Sunday, May 8, 2011

Electric Violins Part I - The Pickup Artist

 Written by Amy Tobin, violinist and manager of Fein Violins:

It's really hard to stand in front of a microphone and play. You have to be close enough, but not so close that the mic hits your violin, you have to stand pretty still when you play,  you have to sometimes maneuver your bow around in different ways, and sometimes you want to sing at the same time. Well, lucky for you (and me!) there are options.

There are two basic ways to go about plugging in so you and your beautiful sound can be heard; pickups and solid body electric violins. This post will cover some of the basic information for pickups.


 The most basic thing you can do, if you are looking to keep a strictly acoustic kind of sound, is to put a pickup on your violin. This is something that you attach to the instrument in order to plug into a sound system for more volume. Here are some of the basics for you.

1. Transducer pickups:   These pickups attach directly to the body or bridge of the instrument by a sort of removable art gum. Generally, the art gum does not damage the finish in any way, although I wouldn't leave it on for long periods of time, just to be on the safe side. They pick up the vibration of the instrument directly through the wood and transfer it to the element inside the pickup, which then sends the signal to something which amplifies the sound (amplifier, pre-amp, sound board, etc.). In my experience, these types of pickups are not very good. The sound is much thinner and tinnier, as well as less reliable, and, if you are playing someplace where you really need to be loud, you will definitely need a pre-amp in your sound chain as well.

2. Bridge pickups: Here is where things get good. There are three basic types of bridge pickups.

First is the Fishman pickup, which has just a folded piece of copper that fits into the space at the side of the bridge (some bridges have a space that is too small to make this work, so try it first). The jack for the instrument cable (which connects the instrument to whatever will give you sound) attaches at the side of the instrument in a style similar to a chin rest. These are incredibly easy to put on and remove, so if you are only going to use a pickup on rare occasions, this might be your answer. The sound, however, is not as full as your regular acoustic sound. (This is because this is actually a fancier version of the transducer pickup)

Fishman V-200 violin pickup

Secondly, is the Realist pickup, made by David Gage. This is a really fantastic option. It attaches underneath your already existing bridge, and it gives the best, most natural, sound that I have heard yet. It is a perfect solution for somebody who plays plugged in quite a bit, but also needs to play without a pickup on. The Realist is attachable and removable, but it does take a little more know-how to do so easily and quickly, so I would definitely have this installed by luthier if you are at all unsure. It only takes a few minutes, but then you can see how it is done as well.

The Realist pickup by David Gage

Thirdly, there is also a pickup which is built into the bridge itself (think L.R. Baggs or Schatten). This means that you have to actually change your existing bridge and fit the new one to your instrument. This can be a nice option if you only play when you are plugged in, or don't mind if people see hardware on your violin when you aren't.

Schatten violin pickup

Now, there are definite advantages to using a pickup instead of a full electric violin.
The sound is usually much more natural. If you are going for that strictly acoustic violin sound, pickups are usually the best option. They are removable, and, as long as you aren't using a whole bunch of guitar pedals and the like, you probably won't have any difficulty with other issues (such as feedback!). There is one very important thing to take into consideration when choosing a pickup (I learned this one the hard way!). Do yourself a favor and make sure you get one with a 1/4" carpenter jack for the instrument cable. Some of them have the option of an 1/8" jack, which usually comes with a corresponding cable. Since most electric and sound gear is fitted with 1/4" jacks, however, if you lose the cable they send you, replacing it will take more than a quick trip to your local shop!

We Carry the Realist pickup-which you can see here.

Now, for those of you straight up rockers in the crowd, a post specifically about solid body electric violins is on its way!  Also, a post on the advantages and the pitfalls of playing plugged in is soon to come!

1 comment:

  1. " if you lose the cable they send you, replacing it will take more than a quick trip to your local shop!"

    Not really. A quick trip to Radio Shack where you can get 1/4" to 1/8" adapters gets you back in business right a way while waiting for the original cable replacement.