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More on the Pursuit of a Good Sounding Electric Mandolin

Using a microphone for sound reinforcement presents problems.  The remedy, when finding a second instrument designed for amplification doesn’t work out, is a pickup of some kind.  As I discussed in my previous item “My Struggle to Find a Satisfactory Electric Mandolin“, I have pretty much given up on getting a rich, full sound from a solid body electric mandolin, or possibly any electric mandolin with a magnetic pickup.  They’re just too shrill, almost tinny-sounding, and I’ve failed to get any real “guts” in the sound of those I’ve tried.  (The sound has actually been unpleasantly piercing.) So I’ve finally decided to bite the bullet, take the big risk, and have a pickup system installed in my favorite zebra wood mandolin.  The risk in such an undertaking, of course, is that the modification required to install a pickup will harm the appearance or, much more importantly, the acoustic sound of the instrument.The Zebra Wood Mandolin

Preserving the sound was especially important in this case, as my zebra wood mandolin is one of a kind.  After a lot of research around the internet I decided to use a piezoelectric pickup system.  I found the greatest wealth of information at www.mandolincafe.com where, from many posts, I learned that a good piezoelectric  pickup would avoid feedback better than a small microphone, and reproduce the sound of the instrument, perhaps most audible in my recording of Daedalus, more faithfully than a magnetic pickup.

Now I needed to choose a pickup configuration that would preserve the acoustic sound of the mandolin.  While some of the more well-known piezoelectric pickups are incorporated into a bridge, I felt that would not preserve the acoustic sound well enough since, after all, they work by converting some of the energy from the vibrating strings into electricity, and that energy would not therefore excite the front plate of the instrument – the main sound board.  I needed a pickup that would take as little mechanical energy as possible from the instrument to keep the rich sound I love, and a bridge pickup would risk harming that.  I also wanted it to be permanently installed and as unobtrusive as possible.

At that point my choice became clear, but when I looked up piezoelectric pickups I found literally hundreds of options ranging in price from under $2.50 to more than $600.  Fortunately I could eventually see a few models as having the best reviews, and from among those I chose the K&K Twin Spot.  The Twin Spot variant I chose listed at around $120 and consisted of two piezoelectric pickups that are glued in two different places on the inside of the front plate of the instrument, connected to a 3.5 millimeter jack that mounts in a small hole in the body of the instrument, usually near or through the tailpiece.

I have made the commitment, purchased the K&K Twin Spot mandolin model and given my instrument and the pickup to my good friend and truly expert instrument technician Tom Murray of Custom Guitar and Bass in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan to do the installation.  Now I’m waiting, expecting he’ll be calling me to pick it up within a few days, and excited to actually be able to directly amplify my beautiful little instrument, and connect it through my digital looper, amp modeler, and other sound enhancers to develop even better sounds than I have at my disposal now.  Most importantly, though, this should allow me to play at larger gigs with sound systems without having to struggle to keep the instrument close enough to a microphone to be picked up and then maintain its distance to preserve its balance against the other instruments and voices.  In fact, I’ll be able to use it with my wireless transmitter so I can wander around the stage or venue while playing with consistent volume and reliable presence.  I can’t wait, and I’m sure you’ll hear it in future recordings.

Prologue:The surgery was a great success!  Tom Murray spent a great deal of time researching the pickups including with discussions with the factory.  Then he built some special tools for the installation of the pickups and for a maple reinforcement washer for the jack and completed what had become a quite complicated operation.  He likened it to building a ship in a bottle and I could see why when he gave me a look inside with a bright light and a small mirror.  As it turns out there are two large braces offset by an inch or more, but with vertical clearance between them about the width of my little finger.  All that is noticeable is the 1/4″ phone jack in the rear side of the instrument and, if one peers in the sound hole, a single wire loop fastened to a brace with a washer of neoprene rubber – preventing any vibration from affecting the wire connecting the nearer pickup to the jack.  The wire from the other pickup is stretched out far enough to not touch any of the wood, too, so the sound of the pickups is derived solely from the vibration of the front plate of the instrument.  The pickups are located within an inch of each end of the bridge for maximum sound, and the results couldn’t be better: the output is strong enough to equal the levels of my other electric instruments (a 2003 Gibson Les Paul Studio with standard humbucking pickups and a 1967 Gibson SG with single coil pickups).  I have great respect for Tom Murray’s skill and wouldn’t have trusted anyone else with my beautiful mandolin, and he got the job done and done beautifully.
Tom Murray describes his installation process

As to the sound, the acoustic sound of the instrument is changed only very slightly.  I can barely hear the change and I’d bet others would not be able to tell the difference at all.  Electrically the sound is everything I had hoped, warm and almost throaty, and very much like the acoustic sound of the instrument.  I have tried it at low and high volumes and it has a very satisfying sound.  With enough gain it can begin to feed back, but it is far less sensitive in that respect than I expected.  I will be making my next recording with it and will post a link to it here for your enjoyment, and you will hear what a great sound it has.

An instrument for life!  Incidentally, Tom and I almost simultaneously said that this instrument would be with me for life.  He said I would probably be buried with it, but he would be right there with a shovel in his hand.  A recording is coming soon, so stay tuned (and a Huge Thank You to Tom Murray).

Addendum – I have posted a new video to youtube performed with the electrically-enhanced zebra mandolin (Let’s Stay Together, popularized by Al Green) and used the instrument at several jams and performances, and I find I can balance the frequency response and mix in various effects to make a significant improvement in the sound.  I am much more satisfied with the result than I expected!  (Anyone interested in a Morgan Monroe solid body electric mandolin?)