Guitarist - iBeam
With its all-new contact transducer, L.R. Baggs looks set to see off the 'bugs' and infest the acoustic world.
By Matthew Wig, September 2001
Imagine the natural, balanced tone that only external mic'ing offers, delivered via the convenience and manageability of a pickup. To this end, L.R. Baggs has developed the iBeam bridge plate pickup, which seemingly combines 'old school' contact transducer ideology with a more microphone-like way of hearing the soundboard, while avoiding typical microphone feedback problems. About the size of a Strat pickup bobbin, the iBeam is designed to sit on the internal bridge plate of a typical X-brace steel-string with a standard six pin bridge. It is firmly attached with a 'single use' adhesive pad. Suggested placement is aligning it with the saddle, but there is scope for experimentation, so you are given spare pads for repositioning. It is possible to fit the iBeam beneath a slotted or non-pin bridge, but the otherwise straightforward installation becomes more fiddley, as the supplied alignment jig relies on pin holes. While something like Takamine's Palathetic pickup may be more solid, the iBeam's exceptional lightness (approx. 8gm) ensures negligible damping on the soundboard. Here's the technical low-down from Lloyd Baggs.
"It's a directionally sensitive body pickup that, like a cardiod microphone, has a focused pattern that admits the good stuff and suppresses certain negative types of vibration information. This results in a signal that is stable and relatively free from feedback. This design is very different from undersaddle pickups where the sensors are placed under high pressure, which results in that squashed, compressed and nonlinear sound we've come to know as piezo." The iBeam Active (a Passive version is also available) is equipped with a quality, class A, all discreet component preamp, fitted into the Strapjack (endpin jack socket). Since the pickup connects directly to the the all-in-one jack/preamp, wiring is minimal. The jack sockets on both the Passive and Active iBeams are stereo to allow a second pickup to be connected, though there are different impedance issues with each iBeam version that restrict the type of pickup it can be paired with. A fixed EQ contour pre-trims the mid frequencies that acoustic guitar pickups usually overemphasize.
SOUNDS: A/B-ing your natural acoustic and iBeam sounds reveals certain discrepancies, but does prove how much other pickup types miss the mark. There's proper acoustic attack here, proper acoustic balance, proper acoustic sustain with its inherent woody damping, plus all the ambiance and percussive elements that you take for granted, but notice when they're not there. The manual admits it can be bass sensitive on some guitars, and that's instantly obvious as low rumbling feedback is is easy to provoke on our test bench Tacoma DR-20 dreadnought to which it is fitted. One criticism is that it delivers a slightly brittle top end, and is a little over hollow, although the kind of warm midrange that makes an acoustic sound good naturally can be overpowering at higher volumes. While you're still going to need some decent outboard EQ and phase switching to tweak and tame the iBeam, an unprecedented percentage of true acoustic essence is preserved.
VERDICT: The pickup is considerably more expensive than your average contact transducer, and a little more than a standard good quality undersaddle piezo, but the coupling with a good value endpin-jack preamp makes the iBeam Active a smarter buy than its passive partner. You can have all the fancy control preamps in the world, but they'll never make a piezo pickup sound as natural and open as this iBeam. Treated subtly at the mixing desk, acoustic amp or other external EQ device, venues will undoubtedly resonate your lush yet intimate acoustic sound. It's something of a breakthrough, that's for sure.