Hands-On Review: Taylor Guitars Expression System
True acoustic tone through an innovative system
By Jon Chappell
Acoustic guitarists who gig must learn to live in a parallel reality: there's the sound of our guitar played acoustically, and then there's the sound when it's plugged in. Seldom do we have the luxury of miking up our instruments in an acoustically isolated environment when appearing in a live venue. It just doesn't happen. And so we settle for the "amplified acoustic sound" transduced through an electric pickup. But Taylor Guitars is asking, "Why compromise? Why not develop a system that can get near microphone-like qualities with magnetic technology?" As Bob Taylor puts it, "As any serious player will tell you, his or her acoustic guitar sounds different when it's amplified. And most would like for it to sound the same. I considered this a fundamental problem of the amplified acoustic guitar and decided to focus on solving it." So Mr. Taylor, along with designer David Hosler and analog audio legend Rupert Neve, set to work designing what would become the Taylor Expression System.
For its acoustic tone, the Taylor Expression System (ES) does not use microphones, but a series of magnetic sensors that emulate the response of a microphone's air-driven diaphragm. One sensor is affixed to the underside of the top and one is placed under the fingerboard extension. The soundboard sensor responds to the vibrating top, while the fingerboard sensor captures more of the string and neck vibrations. The preamp boosts the signal cleanly without using EQ or requiring to the guitarist to employ corrective EQ. The preamp's output is brought to the endpin jack, next to which is the battery compartment housing a 9V. You use a normal guitar cord (mono 1/4") or a TRS to XLR to connect to your amp, PA, or audio interface.
In keeping with Taylor's minimalist acoustic aesthetic, the ES is controlled by three unobtrusive, low-profile knobs on the side of the guitar at the shoulder, within easy reach and easy eyeballing when you're playing. When the bass and treble are in their center positions, the EQ is flat—with no coloration, as if the controls weren't there at all and there was a straight-wire path from the sensors to the preamp. There's also an option for turning off completely one or both of the body-placed sensors by means of an easy-to-reach switch on the circuit board just inside the soundhole. Turning off both body pickups leaves just the fingerboard sensor active—for yet another tonal color to add to your palette.
All three controls have a center detent—a sort of "notch" in the knobs' rotation that allows them to easily snap into their center, neutral position as you turn them. For the two tone knobs, moving to the left of center cuts frequencies in that range (bass or treble) while turning to the right boosts them. I was surprised to find a center detent on the volume knob—there's nothing "center" about going from minimum to maximum in a volume control, right? But then I read in the manual that the volume-knob detent is exactly the halfway point between minimum and maximum volume. This means the guitar can be guaranteed to produce the same output level every time, ensuring a predictable balance in a complex mix. Plus, you always have a default or "square one" position to start from or revert to—all knobs straight up. A soundperson will love this feature.
The ES works with a standard guitar cord, but if you're working with a PA and/or long cable runs, you can use a TRS to XLR cable for plugging into balanced line-level inputs, as the preamp signal is powerful enough for mixer and audio-interface connections. The ES also incorporates a "fused string ground" circuit—a safety feature found on both the company's acoustic and electric guitars to prevent performers from getting shocked when touching another onstage device due to improper electrical grounding of equipment. If you've ever had the nasty "blue spark" pass through your lips when sidling up to a mic, you'll appreciate this feature.
My test guitar was a Taylor 814ce, a stellar-quality grand auditorium–style cutaway acoustic-electric. It boasted flawless construction, fit and finish, and possessed the bright, balanced, punchy, and silky sound that presented the classic "Taylor sound" that guitarists love and producers call for by name. I played this guitar acoustically before putting it through two amplification systems, a three-way 250-watt Yamaha DSR115 powered speaker, and a Fishman Loudbox Performer acoustic combo.
The plugged-in sound translated all of the guitar's true tonal qualities—balanced mids, sparking highs, and good bottom-end projection—into the amplification systems with trueness, integrity, and a warmth I've not experienced before in previous amplified systems. In other words, the "Taylor-ness" of my 814ce was preserved and brought forth through the PA. For most work, I found that leaving the controls in their neutral position was the best way to go. When I made a volume adjustment, I was reassured to hear that no other tonal aspects of the guitar changed. It's best to think of the treble and bass controls not as traditional "high vs. low" controls, as on a conventional EQ, but in a more organic manner—smoothly blending a full frequency range into the mix, with just an emphasis of higher or lower tones. This is probably due to the placement of the sensors more than any electronic manipulation. If I wanted more midrange I simply cut both controls slightly. In a bluegrass setting—where I wanted the bass to thump and the treble to cut like a knife—I boosted the controls a touch past center. Turning off body sensor (via the circuit board switches) produced a wonderfully understated, woody, almost vintage sound that was perfect for capoed ukulele-like colors. One thing I wasn't expecting is that the ES is absolutely impervious to feedback: Even at high volumes and when facing the guitar into the amp or speaker, there was no extra hum, let alone anything approaching the wolf tones of incipient feedback.
The Taylor ES brings all the best elements of refined electronic technology to produce a musical and natural acoustic sound in an amplified setting. The sensors produce a range of tones that are organic, full-sounding, and natural. Best of all, the Taylor ES is purpose-designed for Taylor guitars—and is the best system going for bridging the gap between your acoustic and amplified sound.