Electrifying Your Violin: Mics vs Pickups vs Electric Instruments

For a violinist growing up in the classical or folk tradition, going electric comes with a learning curve that can be intimidating. After years of playing a wooden box designed hundreds of years ago, plugging in and turning on and crank it up was an entirely new sensation.

But the truth is that electrifying a violin begins simply with selecting a method of amplification, such as a microphone, pickup or an electric instrument, and there is a range of options at a variety of price points.

Here’s what you need to consider if you want to electrify your violin.

Mic’ing a Violin: Boom vs. Mounted

Using a microphone to amplify a violin is just like speaking into a microphone. The microphone is placed close to the sound source, picks up the sound and creates an electrical signal that gets amplified and projected by the speakers. There are basically two ways to do this.

First, you can use a regular mic on a boom stand and angle the mic toward the sound source. This method is best suited to the studio; and because it is highly variable, applications are somewhat limited in performance settings.

Myers The Feather Violin Pickup

Myers "The Feather" Violin Pickup

The second way is through a mounted violin microphone; a small mic is mounted to the side of the instrument and positioned over the bridge area to directly pick up the sound.

The “pro” of this approach is that a microphone is the most natural sounding compared to the other methods of amplification. If you love the sound of your instrument and want its true sound to come through, this is a good option.

The “con” is that microphones bleed, meaning that they pick up sound from places other than the intended source of amplification. Have you ever watched a newscast and heard some drunk guy behind the reporter slurring and yelling? This is microphone bleed at its best, but mic bleed in your sound will be more frustrating than funny. For example, if you’re playing close to a loud drum kit and the crash cymbal is bleeding through, then the crash cymbal will be turned up along with the violin. So, unless you are working in a quieter environment, there’s a different and better way.

Electric Violin Pickups

Pickups are becoming the preferred method to amplify violins, especially as more violinists are taking the leap into non-classical genres. Typically they are mounted on the instrument, near or under the bridge or tailpiece. While this technology is relatively new compared to the age of the violin, the quality of these products continues to improve; they have almost no bleed and they are relatively inexpensive.

Barcus-Berry 3100 Violin Piezo Pickup

Barcus-Berry 3100 Violin Piezo Pickup

The most common type of pickup for violins is the piezo pickup, which is known for its high-output and bright sound, making them a great option when higher volume is necessary. Piezos also are relatively inexpensive, starting at under $50. A pickup can be mounted to a regular acoustic violin and then easily removed when you don’t need it, or want to use it on another instrument.

In addition to piezo pickups, there also are magnetic and electrodynamic pickups, which are newer technologies for the violin and tend to be more expensive. Generally, they also are thought to sound warmer than piezos, which some consider to be harsh sounding.

Electric and Acoustic-Electric Violins

Acoustic-electric violins, which feature permanently installed pickups, are another option, and they offer one big advantage: convenience. Temporarily-mounted pickups can be more variable with their sound since slight differences in placement occur each time the instrument is mounted. Many times an Allen key or screwdriver is needed to mount a pickup, so an acoustic-electric bypasses this hassle.

Fender FV-1 Electric Violin

Fender FV-1 Electric Violin

An electric instrument, on the other hand, commonly has a solid body and relies on the built-in pickup system to create its sound. Having a solid body reduces the risk of feedback, but a downside is that a solid body is much heavier than a hollow body. To reduce the weight and offer better balance, electric solid-body violins frequently are shaped differently than traditional violins.

If you’ve built your technique around a traditional acoustic violin, the changes in the shape and feel of an electric violin can be a bit jarring, at least initially. And, not surprisingly, each make and model has a different feel and sound, making selection preference highly individual, based on your physical build, personal preferences and performance needs.

For example, the Fender FV-1 electric violin is heavier than an acoustic violin but has a slimmer body. When I played it, it seemed like it wasn’t the best fit for my body type. The instrument kept sliding forward because I couldn’t support the added weight. However, I have seen people with broader shoulders play it without a problem.

Needless to say, you won’t find an electric violin at a classical concert. Electric instruments are best suited for rock, jazz, pop, or anything that doesn’t require a traditional look and sound.

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Plugging-In

Once you’ve decided on your type of amplification, you have to decide what to plug into. Designated violin amps are available, but many violin players choose to play through acoustic guitar amplifiers, which are designed to create a large sound without coloring it.

A bonus is that many acoustic amps have reverb, which is great for adding the depth that frequently is lost in the amplification process. If you want a colored sound, you can go with an electric guitar amp, which will offer more opportunities to color the violin’s sound. Either way, now the fun begins, opening the way to guitar pedals and other nontraditional violin gear.

There you have it: Tune up, turn on and welcome to the world of the electric violin.

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