Monday, December 5, 2011

Passive Pickups in an Active World: DiMarzio D Activator vs. Seymour Duncan TB-15 Alternative 8

Over the past few years, name-brand pickups have become a staple of the mid-level guitars that previously warranted inclusion of only the "light" versions of premium pickups: EMG-HZ, Duncan Designed, and so on.  Some guitar manufacturers flirted with combinations of passive pickups and active gain boosters, but genuine active pickups weren't really typical standard equipment until fairly recently.  EMGs in particular are generally recognized as the go-to active pickups of the extreme metal world, but it's no longer unusual to see entry-level guitars equipped with OEM active pickups.  Meanwhile, not everyone cares for active pickups, so it's just as likely that a person will replace active pickups with passive as the other way around.  I have a couple of guitars with EMGs, but I still prefer the responsiveness of passive pickups any day.  Of course, that's not to say that I don't appreciate the balanced frequency ranges that active pickups are known for, so when I went looking for a different "flavor" of passive pickups, I decided to try something new: Seymour Duncan's Alternative 8 and DiMarzio's D Activator.

The D Activator (street price $60+ per pickup; also available in a neck/bridge pair) is touted as a passive pickup meant to preserve the balanced response of actives without getting "squished" by heavy pick attack or sounding sterile, both being common complaints about active pickups.  I installed the neck/bridge D Activator set in a Jackson Dinky (alder body, maple neck and fretboard, licensed Floyd Rose trem) as a replacement for the stock Duncan JB/Jazz set and played it at band practice through a Peavey XXL head, which is what I typically gig with.  (I usually stick with the bridge pickup for gigs, so although the neck pickups did get some wonderful clean and overdriven tones, that's not an area I'll focus on here.)  This particular guitar sounded "good enough" before, but the JB is notorious for a weird midrange spike and muddy low end, which is definitely not a good choice for playing death metal through a high-gain amp.  Playing on the bridge pickup, the D Activator was immediately smoother through the mids, and the low end was significantly tighter.  DiMarzio pickups have always sounded (to me) especially well suited to a very "vocal" lead tone that is dependent on pick attack, an area where I've never cared for the sound of active pickups.  I was concerned that DiMarzio might abandon that particular trait in favor of a more "flat" type of response, but the D Activator maintains the signature DiMarzio voice without any frequency scoops or spikes.

Next up is the Seymour Duncan Alternative 8 (street price $80+) that is promoted as a high-output pickup that retains picking dynamics without getting too bright or too dark, due in part to Duncan's first attempt at using an alnico 8 magnet.  Although it's not pushed as a replacement for active pickups (Duncan is trying to sell their Blackout and Live Wire actives, after all,) it'd be impossible not to read between the lines in this case.  This time, I was replacing the stock SD Screamin' Demon in another Jackson Dinky (ash body, maple neck, ebony fretboard, licensed trem) that was grossly inadequate for metal.  I'm a big fan of Seymour Duncan's Full Shred and Invader humbuckers in ash guitars, and according to Duncan's website, the Alternative 8 falls somewhere in the middle, sort of overlapping the frequency ranges of two vastly different pickups that both happen to work great in a metal context.  I hit the ground running with the Alternative 8, trying it out at practice and then playing a gig with it ASAP.  The tight low end and high end clarity of the Full Shred are definitely present, as is the fatter midrange of the Invader.  The output is higher than either (and WAY beyond that of the stock Screamin' Demon) although it doesn't have the distinct midrange punch that the Invader is known for.  Dynamic without weird scoops or spikes?  Sounds familiar.

So, which is better, and is either of the passive pickups reviewed better than a comparable active pickup?  That's ultimately a matter of preference, and perhaps bias.  I have to admit to being a bit of a Duncan fanboy, so effectively combining two of my favorite Duncan pickups into one is hard to resist.  On the other hand, I've always liked the way DiMarzio pickups react to the subtle nuances of my playing, and simply hadn't tried one that was appropriate for the full range of techniques involved in death metal.  Both the Alternative 8 and D Activator are more to my liking than any active pickup I've played.  I do feel that the D Activator would be the better choice for someone looking to get the benefits of an active pickup in a passive equivalent without abandoning the whole "tone is in the fingers" mantra.  As for the Alternative 8, I would give it the nod in a situation where high output is required but harsh or muddy tone absolutely cannot be tolerated.

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