Alvarez DYM95C AURA Yairi Masterworks Steel String Guitar
Founded in 1965 in St. Louis, Missouri, Alvarez Guitars has established a reputation for manufacturing affordable, high-quality nylon- and steel-string guitars. But the company also offers the high-end Alvarez-Yairi brand, which capitalizes on the expertise of luthier Kazuo Yairi—a flattop guru whose family boasts a guitar-building heritage spanning nearly 70 years. The latest Alvarez-Yairi collaboration, the Masterworks DYM95C Aura dreadnought, keeps a foot in the proven past while boldly stepping into the future: The brainchild of the guitar nuts at Alvarez’ US office, the DYM95C is completely handbuilt—using no CNC machines or other computerized equipment—by Yairi’s small staff of luthiers in Kani, Japan, and it incorporates state-of-the-art Fishman Aura electronics.
BRAINY AND BOUTIQUEY
The DYM95C Aura is superb in every way you’d expect from a high-end guitar. From its tinted, solid spruce top to its gorgeous solid rosewood back and sides, minimalist ebony fretboard (which has a single diagonal inlay at the 12th fret), rosewood headstock veneer, and faux-tortoiseshell tuner buttons, this ax radiates class and charm. Despite its time-tested dreadnought design and overall traditional aesthetic, the DYM95C’s cutaway, unusual ebony bridge (whose pins install in a separate piece of ebony installed directly into the top), and teardrop-shaped pickguard also lend it a modern look that is distinctly Yairi. Inside and out, the guitar boasts exemplary craftsmanship and attention to detail: The finish is pristine; the fretwork couldn’t be neater or easier on the fingers; the neck has a comfy, moderate profile that will please a wide variety of players; the smooth, flattened heel joint yields better access to higher frets; and interior workmanship is of the finest quality.
On the upper bout of this luxurious dread is a deceptively mundane-looking Fishman Aura preamp interface that is actually a silo of enviable, cutting-edge acoustic-electric firepower. Using Fishman’s Aura “sound image” technology—which aims to provide the type of realistic tones you’d get in a high-end studio, using several expensive microphones, but without the attendant headaches (more on this later)—the Aura preamp features a three-band EQ (with Bass, Mid, and Treble sliders), a small Tuner button, a Phase button and an Anti-Feedback switch, large Volume and Image Select knobs, a Blend slider (for getting the right mix between the straight undersaddle pickup and the Aura sounds), and a Play/Edit switch for saving EQ preferences for each image (slide it to Edit, adjust the EQ, and slide it back to Play to save).
The DYM95C’s Aura images are complex digital algorithms based on detailed analyses of recordings of a DYM95C, as captured by the following pro-studio mics: a large-diaphragm Neumann U 87, a Shure SM57 dynamic, and Neumann KM 84 and Shure SM81 small condensers—all recorded at 16 inches away from the guitar—as well as a tube-powered Soundelux E47 large condenser (at four feet) and an Earthworks QTC30 small condenser (six inches). One bummer about the preamp is that there’s no room for image labels around the knob—you have to memorize which mic the numbered labels correspond to. The other downers are that the excellent built-in chromatic tuner has small backlit note designations that may be hard for those without 20/20 vision to read, and that the tuner is unusable when you’re not plugged in.
LOVELY, ORGANIC TONES—PLUGGED OR UNPLUGGED
Acoustically, the DYM95C sounds just like a good dread should: brawny and full of luscious, nuanced tone well-suited to almost any playing style. While dreadnoughts are often thought of as country, rock, or bluegrass guitars, I love how intimate the DYM95C sounds with quiet fingerpicking—though it also busted out lots of volume when I dug in hard with my thumb. Flatpicked, the guitar rings out with a bright, punchy, slightly modern tone that reveals lots of detail in complex chords, yet still has that hallmark warmth. The guitar came with light-gauge Elixir Polyweb strings, and—although I usually prefer slightly heavier sets—the DYM95C didn’t sound thin or weak, like many guitars do with lighter strings. This made it a lot of fun to explore full-chord vibrato techniques both up the neck and in open position.
Although I have come to appreciate digital technology for the versatility and affordability it offers acoustic and electric guitarists of all stripes, I also approach devices I’ve never played with a healthy dose of skepticism—because many products over the years have promised a huge palette of to-die-for tones, but instead offer a ton of one-dimensional, uninspiring sounds. I was a bit disappointed when I first plugged the DYM95C into a Fender Acoustasonic Ultralight head and cabinet with the amp EQ set flat, because the default Aura tones really didn’t excite me. Their EQ settings sounded a little anemic in the low end, and there was way too much treble brilliance and honky, nasal-sounding midrange. What’s more, the default EQ curves for each image made them sound too similar to each other. But when I flicked the Play/Edit switch and found the sweet spots for each, the DYM95C seemed to morph into a different guitar: Gone were the strident, somewhat lackluster tones and in their place were lush, harmonically detailed sounds that would very likely fool even experienced studio engineers.
At first I was slightly surprised to find an image of the affordable Shure SM57—long a reliable workhorse mic for electric guitarists and performing bluegrass guitarists—among images of such pricey microphones. But the SM57 setting served up impressively detailed tones and often handled aggressive picking and strumming better than the condenser images. However, I also loved basking in the spacious response of the large-diaphragm Neumann U 87 model, as well as the warm but slightly more focused and detailed sounds of the KM 84 and the Shure SM81 small condensers—both of which proved excellent for fingerstyle playing. Although I was never completely sold on the more midrange-y responses of the Soundelux and Earthworks images, I could imagine instances in which they both would be excellent for cutting through a crowded mix.
Getting the most out of a high-tech ax like the new Alvarez-Yairi DYM95C takes a lot more time and tweaking than typical acoustic guitarists are used to. But I assure you that the initial hour or two it requires to fine-tune the Aura’s incredible arsenal of tones is 100 percent worth it. Those who’ve enjoyed sonic success with dual-source “blender” electronics, which typically combine an undersaddle transducer with an internal microphone for realistic tones with both bite and body, may look at Fishman’s imaging technology as a needlessly complex approach. But its six very realistic-sounding microphone flavors sound flat-out awesome—and they eliminate worries about finicky microphone feedback. Skeptics, naysayers, and Luddites, do your worst; I’m willing to bet you’ll come up empty-handed when you try to tear down the integrity of this stellar guitar. It literally blends the best of both old and new.
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