By Jack Devine
[Editor's Note] Click on the first image of each pair of "before" and "after" images below to hear the soundclips shown in the screen shots. This will bring you to Jack's soundclips. you can compare the audio with the visuals contained in the PAZ Frequency analysis graphs.
One comfort of the electric guitar is knowing that you can add a little brightness or low end girth vis a vis the amplifiers tone controls, the guitars pickups, cables or FX pedals. Granted, this can also provide a player with a tweaker streak so many options that you can quickly find yourself lost in a sea of choices and not making any music.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the acoustic guitar. Here, we have but a few variables that contribute to the sound we hear. The specific player is the most important, followed by the instrument itself. After these, there are some other factors to consider. The nut and saddle material, pick choices, set up and strings have some say, but in the end it’s really the player and the specific instrument that define the bulk of our experience when it comes to hearing acoustic guitars.
With that in mind, any small improvement in tone, technique or performance is quite coveted. Players go to great lengths to not only practice hard, but also to acquire instruments that inspire or give an edge when the jam gets loud. Sometimes we have guitars that play great but are a little lacking in terms of tone, projection or for one reason or another need to “open up” to unlock their potential. Many players have found this open quality is more common with instruments with some years behind them. The idea is that the wood has to forget it was a tree and figure out how to be a guitar. Whatever you call it, open, mojo, character or vintage there is something to this theory. Like it or not, new guitars just sound different than old, played in guitars, and not just because of the materials. Something happens to the wood over the years. No one can say exactly what’s taking place, but that hasn’t stopped many from trying to identify and isolate the cause of the “vintage” sound.
One such company, Acoustic Breakthrough has a proprietary process that claims to help achieve this open tone. So, after reading about the process on various internet forums, and wading through the skeptical bashing of some folks and the defense and description of the process…somewhat shrouded in mystery, I got proactive and decided to contact AB’s founder, Michael Masterson. I volunteered one of my guitars for treatment, one I always wanted a little more from, but wasn’t delivering, and as such wasn’t getting much playtime. I figured I’d find out for myself what was up and maybe bring an oft ignored guitar out of retirement.
The guitar I sent to AB is a nice Martin D-28. It’s a Sitka topped IRW model from 1970. It’s been modded over the years and has become my guinea pig guitar of sorts. The tone of the guitar was always a little closed and boomy for my tastes, still it is a fine instrument, just not reflective of my current tastes as a player. Some of the modifications I’ve made over the years have been in the service of improving the sound of that guitar. They never worked as much as I hoped, but it has gotten a little better with each well thought out change. Certainly after 40 years of use the guitar has “opened up”, but Mike claimed the process works no matter how old the guitar…so I figured I’d try it with my old D-28.
To cut to the chase, the guitar came back sounding different. How? Read on!
Prior to sending the guitar to AB I didn’t care for the D-28’s sound…and I still don’t. It does sound a lot better, but the process is no magic bullet…and doesn’t claim to be. I’d equate it to having a photograph of one’s self that’s very flattering. It’s still you in the photo, just a good looking version of you. Same here, it’s still my D-28, it just sounds better to me. I just don’t care for rosewood dreads that much I guess. Still, better is better…How much is tough to say because everyone hears things differently. What can’t be denied is that there’s a difference in sound.
The change I’m hearing is a pleasant and noticeable increase in treble response. The guitar is certainly brighter sounding now and I think everyone can hear that change. I’m glad about this because I always found it to be lacking in terms of cut and clarity when playing with others, though it always recorded well. There are other changes too, but they’re less obvious. I’m focused on the guitar’s newfound sparkle and the harmonic content.
I think the claims made by AB that the guitar would be much louder are not true (although these claims may be based off the process being done more with newer guitars). What I’m hearing is that it is more present in the frequencies that my ear is sensitive to, so there’s an apparent gain in volume, but the box isn’t actually a more efficient “amplifier” per se. The instrument now has a brighter, livelier sound with more harmonic content. That changes the way I approach my playing. Now I don’t have to pick as hard to get the guitar to sound the way I want it to…nice.
The D-28, which used to be dark except when hammered by my right hand gets that open sound faster and easier than it used to. I think this is what Mike is talking about when he mentions a more dynamic instrument emerges post-treatment. This is a subtle thing that you can’t expect someone to hear in the room, more a benefit for the player. I agree with Mike’s statements about tonal changes from varying picking velocity, they do seem to come quicker and with greater ease. However I tend to equate the term “dynamic” with the actual volume and don’t hear a profound change there. I hear the bulk of the change in terms of tone and how it affects my touch and technique. I feel the sound is bigger, more complex, with an open, wider sound in terms of the frequency response being represented. Pretty cool for sure…significant, yet subtle.
The recordings, to my ear bear out this change in treble response. Great pains were taken to use the exact same pick, strings, mic, mic placement, playing position, settings and program material. I would now probably mic the guitar differently than I did in order to record it optimally. For the sake of this review the placement and settings are the exact same. After looking at the screengrabs from the Pro Tools session, one can see that there’s much more going on in the midrange, upper midrange and treble frequencies as well as a boost in the low end and overall level. Likewise, an increase in volume has been registered by the plug-in. I think this pretty accurately represents graphically what I’m hearing with the guitar post-treatment.
I think the change in tone is pretty obvious and generally an improvement. As to it being a cure all for a terrible guitar …I don’t think so. I figure some folks like things the way they are and others would like a little more clarity from their guitars…this does that for sure. I think on this instrument it’s a welcome change. Don’t get me wrong…I always liked the way this D-28 recorded, however…playing it and being in the room with it was another matter entirely. It sounds clearer and “better” to me now than it used to. So, while guitar always recorded well (and I assume it still does) I’d like to play around and find a new sweet spot for it…the old position isn’t the best considering it’s changed tonal profile, but it still sounds good miced the old way.
About the process, the company and Mike Masterson…
Mike came up with the idea for the Acoustic Breakthrough process about two years ago. After working in the financial industry for years, he changed gears and moved to Virginia. Now in his early 30’s and a fan of the sound of his newly acquired 1940 00-21 he discovered a way to help new guitars sound more open or “vintage”. He’s not a luthier or a mad scientist, but he did have an idea and had the ability to try it for himself…after liking the result on his own instrument he decided to take it public…while keeping the process hush hush.
These days there are other methods that make similar claims about helping a guitar reach it’s peak earlier or with out playing it… and the process used by AB is different than all of them. Whatever it is…it’s a secret. Here’s what I managed to get out of tight-lipped Mike during my phone interview. There’s no heat, vibrations, X-rays, music, extreme environments or chemicals used during the process. Instruments are placed in a machine that transforms semi-liquid resins into a solid crystalline form. The process is gradual, takes approximately three weeks and the instrument continues to open up over the next month following treatment. The process is irreversible. Of the twenty guitars done, none have been negatively received.
I can’t figure it out, and I don’t care. I say let him have his secret recipe, it didn’t stop the Colonel from selling fried chicken!
Bottom line, after the guitar came back from AB I have noticed a change…to me it’s an improvement. My guitar always lacked sparkle and complexity in its tone. It always sounded good, but over the years I came to hear where it was lacking. This process definitely gave it a little extra shimmer and open quality that I appreciate. It didn’t transform it into something it wasn’t, it just made it sound like a better version of itself.
What I’d be most eager to hear is a before and after study of a new Adirondack topped guitar. Those things can take a while to get opened up, where my guitar was already pretty played in. It did improve noticeably but there’s a lot more ground to cover and hidden potential within a new instrument. If this process can help “ripen” the top of a guitar and get you maximum enjoyment from the tone of an instrument today rather that 5 or 10 years down the road, then I think it’s a fascinating development for guitarists who crave a more open tone from a new guitar. Granted I can only speculate about this but that’s something to seriously consider. Is it worth the expense? Only you know that…tone chasing, it’s different for everyone. If you’re curious just go to http://www.acousticbreakthrough.com and check it out…or do what I did, give Mike a call.
Stay tuned and stay positive,