How To: Amplify Your Violin, Cello, Viola or Double Bass
Thanks to some ingenious engineering across the past few hundred years, string instruments already do a pretty good job of amplifying themselves. However, there are many reasons for combining this traditional expertise with the possibilities that modern technology offers. Perhaps you’re playing in a band and need help competing with an enthusiastic drummer. Maybe you’re interested in exploring the new sounds that you can make using electronic effects such as reverb and distortion. Or are you intrigued by the possibilities of live looping? In this article we’ll go from the absolute basics of amplifying a violin, viola, cello or double bass, through to some of the most exciting opportunities offered by doing so.
How does amplification work?
To start, it’s helpful to have a basic idea of how amplification works. At its simplest, a microphone will take sound waves, and convert them to a small electrical signal. This small signal is then boosted by an amplifier, which uses electricity to turn those small electrical signals into significantly more powerful sounds coming out of a speaker. A pickup is similar, except that it picks up surface vibrations as opposed to sound waves—we’ll come back to this one later.
Electric or acoustic?
The first question for many is whether to buy an electric instrument, or just stick with a traditional acoustic instrument and amplify that. There are benefits and downsides to both.
Because electric instruments have pickups built into them, they don’t have to follow the same rules traditional acoustic instruments do in construction. The fun, futuristic shapes this allows are definitely eye-catching, but the lack of an acoustic resonating chamber also has a more practical effect—it means the instruments barely make a noise unless they’re plugged in and amplified.
This lack of immediate sound makes electric instruments perfect as a quiet practice choice. The Yamaha Silent Violin and Cello, Presto and Hidersine ranges are purpose-designed for this, featuring a headphone jack and included pre-amplifier, meaning you can just plug in your headphones and keep your playing all to yourself.
However, the lack of immediate aural response, coupled with the cost of purchasing a whole new instrument, means that many players instead choose to amplify their acoustic, “traditional” instrument.
Pickup or microphone?
When amplifying an acoustic string instrument, you have two main options: a pickup or a microphone. A pickup works by measuring surface vibrations, and will usually be positioned in or under the instrument’s bridge. A microphone measures the soundwaves instead of vibrations, a small but important difference. There’s a kaleidoscopic range of microphone options on the market, but when it comes to amplifying string instruments there are a couple of industry-standard models that we’ll focus on here.
Pickups have a number of good points. They’re generally much more affordable than microphones, and can be used in more versatile situations due to having a much lower potential for causing feedback (the screeching sound microphones can make when they start picking up the amplified sound they’re making). However, due to the way they work, they will never be able to create as “natural” a sound as microphones will.
Popular pickup and microphone options stocked at Simply for Strings include:
- Cost effective, ranging from $359 for violin to $599 for double bass.
- Can be very easily attached to and removed from the instrument, making it great as an entry-point into amplification
- Cost effective, ranging from $375 for violin to $399 to cello.
- Fitted under the bridge, meaning it will likely need to be installed in-store, and making it harder to remove easily.
- Slightly more “natural” tone due to under-bridge placement.
- Easily attached to and removed from the instrument.
- Good sound quality, particularly for a removable pickup
- Durable, high-quality construction
- Slightly more expensive than the Band or original Realist Pickup: $465 for violin/viola, and $765 for Cello/Double Bass
DPA D:Vote 4099
- Industry-standard clip-on microphone
- Easily attached to and removed from the instrument.
- Exceptional sound quality
- More expensive than pickups, at $1019
- Slightly higher risk of feedback than pickups
- Requires “phantom power” (more on this below).
So you’ve decided on an electric instrument, pickup or microphone. What next?
If you purchased an electric instrument, it may have a 1/8" headphone connector and preamplifier incorporated, meaning you can just plug in your headphones or a speaker “aux cord”, and start playing. Otherwise, you’ll need cables and an amplifier.
Most pickups and electric instruments just require a 1/4" “jack” lead. Prices vary depending on cable length and quality, and can range from single digits to hundreds of dollars, but you should be able to purchase decent beginner cable for around $20.
Microphones use a different cable with a three-pin connector, called an XLR cable. The benefit to these cables is they are “balanced”, meaning there’s a lot less potential for electrical noise and interference. They’re also as widespread and roughly the same price as 1/4 cables. One note if you went this route is that your microphone may require phantom power to work—such as the DPA D:Vote 4099 does. All this means is you need to switch “on” the phantom power option on your amplifier or mixing desk. This is often simply labelled as “48v”, as this is the voltage the amplifier will send back through the XLR cable as direct current to power your microphone, allowing the microphone to pick up sounds with greater subtlety and power.
Next you’ll need an amplifier. Again, there’s a plethora of options here, but you can help narrow down choices by considering what you’re picturing doing with your new electric getup. For home practice, something like the Blackstar Fly 3 Acoustic Mini Amp is a budget-friendly option at $115. If you want more volume and flexibility, with the potential to use the amp for performances, the Fishman Loudbox Mini is a firm favourite, and a great balance between price, quality and flexibility for around $600. Finally, if you’re looking for the professional option, AER acoustic amps are regarded as the best in the game—but expect to pay at least $1200 for one.
Let’s get playing!
It’s good form to make sure the power is switched “off” and volume all the way down on the amplifier before connecting up your equipment, to avoid “pops” and “clicks” that can damage the speaker over time. Once you’ve connected everything up, turn on the amplifier, check the volume level on your pickup or electric instrument is set to roughly midway if you have one on board, then gradually turn up the sound on your amplifier until you reach the volume you want. When you’re finished, make sure to turn down the volume and switch off your amplifier again before disconnecting everything.
From here, the possibilities are endless. Your amplifier will likely have a few effects on board already—try playing with “reverb” or “chorus” turned up and hear the difference it makes to your sound. If you are interested in playing around with effects more, your next step is to explore pedals that you connect between your instrument and the amplifier.
Are you interested in looping your instrument? Again, you can get a number of different pedals for that, starting at around $125 for a basic pedal, and pedals with options such as quantisation (slight rhythm correction to make everything fit together neatly) from $300.
The other option when exploring effects, looping and recording is to do this through a computer. To run your electric or amplified instrument through your computer, you will need an Audio Interface such as the Scarlett 2i2 (around $200), which converts the signals from your pickup or microphone into a digital signal that can be used by your computer. Once you have one of those, you can record directly into free programs such as Garage Band on a Mac, or Audacity on Windows.
For the next level up, the program Ableton Live is purpose-built for live use, as well as functioning as a full-featured Digital Audio Workstation, and though the initial outlay may be more than a couple of pedals, the possibilities it provides are endless. As an example, check out violinist Todd Reynolds, who uses Ableton and a violin as the basis for his live performances.
Any questions not answered here? Feel free to contact us at any time using the link above, and one of our friendly staff members will be in touch posthaste!
About the author: Kieran Welch is a violist, curator and DJ. He regularly performs works for viola, live and pre-recorded electronics across Australia and internationally, as a soloist, with groups such as Nonsemble, and for the concert series he runs called Dots+Loops. He is also one of our friendly sales associates at Simply for Strings.