D-TAR Mama Bear

Anyone who has ever plugged in an acoustic guitar knows that it’s easy to take one of the best sounds in the world and instantly turn it into something, well, less good. The folks at D-TAR (Duncan-Turner Acoustic Research) are well aware of this and have decided to do something about it. The fruit of their labor is the Mama Bear ($499 retail/$350 street), a deceptively analog-looking digital processor that takes a variety of input sources and gives you a variety of target instruments. These target instruments are, in the words of D-TAR, “based on complex DSP algorithms derived from computer analysis of classic acoustic guitars recorded with world-class microphones.”

Although they don’t call it modeling (opting instead for the term AGE—Acoustic Guitar Emulation), D-TAR is essentially taking one thing and making it sound like another. The idea (first put forth by Rick Turner many years ago) was to take the sound of an acoustic with a piezo or a soundhole pickup—which is dealing primarily with string sound—and reintroduce some of the body sound back into the tone. (Because soundboard transducers and internal mics already transmit body sound, the Mama Bear is not designed to be used with them.) The quest was to make any acoustic that was plugged into an amplifier (or a recording console) sound more like a great acoustic in a great-sounding room. To accomplish this, D-TAR relied on acoustical research from the University of Helsinki, and did extensive recording and experimenting on their own. Along the way, they consulted acoustic master Laurence Juber to benefit from his hands and ears as well.

The Mama Bear’s control layout is refreshingly straightforward with just a ¼" input jack; Input Level control; Output Level control; Input Source selector; Target Instrument selector; and five buttons for Analog Lo-Cut, Bypass, Mute, Phase, and Power functions. The back panel is even simpler, with unbalanced ¼" and balanced XLR jacks, and a ground lift switch. Not even the most technophobic porch picker could be intimidated by this box. Nestled within the Mama Bear is a fire-breathing 32-bit, 100MHz microprocessor, plus a 24-bit A/D converter. These guts, along with a super-quiet power supply, make for incredibly clean sound.

The Input Source knob lets you choose from a variety of pickups, including ceramic piezos, coaxial film, magnetic soundhole pickups, and piezo-equipped bridges on electric guitars—and all can be run flat or with a “smile” EQ curve. I first auditioned the Mama Bear with a Larrivée dreadnought with a Seymour Duncan Woody soundhole pickup. In bypass mode, the tone was okay, but a little bland. Engaging the Mama Bear with the blend control set to 100 percent wet changed the sound dramatically, giving it body, warmth, and depth on the Parlor setting. I liked the tones I got with several other settings, although a couple of the sounds, such as Small Body Fingerstyle, sounded a little notched and hollow to my ears. My favorite target instruments for this guitar were the Slope Shouldered Jumbo and the Rosewood Dreadnought, both of which were full and rich.

I then plugged in an Ovation with an undersaddle piezo. The Mama Bear produced beautiful timbres when set to the Mahogany Orchestra, Grand Auditorium, and Slope Shouldered Jumbo targets. It also ruled when I set the target to Tricone Resonator. And here’s the thing with that: The more specialized target instruments (Resonator, Gypsy, Hollow Body Jazz) sound much more convincing when you play in the style that those instruments suggest. The Tricone was cool when I was strumming, but when I put on a slide and played some blues riffs, it sounded unbelievable.

I got great results with a Tanglewood sporting a B-Band pickup and I was absolutely floored by how my solidbody Ibanez electric with an RMC piezo bridge sounded. The effect seems even more dramatic with a solidbody because there is no acoustic sound coming from the instrument, making it easy to really focus on the Mama Bear’s ursine magic. Wow!

Once you get a feel for what the Mama Bear is bringing, you can take these sounds even further by engaging the Lo-Cut switch (good for some of the large-bodied instruments), opting for the “smile” EQ curve (notches some mid frequencies and clarifies heavy strumming), or mismatching your guitar and the Input Source (using an undersaddle pickup but dialing in the Magnetic soundhole pickup setting produced some intriguing tones). As if that’s not enough flexibility, you can then start messing with the Blend control, adding in as much of your guitar’s original signal as you like for myriad hybrid tones. Damn!

Running the tones through an acoustic amp sounded great but I really saw the genius of this box when I plugged it into a Digidesign Mbox and did some recording. It was amazing to listen back to the various target instruments, one after the other, and hear their distinct characters and overtones. Layering some of these tones produced incredible timbres. The sounds that I thought were notched out in the mids were able to complement the fuller sounds very well. None of these tones should be judged in isolation, really. In the context of a mix or a track, what might at first blush seem like an unusual tone can work surprisingly well.

It’s very clear that this little box makes my tracks sound better with no fuss whatsoever. It’s a no-brainer for anyone recording acoustic guitars at home, and I could also see producers and FOH engineers keeping a Mama Bear around to make their lives easier. Coffeehouse troubadours who want to play a delicate fingerpicked piece one minute, a swampy blues number the next, and then some Gypsy jazz can pull all that off with one guitar. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, the Mama Bear is tough to beat. •