than it sounds unamplified.  He preferred his built-in pickup in some respects. On the other hand, I felt that the DPA mic gave us a more accurate and natural sound. We both thought the DPA mic sounded darn good.

This experiment showed me that the DPA mic is not going to sound fabulous unless you use it with a fabulous guitar. If you use it with a lesser guitar... one that say... sounds thin and bright, then that is what you're going to hear through your speakers. If you have a weak sounding guitar that plays well and you want to make it sound big and lush, you'll have to look elsewhere. If you have a great sounding guitar and you want to amplify it just the way it sounds, this is the best solution I've found. The sound is natural and big at the same time.

Next, Bob pulled out a couple of very expensive Neumann studio microphones for comparison. We went back and forth between the three mics while listening and comparing. The Neumann mics sounded good but they are large, heavy mics and you can't clip mount them on your guitar. In my opinion, the DPA 4099 was the most natural and uncolored sounding mic of the three mics. I preferred it's pristine sound to the more colored sound of the Neumanns.  

If you're a singer/songwriter interested in making guitar based recordings, there's a bonus for you if you buy this mic. Not only can you gig with it, but you can also record with it. I tried using the DPA 4099 mic with my Demeter tube microphone preamp and Apple's Logic Studio audio production software. Oh my God! Without any EQ at all I got a full, rich guitar sound. 

For the first time, I had a mic which allowed me to sing and play while recording a guitar track with almost no vocal bleeding into it. No other mic that I've tried recording with has provided such natural sound combined with such excellent off-axis noise rejection. If you play guitar and have a home studio this mic is a no-brainer. Just buy it!  When you consider that you are getting a great acoustic instrument mic for your studio plus a pickup that you can use in most live venues, it's a great value for the money. Here's a test recording I made with the DPA mic on the acoustic guitar. It's an old-time cowboy song called Diamond Joe.

(If this player doesn't work in your browser then you can right-click on Diamond Joe, download the mp3 file, and play it in iTunes or another mp3 player.)

For what it's worth, I like to mount the mic on the upper front bout so that it points at the strings at the end of the fingerboard. I angle it so that it picks up some of the sound from the sound hole and from the top of the instrument. This way you get the complete acoustic guitar sound. No pickup I've used does this as well.

I do have a suggestion for the folks at DPA. Both Bob and I found that with our concert sized guitars the mounting bracket extends a bit far behind the guitar. If you're not careful you can poke yourself in the chest with it. You're not going to hurt yourself but you do run the risk of dislodging the microphone. You could cut off the extra length but then you may want to use your mic someday on a larger dreadnought or jumbo size guitar. In that case you would need the extra length. The ideal solution would be for DPA to provide an additional shorter extension wand for the clamping mechanism for use with small bodied instruments.

On the plus side, DPA has devised a lightweight and sturdy mounting system. You don't have to modify your guitar in anyway and using it doesn't alter the sound of your instrument. The mounting clamp can be set to apply just the necessary amount of pressure to hold the mic steady. You run no risk of damaging the finish on your fine guitar. If you have more than one guitar, you can easily use the same mic for all of them. Compared with installing a pickup in each guitar it's a practical solution to amplifying several acoustic guitars.

For those of you who need to play at football stadium volume (my words), DPA recommends using their microphone along with your on-board guitar pickup. This way you can blend the mic with your pickup to get higher volume while still getting a goodly amount of the natural acoustic sound of your guitar. For this purpose DPA offers an optional 2-in-1 guitar cable that will carry your mic signal and your pickup signal so that you don't have to run multiple chords.  

Also worthy of mention is the mysterious white rubber disc that comes in the case along with your 4099 microphone. To find it's intended use I had to read the manual where I discovered that it's a tiny wrench used for tightening the connection between the microphone cable and the XLR adapter (or the modular adapter of your choice). Although you can finger-tighten the connector this shows you the kind of people that you're dealing with–the thoughtful folks at DPA in Denmark have gone out of their way to include this elegant, functional tool for your convenience.

For more information you can visit the DPA website at Their 4099 Clip Guitar microphone is available from several reputable internet audio dealers and it is also available directly from DPA here in the U.S.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Al Acuff Biography

For those of you who noticed that the door was open and wandered in... You may be wondering, "who the heck is this guy?" 

For you folks here's a link to the story of my checkered past. Perhaps you'll discover the secret of my success... or failure... it kinda depends on which way you look at it....

Friday, February 6, 2009

New DPA 4099-Guitar microphone review coming soon

Danish Pro Audio (formerly B&K) has kindly provided me with a sample of their new miniature 4099-Guitar microphone for evaluation and review. This microphone is one of four microphones included in their new series of performance microphones designed to be used live on stage. The other mics in the series are designed for sax, violin, and trumpet. There is a variety of accessories available which may be used to adapt these mics to various other instruments.

For twenty years I played acoustic guitar professionally in bars, cafes, hotels, resorts, etc. I have owned various guitar pickup systems in various guitars. While I have found that certain pickups such as Sunrise and Fishman pickups are practical and sound good, none of them have sounded like a real acoustic guitar sounds to me when I'm playing it at home or in the studio. 

Over the years there have been many attempts to install on board microphones in acoustic guitars. At best these systems require sophisticated outboard gear and a good sound-man. At worst they are unusable due to low threshold of feedback and poor sound quality.

Like many of you, I've been doing some computer based digital recording here at home. Since my room is not acoustically perfect and since I sing and play guitar at the same time I've been finding it difficult to get the sounds I want. So I'm very excited at the idea of this mic doing double duty and serving as an acoustic guitar mic for my song demo recordings. I already know I'm not the first person to come up with this idea so I'm pretty sure it's going to be a productive experiment. And if I can get something approaching a true acoustic guitar sound on stage without a big hassle, I'm going to start playing out again. If you're an acoustic guitar player your heart is starting to race... we're talking about the Holy Grail here folks! 

DPA is a company whose instument mics set the standard for recording acoustic instruments in the studio. A buddy of mine at National Public Radio speaks of DPA's piano mic with reverence approaching awe. So I'm really looking forward to putting this new acoustic guitar mic through it's paces. If anyone can slay dragons and bring home the Grail it's the folks at DPA. I'm predicting that my upcoming review will contain some good news for acoustic musicians. Now it's time for me to quit yapping and go plug the mic in... to be continued...

PS. In the meantime, check out the great Microphone University feature at the DPA website. There's a lot of useful information. It's well organized, clearly presented, and it's free!