Shadow Nanoflex 6/SH 4020 Review

AG 224 August 2011 Cover

Posted by Doug Young

Shadow Electronics is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, making it one of the technological pioneers in the field of acoustic-instrument amplification. The German company’s extensive line of acoustic pickups includes undersaddle, magnetic, and soundboard pickups, as well as a number of multisource configurations. Shadow’s latest product is an intriguing variation on its highly regarded Nanoflex undersaddle pickup, the Nanoflex 6, a hexaphonic pickup combined with an electronics system that allows guitarists to leverage individual string outputs in a number of ways. We checked out the Nanoflex 6 and SH 4020 preamp installed by Shadow in a Martin HD-28 dreadnought.

Hexaphonic UST with Individual String Control

The many interesting features of the Nanoflex 6 all stem from the fact that it is a hexaphonic pickup. Unlike most undersaddle pickups, the Nanoflex 6 UST (undersaddle transducer) contains six elements that can be accessed individually by the Nanoflex system. The UST itself looks similar to the regular Nanoflex, a thin black rubbery strip that fits under the saddle. However, the pickup elements of the Nanoflex 6 connect to the side-mounted Nanoflex preamp via a shielded cable that contains six individual wires, one for each of the six pickup elements. The saddle in the Martin HD-28 appeared to be a normal saddle, but closer inspection revealed a partially segmented saddle, with cuts most of the way through, intended to improve the isolation of each individual element. Shadow says that they will supply a set of four saddles of various sizes with aftermarket versions of this pickup, which will allow the pickup to work with nearly any standard bridge design, in contrast to most other hexaphonic pickups on the market that require substantial changes to the saddle slot to accommodate discrete pickup elements.

Like many side-mounted preamps, the SH 4020 system includes a volume control as well as bass, mid, and treble tone controls. It also has a built-in tuner, phase switch, battery-check indicator, and easy-to-access battery compartment. In addition, there is a row of small controls that allow you to adjust the volume of each individual string. USTs can suffer from string-balance problems due to things like uneven saddle slots, variations in saddle material, or unusual string gauges. With the Nanoflex 6 you can solve these issues with a simple adjustment to the individual string volume controls, eliminating a trip to the shop for a more involved adjustment. Some guitarists might even wish to make changes on the fly between tunes, to compensate for different techniques, such as switching from bare fingers to a thumbpick. The controls are easily adjusted with a small screwdriver, or even a fingernail, and are designed so they are unlikely to be changed by accident.

The second unique feature on the control panel is the Panorama control, which determines how the six strings are placed in the pickup’s stereo output. When this control is turned completely counterclockwise, the guitar outputs a mono signal and can be used like any conventional mono pickup. Turned fully clockwise, the preamp produces a stereo signal, which requires a stereo guitar cord and an amplification chain capable of dealing with two signals. In this case, the low E string is heard almost entirely through one half of the stereo signal, while the high E string is heard almost entirely through the other channel. The remaining strings are spread evenly throughout the stereo spectrum. Less extreme settings of the Panorama control produce intermediate results, so you can control the degree of the stereo spread.

Shadow originally contemplated a system that would provide access to all six individual strings, which would allow even more sophisticated signal routing, as well as the potential to drive MIDI devices, but for now it has chosen to focus on providing the individual string-level adjustment and stereo Panorama features that are more widely applicable.

Panoramic Possibilities

I began by checking out the Nanoflex 6 in its most basic configuration, as a single mono pickup, playing it through an AER Acousticube II combo amp. The pickup produced the familiar sound of a UST and did a good job of reproducing the big sound of the Martin dreadnought, with both a deep low end and a clean, clear, and slightly crisp high end. The EQ controls provide a useful range of tones—although the small knobs are slightly difficult to turn—and the tuner seems accurate and straightforward. On our demo guitar, the string balance was fine from the beginning, but it was still interesting to be able to tweak the individual string volumes and hear the effect immediately.

The fun really began when I hooked up two amps with a stereo Y cable. With the Panorama control in the full clockwise position, the stereo image was dramatic, with bass notes coming from one amp and treble notes popping out of the other amp across the room. A bit of Travis picking produced a sound that ping-ponged across the room, creating an almost dizzying effect. Strumming with this wide setting was equally impressive and potentially more useful—the effect sounds almost like two guitarists double-tracking a rhythm part in perfect sync.

Such a wide stereo spread would not be useful in all performance situations, of course. In a club with a large PA and speakers mounted on either side of a stage, for example, only the audience members seated in the middle would hear the effect properly. But as I continued to explore the effect, it became clear that there are many creative uses for the stereo feature of the Nanoflex 6. Narrowing the stereo image with the Panorama control created a range of useful sounds that were more expansive than a simple mono sound, without being as dramatic. You can narrow the stereo image with amp placement, of course, and having two amps onstage at a modest distance apart will create an impressively large sound onstage.

Another intriguing option is to use the widest setting and run each channel through different effects. Adding reverb to the treble channel allowed me to get a very wet sound on melodies played on the high strings, while keeping the bass strings dry and punchy. Placing an octave pedal on the bass channel produced deep bass lines, with only minimal effect on the treble strings. This sort of split-effect processing could be useful even if you ultimately blend the signals back to mono. You can use a stereo cable to split the signal and send each side through a separate effects chain, mixing the two with a multichannel mixing board, or even plugging into both channels of a two-channel amplifier. And more subtle processing, such as EQing the treble strings differently from the bass strings, can open up new possibilities. In the recording studio, the stereo spread added some life and interest to the direct pickup signal.

Unique UST Features

The Nanoflex 6 combines a fundamentally good-sounding and relatively easily installed under-saddle pickup with several unique features ranging from the pragmatic—easily adjustable string balance—to the wildly creative, including the ability to use wide stereo images and different effects and EQ on the high and low strings. Although some guitarists might be wary of adding a side-mounted preamp to their guitars, the pickup is an attractive choice for a creative guitarist looking for new amplification options, and Shadow plans to release a version of the system with external electronics in the form of a floor pedal by the end of 2011.

SPECS: Hexaphonic undersaddle pickup with individually adjustable string volume. Mono or split-stereo output. Side-mounted controls include chromatic tuner; volume; bass, mid, and treble EQ; phase-inverse switch; and Panorama. Made in Germany.

PRICE: $475 list.

MAKER: Shadow Electronics:

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar August 2011

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