Acoustic guitars and electronics can be an uneasy match. In addition to the sonic challenge of amplifying the complex sound of the instrument, guitarists often have strong feelings about filling their guitars with things that are decidedly non-acoustic, including the ubiquitous 9-volt battery. Batteries can be difficult to change, can come loose in the guitar, add weight and wires, and worst of all, have a habit of going dead at exactly the wrong time. For those who would like to break free of batteries, Trance Audio, a boutique company in Northern California, has a solution—a version of their highly regarded pickup system with a built-in preamp that runs off phantom power, completely eliminating the need for an onboard battery.
The Amulet M Phantom is an intriguing addition to a product lineup that includes the original Stereo Amulet, as well as the battery-powered Amulet M and Amulet M Plus. At the heart of each system is a pair of Acoustic Lens transducers—the pickup element itself. The Acoustic Lens is a rectangular element that attaches to the bridge plate inside the guitar, under the saddle line. Both the phantom and non-phantom versions of the Amulet M support optional volume and tone controls—small dials that mount unobtrusively inside the soundhole.
The Amulet M Phantom requires a cable with a TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) ¼ inch plug on the guitar side and an XLR plug on the other to plug into a source of phantom power, such as the mic input on a PA system’s mixing board. Trance supplies a high-quality Canare cable with replaceable/repairable plugs on each end. TRS/XLR cables are also readily available online or from major music stores.
While it’s always a good idea to have pickups installed by an experienced guitar tech, installing the Amulet M Phantom is remarkably simple and the unit is a good candidate for self-installation. The pickup comes with detailed instructions for placing the transducers, which are attached with a proprietary pressure-activated double-sticky tape. I had my local guitar shop drill the required standard end-pin hole, but otherwise my self-install was a breeze, with no soldering, no glue, and only a few basic tools. The lack of a battery, along with its associated wires, made the process noticeably easier than active systems I have installed. Trance does recommend clamping each transducer using an included turnbuckle-style clamp and letting them cure for 12 hours, which adds to the total time required until you can plug in and hear the results, but the process itself is simple and fast.
Other than the need for an endpin hole, the Amulet M Phantom is a relatively non-invasive pickup, which should appeal to guitarists who are reluctant to modify their instruments. With no internal battery, the system adds little weight, and the pickup elements can be removed cleanly without leaving a trace. It’s easy to reposition the elements to fine-tune the sound if you wish. The preamp also allows you to adjust the balance between the two transducers, adjust the overall gain, and invert the pickup phase—handy for more complex systems involving additional pickups.
A Balanced Tone
The Trance Acoustic Lens is a soundboard transducer (SBT) design, so the vibration of the guitar’s top plays a significant role in the tone. The system comes closer than many pickups to conveying the personality and responsiveness of the instrument, and produces a balanced tone that is largely free of pickup artifacts. Players who are used to undersaddle pickups will appreciate that the Trance system is completely free of the notorious “quack” that can occur with more aggressive playing. Fingerstyle players will be pleased that the Trance preamp includes a 40 Hz low-cut filter that virtually eliminates the thump some SBTs create when fingers contact the strings. The filter also cleans up subsonic mud and helps reduce low-end feedback. The optional volume-tone control system provides a nice range of sounds, from mellow to more aggressive.
Of course, the most significant feature of the Trance M Phantom system is the way it changes how you plug in. It’s hard to describe how liberating it feels to simply plug the guitar directly into a mixer, with no DI. You can walk into a gig with nothing but a guitar and the TRS/XLR cable, plug directly into the board, and get a great sound. The system’s balanced low-impedance, high-output signal helps reduce noise from stray electromagnetic fields and also means you can use extremely long cables if necessary. Trance’s TRS to XLR cable is only 10 feet long, but you can extend it with any standard XLR mic cable.
The Trance M Phantom does come with a few caveats, of course. For example, you can’t simply plug this system into most amps or pedals using a standard guitar cable. However, there are small phantom-power supplies available for as little as $20 that can provide the required power while acting as a bridge to a standard guitar ¼-inch input. The Amulet M Phantom also strictly requires 48 volts. Most mixing boards will supply the right voltage, but watch out for guitar amps or other gear that may offer only 24 volts.
The Freedom of Phantom Power
All versions of the Trance Amulet are high-quality pickup systems. The stereo system has been a bit of a “secret of the pros” for years, and has been a favorite of performers like Jackson Browne, who is known as a connoisseur of tone. The new “M” versions bring the Amulet sound to a wider audience at a competitive price point. (Keep in mind when comparing prices that the low-impedance balanced output of the Amulet M Phantom eliminates the need for a DI or external preamp.) The Amulet M Phantom combines the freedom from dealing with batteries with an installation that has minimal impact on your guitar. If you prefer a more standard setup and the ability to plug directly into ¼-inch guitar inputs, and don’t mind (or prefer) an internal battery, the two non-phantom Amulet M models offer the same sound quality in a more traditional package.
- Pair of Acoustic Lens transducers
- Preamp/end-pin module with 40Hz low-cut filter, adjustable gain +/-14db, trim control on one channel to balance pickups
- Internal phase switch
- Optional soundhole-mounted volume/tone control module
- TRS output jack
- Requires 48-volt phantom power
PRICE: $330 (optional volume and tone module, $40)
MADE IN: USA
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.