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Pickups, Microphones or Electric String Instruments?

How to amplify the sound of strings.

We orchestral string players are used to playing acoustically… until we’re asked to play in a situation where the sound from our instrument isn’t going to project enough or cut through a louder group of instrumentalists.

The good news is that there are a few different ways to solve the problem. One rather drastic option is to add a pickup to your instrument, but doing so may require a physical alteration that could degrade its sound or decrease its value. Other options, which are far less invasive, include miking your instrument – either by placing a microphone on a stand a distance away or with the use of a clip-on mic. Alternatively, you can simply play an electric string instrument instead.

So which works best? Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.

Adding a pickup to your acoustic instrument

The decision to add a pickup to your beloved instrument can be a difficult one. As classical string players, we aren’t used to modifying our instruments other than adding a mute or using a different bowing technique to increase or decrease volume. But if you are considering installing a pickup, here’s some important information.

Pickups come in a variety of shapes, sizes and technologies. Some are permanent installations that are added to the body and bridge of the instrument, in which case you might want to consider owning a second fiddle (no pun intended!). Some pickups are less permanent, usually requiring a bridge swap, a stick-on or clip-on bridge pickup, or the addition of a jack at the side or under the chinrest to accommodate an output cable. All of these extra parts and pieces take some getting used to, and they can change the feel and weight of your instrument. Permanently installed pickups tend to provide a more reliable output and consistent tone; the less permanent ones may not quite be so good at delivering such consistency, but they do offer a less intrusive option.

Pros:
– Keep playing your acoustic instrument for feel, looks and sound
– Amplifies the genuine acoustic sound of your instrument

Cons:
– Acoustic instrument needs permanent or partial modification
– Output can be inconsistent, especially in nonpermanent installations
– No ability to eliminate the acoustic sound completely

Amplifying your acoustic instrument with a microphone

Microphones can be very sophisticated these days, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The mic can be mounted on a stand positioned near or directly above the musician, or it can be a small clip-on mic mounted at the side of the body of the instrument or directly on the bridge.

Pros:
– Small and portable
– Least invasive option for occasional use
– Continue playing your regular acoustic with no permanent installation

Cons:
– May pick up potential surface noise, e.g. wind or coughing
– If improperly positioned, may result in uneven sound
– Can limit physical movement when playing
– May require additional battery pack or power source

Playing with a microphone can be a quick and convenient way to get through the occasional gig that requires amplification. You may not feel ready to invest in another instrument or to permanently install a pickup (which can provide more reproducable sonic results). It’s also possible that your situation requires you to “look” acoustic. In these circumstances, a microphone will work fine for simple stage use where you don’t need to move around too much.

But what happens when your environment is less controlled or you need freedom of movement?

Playing an electric stringed instrument

That’s where electric stringed instruments can provide the best option. There are many different models available. Choosing one that is right for you is much like choosing a traditional acoustic stringed instrument – look, feel, features, price point and ease of playing will all affect your decision. Electric violins, violas and cellos have their own personality, just like acoustic instruments.

Once you have chosen an electric that feels right for you, you’re ready to plug in and play!

Pros:
– Amplifies directly and cleanly – with no surface noise like wind or coughing
– Easy to add effects like reverb or distortion
– Resilient in outdoor environments
– Control volume from your instrument – including muting for quiet tuning, etc.

Cons:
– Different sound than acoustic
– Needs a power source – active (batteries) or passive (amp power)
– Slight adjustment playing a second/different instrument
– Learning curve to optimize sound

One of the biggest advantages to using an electric instrument for amplified playing is that it is designed for exactly this purpose. You can easily make electric stringed instruments wireless too.

True, not everyone expects the violinist to show up with something that looks and sounds a bit different, but a unique-looking instrument can potentially add to a performance as well. Best of all, an electric stringed instrument gives you much greater sonic control, enabling you to tailor your sound to your performance situation.

Last but not least, let’s take a look at…

3 common myths about electric stringed instruments

1) Special strings are required. Wrong! Electrics use regular violin/cello/viola strings.
2) A special bow is needed. Wrong again! Though you could get a really cool second bow, like carbon fiber, which is more resilient in different environments.
3) You need a special shoulder rest, case and other accessories. With a few exceptions, this is not true either, although many electric cellos come with their own special carrying case/bag.

The approach you decide upon will depend upon your needs and circumstances. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice – but the good news is that there are lots of options.

Check out the Yamaha line up of silent, electric and acoustic strings.

Other blog postings you might find of interest:

What’s the Difference Between an Electric Violin and a Silent Violin?



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Heather Mansell is an accomplished violinist and a 15-year Yamaha employee. She started her career in the musical products industry in Toronto, after her orchestral stand partner offered her a job at a downtown violin shop. Heather is now based out of Southern California at Yamaha Corporation of America and is the product manager for Orchestral Strings. She has eagerly traveled to over a dozen countries in the pursuit of learning about people, places and music.

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