Mics and surface-mount pickups work in pretty similar ways, but are applied to the instrument differently - so they have somewhat different tonal characteristics.
* Note - in this article, I'm speaking specifically about the most common type of pickup, a piezo-electric based transducer which is mounted directly against the wood of your bridge or bass. Magnetic pickups, which work just like pickups on a bass guitar, are another beast entirely, and are even more of a tonal compromise. See sidebar.
- A high-quality mic is always going to be the "truest" method for amplifying an acoustic stringed instrument, as it's the closest thing to putting your head (ears) in front of the instrument in question and "hearing" the sound out of the air as the instrument produces it.
- A piezo* pickup is a surface transducer; it senses the vibrations and turns those into electrical signals, which are then amplified as sound by the amplifier.
So, how they create sound to be amplified is actually a very similar process - they're both taking vibrational energy and converting it to electrical signals - it's just that a mic is pulling the vibrations out of the air
instead of the wood
|What About Magnetic Pickups?
A magnetic pickup is a common alternative to piezo-based pickups for players who play in high-volume situations. A magnetic pickup is largely unaffected by the sort of vibration that causes "rumbling" or "humming" feedback with piezo pickups, and also doesn't pick up sound out of the air, so it doesn't suffer from the "screeching" feedback that microphones often do. The drawback for magnetic pickups is that they generally sound more "electric" since they are getting their signal directly from the strings alone; they're not really putting the wood (and resonant cavity) of your upright into the sonic equation.
A pickup, since it's in direct contact with the instrument, will (quite logically) usually have a more "direct" sound than a microphone will - while the mic will impart more "air" to the sound it is producing. So from a purely sonic perspective, the mic will usually have a more "realistic" sound.
Which is why, in a professional recording studio, the engineer would almost always use a high-quality microphone to record your instrument rather than a pickup.
However, when you're in a studio, you have some pretty significant advantages. For one, you often have acoustic baffles between you and other instruments, which prevents issues like your mic picking up the guitarist or drummer. You also usually have lower overall volumes in the tracking room -- there isn't a loud amplifier or PA system threatening to incite screeching feedback if you get too close or point your instrument/mic the wrong way (you're probably wearing isolation headphones for monitoring). And you don't have to be on a crowded stage, performing for an audience - you can stand still and not worry about how moving around can alter how the mic sounds.
So, while mics can sound best
in a perfect situation, pickups are usually more resistant to feedback
, and they have almost no "crosstalk" - meaning that they don't audibly pick up other, nearby musical instruments onstage. You can conveniently leave a pickup on your instrument when you pack it up and cart it out, which is nice. It's usually less fragile than a mic, and it's pretty much a plug-and-play sort of deal when you get to the gig. And it's very consistent from show to show; whereas, even a small adjustment to a microphone's placement or alignment can completely change the way it sounds (and rarely for the better).
So, here's the takeaway.
For live performance, even though a mic will almost always sound "better," a large percentage of us are content to live with the compromise of the more direct sound of a pickup, because it can usually be a more convenient - and less troublesome - way to amplify the instrument. In the mix of a band in a live performance environment, most of the subtleties are lost, anyway.
On the downside, choosing a pickup
isn't always a cakewalk. There's a large number of options, and the different pickups often have quite different tonal qualities. And it's not about "who made it?" as it is "where is it?" The specifics of where they are installed on the instrument can have a big effect on their sound. Pickups won't add something that isn't there already, but they can shape the character of your sound. Some have a darker, woodier sound, while some others are more detailed and "in your face." Some pickups are better suited for arco, due to these differences - an overly detailed pickup will sound "scratchy" when you bow, for instance. As a result, we offer many different pickups for bass, since they vary more widely than one might think.
Can I Have Both?
If you don't fear a small bit of complication, a really nice solution can be pairing both a mic AND a pickup
, and blending them using a two-channel amp or preamp. K&K Sound
makes some affordable and convenient options for doing this, and you can also put together a custom a la carte
solution. This can often provide the best of both worlds, as you will be able to blend the "realism" and "air" of a mic with the direct, foundational tone of a pickup. And if you run into unusual feedback or crosstalk issues, you can always taper back on the mic, and just roll with "plan B" - the pickup alone.
If you are trying to narrow down whether to get a mic or a pickup, or more specifically, which one to get, take a good look at our product descriptions, which purposely edit out most of the manufacturer hype, and - based on our experience with them - try to describe them in a way that is meaningful... and that pulls no punches. And if you're still unsure, call us or email us with your specific needs and expectations. We do really want you to get the right pickup... the first time.