Hands-On Review:Dean Markley West Coast Series Pickups
Dean Markley West Coast Series Pickups
Dial up the perfect tone for your acoustic
By N.P. Yocum
You are having a torrid love affair with your acoustic guitar. It's the best-sounding instrument you own, and playing it never fails to bring a smile to your face. Sitting down with it in hand is like greeting an old true-blue friend; the warm feelings and smooth conversation pick up right where you left off. The sounds of that conversation reverberating off the walls and floors is . . . well, music to your ears.
Until you plug in, that is. Then all that lovely, convivial chatter is reduced to so much pinging, compressed, uneven, artificial, nasal, quacky noise that in no-way-whatsoever resembles your voluptuous sweetheart. Thanks to an inferior pickup system, your guitar sounds horrible. It's a frustrating scenario that occurs time after time to acoustic guitarists when they try to play live. Many people simply accept substandard electrified sound and play on. Some resort to hauling around a rack full of expensive gear to dial in the sound they crave, often still not reproducing the character of the instrument they love. What's a guitarist to do?
Go West, young man
Dean Markley has heard your call of distress and, like a comic book superhero, is here to save the day. The Dean Markley West Coast Series acoustic pickups provide a custom-class solution that can meet nearly any acoustic player's desires for rich, faithful amplification. There are six separate offerings under the West Coast Series banner: Tahoe, Barstow Passive and Active, La Jolla Passive and Active, and Trilogy. All are extremely high-quality pickup systems offering the very best in high-fidelity operation in their respective categories. Each comes with a very high-quality 24k gold-plated endpin-style TRS jack that allows the use of two pickups together or stereo operation. All the wiring uses clever little gold-plated mini-pin jacks that make installing the systems, especially in a guitar that already has a pickup system, a piece of cake. There's no soldering, no splicing, no worry that you'll damage a junction—just a clean, solid connection.
There are also two accessory elements to the West Coast Series: the Gold River Accelerator Jack and the Stereo Cable. The Accelerator Jack is a gold-plated stereo endpin jack coupled with a discrete Class A preamp that increases the headroom, tone, and output of any piezo and, since it has true stereo operation, can accommodate a magnetic pickup as well. The preamp is cleverly built right into the housing so you don't have to carve holes in the top or side of your guitar to take a swim in a swift-flowing current of premium tone. The Gold River comes as standard equipment on the Barstow and La Jolla Active. The Stereo Cable is just that: stereo cable wiring for your pickup system. As mentioned before, the endpin jack that comes with your West Coast pickup can either accommodate two pickups on one jack, or deliver true stereo output. The stereo cable makes it easy to take advantage of that stereo output, with a TRS jack on one end that Ys into two standard jacks. (Ed.: Dean Markley plans to offer upgraded versions of the Stereo Cable as well)
Mining for tone
There are three types of pickups typically used for acoustic guitars: condenser microphones, magnetic pickups, and piezo transducers, either stick-on or under-saddle models. Each has its own sonic signature, with inherent benefits and disadvantages. Transducer pickups tend to deliver a lot of attack and their treble response is fantastic, but their sound often lacks the natural tone of your acoustic. Magnetic pickups excel at capturing much of the warmth of your guitar but their frequency response tends to focus on the mids and taper off in the treble and bass frequencies. The condenser pickup, a miniature mic mounted internally, offers great frequency response and very realistic reproduction of natural acoustic guitar tone. Unfortunately, most internal mic systems are prone to feedback, proximity effect, and handling noise. The feedback happens because you're putting a microphone inside a natural speaker and then aiming lots of signals right back at it with monitors and amps. The proximity effect, the tendency for the frequency response to become unbalanced when the mic is placed too close to the sound source, often makes the bass too boomy. As most internal condenser mics are placed toward the middle of the soundhole facing out they also pick up noise from the top of the guitar, your pick, hands, and even cymbals and voices. And it goes without saying that the lower the quality of the pickup, the lower the signal quality and tone-transmitting capabilities.
The West Coast Series pickups negate those problems by using smart designs, premium components, and 30 years of guitar engineering experience. The Barstow Passive is the first pickup in the West Coast Series. It is an under-saddle piezo transducer with incredibly accurate, balanced response and strong, steady sound. Its six select, high-sensitivity piezos are held inside a special 24k gold-plated housing built to provide more stability, string balance, and better tone than the average piezo. The housing also makes installation easier, allowing you to skip most of the usual bridge and saddle adjustments. The Barstow Active, the next step up the ladder, could make even the most adamant piezo-haters think twice. Its secret is the addition of the Gold River Accelerator Jack. The extra headroom of the Class A preamp enhances the bottom end of the Barstow to produce a more natural frequency response and better tone.
The Tahoe is a single-coil magnetic pickup that can slip in and out of the soundhole of your acoustic. True to the West Coast Series design philosophy, though, it takes the simple magnetic soundhole pickup to new levels with fully adjustable individual 24k gold pole pieces. The Tahoe can be dialed-in for sweet, natural frequency response and surprising tonal accuracy. And, of course, you can add the Tahoe to the Barstow Active or Passive for a truly killer pickup system. If you think you might be inclined to go with a dual-pickup system, then you should check out the La Jolla Passive and Active, which are the Barstow and Tahoe bundled together for easy one-time installation, with the Active set including the Gold River jack.
The king daddy of the West Coast Series, though, is the Trilogy. With it, all the elements come together to comprise an acoustic pickup system you may very well go to your grave playing. It's that good. The Trilogy combines a magnetic soundhole pickup, under-saddle transducer, and an internal condenser microphone into one system; all three running through a Class A preamp with individual level controls and a master volume. It uses all the same premium 24k gold-plated connections and components as the rest of the West Coast Series so you know the quality is high. One of the smartest design features of the Trilogy is the condenser mic. It's built onto the bottom of the magnetic pickup, positioned in the soundhole but pointing toward the back of the guitar. This position helps tremendously with proximity effect and handling noise, but still picks up all the natural sound coming out through the soundhole.
The end result of all this is cleaner, more accurate, natural-sounding tone for your guitar. After talking it over with a local luthier that I trust, I had the Trilogy installed in my favorite dreadnought. The nice thing is that the only two holes that had to be made were completely out of sight, under the bridge and at the endpin. Plugging into an amp and nudging the Master Volume up about halfway, I started turning up the three pickups separately to see how each sounded. The piezo was the best sounding piezo I've ever played with a smooth, yet punchy response and a richness most piezos can't boast. The magnetic pickup gave a much more natural tone than the piezo, with a deep midrange and warm sparkle. The condenser mic nailed the natural tone of my acoustic, though. It had plenty of bass response and no handling noise. When mixed with the other two pickups it really tied the whole system together.
Mixing the three with their own independent levels gave me a much more lush and full tone than a single pickup/EQ-type setup. It was more versatile, too. I was able to mix sounds that were bright, airy, and dry, then immediately turn to a sound that was the sonic opposite, but was just as pretty and pleasing. No matter what, you'll find a sound, and most likely several, that will give you the tone you've always wanted to perform with, in a simple and clean system. Get yourself into a West Coast state of mind, for the sake of your amplified relationship with your guitar.