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Since its inception, Paul Reed Smith’s TCI concept has been relentlessly confusing the guitar community. Sometimes it’s a process, sometimes it’s a pickup model, and other times it’s an updated version of an older pickup. While we may never know everything about these pickups, let’s try to illuminate the most important details.
The first public reference we’ve found to TCI is a PRS article announcing the new 2019 models, which included the TCI pickups in the Paul’s Guitar. The blurb doesn’t reference anything about a new process and focuses more on the featured mini-toggle switches for splitting the coils.
“The Paul’s Guitar model also includes PRS’s TCI (Tuned Capacitance and Inductance) treble and bass pickups with two mini-toggle switches that allow players to put either or both pickups in either humbucking or true single coil mode.”
We’ll discuss these mini-toggles later, as they are actually relevant to the TCI system. Shortly after this announcement, the Paul’s Guitar SE was released and introduced the TCI “S” pickups. In the Paul’s Guitar YouTube overview, Bryan Ewald states:
“The design of these pickups and the way that the split happens came from Paul and John Mayer working on the 635JM pickups.”
So technically, the PRS Silver Sky’s 635JM was the first pickup to go through the TCI-process, but TCI at this point was still just a pickup model name.
The following year, PRS announced that all core 2020 models except select signature models would have their pickups updated with the TCI-process. Moderators on the PRS forum also confirmed that the S2 line is planned to follow after, however since S2 uses SE electronics, this would mean that all PRS guitars, regardless of line, will have pickups transitioned to this process. As of today, the only confirmed TCI-processed pickup from S2 or SE is the TCI “S”, which is in the Paul’s Guitar SE, the Custom 24-08 S2, the Custom 24-08 SE, and the Standard 24-08 SE.
TCI stands for “Tuned Capacitance and Inductance.” If you’re familiar with guitar pickups, you may know that all guitar pickups have resistance, capacitance, and inductance. Inductance and capacitance are both important measurements that determine a pickup’s voice, and they are directly affected by many variables such as scatter winding, wire gauge, magnet material, and more. PRS claims that they are now able to “tune” their pickups to target the specific inductance and capacitance that they want.
However, this is not a new concept. All pickups have been “tuned” since the first guitar pickup was made. A Seymour Duncan Distortion humbucker sounds different from a Seymour Duncan 59 because it was “tuned” intentionally. It’s made with a different wire gauge, a different number of wire turns, and a different magnet material. So what does PRS really mean when they say “tuned”?
Let’s talk about a specific line from PRS’s YouTube video titled “TCI Pickups with Paul Reed Smith.” In the video, Paul states:
“When you put them together [resistance, capacitance, and inductance], [pickups] resonate like a whistle… They have a note to them. It resonates a certain note, it resonates how loud that note is, and how wide that note is… and we’re approaching pickups this way.”
This whistle Paul is referring to is the character of the pickup’s resonance curve. At Guitar Pickup Database, we agree with Paul that the resonance curve is a much better way to understand a pickup’s sound, as well as to compare one pickup against another. Over time, we will have these curves available for every pickup. For now, see this example below of the resonance curve of a PRS TCI “S” vs. a PRS 635JM “S”:
This curve tells you more about how a pickup will sound than any single measurement will. The resonant peak’s height, width (also known as Q-factor), and horizontal position create this whistle and define the character of the pickup. By having a consistent capacitance and inductance, you can consistently create the same resonance curve each time. This is what PRS is trying to do – create a great-sounding pickup, consistently. But how did PRS decide what capacitance and inductance they should use?
A little-known fact about Paul Reed Smith is that PRS Guitars is not his only company. Paul also started a separate company called Digital Harmonic, which creates some really crazy technology used by the military and security organizations. While the technology is very interesting, I bring it up because it is related to TCI. A previous PRS employee and great member of the PRS Forum Shawn@PRS stated in response to a question about TCI:
“Are you familiar with the technology Paul created? He spun off a second company called Digital Harmonic. With this technology, a photo taken in pitch dark has details, depth of field and it remains a color photo. He uses this same technology to measure the character of a pickup. Most of us are familiar with the “DC resistance + magnet type = the tone of a pickup” equation. Paul believes that is just the tip of the iceberg.”
It appears that PRS may have a proprietary way to deeply measure how a pickup sounds and responds. However, this information is in slight conflict with information available in the May 2019 issue of Guitarist Magazine. In their article titled, “What is TCI?”, they share an image of a fairly standard oscilloscope displaying a pickup resonance curve. On the image, the text reads, “this signal analyser allows PRS to ‘see’ how its pickups will sound.” This is the exact same technology we are using to create our resonance curve charts, like the one above showing the TCI “S” and 635JM “S” pickups.
Whether they are using proprietary tech or not, we can be sure that they have taken measurements of the best-sounding pickup examples they could find and tried to match these readings for the new pickups they produce. Ultimately, that is what the TCI-process is. Find a great-sounding pickup, take deep measurements of it, and recreate it consistently by making sure the capacitance and inductance are consistent.
As an aside, this is not dissimilar in concept to what Fishman Fluence pickups are doing. Fishman is accomplishing this by creating a consistent base pickup with stacked circuit boards and managing the sound using an onboard DSP. The DSP is creating the curve. This is how they can have multiple voices, it’s simply (through complicated technology) switching the resonance curve. The technologies are very different, but the goals are the same.
You may be wondering, “why can’t you just do this with the wire turn count?” It is true that most pickups are designed that way. Even PRS has a leaked pickup sheet that shows each pickup along with the turn count used in the past. Using a consistent turn count is a great way to accomplish a relatively consistent pickup without this technology. But wire is not always consistent, coatings aren’t always consistent, and 5,000 turns with inconsistencies can lead to noticeable changes. This is why pickups aren’t always consistent. This doesn’t make them bad, just unique.
Better is subjective. TCI pickups should be more consistent, but if you don’t like the sound, then you’re not going to like any of them. If you want to buy a PRS guitar and you’re worried about it not having the new processed pickups, don’t fret. The new pickups are meant to sound like the best of the old ones. As with any guitar, try before you buy if you can. If you like it, then it’s good.
As of 2022, every core model besides select signature models. The import “S” pickups also should be following behind. At a minimum, we can say these pickups are TCI-processed:
By knowing which pickups have been TCI-processed, we can identify which guitar models are available with this feature:
Here’s where the story gets even more complicated. While PRS is trying to create the best pickup they can, they can only optimize for one thing at a time. A great PAF-style humbucker is not a good recipe for a convincing split coil sound. So PRS took a different approach. While the mini-toggles are talked about as being a convenience for the player instead of push-pull pots, they are actually doing much more.
First, they allow the humbucker to become a “true single coil” when split. When most humbuckers are coil split, the unused coil is technically still in the circuit. It’s being sent to ground. The mini-toggle allows the PRS humbucker to become an isolated single coil, which removes the unused coil entirely from the circuit. Their claim is that this creates a much better single coil sound. However, only the models with mini-toggles have this feature. Any PRS model that uses push-pull knobs is still splitting its coils by sending the unused coil to ground.
Secondly, they allow PRS to do additional “tuning” when in either mode. In the May 2019 issue of Guitarist Magazine, they did a deep dive into the updated Paul’s Guitar’s wiring. On the neck pickup’s toggle switch, there’s a 330 picofarad capacitor between the hot and ground that works only on the single coil mode. This is effectively adding more capacitance to the circuit when in single coil mode, altering the sound coming from the guitar. On the bridge pickup’s toggle switch, there is extra lead wire connected from the toggle switch to ground, adding a slight capacitance as well. In more recent photos, it appears that PRS has dropped the extra lead wire and added a capacitor to the bridge toggle switch instead. This extra wiring is also considered part of the TCI system, which adds a whole lot of confusion to the mix.
In summary, PRS TCI is a pickup model name, a “V2” for some models, a manufacturing methodology, and an electronics system. The only thing that would make it more confusing would be to give it an Ibanez model name, but I digress. TCI is an innovative new approach to designing pickups, and I will always praise any company that is trying new things in an industry that is known for being stuck in the past. PRS is in the perfect position to be a leader in this field, as they have the reputation for making some of the best guitars on the market, but don’t have the same “heritage handcuffs” that a Gibson or Fender deal with from customers. I hope in the future PRS will provide more information about this process, how Digital Harmonic is involved, and A/B compare their TCI vs. non-TCI models.