From the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Emile Menasché
Electric guitar pickups have it easy. They’re celebrated for their tone-coloring effects, and their quality is subjective. Acoustic pickups, on the other hand, have the thankless job of being neutral and measuring up to an all but impossible standard—replicating the unplugged sound of the guitar itself. This problem is enough to make even the toughest electrical engineers cry into their pocket protectors.
Enter Fishman’s new PowerTap series, which mates either a soundhole or undersaddle pickup to its new TAP (which stands for Touch, Ambience, and Percussion) body sensors. The sensors are designed to capture percussive elements, body resonances, and performance dynamics that pickups alone tend to miss.
I checked out both versions of the system: The soundhole PowerTap Earth (installed on a PRS SE A40E) and the undersaddle PowerTap Infinity (retrofitted to a Guild F-150CE), each with a street price of $299.95 (guitar, of course, not included). Both versions come with battery-powered active onboard electronics and offer either mono or stereo output, for all kinds of sonic flexibility.
The soundhole member of the PowerTap family features Fishman’s Rare Earth humbucker, designed to fit soundholes as small as 3-5/8 inches in diameter. I was impressed with just how small its footprint is—it’s way less obtrusive than a typical magnetic pickup. And visually, it blends nicely with the pretty PRS.
The compactness is all the more impressive because the pickup’s housing also includes an onboard preamp, powered by a pair of LR44 1.5V batteries or a single CR11108. (Unfortunately, you need to remove the pickup to replace the batteries, which could be a problem at a gig.)
Fishman says the active electronics can drive an instrument cable up to 80 feet long. And while I didn’t put it through that kind of heavy lifting, it was impressively quiet and sonically detailed running in mono mode through a 25-foot cable directly into my Universal Audio Apollo interface. It also provided plenty of signal level without needing an external preamp for boost.
Controls are minimal. There’s just a blend dial on the pickup’s housing to mix the magnetic and sensor signals. Although I didn’t really miss having a tone control, a volume dial might have come in handy. On the rest of the guitar, the output level changed depending on how much body sensor I had in the mix.
Fishman equips the Rare Earth with neodymium magnets because they are thought to sound warmer and more accurate than other pickup magnets. And with the blend control biased towards the pickup alone, the tone has plenty of sparkle, with a tight, punchy bass and a nice dip in the midrange. As with any magnetic pickup, the sound emphasizes attack and string presence. But it never gets strident or too electric.
Blending in the body sensors’ signal added depth and body—but it also increased the overall output enough that I had to adjust my interface to avoid distorting the input. (That’s when I missed that volume control.)
While a body sensor is going to sound different in different guitars, the TAP—mounted on the top under the bridge—complements the magnetic pickup very well on the PRS. For my playing style on this guitar, a little TAP went a long way—I was actually surprised to find that my sweet-spot blend leaned toward the magnetic pickup (between 60 and 70 percent, depending on what I was playing). With the magnetic pickup taking the lead, the sensors added a 3D quality. On this particular rig, the tone lost its focus when the TAP was too prominent in the mix.
However, the ideal blend is likely to vary on different instruments. The PRS is a bright, lively-sounding guitar that benefited from the magnetic pickup’s ability to capture string detail.
Did the system sound unplugged? Not entirely. But it does sound very acoustic—even when I listen through headphones. Once I dialed back the interface’s input, I was really able to lay into the strings and the Fishman electronics had all the headroom I needed.
The RareEarth pickup has a very fast response, so it was a good match for fast flatpicking and aggressive fingerstyle snaps and pops. But its warmth also works nicely for mellower fingerpicking and quiet strumming.
The undersaddle member of the PowerTap family is a bit more elaborate than its magnetic sibling, at least in terms of its available controls. Hidden under the top and mounted on either side of the soundhole, the preamp is split into two physical units—one offering a blend control between the undersaddle and body sensor pickups, the other housing volume and tone dials. The Infinity package is available in three sizes to accommodate various guitar dimensions.
As with the PowerTap Earth, the blend is key to producing the most natural sound for a given playing style. However, this time I leaned more to a 50–50 mix between the undersaddle and the sensor. Fishman’s undersaddle pickups are OEM on so many guitars for a reason—they work. But on its own, even the best undersaddle pickup tends to sound hyper-focused and nasal.
Which is why I found the body sensor to be even more of an asset with the Infinity than I did with the Earth. Here too, the sensors added depth to create a more 3D sound. But this time, they seemed to enhance the tone on the top and on the bottom of the frequency spectrum, adding both air and body to balance against that undersaddle midrange. The TAP brought more overtones into focus while adding a woody character to the tone that undersaddle pickups never quite capture.
I did have to mess with the controls to get the perfect mix between the pickups—but that also showed the system’s versatility. As mentioned above, there’s a blend control (with a center detent at the 50–50 mix point), a volume dial, and an interesting tone control: It works only on the undersaddle pickup, leaving the sensor unaffected. So in a way, the Tone dial functions as part of the blend equation. It ranges from flat to a deep midrange scoop that does a good job of taming the pickup’s inherent mid emphasis.
Once I had a good mix with the blend control, I was able to use the tone control to fine-tune the sound to the style and intensity of the music—without having to change the balance between the pickups. Personally, I like a deeper scoop for strummed parts and less mid cut for fingerstyle work, and the Fishman accommodated me.
As with the PowerTap Earth, the preamp was clean and had plenty of headroom. In my tests, the PowerTap Infinity was noticeably hotter than its sibling. And the volume control was an asset.
Splitting the Pickups
I did the bulk of my tests using a mono instrument cable with both pickups feeding the same interface channel under the assumption that it’s the easiest—and therefore likeliest—option for most players. But since each test guitar came with a splitter cable, I figured I’d give that a go as well.
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It makes a huge difference. Running both direct to the Apollo with no other processing between the guitar and preamp, the tone itself wasn’t very different between mono and stereo—a testament to the good balance you can dial up in mono mode.
But the ability to process the sensors separately opened up the sound—and with that, all kinds of creative possibilities. For example, you can add a tiny bit more reverb to the sensor to increase the sense of dimension, or separately fine-tune the EQ to match each pickup to your instrument’s inherent quirks. Even panning the two pickups hard-left and -right offered some interesting sounds. If you have access to a small mixer or multichannel amplifier, I suggest feeding the pickups to separate channels and experimenting—even if the signal you sent the audience gets summed back to mono.
While the split mode sounded great with both PowerTap versions, it worked especially well with the PowerTap Earth. The PRS sounded almost miked up on a test recording I made with each pickup on its own channel. The Infinity sounded big in a different way. Again, the two guitars also played a role in the sound the pickups delivered—and that’s as it should be.
Fishman’s PowerTap series impressed me, in large part because both the PowerTap Earth and PowerTap Infinity are bringing a new dimension—body sensors—to tried-and-true performers. Whether you like the focus of the magnetic Earth or the presence of the undersaddle Infinity, both units are an affordable upgrade to one-element pickups. Each model managed to capture the character of its respective guitar.
Lack of a volume control aside, I found the Earth very easy to live with. Good in mono, it really came to life in split stereo mode. The Infinity took more tweaking to dial in but has a broader range of available tones. Because it has both volume and tone controls, it might be more appealing if you’re using a one-channel amp or feeding a single DI box onstage.
Another plus: Both are relatively affordable and can be retrofitted to an existing guitar. Fishman recommends getting professional installation but does offer detailed instructions for courageous lay people; the Earth looks like a better bet for DIY. fishman.com
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.