Acoustic guitar amplification has matured incredibly over the past couple of decades, and excellent onstage sound is now the norm for most acoustic guitarists, but the goal of complete transparency remains elusive. Many factors contribute to how an acoustic guitar sounds once it’s plugged in to an amp or a PA, including the guitar, pickup, preamp, sound system, and even the venue. Since most pickups add a sound of their own to the equation, many guitarists believe that the most natural acoustic sound can be achieved by using a microphone. But as simple as this may seem, it’s not necessarily an easy path to great amplified tone. Feedback at higher (and sometimes not all that high) volumes is the biggest concern, but woofy tone can also plague an external mic used in a problematic room or with an inadequate amp. And mics mounted inside the guitar often sound boxy, since guitars are built to sound great on the outside, not inside the body. Acoustic amplification pioneer L.R. Baggs has long used internal mics as part of its systems, which include the Dual Source and more recently the Anthem (see review in June 2010), but now the company has come up with its first internal mic designed to be used on its own, rather than working in tandem with a pickup.
The heart of the Lyric system is the Baggs Tru-Mic, which is familiar from the company’s Anthem systems. Attached to the guitar’s bridge plate inside the body and mounted in a special housing that places the mic capsule a mere three millimeters from the bridge plate’s surface, the mic is designed to sense only the sound coming from the top of the guitar. The Tru-Mic is designed to cancel reflections from the guitar’s back, which, according to Baggs, means that the sound that the mic hears is more like what you’d hear from the outside than the typical boxy sound picked up by most internal microphones. While the Tru-Mic is fundamentally the same as the microphone part of the Anthem system (other than its tortoiseshell coloring; the Anthem’s Tru-Mic is beige), the capsule in the Lyric has a different frequency response than the one in the Anthem, which allows it to transmit lower frequencies than the Anthem, where it is primarily responsible for the upper frequencies. L.R.Baggs hand-selects the capsules used in the Lyric according to tighter tolerances in their specs than what is the case with the mics used for the Anthem.
Much of the Lyric’s success is due to its patent-pending preamp technology. Built into an endpin-mounted circuit board and powered by a nine-volt battery, the design uses specific preset EQ curves and frequency-specific compression and limiting to eliminate problem areas that often plague internal mics. The Lyric also includes a small module that mounts to the edge of the soundhole, with a volume control and small dial (to be adjusted with an included screwdriver) for matching the system’s high-frequency response to the specific guitar it is installed in. The preamp also offers soldering pads for connecting a second source (such as a pickup), the signal of which goes unbuffered to the ring-channel of the output jack.
Early in the development of the Lyric, Lloyd Baggs and his team were hoping to create an amplification solution that bluegrass players would want. Besides realizing that many bluegrass pickers have an aversion to pickups (in part because the sound of a guitar amplified with a pickup can be difficult to blend onstage with the sounds of unamplified instruments like fiddle and banjo), Baggs knew that if the Lyric was going to find its way into vintage dreadnoughts, it should require minimal modifications to the guitar. As such, the only irreversible modification required when installing the Lyric is the enlargement of the endpin hole to accommodate the jack—a fairly benign and standard procedure that many owners of vintage instruments accept in return for being able to plug in without hassles. The Tru-Mic itself, as well as the soundhole control module, are installed with removable double-sided tape, while the battery rests in a small bagsecured at the neck-block or another convenient location with self-adhesive tape and a hook-and-loop fastener.
Accurate Sonic Picture
To ensure the best installation possible, we sent a guitar to L.R. Baggs so the technicians at Baggs could install the Lyric themselves. The guitar wasn’t just any guitar, but a 1956 Martin D-28 that belongs to Acoustic Guitar editor Scott Nygaard. We tried the Lyric out in a variety of settings: in the Acoustic Guitar video studio, running through a Fishman SA-220 PA or Vox AGA30 amp, with and without an L.R. Baggs Venue preamp; recorded directly to Pro Tools; and onstage at Berkeley, California’s Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse through its state-of-the-art Meyer Sound PA (see Editor’s Impression).
Plugged in to the SA-220, it was remarkable how natural the tone was right off the bat. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that it sounded just like the guitar, but in this case, it’s a fitting description, because the tone was devoid of inherent artifacts—whether complimentary or distracting—that pickups often add to the sound. Starting at low volume, I slowly turned the SA-220 up to about the level I might use to play a small club, and the tone remained very much like what I would expect to hear when using an external mic under ideal conditions. It was only when I turned to partially face the SA-220 that the sound became slightly tubby and unfocused and feedback began to be an issue.
It was also impressive how the Lyric conveyed the D-28’s complex dynamics. Whether I played soft fingerstyle tunes in D A D G A D, strummed chords in standard tuning, or flatpicked single-note lines up the neck, the guitar’s inherent character remained, rather than being overshadowed by the amplification system’s tone.
Playing through the much smaller Vox amp, it took a little more work to get the best sound. While the full-range SA-220 never made me want to reach for EQ, cutting some lower mids and fine-tuning the bass and treble using the Venue preamp helped produce the most pleasing results through the Vox.
Having experienced the Lyric’s sound through speakers, my hopes for a great-sounding direct recording were high, so I plugged the D-28 into the Venue and then into the XLR inputs of a rack-mounted Digidesign 002, which fed an iMac running Pro Tools. In this context, the Lyric captured a high degree of the guitar’s character but, perhaps due to the lack of air moved by a speaker, the recording had a slightly boxy sound, with a bit less dimension than what I heard through the Fishman PA or Vox amp. But with a bit of processing, tracking with the Lyric could be a fine option for recording demos or in situations where the guitar is part of a larger mix.
Overall, the Lyric is a very impressive option for amplifying an acoustic guitar. As with any highly accurate pickup or mic, the guitar the system is installed in is critical, and results may be difficult to predict until you hear the system in your own guitar. But there is no question that L.R. Baggs has created a great option for acoustic pickers searching for transparent amplification.
SPECS: Bridge plate–mounted Tru-Mic internal microphone. Preamp with ¼-inch endpin jack. Soundhole-mounted volume wheel and presence control. Nine-volt battery. Made in the USA.
PRICE: $289 list/$199 street.
MAKER: L.R. Baggs: (805) 929-3545; lrbaggs.com.
SCOTT NYGAARD: I had the opportunity to test out the Lyric in somewhat ideal conditions, installed by Baggs in a guitar I’ve been playing for more than 25 years. My first test was in the Acoustic Guitar video studio plugged into a Fishman SA-220 PA and my AER Compact 60 amp. The sound through both was immediately warm and full, with a very natural-sounding high end. The Lyric sounded better and clearer than most systems I’ve used with the Compact 60, which can have a somewhat problematic midrange, and I was able to crank it up to levels I would rarely need with no feedback, even while facing the SA-220.
The best test, though, was at the end of a soundcheck at the Freight and Salvage, where I was using an AKG condenser mic to amplify the guitar. I didn’t have much time to try it out but, with the Lyric running through a Venue DI, and all tone controls set flat, the Freight’s engineer brought up the monitor to a level I would normally use with a medium-size bluegrass band, and the sound was immediately comparable to the AKG, without any tweaking—the engineer’s response was, “That sounds great. What is that?” I agreed and quickly boosted the gain on the Venue to a level I’d want if I was trying to get lead lines heard above a semi-electric band. While the sound had a little more lower midrange than I would like, it was certainly usable without any EQ and would be easy to tweak given a few more minutes to work on the sound.
One of my main considerations with any amplification system is how good it sounds given little or no time for a soundcheck. I’ve played countless festivals where I had to walk onstage, plug in (or quickly adjust a mic), and hope for the best. It’s hard to imagine anything working any better in that situation than the L.R. Baggs Lyric.