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Freshman FA1DCE & FA1TRAV
Published in PM July 2008
Reviews : Guitar: Acoustic
A pair of problem-solving acoustics from the current Freshman catalogue. One helps you to be heard, while the other lets you travel light.
New acoustic brands still crop up far too frequently for commercial comfort, putting yet more pressure on an already overcrowded market. The acoustic sector may be doing better than some, but the sheer volume of available product makes it ultra-competitive. Accordingly enough, some names soon disappear, others struggle to survive, while a few actually manage to flourish.
Freshman come into the latter category, appearing on the UK acoustic scene in 2002 and enjoying a steadily growing reputation ever since, with sales to match. The brand is owned by Scottish distributors, Access All Areas, and from the start this company concentrated on getting the designs right, while endeavouring to maintain consistently high quality control. Both aspects are of prime importance when overseas manufacturing is involved (in this case, China), and the success being enjoyed by Freshman instruments would suggest that Access All Areas have got their priorities right.
The current catalogue spans straight acoustics and electro equivalents, along with a selection of jazz-style semis and archtop electrics. The former range from beginner boxes that the company term 'Freshstart' through to a whole host of folk, Dreadnought and jumbo models in six-string, 12-string and bass form. An equally sizeable selection of electro alternatives is offered, and top of this particular tree is the 500 series.
In keeping with Freshman's model designation logic, the title of this six-string indicates that it should be a Dreadnought-size cutaway electro and, sure enough, it is! This specific category is well served by no fewer than six different Freshman models and the FA1DCE is one of the most affordable examples.
The gently back-angled Freshman headstock is quite lengthy, with curving sides and a notched top that display definite Epiphone influences. The face is unadorned apart from the simple gold Freshman logo, which is a little off-kilter on the review example, but this is a minor cosmetic carp. Equipped with big metal buttons, the machine heads maintain the basic theme, being standard contemporary types that work adequately enough.
The nut offers an object lesson in how to correctly cut this small, but vital component. It sports equidistant, maximum depth slots that ensure best possible playability at the first fret. No string binding is apparent either, even on the most friction-prone third and fourth strings, which means the slots have been finished off properly, and no doubt the long headstock helps here too by reducing sideways string deflection. The slim-gauge frets seem to have received a similar level of attention, as all 20 are well polished and smooth-ended where they overlap the neatly applied white plastic binding. Boasting easy-read black side dots, the latter adorns a reasonably sleek, lightly radiused, rosewood fingerboard that adopts a standard 648mm (25.5-inch) scale length.
This tops a mahogany neck that, like the rest of this instrument, is hidden under an eminently stage-worthy, high-gloss black finish. Proportions gently broaden out from a 43mm width at the nut and adopt an instantly friendly, mainstream profile that should make strummers and fingerpickers feel equally at home, while the action is similarly slanted to please both playing styles. The neck meets the body at the 14th fret, where a usefully deep and broad cutaway allows the necessary access to the remaining six up at the dusty end.
Body back and sides are mahogany, while the solid top is Canadian sitka spruce. Internal construction is impressively neat and tidy in terms of finish, woodworking and absence of excess adhesives. Dimensions are in keeping with the Dreadnought designation, but the cutaway styling seems to help make the instrument easy to manage. The body's all-enveloping black colour scheme is contrasted by single white binding around the back, while the fancier front edging includes a layer of tortoiseshell. The latter theme is maintained for the rosette rings adorning the soundhole, while the comma-style scratchplate is also tortoiseshell.
Somewhat surprisingly, the simple-shaped bridge carries a non-compensated saddle, but intonation doesn't seem to suffer unduly. String spacing is 55mm, which, although not exactly wide, should still be sufficient to please most pickers. The onboard electrics for the piezo bridge pickup are side-mounted up on the bass shoulder, contained within a chunky black plastic surround. The AEQ-401R preamp comprises a volume pot plus four boost/cut sliders governing presence, treble, middle and bass. A battery check push-switch is partnered by an appropriate indicator LED.
Pressing the right side of the fascia causes the whole control assembly to swivel, revealing the battery holder beneath, so changing the necessary 9V power pack is a suitably speedy and painless process. The output jack is side-mounted and there's no obvious internal body reinforcement in this area, which makes it more susceptible to accidental damage. This gives some cause for concern and means that using a right-angle plug is a must.
Despite its biggish body size, the FA1DCE isn't over-endowed at the low end. Bass is certainly apparent, but it's balanced rather than booming and this allows for an even response when fingerpicking. The mid-range frequencies are more dominant and combine with a sweet-toned treble to provide punchy attack under strong strumming. It's quite dynamic and responsive, and these aural aspects should improve as the instrument loosens up with playing, adding a little more expression to its energetic attitude.
Of course, plugging in enables the FA1DCE to compete at higher volume levels, and the onboard preamp offers more than enough output, while the EQ control quartet provides plenty of scope for tonal tweaking. Each of the four sliders allows ample adjustment either way, but, as usual, the best results are obtained by cutting rather than boosting the relevant frequency ranges. Some judicious balancing of the four bands is necessary to arrive at the required sweet spot. The lack of a feedback filter reflects this model's retail price and means that care must be taken to avoid certain notes triggering any unwanted build-up.
According to the label within, this scaled-down six-string is designated the FA1 1/2, suggesting that dimensions are half those of the full-blown FA1 Dreadnought, but Freshman choose to describe it as a three-quarter-sized equivalent, thus causing instant confusion. Regardless of which is correct, the best solution is to use the catalogue title, which hints at an obvious application for such a littlun; that of an easily managed travel guitar.
In keeping with the diminished dimensions elsewhere, the headstock of the FA1TRAV is slightly shorter than standard, but the elegant Freshman styling is retained. The tuners are similar to those on its full-size stablemate, although the metal buttons are sensibly smaller.
The nut is another high-quality piece of work in terms of slot depth and spacing, while overall width is reduced to 40mm. It leads onto a lightly cambered rosewood fingerboard that carries a full complement of 20 slim frets spread over a suitably foreshortened 508mm (20-inch) scale. Position dots are appropriately downsized and start at the fifth fret, while neck proportions have been reduced in ratio, so that the end result retains the profile of a full-size instrument, albeit smaller all round. Again, Freshman's finishing is impressively high, contributing to playability that's still surprisingly good considering the obviously more cramped quarters.
The body retains the traditional Dreadnought shape, although on a significantly smaller scale. Like its full-size sibling, it combines mahogany back and sides with a solid, A-grade Canadian sitka spruce top. Internal construction is again impressive for the money and the entire instrument is finished in a sleek-feeling, natural satin lacquer. As on the FA1DCE, the front edge binding includes a layer of tortoiseshell, and the same cosmetic idea is employed for the soundhole surround.
The bridge is slightly smaller than full size, but string spacing is only 1mm less than on the FA1DCE. Again, the angled saddle incorporates no intonation compensation, but relative tuning remains pretty accurate all the way up the neck.
The FA1TRAV must be tuned up to provide proper playability, and G above standard pitch seems to suit it well. Bottom end obviously isn't going to be abundant from such a small body, but there's still enough to bolster the warm mid-range that forms the basic character of this little cutie.
Overall tonality is on the boxy side, which is hardly surprising considering the instrument's curtailed construction, but it's easy on the ear and has a useful mandolin-like quality. The FA1TRAV is certainly a lot louder than it looks, especially when attacked with some vigour, while projection and sustain are also more than might be expected from such meagre measurements.
These two examples may be very different to each other in terms of type, style and size, but they do have some things in common. Impressive build quality is one, likewise a similarly high finish standard and an excellent setup, which means playability is equally on par. Both display a simple, but effective design approach and also share a high stay-and-play factor.
Despite its cost-conscious ethic, the FA1DCE isn't lacking in looks, managing the difficult trick of being both understated AND flashy! Acoustic and amplified performances are well up to scratch, so value for money isn't a problem.
Compact and bijou best describes the FA1TRAV, not to mention super-cute and classy. To some, the price might seem a lot for a littlun, but this mini six-string is no mere toy and punches way beyond its size, performance-wise. The lack of mass obviously offers easy transport, but the instrument's tonality and tuning make it an eminently useful recording tool. 0
Published in PM July 2008
Freshman FA1DCE £249
& FA1TRAV £129
Freshman have become a brand to be reckoned with in the UK acoustic arena, and on the evidence of these two review examples, it's not hard to see why. Both instruments are excellently put together and impress in terms of looks, feel and sound. They come well set up and at prices that won't hurt too many wallets. Not everyone will want the more specialised benefits that these models offer, but like the rest of the Freshman range, both are well worth a look and listen.
Access All Areas
+44 (0)1355 228028
Mahogany body, solid sitka spruce top.
20-fret bound rosewood fingerboard.
648mm (25.5-inch) scale.
Onboard AEQ-401R preamp with volume & four-band EQ controls.
Black, natural, wine red.
Mahogany body, solid A-grade sitka spruce top.
20-fret bound rosewood fingerboard.
508mm (20-inch) scale.
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