$507.62 MSRP, $329.95 Street
by Jon Chappell
Electric guitarists seem to have a galaxy of effects and processors to choose from, while all anyone wants out of acoustic instruments is a "natural" tone. Well, what if you could get the best of both worlds? What if you could use state-of-the-art processing--including all that modeling has to offer--to alter, control, and manage your sound, but all in the name of the acoustic ethic?
That's what Fishman has done with their Aura Spectrum D.I., an acoustic instrument processor that provides all you need in you signal chain to deliver the wholesome goodness of unplugged instruments.
This is not the first Aura in Fishman’s line, but it does consolidate all different types of acoustic models (dreadnought, concert, jumbo, nylon-string, etc.) into one pedal. This makes a whole lot of sense, both ergonomically as well as economically, from the previous approach that had the different models in separate housings. The industrial design of this pedal is a thing of beauty: heavy, brushed chrome surfaces, stylish curves, and wonderful-feeling knobs and switches. The unit looks like it came right out of a Hammacher-Schlemmer catalog.
The controls are all on the top of the unit, with the connections on the side, making it a true floor-dwelling, foot-operated pedal. There are three rows of controls. On the top are Volume and Blend controls, with the Select switches (one rotary, one slider) in the middle. The clever combining of the center controls allows for 8 models, each with 16 programs. That’s a total of 128 different selections. Now, you won’t use all those in an evening, but it means that you need only one processor for all your acoustic models. The Blend control determines the mix of Image to pickup. At 12:00 it’s a 50/50 mix. Turn the blend all the way left for just Image, all the way right for just pickup.
The second row of controls has the EQ (Low, Mid, High) and Compressor. The EQ knobs have center detents, which represent flat responses. Rotate the knobs left of 12:00 for cut, right for boost. The EQ can be configured to affect either the pickup-only sound or the pickup and Image sound. The single-knob Compressor control adjusts several parameters simultaneously, reducing dynamic range (softer notes become louder while the peaks of louder notes are tamed) as you turn the knob clockwise. At the maximum setting, the output level increases slightly, mimicking the process of introducing makeup gain, which is common in heavily compressed signals.
On the bottom row are the two footswitches for Anti-Feedback and Tuner. The Tuner function is dual mode, in that it can either mute the audio during tuning or allow it to pass through. Additionally, stepping on Tuner and Anti-Feedback simultaneously bypasses the Image, EQ, and Compressor sections altogether.
Connections include both 1/4" and XLR outputs, so that you can hook your instrument into an acoustic instrument amp, a PA system, a powered monitor or other full-range system. The balanced XLR D.I. output eliminates the need for an outboard D.I. and features an automatic ground lift for the 1/4" output. For direct recording, you would use the Aura’s balanced XLR D.I. or 1/4” output. The manual points out that an acoustic track recorded with just a pickup can be re-recorded using Aura to restore the miked sound. There’s also an effects loop jack for neatly incorporating another effect, such as reverb or delay.
I plugged in several acoustic models, which happened to correspond to the labels listed on the sliding switch above: a Martin D-28 dreadnought, a Taylor 914 orchestra model, an Ibanez Artist concert, a Gibson J-45 jumbo, and a Takamine CP132-SC nylon. All of these guitars were fitted with their own onboard pickup systems. The job of the Aura Spectrum D.I. is to take that sound and add a microphone sound to the mix. You can control the blend of the straight and processed sound with the Blend knob, which is sometimes desirable. For example, the piezo sound of my Tak nylon tends to emphasize the bass strings, which are a little weak when I have just a mic on the guitar.
Within a model, or bank, as Fishman calls them, are 16 different varieties of treatments, each with a different mic. The manual spells out just what was used for each model (see Fig. 1), and you can also see that state-of-the-art and industry standard microphones are employed to capture all the Images.
Fig. 1. Each of the eight models has 16 programs, the microphones for which are listed in the manual.
In my tests, the Aura Spectrum improved every instrument I plugged into it by imbuing it with a sense of space and a mitigating of the harsher aspects of onboard pickup systems. On top of all that, it made the sound prettier, and closer to the unplugged ideal I hear in my ears when I play it acoustically.
It’s difficult to describe in objective terms, because the changes are much more than, say, EQ and phase. There was not only space in the sense of ambience (though the sounds are technically dry), but a fuller blossoming of the sound—as if the wood were allowed to breathe more. Where I especially noticed a difference was in the guitars that did not have aftermarket pickup systems (my Ibanez concert and my Takamine nylon). The great thing about the Aura is that for any model, you have 16 choices. If you don’t find an improvement among them, it means you prefer that sound of a straight pickup (which is perfectly fine). But I found that even in a rock context, or some artificial setting, the combination of the pickup and image, or just the image, was in virtually all cases superior to the straight pickup sound. So the Aura Spectrum definitely earns its keep--and especially as a recording tool.
As to the question What happens to your dreadnought when you set the controls to a Concert model? The folks at Fishman state that that is not the purpose of the Aura Spectrum. They carefully engineered and designed the 8 categories and 16 programs for the appropriate instruments, and take no responsibility for any “unauthorized mismatches.” Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s actually dangerous to plug in a dread when the Aura is set to 12-string, so I tried a couple of arbitrary pairings. And I certainly did get a variety of sounds from a single instrument by using the Aura in a way for which it was not designed. Often, the differences were not necessarily better than when the model names matched the guitar. But sometimes just being different is enough, and variety for its own sake is a justifiable aesthetic.
It was here, though, that I found a limitation in the Aura’s operation. The sliding switch that selects among the 8 models/banks is a little hard to change accurately if you’re pressed for time. But because the Aura offers a User Images selection, you can work around this. For example, if you like Dreadnought #9 and Jumbo #14, and want to switch between them quickly, you’d use the computer to load up these two selections in adjacent spots on the rotary Select knob.
User Images (which also has 16 available programs, via the Select knob) is where you’d load up an evening’s worth of acoustic guitar settings, so that you’d have all your Images within the travel of the rotary knob. And the nice thing here is that the knob rotates continuously, going from 1 to 16 or 16 to 1 equally well. To use the UI you employ the Aura Image Gallery software, which is included.
The unit ships with the User Images populated with guitars randomly selected from the Aura Image Gallery. You can overwrite any of the 16 locations with Images you download from the Aura Image Gallery software. The software manages a large library of Images created from the list of Fishman-supplied instruments, and provides tools to search and store sets of Images. It’s simple to use: Navigate the Image Library to find your instrument, and then drag and drop an Image into an Image Set for downloading into the Aura. As an interesting option, Fishman offers the Aura Custom Shop, where you can, for a fee (you’ll have to contact Fishman for specifics), send them your instrument and they’ll create a set of Images using their best microphones and studio expertise. Though this computer functionality is limited to a library function (loading Images sets into the unit), it works well and is a nice integration of web and software with a hardware-based pedal.
The Aura Image is not inexpensive, but for an acoustic guitar, it may be the only pedal you need. Actually, it may be the only pedal you’ll need for all your acoustic guitars. The Bluegrass bank even comes loaded with some non-guitar models, such as mandolin, so the Aura Spectrum could even be useful for any pickup-equipped acoustic stringed instruments. The effect the Aura has is not drastic on a really good guitar with a really good pickup system, but I didn’t find a single model that wasn’t improved—either in its raw tone, or by virtue of a complex blend for variety—by having the Aura Spectrum in the signal chain. The fact that it is such a robust and well-manufactured unit means that it will be at home in any high-end setup, whether stage or studio.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).