Fender American Acoustasonic Jazzmaster
It’s an electric/acoustic shape-shifting guitar that might just be a producer’s new best friend.
Guitarists are a funny bunch. I include myself in that. On average, I probably play through a handful of DSP stages with multiple AD/DA conversions. It could be as simple as a digital reverb or delay on a pedal board, running through an amp simulator in-the-box, or embracing a full digital hardware solution like a Line6 Helix. There’s oodles of DSP in the average guitarist’s kit. Which is fine, as long as the piece of wood in my hands is a 70-year old design… preferably older.
Fender’s Acoustasonic guitars buck that trend in a number of ways. Firstly, they’re shaped like traditional Fender electric guitars, but they’re actually acoustics. And secondly, every sound coming out of them is actually a digital model. All the Acoustasonic pickups – a Fishman Matrix undersaddle transducer, body contact pickup, and a more standard electric guitar pickup – feed built-in DSP that allows users to choose between 10 different acoustic or electric sounds. Each position on the standard Fender five-way switch is associated with two sounds. The blend knob allows the player to either choose one or the other by rolling the knob to either end of its range, then throughout the range is a blend between the two. You can play an old scooped-sounding rosewood dreadnought, wind in the drier sound of a tighter-waisted mahogany grand auditorium, or blend the two together. It’s a unique system, with the final switch position saved for a couple of straight-out-of-the-jack amplified electric guitar sounds.
Recently, Fender added another axe to go in the Acoustasonic quiver, a Jazzmaster version to sit alongside the Stratocaster and Telecaster variants. While a big fan of both Strats and Teles, to my eyes the larger size of the Jazzmaster suits the Acoustasonic series best. Intrigued by the concept of an acoustic that actually sounds good plugged in and has a bit of electric punch to boot, we dug a bit deeper into the concept with Fender Vice President of Research & Design, Brian Swerdfeger, and asked ARIA-winning producer and engineer, Adrian Breakspear – who owns the Tele version and got his hands on a Jazzmaster — how the Acoustasonic guitars fit into his production workflow.
NEED TO KNOW
Fender American Acoustasonic Jazzmaster
BREAKING WITH TRADITION
Since we last caught up with Adrian Breakspear for his production and engineering work on the runaway smash, Gang of Youths’ ‘Go Farther in Lightness’, he’s been busy. Lately he’s been working with post-punk band Johnny Hunter, indie duo CLEWs, up-and-coming songwriter Georgia Mae, and kept motoring through COVID with artists like Josh Pyke and Ruel.
Over the last few years, Adrian has been turning his hand to the writing side as well. “When I go to a writing session, instead of bringing two guitars, I just bring one – an Acoustasonic,” he commented. “It does acoustic, but electric as well.” In most writing sessions you might only have a day to churn out a demo, so flexibility and “a usable acoustic sound straight from the jack is a huge advantage,” reckons Breakspear. “I’m used to recording really nice acoustic guitars in studio live rooms with great microphones. Anyone would opt to record a really nice Martin in a room if that’s the sound you’re going for, if you have the budget and space to do it. However, there’s plenty of occasions where you don’t have that option and the Acoustasonic is much nicer than plugging in a standard acoustic.”
Breakspear is well acquainted with the perils of DI’ing an acoustic. Everyone is familiar with that cringey piezo zing. In a live context it can often be massaged enough to work, but it can be a rough listening experience on record. “I recorded and mixed a Boy and Bear live album recorded at the Hordern Pavilion,” recalled Breakspear. “They’re a lovely band with nice instruments, but even so, the acoustic guitar sounds were a battle. It had that zing and I had to use the UAD Sound Machine Wood Works plug-in and notch all kinds of frequencies to try and make it sound good.” On the flipside, he’s recorded a number of live-to-camera sessions recently and each time an Acoustasonic featured it made his job a lot easier. “With the Acoustasonic recordings it’s less about fixing it, and more about how much better you can make it.”
In the studio, Breakspear has another suggestion for how to use the DI’d sound on the Acoustasonic. “If a musician is playing and singing, I’ll record the DI as well. If there’s too much spill, or if the vocals are getting too affected in a section, I’ll usually notch the mic using a spectral editor or just duck it and turn up the DI for a moment in time. If the vocal’s loud enough, it’s not noticeable. The DI signal is also nice to have for body, you can roll off any piezo top end to give body to the sound. That way, the mic delivers the pick attack and the DI handles the body, and you blend the two to get body without spill. You could do a similar thing with the Acoustasonic and put a mic on it for the pick attack and use the DI for the body. It would be a nice sound that gives body with actual tone, but also give that ‘pick on strings’ effect, which is hard to emulate.”
PLUG IN PLATFORM
The Acoustasonic Jazzmaster is semi-hollow-electric kind of thin. Looking at it, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s not going to give you much in the way of an acoustic sound. But Fender’s Brian Swerdfeger was really intent on it having a great ‘on-lap’ experience. That it would resonate in a way that makes you want to keep playing it. “It’s a very playable guitar,” agreed Adrian, with its electric-scale body and neck. Volume-wise, he said it strikes a balance of being able to accompany couch-singing without waking up your housemates.
The Acoustasonic’s body design is quite different to a standard acoustic, mainly because it’s trying to achieve a completely different goal. Traditional acoustics have a big body and a resonant top because they were designed to contain their own amplifier to compete onstage with a banjo or double bass. Decades later, when we started to plug them in, it created a double-amplified system that can fight against the physics of the acoustic amplifier.
From the start, Brian designed the Acoustasonic to be a guitar you plug in. By having that focus, his team were able to really focus on making the Acoustasonic a platform for the DSP — not adding-in DSP to paper over its issues. “I knew its magic would be plugged in, so we had to take away everything that’s bad about an acoustic guitar and only leave the properties that the electronics needed. A traditional acoustic guitar uses the back and top linking in harmony like a bellows. Every push or pull is actually pushing something out. If you get an additional source like a PA speaker pushing the top differently, that’s how you get feedback. Now you’ve got two sources in motion, and they might be in or out of phase. The extra energy causes feedback. Because of the design of the top and the back stiffness, it’s not doing that on ours. We don’t have the bellows effect.”
If you can only take one guitar to a session, it’s much better to have an Acoustasonic than just an acoustic or just an electric
- Ebony Fingerboard
- Acoustic engine delivers 10 different body style and tone wood combinations
- Blend knob selects and blends voices
- Acoustasonic Noiseless magnetic pickup
- 3 Pickups: New Fender Acoustasonic Shawbucker; Fishman Under-Saddle Transducer; Fishman Enhancer
- Wood options: Ocean Turquoise, Natural, Tobacco Sunburst, Tungsten, and Arctic White.
There are two key features that make the Acoustasonic deliver more power than you’d expect: the bracing style and sound port. To capture the greatest amount of energy in the thin guitar and transfer it to the top, Brian looked at the way a guitar flexes around the neck joint. “If you’ve ever put a microphone on an acoustic guitar, you’ve probably put one pretty close to the neck joint because there’s a bunch of energy transfer happening there,” explained Brian. “On the Acoustasonic, we wanted to capture the energy of the neck joint and transfer it across the top. The two braces are nested in the joint and they run across the top on either side of the sound port and intersect the wings of the bridge. The top gives all the ADSR information of the note, and all the energy coming off the neck joint sustains that top and gives me real guitar performance. That’s what gives you the on-lap experience and drives the DSP. The chassis is super important for the Acoustasonic and each of the three has its own personality. Each responds differently, but in a similar fashion to their sisters in history.”
The other element is the waterfall sound port. At its core, it allowed Brian to tune the resonant frequency of the box, which is essentially a Helmholtz resonator. The waterfall design gave him two dimensions to work with: the diameter of the hole, and the depth of the port. Both combine to deliver a surprising level of bass response for a thin guitar. Fender has been awarded patents for the non-linear shape of its port, but Brian said the development was really one of those happy accidents and each Acoustasonic design has a different shaped port: “You’re on a quest for the perfect depth and you go over to the belt sander and sand a bunch off, and lo and behold, it’s just right.”
FOREST GUMP TO CASTAWAY
With a willing acoustic platform, the next step was putting in the DSP. Considering Fishman had already provided the transducers, Brian went to Larry Fishman and described what he wanted. “I went to Larry and said I need a five-way switch and two knobs. He said, ‘what’s it need to do?’ I want to use IR, but have it wrap around my guitar. My guitar is Tom Hanks, if I dress him in a really tight suit, cut his hair really short and give him a Southern accent, he’s Forest Gump. Take away the wardrobe, give him long scraggly hair and a volleyball for a best friend, now he’s from Castaway… On the blend knob I want to go from Forest Gump to Castaway.”
Initially Larry told Brian he was nuts. Blending two IRs together is not something you traditionally do. But like a true innovator, Larry’s not capable of letting a fresh problem out of his sight. It took a year for Fender and Fishman to work it out, but at the end of it “this flat little thing was making huge acoustic sounds and rocking electric sounds.”
For Brian, it was “important we made a guitar and not a science project”. So all the switching looks like a standard Fender guitar, and users can’t currently upload their own sounds to it or change out the presets. Each of the Acoustasonics has its own flavour of sounds, and choosing the right version is part of the appeal. For instance, the Jazzmaster has “a deliberately cheap personality sound, like a Pixies or Violent Femmes pseudo cheap piezo into an amp sort of thing,” said Adrian. “I’m not that into it yet, but I see the intent.”
However, he really digs the electric sounds. “I really like the driven sound of the Jazzmaster. I work with an R&B singer, and we did live studio records the other day. I used the Acoustasonic for those with an electric sound and it worked really well. I also sent it through a Plugin Alliance Bx Bass Dude Bassman simulation, and it sounded huge.”
As far as Adrian is concerned, the DSP experience is transparent. “You haven’t got a bunch of different choices; it’s just flicking through presets and the blend knob allows you to really dial in the right amount of body. I’m not fussed about DSP, I mix a lot in the box and I’ll often use amp sims instead of real amps not only for the convenience, but because they sound good.”
Overall, he said. “If you can only take one guitar to a session, it’s much better to have an Acoustasonic than just an acoustic or just an electric.”
You get 20 hours of continuous plugged-in performance with the internal battery. It will give you a warning light two hours before it’s completely drained, at which point it will fall off a cliff. There’s no slow degradation of the sound. You can charge the internal battery via the Micro USB port, and if the show really must go on, you can stick a portable battery pack on to your strap and charge it while you play.