A neat trick to improve a pickup’s sound with a quick and dirty reverb technique.
Pickups on stringed instruments have a bit of a reputation for sounding a bit thin and buzzy, especially when used with a bow. If going down the impulse response path (see “How To Steal Your Friend’s Cello“) takes too much effort, then the next best thing is to try out a trick I used to emulate an acoustic instrument for many years.
Put simply, use a very short reverb of less than 300ms and only use the wet signal.
The reason this can work wonders is mainly due to the way we are used to hearing stringed instruments in their natural habitat – in a room. Usually we hear reflections from walls and ceilings and not the direct sound of the instrument (unless it is under your chin), especially in lively acoustic spaces used for concerts. By only using the wet signal of a reverb we can get a pretty good approximation of this natural listening scenario, and with judicious use of EQ it goes a long way to making a pickup sound more natural.
Getting the right reverb
There is quite a lot of variety across reverb algorithms, although they are often constructed in two parts: first we hear early reflections, followed by a tail. Ideally the algorithm used for this trick would have lots of early reflections and a short tail, mostly to avoid the sound arriving too late and making it difficult to play in time. I chose the ‘Ambience’ setting in my multi effects, although it’s always best to experiment and see what settings work best with what you have.
Many multi fx only allow one reverb effect at a time, so if the sound still lacks stereo width or depth then it can be useful to use a stereo delay after the reverb to add a subtle echo (rolling off the high end or using an analogue setting can help it blend better).
Invariably, the reverb effects in any modern audio editing software will put my old effects pedal to shame. That’s okay, I still like it! Software is a great place to start if you want to see how this technique can work for your music – just remember to use the reverb effect inserted into the audio path and not as a parallel send.
Fix it with EQ
In terms of EQ, this is one of a few rare cases when boosting narrow bands can be really useful. This is for adding resonance that a small room would normally emphasise, or in the case of a solid body electric it can add the missing body resonance. Typically the resonant notes appear within the musical range of the instrument, an example would be an open G on a violin at ~200hz or on a cello at ~100hz.
To get an idea of the frequencies you can try, play a chromatic scale on your acoustic instrument and listen out for any notes that resonate more than others. The frequency of that note can be found with a quick internet search, or by doing a rough calculation knowing that middle A is 440hz and halving the value every octave lower. My violin resonates strongly on a low B, which can be roughly emulated by adding a 5 or 6dB boost at 250Hz.
Below are a couple of recordings I made with my electric violin. Have a listen for yourself and see how much the sound is improved (or ruined).
Demo 1 – Dry
Demo 2 – Reverb Only
Demo 3 – Delay, Reverb, EQ