I've hated playing bass through a pickup since the first time I ever tried. I still shudder thinking of the sound of my Underwood pickup through the Peavey keyboard amp in the high school band room. The brittle, nasal tone was nothing like I was used to hearing when I practiced (not that I did too much of that back then!) or the basses that I heard on recordings.
Pickups have come a long way since then, and it seems a majority of players have settled down with their Realist or Full Circle. I've used (and sometimes still use) both of those pickups, depending on which bass I'm playing or what the room/amp/drummer situation is like. (And I'll admit as I mature I even occasionally find the charm in that classic Underwood sound.)
But the Ghost of Bad Tone Past lingers in most options, because they are all based on the same piezo technology. While the pickups sound noticeably different from each other in terms of EQ, there is a fundamental tone — flat and squashed, with notes of ceramic and rubber-band — that runs through them.
Of course, there are also mics. Microphones work great in a lot of situations, but not all. They're not practical in small room where you need some sound reinforcement, but don't have a PA. And even on a big stage in a good room, issues like feedback, bleed, and boomy-ness can be hard to deal with, especially if you don't have a great engineer.
Thankfully, I've found an option that seems to blend the convenience of a pickup (plug-n-play, rarely any feedback issues) with the more natural sound of a mic. For the last several years, I've been using the Ischell Inside C-CB9 contact mic on at least 80% of the gigs I play where I use an amp, and probably 99% of the time I'm in a room with a sound guy who wants a direct line.
The tone isn't perfect. It isn't "my bass, only louder." But the piezo sound, that rich rubber-and-ceramic tone? It isn't there. It's been replaced by wood and air, because that's what the microphone is actually picking up.
But enough talk — let's hear what it sounds like. I currently have both the Ischell (contact mic) and the Full Circle (piezo pickup) on a bass, so I produced a video taking direct lines from each pickup. I also recorded the bass with a mic, so you can have a reference point for what the instrument sounds like acoustically. All three recordings were made simultaneously, from the same performance, and haven't been EQ-ed.
As you can hear, the Full Circle does a decent job of reproducing a clear sound with a lot of highs and mids. But to my ears, its lows are wimpy and nasal, and the tone has that rubber-band sound that's unbearable to me. The Ischell suffers somewhat in top-end clarity, but has a full bottom and a woody sound throughout.
Of course, what you're hearing is the sound of these pickups directly into a recorder. In the real world, you'll be putting them through amps and EQ-ing them. But it's useful to hear what these sound like unadulterated, as ultimately, they are the start of your signal chain. And it's also important to know what they sound like direct so you can make a more informed decision about what to use when the sound guy decides he's unwilling or unable to use a mic, and wants to take a line straight from your instrument.
A few notes on the Ischell pickup/mic:
- The basic design is a small circular microphone that you attach the top of instrument with a putty. The putty forms a seal that prevents bleed and feedback. The putty comes clean off the bass and has never left a mark, even after leaving it on in the same spot for years.
- The website says the system I have has been replaced by the J48CCB. This seems to be great upgrade to mine. Essentially the same thing but it has a better mount for the quarter inch jack, and an option to add an XLR jack, and the option to use phantom power.
- If you don't use phantom power, you can power the mic with a 9V battery. I change the battery once a year-ish just to be safe, and I've never had the battery die on me.
- Placement of the mic on the top greatly affects the sound. The recommended spot (just under the left bridge foot) may or may not be the ideal spot for your instrument. So it takes some playing with at first to get the best sound.
- The times when I don't use the Ischell, and will switch to the Full Circle are in rooms where I need a high volume and can't get far enough away from the amp to prevent feedback, or when the room is just too boomy and muddy to make that sound work, and I need the higher frequencies from the Full Circle to cut.
Ultimately, I'm sorry I couldn't make this a comparison among contact mics. There are a couple others on the market, most notably the Ehrlund Acoustic Pickup and the Schertler Dyn-B. I'm not sure if there are any others.
Regardless, I hope you've found this useful. Feedback, questions, and comments are always welcome.