The magnetic pickup has been around for a long time, and its basic technology has been unchanged since the earliest days of amplification. Consisting of a coil of wire wrapped around a magnet, the magnetic pickup works by generating a current whenever another wire (a guitar string, for example) enters the magnetic field. Which means that the sound of a magnetic pickup comes almost entirely from the motion of the strings. The guitar’s body contributes to the amplified sound only to the extent that the body affects the motion of the strings, so magnetic pickups tend to lose some of the “acoustic” aspect of an acoustic guitar.
Not long ago, however, L.R. Baggs developed a new type of magnetic pickup that uses a floating coil sensitive to the vibration of the guitar’s body, independent of string motion. The first pickup to feature Baggs’s new technology was the M1, introduced in 2005. At this year’s winter NAMM show, Baggs introduced a new magnetic pickup, the M80, which includes enhancements to the original technology and some new features and twists.
Baggs’s basic innovation, used in both the M1 and M80, is based on a humbucking design that incorporates a pair of wire coils, but in a new way. In traditional humbucking designs, the dual coils serve to cancel hum that is naturally picked up by the pickup’s magnetic field. In Baggs’s design, the secondary coil still cancels hum, but the coil is suspended, allowing its motion to create variations in the magnetic field, acting a bit like a dynamic microphone. But while the suspension on the M1 is directly attached to the sensor coil’s bobbin, the coils on the M80 have been completely separated, with the lower coil “floating” in a new type of suspension, which leads to a much greater ability to transmit lower frequencies.
The result is a pickup that behaves almost like a dual-source system, picking up the direct string sound like a traditional magnetic pickup, but also reacting to the motion of the guitar top, somewhat similar to a soundboard transducer.
Familiar Retro Ivory Look
The M80 has the same basic shape and mounting mechanism as the M1, with the M1’s retro ivory-looking top material; the only difference is that the M80’s pole area is brown. For better or worse, this results in a strong visual statement—the pickup will not go unnoticed on your guitar.
Installing the M80 is straightforward: simply loosen the screws on the mounting wings, slip the pickup into place, and tighten the screws. The M80 uses a detachable cable, prewired to an endpin jack, that plugs into the M80 via a TRS 1⁄8-inch plug, allowing it to be easily disconnected. On guitars that have the endpin hole drilled large enough to accept an endpin jack, installation of the M80 doesn’t require any modifications to the instrument. If your guitar’s hole is too small, you’ll need to have it enlarged by a luthier or use an optional longer cable that can be left dangling from the soundhole for a temporary installation of the pickup (this cable is available from Baggs for $20).
You will want to measure your guitar’s soundhole before installing the M80. Like the M1, the M80 is a tight fit in many guitars. Baggs says it will fit in any guitar with a soundhole of at least 3.55 inches in diameter, but to install the pickup in a Martin OM (with a soundhole diameter of 3.75 inches) I had to completely remove the mounting flanges and reinstall them after the pickup was in the soundhole—a fairly tricky maneuver.
Active and Passive Switchability
One particularly useful feature of the M80 is its ability to function in both active and passive modes. A small switch on the bottom of the pickup activates or deactivates the active circuitry. In active mode, the M80 has a volume control and a nifty four-level battery power indicator on the top of the pickup. The M80 is powered by a CR2032 three-volt battery that fits unobtrusively beneath the pickup. I heard very little if any tone difference between the active and passive modes, although the active mode produced a much stronger signal. I imagine most people will use the active mode, but it’s nice to know that if the battery runs out on a gig, you can be back in the game with the flip of a switch.
Adding to the M80’s versatility, Baggs includes three extra pole pieces for the pickup, which can replace the installed pole pieces for different string configurations. Two are intended for the first and second strings when using nickel or electric guitar strings, while the third is intended for use with an unwound third string. The default pole configuration is meant for acoustic bronze strings, and all six pole pieces can be adjusted to compensate for different string gauges or specific balance between the individual strings’ volumes.
Magnetic Warmth and Fullness
Overall, the M80’s sound falls squarely in the magnetic pickup camp. The tone is warm and full, with a slightly “electric” tinge, but the M80’s sensitivity to the guitar top adds a whole other flavor that has some of the characteristics of an internal microphone or soundboard transducer. Michael Hedges’s classic amplified sound was due in part to the combination of a magnetic pickup and a soundboard transducer, and with the M80, those elements are combined in a single pickup.
The top sensitivity is quite dramatic and should appeal to those who use percussive effects, but it also adds more “acoustic” character to the otherwise magnetic sound. Compared to the M1, the M80 seems more sensitive to body motion, and tapping the guitar top produces a deeper, fatter tone. The pickup’s sensitivity can be a mixed blessing; if you use a thumbpick, for example, you will need to be sure not to hit the pickup—unless you want your audience to jump out of their chairs. The top sensitivity can be reduced by adding soft pads, like small pieces of cork (not supplied), between the mounting mechanism and the guitar top, although that will not affect direct strikes on the pickup. You can also adjust the pole pieces to increase or decrease the volume of the direct string sound, thereby affecting
the balance. But most players will likely be happy with the default balance.
I tried the M80 through a variety of systems, including an AER AcoustiCube II, Fishman Loudbox Artist, and a Pendulum SPS-1 preamp through a PA system, and the pickup sounded uniformly good through them all. There is a somewhat distinctive tone to the pickup, and as with most magnetic pickups, a bit of EQ can help reduce the electric tinge and fine tune the tone to taste. But even without EQ, the pickup produces a pleasing tone, and the direct sound of the magnetic pickup is enhanced by the more ambient sound of the top sensor.
Magnetic pickups tend to be relatively resistant to feedback, and in spite of the top sensitivity, the M80 should appeal to those who play at higher volumes. The warm magnetic tone, combined with the M80’s extra woodiness, works well for quiet fingerpicking but also provides plenty of headroom for aggressive strumming, and the magnetic tone also supports lead playing.
New Pickup Technology
Because the basic technologies used in most pickups have been around for decades, it’s easy to think that pickup technology has matured to the point that nothing new is possible or likely to appear. But as L.R. Baggs shows with the M80, there are still new areas to explore—new twists that can help in the pursuit of great acoustic amplified tone. The M80 provides a unique option that combines the characteristics of multiple pickups in a single, cleverly designed package.
SPECS: Magnetic humbucking soundhole pickup with body sensor coil. Individually adjustable pole pieces. Volume control. Active/passive switch. Battery check indicator. Three-volt CR2032 battery. Detachable cable.
PRICE: $249 street