A visionary in the field of acoustic-instrument amplification, Larry Fishman pioneered the concept of sweetening an undersaddle pickup’s unforgiving tone with the airy detail of a miniature onboard mic. Using his original Acoustic Blender—a small outboard mixer optimized for onstage use—guitarists were able to combine mic and pickup signals to produce a more musical, yet gig-worthy sound than neither source could provide by itself. Fishman’s Blender systems have evolved through years to include such sexy onboard mic-and-pickup units as the Ellipse Blend.
Fishman’s newest outboard device—the Aura Acoustic Imaging Blender—represents a radical departure from his previous approach. Instead of combining a pickup with a mic, the Aura uses a specialized algorithm—which Fishman calls a Sound Image—to process the pickup’s output, with the goal of eliminating its sonic flaws and recreating the sound of a miked guitar. Essentially, the Aura is a virtual blender—able to combine the raw pickup signal with an acoustic image that includes the personality of the guitar and the mic, as well as the effect of the mic’s position.
The Aura contains 16 Sound Images, each developed by carefully studying the sonic signature of a specific guitar, first recorded using a piezo undersaddle or magnetic soundhole pickup, and then with a fine mic. After comparing the phase and frequency response of the two recordings, Fishman’s engineers develop an algorithm to electronically massage the pickup signal so it closely resembles the mic signal.
It’s tempting to ogle the list of Sound Images and think, “Wow—I can make my guitar sound like a Gibson J-200 miked with a Neumann U-47 (Sound Image 01), or a Collings D2H miked with a DPA 4011 (Sound Image 02), or a Martin D-28 miked with a Sanken CU-31 (Sound Image 03).” But in reality, the idea is to find a Sound Image of a guitar whose physical properties most closely match those of your own, and then apply this algorithm to your pickup’s output to correct its shortcomings. Rather than trying to make one guitar emulate others—the goal of modeling—Fishman’s intention is to transform the sound of your guitar amplified with a pickup into the sound of your guitar captured with a mic.
To determine how well this concept actually works, I made A/B recordings using the Aura and three test instruments: a CA Guitars Legacy AE dreadnought equipped with Fishman Prefix Premium Blend electronics; a Taylor 512c grand concert with a Duncan MagMic soundhole pickup; and a Takamine ENV-760S OM with a CTP-1 preamp and saddle pickup. The mics were turned off in the Legacy and 512c, and the Tak’s excellent Cool Tube circuitry was defeated. The guitars’ onboard EQs were set flat, and preamps cranked to full volume. (According to Fishman, the Aura is designed to interact with saddle or soundhole pickups only—not soundboard transducers—so we didn’t include guitars equipped with B-Band or L.R. Baggs bridgeplate sensors.)
Features and Options
Boasting a curved steel top, side handles, and silver paint, the Aura looks sleek and feels burly. Three sturdy footswitches let you move up or down through the Aura’s 50 user-editable programs, turn the tuner on and off, or engage the unit’s feedback suppressor. A pair of knobs control input and output level, and three multicolored LEDs help you set optimal input level. A master Phase switch lets you align the Aura’s output with your amp or P.A. speakers, or invert its phase to fight feedback. Another switch lets you enter edit mode. Here, using two knobs, you can select the Sound Image, EQ both the Sound Image and your pickup, balance Sound Image and pickup levels, select a compressor preset, and set the individual program level. Finally, an illuminated button lets you bypass the Aura to compare the processed sound with the dry pickup tone.
Powered by a 9-volt adapter, the Aura has a single 1/4" input, as well as unbalanced 1/4" and balanced XLR outputs that flank a ground-lift switch. A MIDI jack lets you replace 12 of the resident Sound Images with new ones downloaded from Fishman’s website.
Experimenting with the Aura, I soon discovered the importance of finding an appropriate Sound Image for each test guitar. When the match was good, the results were superb. For example, I hit the jackpot with my 512c and program 16 (made for a mahogany Grand Concert with a mag pickup), and the Tak and program 10 (intended for a rosewood Orchestra Model with a saddle pickup). When the guitar and Image were compatible (I got five hits on three instruments), the Aura-enhanced sound was fuller, richer, and more dimensional than the pickup by itself. Especially exciting was how the Aura eliminated the brittle crunch and jumpy attack of the piezo saddle pickups in the Tak and Legacy. The Aura’s EQs and compressor let me shape and store “rhythm,” “lead,” and “fingerstyle” versions of the idealized sounds.
When the Images didn’t match the guitars, the results sounded fairly electronic and artificial. But this isn’t a flaw in the Aura; it simply underscores the need to correlate an instrument to its remedial mask. To this end, Fishman offers scores of free Sound Images made using various Martin, Taylor, Gibson, Guild, Avalon, Larrivée, Collings, Ramirez, and Ovation models, with more in development. Most Images are crafted to interact with saddle pickups, but there are also mag pickup files. While classicals are well represented, at this time, there aren’t Images for archtops or resonators. To deal with this need, Fishman is developing an Aura custom shop, where for a fee engineers will create a Sound Image from your personal instrument.
The Bottom Line
For the price of a modest studio condenser mic, the Aura lets you draw mic-inspired tones from a pickup-equipped guitar that you can confidently use onstage or in a home studio. If you currently use a dual-source blender system, the Aura can simplify your rig by replacing a passel of wires and gadgets. By eliminating an onboard mic, you’ll have less feedback to contend with, and when it does occur, the Aura’s easy-to-use suppressor will search out and nuke the most offensive frequency. Though it’s basic, the tuner is stable and accurate enough to eliminate yet another piece of gear.
To make the most of the Aura, you’ll need to find an appropriate Sound Image for your guitar, and be willing to do some parameter tweaking and program storing. The clean user-interface is a big help in this regard, and the end result is that your audience will experience a sweeter, less fatiguing, more dynamic, and far more pleasing amplified sound than with a pickup alone. (As of press time, we’ve learned that Fishman is opening a facility for the purpose of creating custom Sound Images for Aura users. For a reasonable fee, you can either send your guitar to the company and have them create the Image using six high-end mics, or you can mic your prized guitar yourself [you’ll first have to watch an online video to learn how], and then send the results via WAV file to Fishman, who will email you a Sound Image file that can be loaded into your Aura.)•