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Improving Your Volume, Tone and Sound Tags: sound tone volume improving improve


One of the issues faced by musicians-- especially those just starting out in assembling or building their own equipment-- is achieving the sound they're looking for. 


Sound is made up of many components, ranging from a pure musical note-- to the environment it's played in.   You can play the same instrument configuration in a small bedroom and the resulting sound will be totally different than playing it in a garage... or ultimately a performance hall.  It's not just about the equipment.

In addition, sound is subjective.   What sounds good to one person might not sound as good to another.  Some people like heavy metal... while others prefer smooth jazz.  Some like deep and mellow while others prefer "jangly and twangy".  The goal of the musician is to find your niche, discover your audience, and provide what the listeners wish to hear.  Or alternately, produce what you like, and let the resulting sound collect those that it attracts.



One issue instrument builders / modders sometimes deal with is achieving the proper volume.   Interestingly, volume is probably the easiest part of sound.  It's either loud enough or not loud enough... and there's always a reason for volume issues. 

Oddly enough, volume is not always achieved in the manner one thinks to be obvious.   Consider as an example Heavy Metal.  Off the cuff, we must use hot humbuckers, a heavy-wattage amp, and overdrive pedals... right?  

Well... maybe not.  Because while a heavy humbucker provides a lot of signal up front, such a pickup often loses diversity of sound and nuance that might be found in a lower-power pickup.   Overdrive pedals differ greatly in quality and output.   And amplifiers may be big and large and produce a lot of volume-- at the sacrifice of sound quality.   Sometimes a lower-power pickup that's properly boosted into a medium-wattage amp will produce much more satisfying results overall.  In short, metal isn't all about volume.  It's about the final output quality.



A very common misconception with new musicians is "This pickup doesn't produce enough volume".    Fact:  It's not the job of the pickup to produce volume.  It's the job of the pickup to pick up vibrations from the instrument and strings and transfer that signal to whatever awaits it.   Volume is controlled by other equpment:  pre-amps, mixers, guitar pedals, and ultimately the amplifier.  Volume is even determined by the strings you use. 

If your volume is too low, don't pick on the pickup.  Volume is produced at the amplifier. 

Blaming a pickup for low volume is like blaming your car tires because you can't get the car engine past 30 mph.  Yes, different pickups will produce different levels of volume, but that isn't their job.  Their job is to produce quality tone.

FACT:  You can produce significant volume from even low-power pickups... if you're using the correct post-instrument equipment and amplifier. 

Professional musicians know from experience that a low-power pickup along with a quality amplifier can rattle the windows.  Keeping this in mind, let's examine what volume is, and how to achieve it.

Reality:  rather than using super-hot humbuckers, some metal players will instead use lower-power pickups... because those pickups produce a wider, more satisfying range of tone and overall sound.  Those players know that if the signal is pleasing, it can be boosted to whatever levels they desire by external equipment.   It's not the job of the guitar and pickup to produce volume.  It's the amplifier that amplifies.

If you're building a guitar and you just can't get enough volume, the problem can be due to several issues.  These are:

1. Improper phase.   It could be that the wires from the pickups are in the wrong locations, causing the phase of the pickups to fight one another.  This will result not only in considerably lower volume, but lower-quality tone.  (Note: some musicians use alternate phases purposely, to achieve unusual tone.  That's totally fine... so long as it's intended.)

2. The guitar cord.  Believe it:  guitar chords go bad, often at the worst time.  Have plenty of extra cords on hand.   The first thing to check if sound goes bad... is the guitar cord.  Switch it out and test with another cord.

3. In-between equipment.  Guitar Pedals. Power supplies.  Bad mixer board.  Anything that is between your guitar and amp.

4. The amplifier itself.   The primary device that produces volume is the amplifier.   A properly-functional, quality amplifier can produce tremendous volume even when a low-yield pickup is sending the signal.  At the same time, the amplifier is the one piece of equipment (beyond a broken guitar) that is most likely to malfunction-- resulting in a variety of poor output.

5. Strings.  One customer reported getting no sound from his system, and we worked together scratching our heads trying to figure out why.   Finally as last resort he replaced his strings.  He had purchased "nickel" strings, which should have worked fine.  But when he replaced his strings he stated, "Wow!  I had to crank the volume way down.  What a difference!"   Simply put: the strings he had first purchased were likely counterfeit (made of stainless steel or some other inferior metal)... or maybe something happened on the factory line and strings got put in the wrong package.  Bottom line, electric guitar pickups require electric strings.  Some customers have tried to use Phosphor-Bronze strings, unaware they are not intended for use with mag-based electric guitars.  So if you're getting low or no volume, it's always worth checking your strings.

ONE WAY TO TEST your strings and the pickup itself is to tap the pickup (lightly) with a known-ferrous-metal item... such as a steel nail, fingernail clippers (which are almost always made of ferrous metal), or a screwdriver. Be careful not to scratch the surface during such test.   When you tap the pickup you should get a very audible tapping sound through your amp.  That will tell you whether or not your strings are the problem.  In addition, if you hear an audibe tapping sound you know the pickup is working. 

A lot of beginning guitar players (or experienced players who are not equipment techs) tend to blame pickups for low-volume sound, but this is the reality:

A failing pickup will usually produce inconsistent sound, noisy sound (static), or NO sound.  A failing pickup is highly unlikely to result in low volume.  That's just not part of the equation:  the signal either gets through (at full power) or it doesn't.   That's how pickups work.  Low volume typically is not a symptom of a "bad pickup".   If your volume is low... the problem lies elsewhere.

People are often loathe to consider the amp as the problem, because that means it's either a poor amp choice (mis-matched to their needs and equipment), that their beloved amp needs repaired, or their beloved amp is dying.   In all instances, usually money is involved.   No one enjoys having to repair or replace an amplifier.

Yet... if you're experiencing low volume, your amplifier is one of the primary places to look.   Bottom line:  equipment goes bad over time.  Sometimes it comes off the factory line defective.   So if your volume is too low, check the amp. It is the amplifier that amplifies.  Even a low, low-output pickup (2 ohms or less) can produce very satisfactory volume if you're using a good amplifier.

PRE-AMPS EXIST FOR A REASON.   It's surprising, but people tend to ignore pre-amps.   But preamps exist because they're often needed to boost a signal before it reaches the amplifier.  A pre-amp may not improve the overall quality of sound (especially if being used with a dodgy amplifier), but a decent pre-amp will cleanly increase a low signal coming from a guitar.  So if your amp is working and your guitar is working but you're just not getting enough volume, consider a pre-amp.  These are available in the form of pedals, pre-amp boxes, or powered mixer boards. You can also purchase "active booster" circuits for the guitar itself, which turns a passive pickup to active signal at the push of a button or turn of a dial.

Summary:   Low volume?  Don't blame the pickup.  If you're getting satisfactory sound that's not loud enough, the pickup is working fine.  Look at the parts of your equipment that have the job of amplifying... such as your amplifier.



This is the tricky part of your performance... because every single bit of your equipment affects tone.   Tone is basically the elements of sound quality that result when you play.  It involves bass, mid-range, treble at the simplest levels.  But far much more is involved.

Tone can be mellow, it can be distorted, it can be twangy, it can be surf.  Tone can be blues or jazz or country or metal or acid.  Tone is everything... and achieving the proper tone involves everything from the nut and bridge on your guitar to your pickup to your amplifier to your environment.

Naturally we can't cover everything about tone here.  You can read entire tomes on tone-- but there are some basics.

TYPE OF PICKUP.    This is where the pickup really can make a difference.   It is widely known by guitar players that different  brands of pickups, different types of pickups, and even different styles within the same brand and type will produce different tone.

Most people are aware of the different types of pickups, so I won't re-hash this widely-avaialble information here.  I will mention...

Specialty Pickups.  Pickups such as the FlatCat don't fall into standard pickup categories.   They are designed differently, act differently, and produce a different type of sound.  There are countless specialty pickups, ranging from FlatCats to Inductive pickups to Dual Rails... and far more. 

The FlatCat produces a very accurate, mellow sound often referred to as "Delta Swamp"... sound straight from the gutiar.  The sound can be very satisfying and smooth... or at the opposite end of the spectrum growly and distorted, depending on the equipment it's used with.

Bottom line: the type of pickup used definitely and significantly influences the tone of your performance.  It's my goal in producing the FlatCat to create a tone that fits a wide variety of music needs.  It can play from mellow blues to metal overdrive, depending on accompanying equipment.  The same can be said for many types of pickups... so choose your pickups wisely and with research.

Achieving desired tone is really one of the most difficult tasks of the musican... and even those with decades of experience often try something new to see if they can find a new perspective on the sound they produce.  Tone can be affected by the material your guitar body is made of, the type of neck, the material used in the nut and bridge, the quality of guitar cable you use and yes... the pedals, mixer and amplifier you employ.

There are no "rules" to tone.  Even extensive books can only offer statistics and suggestions... but in the end, to be frank, tone boils down to the skill and experimentation of the musician.



Every musician is looking for "the sound"... the overall results of their hours of experimentation.   Sound is subjective.  Our ears themselves are as individual as our fingerprints.  Sound waves literally sound different to different people, depending on how their ears are shaped, their perception of sound, the formation of their brains as they were growing up, and the sounds/music they've been exposed to in formative years.

There is no "recipe" for sound.   Some achieve it easily... some never do.   I can't define how to achieve quality sound for you except for some simple guidelines:

Use quality equpment: This doesn't necessarily mean expensive equipment.  I own some very inexpensive guitars that produce great sound.   The FlatCat pickup sold by Wishbringer produces terrific sound, and is nowhere near the most expensive pickup on the market.  There are some very nice amplifiers out there that won't break your bank account.

The important thing is that the equipment works and works well.  Don't cut corners on equipment.  Replace bad equipment (you'll be glad you did).  A poorly-produced guitar can be difficult to play and produce unpleasant sound, ruining the music experience.  A few bucks more may get you a lot more guitar or a better-sounding pickup.

Remember this rule-of-thumb:  Low quality is remembered long after low price is forgotten.  Good quality is appreciated long after the price is paid.

Beyond price and quality of equipment, there is the matter of what you're trying to achieve.   If you're wanting to play country music, a super-hot humbucker is probably not the best pickup choice for you.  You don't need a 150 watt amp to play in coffee shops; a good-quality 20 watt amp will likely produce all the sound you'll need.  (At the same time, if you want to dive in for that $1000 pole amplifier system... go for it.)   

A super-expensive guitar is not required to produce good sound.  A high price tag has no more bearing on guaranteed sound than a label of "Vintage".    Common sense and your ear can tell you more about equipment than any elite price tag or hype claims on a label.  Trust your ear... and your instincts.

I hope this brief blog page helps.  It is in part designed to help you locate problem areas in your equipment... and in part intended to discuss equipment concepts overall.  You're the musician.  In the end... what you achieve all comes down to you.  Your volume not loud enough?  Check your amp, intermediate equipment, control pots, jack and guitar cord, and your strings.   Not getting the right tone?  Check everything.   That's all part of the craft... and the art of being a musician.





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