Review: Realist Lifeline Pickup

September 9, 2014

NEW YORK CITY-BASED LUTHIER David Gage is a cornerstone of the upright bass world. This former BP contributor’s lower Manhattan shop has serviced the upright bass community with distinction since 1978, and his client list is a “Who’s Who” of the international jazz scene. Responding to the needs of his customers, Gage set out to solve some common problems they experienced—most notably relating to traveling and amplifying the upright bass. The Gage Travel Case is a favorite for those still daring enough to fly with the big dog, and for those looking to side-step the horrors altogether, his Czech-Ease Road Bass offers natural playability, tone, and convenience. But perhaps his most far-reaching contribution was the development of the Realist Copperhead piezo pickup, in conjunction with Ned Steinberger. The Copperhead established itself as a player favorite for its natural tone, ease of installation, and relative non-interference with the instrument’s vibration. The Copperhead, along with its wood-encased cousin the Naturalist, are still mainstays for upright players looking for non-GMO amplified tone. The new Realist Lifeline pickup approaches this goal from a different angle, with great results.

While the Copperhead’s sound established the Realist brand, in some situations, it can be a little too real. While the full-range response includes the sub-low frequencies that add realism when handled properly in the studio, or played at low volume through the right amp, they can create feedback issues at higher volumes, and on certain instruments may work against clear articulation. The Copperhead is mounted in direct contact with the top of the bass, and represents a clear picture of that tonal character, but the Lifeline captures the string vibration from a very different location—under the bridge-adjuster wheel (yes, bridge adjusters are necessary with the Lifeline.) “With piezo pickups, location is a very important factor,” says Gage. “I thought, why not put a horseshoe-shaped pickup on the side of the bridge adjuster that receives all of the pressure from the string tension? I felt that at this location, we had carte blanche in making something that could be built like a tank, and Ned [Steinberger] designed it that way.”

The pickup is a U-shaped fork that straddles the non-threaded side of the adjuster thread, lying flat between the wood and the adjuster wheel. The pickup consists of two thin stainless steel plates screwed together with stainless steel screws and two milled aluminum cap plates (metal parts fabricated by Hipshot). Inside the casing, there is copper foil, black fiber paper, foam, and the piezo. While the Lifeline works through any amp, you’ll achieve best results with an input impedance between 5MΩ and 10MΩ, but a minimum impedance of 1MΩ is suggested. The Lifeline was designed to give a tighter, more focused sound, while retaining the basic tone signature of the Copperhead, and based on my experience, it does exactly that.

I used the Copperhead for many years on my old Juzek, and the low end helped the relatively stiff top produce a big tone. It gave that bass a fuller sound through the amp than played acoustically. But a recent purchase of a very loud and lively Christopher Academy plywood bass led me to look for an alternative. The bass seemed to have too much body sound to work with the Copperhead’s sub-low frequency response—I got massive bottom without much focus, and the articulation was being masked by the boom. Installing the Lifeline proved very simple; it’s not necessary to take down the tension fully, so chances are your soundpost will stay put. I installed the pickup as recommended, which on my bridge meant below the adjuster wheel.

I tested the Lifeline with several different rigs, but most favorably through an Acoustic Image Flex system and an AER Amp Three. In the case of the Acoustic Image, the 1MΩ input proved a sufficient match to the Lifeline’s 2.2MΩ output, so no buffer preamp was necessary. The Flex produces an omnidirectional sound, and the clarity of the Lifeline gave the tone a distinct but pleasant attack. There was plenty of well-shaped low end and healthy midrange representation. The high-frequency response is tuned to avoid the squeak-and-clack range, so finger noise is minimal, and bowing is possible without making EQ changes. On a recent seven-piece mini-big band gig, the Lifeline-equipped Christopher through the Flex system produced a robust, natural tone that underpinned the ensemble sections with authority, had the punch to maintain rhythmic supremacy, and sounded sweet and pure behind soloists. During a bass solo, I found the Lifeline’s response and attack very similar to the Copperhead’s, letting my hands speak without having to adjust. On an acoustic duo gig, I plugged the Lifeline direct into the 1MΩ input of the AER Amp Three. The Lifeline’s directness works well with the amp’s huge sonic footprint, allowing me to place the rig closer to ear level without losing the coveted low end or the articulation. I found the Lifeline’s more svelte sonic profile also allowed enough high end to be useful for slap upright bass. I applied a generous mid cut in the 1kHz–2kHz range, and the Lifeline spat out righteous rockabilly tone at a surprisingly high volume.

The Lifeline is a welcome addition to the Realist lineup. It’s a great solution to the age-old problem of achieving acoustic tone at high volume levels.

SPECIFICATIONS

DAVID GAGE

Realist Lifeline
Street
$230
Pros Organic acoustic tone, self-powered, easy to install
Cons None
Bottom Line The Lifeline remains true to its Realist heritage, with the added capacity for higher volume levels.

SPECS

Construction Piezo encased in stainless steel
Power Self-powered
Output ¼” tailpiece mounted
Made in NYC
Contact davidgage.com

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