By Greg Cahill
So what’s the best way to amplify an acoustic stringed instrument?
“The timeless, beautiful sound of an acoustic violin or fiddle is what drew so many of us to play the instrument,” says Jeremy Kittel, a Grammy-nominated violinist and violist whose styles range from classical to Celtic to bluegrass to jazz. “It’s often a challenge in each unique situation to figure out how to best preserve and amplify and express that true sound.”
Professional players and equipment experts agree there’s no single solution for those seeking to reproduce a pure acoustic sound. You just need to find the one that suits you best. Familiarize yourself with the options: pickups vs. microphones, the use of pre-amps and amplifiers, as well as whether you should plug into a house PA system. And look into special effects, such as reverb and digital delay. Don’t hesitate to ask your local violin shop to explain the technology and weigh the options.
Duncan Monserud, an instrument specialist at the Electric Violin Shop in Durham, North Carolina, poses three questions and offers the following advice to customers who are investigating the ideal solution.
Do you need a pickup that can be easily installed and removed in order to go back and forth between amplified and acoustic playing?
“If the answer is ‘yes’ then there are a number of good options, such as the Kremona, Fishman, MiSi, the Realist SoundClip, and Schertler pickups,” Monserud says. “For a permanent pickup solution, look into bridge-replacement pickups such as the LR Baggs, Fishman, Schatten, or ISI Aceto/Violect Deluxe pickups. ISI pickups by Eric Aceto are highly regarded by professionals for their amplified tone, but are also ideal systems for crossover performers as their thin, high-quality bridge design has no measurable impact on acoustic tone.”
Will you be playing in a setting or style that requires (A) as close as possible acoustic tonal reproduction; (B) maximum feedback resistance; or (C) a compromise between the two?
“Microphones, though they also color tone somewhat, tend to reproduce the violin’s tone in its ‘purest’ form, but can be difficult to optimize in terms of placement and direction, and are also considerably more prone to feedback and picking up ambient noise than a piezo-pickup system,” Monserud notes. “Many of the removable and permanent piezo-pickup systems are relatively more feedback resistant compared to microphones—though not as feedback resistant as a solid-body electric violin—and offer varying degrees of tonal complexity. The placement of the pickup element or elements— for example, in the bridge to one side; both sides or the center; beneath the bridge between the feet and violin top; or adhered to the body, as in the case of a contact mic—will affect the quality and balance of tone. The physical properties of the piezoelectric, or electrostatic elements, in the case of the Schertler STAT system, also factor into tonal quality.”
How will you amplify and in what settings will you be playing?
“By this we mean, will you play in small, medium, or larger performance venues?” he says. “Solo or with a band? If with a band, how loud and what other instruments will be involved? Will you rely on an amplifier for all of your sound, or will you run through a PA system? Once we determine these things, we can recommend the size and power of amplifier you will need. Most players are successful using Fishman Loudbox Mini or Fishman Artist model amplifiers with pickups. Kustom’s Sienna series acoustic amps are great for smaller performance applications on a tighter budget. For more demanding professional applications, we carry higher-end solutions, such as Acoustic Image and Acus amps, as well as Fishman and Bose personal PA systems.”
What Do the Pros Use?
Jeremy Kittel plays a violin by Walter Stopka, of Chicago, which he found on consignment in Nashville in 2010. “Most of my work the last several years has been acoustic, and in settings quiet enough that I can usually use a mic of some kind, as opposed to a pickup. I actually have a lot of people ask me what pickup they should get, when really in their situation what they want is some kind of microphone. If I have to, I’ll definitely use a pickup, but a microphone almost always gets you much closer to the violin’s natural, beautiful sound right off the bat, of course. But even then, each situation is different.
“For recording, and for some live shows, I’ll use an old Neumann KM84, on a stand mic, about 6–12 inches from the fiddle, which gets my favorite acoustic sound, just beautiful. However, most of the time, for live shows, I’ll use a DPA 4099 lapel mic, as it’s far less prone to feedback, since the transducer is just inches from the instrument body, and still can sound pretty great, especially with some EQ-ing. The other advantage of the DPA 4099 is that you can move around a bit if you need to, since the mic lapel is attached to the body of the violin. An alternative to the DPA 4099 that’s also very good, and much more affordable, is the Bartlett Fiddle Mic, which we were all using in Turtle Island for a while.
“For EQ-ing the signal from the DPA/Bartlett mic before going to the PA, I often use a Headway EDB-2 preamp. It’s got enough options for EQ to fix some of the distortions you’ll usually get from miking so close to the instrument. For example, I find it often needs a boost around 700–900 hz, and I cut right around 7K—I often find lots of undesirable nails-on-chalkboard bow noise right around there, which you’re also getting more of from having to mic the instrument so close to the body.
“That’s the gist of my miking game. However, in loud situations, most situations with drums, even a close lapel mic won’t cut it; you’ll just get too much feedback. For those settings, I usually switch to a London-model violin by Acoustic Electric Strings. That violin is a five-string—the C string is really useful—and it also has a brilliant pickup, built internally, that comes with the instrument. I prefer that pickup’s sound over the LR Baggs pickup, which I also have on a different old fiddle. From the dry pickup signal, I go through a preamp, just a simple Fishman preamp usually, and perhaps some effects pedals depending on the situation. I also have a little ZT Lunchbox amp that sounds good and is light enough to easily carry around New York City for amplified gigs.
“With Kittel & Co., we’ve also been starting to use a Midas M32 Live Mixer, which lets us take our custom reverb, EQ, spatial effects, subtle compression, and so on, with us into each venue. I find that adding a spatial quality to the sound is really important—to me even a great fiddle doesn’t sound that great in a completely dry room; a beautiful violin sounds best to me in a beautiful reverberant room, too, and so finding a way to add that back artificially, most obviously with reverb, is really important.”
Evan Price of the Hot Club of San Francisco plays a 1999 Strad copy by Andrew Ryan in Providence, Rhode Island. “For concerts with the Hot Club, I play into an Audio-Technica 4033, placed at chest height on a mic stand about a foot or so in front of my violin’s C-bout. Being a large diaphragm condenser mic, the 4033 captures the full frequency range of the violin, but slightly favors the warm tones. And placing the mic slightly below the level of the instrument enhances that effect by allowing some of the sizzling high frequencies—those that are typically over-amplified when close-miking—to soar over the top of the mic.
“In less formal settings, such as venues with ambient noise like a club or a dance, I use an Audio-Technica PRO 35, a clip-on mic with a goose neck that I position ¾-inch above the top of the violin, slightly to the left and behind the G side of the bridge. Placement is important! Too close to the f-hole and the sound would be too boxy around middle C, the resonant frequency of my violin. Too far away and I would risk feedback from the nearest amplifier or PA speaker. Most often, I plug my PRO 35 directly into a Bose L1 Compact PA and adjust the high, mid, and low knobs to around 11 o’clock. Occasionally, I plug directly into my Schertler David amp and make similar EQ adjustments. If you know how to use three-band EQ strategically, you can often get away without a pre-amp.”
Grammy-nominated jazz violinist Sara Caswell plays one of two violins, depending on the ensemble, instrumentation, setting, and repertoire: “For near-acoustic concerts requiring minimal amplification, I use a gorgeous 1908 Stefano Scarampella on loan to me since 1998 combined with a DPA 4099V instrument microphone—I’ve found no other clip mic to so cleanly and effortlessly capture the heart of my tone. When performing with a rhythm section or larger jazz ensemble, I use a 1905 Joseph Collingwood violin that has a LR Baggs bridge installed and route it through an LR Baggs Para Acoustic DI into the venue’s sound system. Because my desired EQ is already set on my DI, I’m making efficient use of my band’s allotted sound-check slot and avoid the challenges that sometimes occur between a violinist and sound technician regarding how to best EQ the violin.
“When amplification is necessary, but no house sound system is available, I use my Collingwood violin with the Baggs bridge and route it through an AER Compact 60 amplifier. Popular among guitarists, violinists, vocalists, and countless musicians seeking a clean and powerful enhancement of their natural tone, the AER is an incredible amp that also happens to be one of the most portable, NYC subway–friendly rigs around.”
For Illinois fiddle teacher Georgia Rae, the Realist violin pickup, made by New York luthier David Gage, gets the job done. “It is mounted under the bridge,” she says. “I have tried a few different pickups over the years and the Realist definitely captures the true tone of my five-string fiddle. I go into a Red-Eye Twin DI box that has a built-in preamp, through a looper, delay, wah-wah, and octave pedal before going out of a Fishman Loudbox mini amp. Even though I like to use effects and loop pedals, I still like my fiddle to sound acoustic, so over years of testing out different combos, this is the best yet.”
“When amplifying an acoustic instrument,” Evan Price says, “I find it helpful to know what my top three trouble frequencies will be, so I can either make EQ adjustments on my own amp, if I’m using one, or politely ask the sound engineer to make the adjustments. For example, I happen to know that middle C vibrates just above 250hz, so if my sound is too boxy, I can turn down the low-mids or ask the engineer to watch out for that frequency. If my sound happens to be too nasal, I would look for 2khz. If there’s too much bow noise, I could cut the highs at 4khz and up.”