HomeNotes on Amplified Fiddles

Part 1: Microphones

Before the advent of audio amplification technology in the previous century, options for making fiddles louder were limited. The classical approach--adding more players--can’t be applied to the folksier genres which use improvisation and have small budgets. Fortunately (if belatedly by guitar standards), technology enables a fiddle to command a mix no matter how loud the band’s stage volume has to be.

There is a large variety of good amplification solutions, so my goal is not to tell you what to buy (when I mention a certain product, it should not be construed as an endorsement). Instead, I want to arm you with some theory and vocabulary--and the odd anecdote from my own loud-band travels. Hopefully this is useful when you audition amplification schemes to suit your particular needs. After defining some terms, I will discuss mainly onstage use of microphones here and defer direct pickups to Part 2 and Part 3.

Jumping to the over-arching conclusion, amplification on the live soundstage involves trade-offs. Most likely, your amplified fiddle will not sound exactly like an acoustic one. Nor will it respond exactly the same way. But do not be discouraged: Properly equipped and practiced, you will still sound very good, and in certain ways, even better. I like to think of the amplified fiddle as a somewhat different instrument. As with any new instrument, you'll learn how to make it sound its best as you interact with it.

The minimum parts of any amplification system are: (1) a transducer, (2) a power amplifier, and (3) a loudspeaker. A transducer converts sound or mechanical vibrations into an electrical analog--a signal. Examples include microphones and direct pickups. Commonly, “transducer” means only “direct pickup,” but technically, mics are also transducers. An amplifier is an electronic device that boosts signal power; the amount of boost is called gain. A loudspeaker converts an amp’s output into sound. “Amplifier” or “amp” can also mean a single housing with both electronics and loudspeaker(s). These are also called “combo amps,” as opposed to “amp heads” with separate speaker cabinets.

Usually the power amplifier is preceded by a preamplifier. A “preamp” (for short) can be built-in to the power amp or be a separate unit. Several preamps may feed a single power amp, as happens in a mixer. (Public address or “PA” systems include a mixer, power amps, main speakers, and usually stage monitors.) A preamp has variable gain and loads the transducer with compatible impedance. Impedance refers to the ability of one device to transfer power to the next. Low-loss transfer (and hence good tone) requires that the impedance of a preamp’s input is higher than that of the transducer’s output. By analogy, say you’re a transducer and output a cranking motion. Your “signal” can efficiently transfer power to a wind-up clock (higher impedance than you), but not to a turbine in a power plant (lower impedance).

Using a microphone as the transducer gives a fiddle its best chance of sounding like its acoustic self. A mic is quite practical when playing with other acoustic musicians and no drums--a bluegrass band, say. Your mic should be plugged into the PA mixer together with the rest of the band’s instrument and vocal mics. But there is a limit to how loud you can be on a mic without causing feedback. Generally, feedback happens when the gain is so high that, at the mic, the fiddle’s amplified sound is as loud as its direct sound. Choosing the right mic and carefully positioning it helps mitigate feedback.

The most useful microphones for live sound are directional--they have reduced sensitivity to sounds coming from their sides and rear. Of these, the most common pick-up pattern is cardioid (heart-shaped). Then comes hypercardioid, with even less lateral (at the expense of greater rear) sensitivity. The microphone’s operating principle, condenser versus dynamic, is important; typically, condensers give the more detailed high-frequency performance and sound better on fiddles. Finally, mics may be classified as “small-” or “large-diaphragm.” The latter have an extended low-frequency response unnecessary (and deleterious in a live setting) for reinforcing the fiddle. Overall, I recommend small-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphones for live fiddles.

Microphone placement is a critical factor, and is where the trade-offs start. The loudest possible feedback-free sound requires close mic placement. However, a fiddle’s acoustic sound comes from the sum of all its vibrating parts, including air in the body, and is best captured at some distance. Putting a mic up close can sound harsh. Finding the best “sweet spot” (i.e., trade-off) involves plenty of trial and error, and in many cases, equalization (tailoring your channel’s frequency response). A variety of devices are available for mounting a light-weight mic to the fiddle itself, offering you freedom of movement. In some ways this is like using a direct pickup (see Part 2 and Part 3), but with a greater sensitivity to feedback.

I like to isolate the mic from the fiddle using a mic stand equipped with a boom. The mic should be above the fiddle, not pointing straight at it but angled at about 45 degrees toward you. You can keep your fiddle about a foot away from it while playing rhythm and lean in as close as an inch or two for solos. This type of dynamic control (mic technique) is not available with a mic mounted on the fiddle itself. A boom-mounted mic also gets your backup vocals nicely into the mix (but if you sing many leads I would recommend a second, dedicated mic, ususally a dynamic type). I tend to use an AKG C-1000S for bluegrass gigs and have never blamed that microphone for sounding bad.

Some of the evolution of such genres as bluegrass occurred during the age of electronic amplification. Accordingly, certain approaches to sound reinforcement have risen to the level of tradition, and this needs to be respected depending on the band you’re in (the same way that your fiddling style needs to complement the band). In some traditional bluegrass bands, for example, everyone shares a single large-diaphragm condenser mic (the Audio-Technica 4033 is a popular choice); players jockey for position as they swap solos.

Here in southwestern Ohio, I’ve noticed that most bluegrass bands use individual instrument mics and a mixer/PA. Direct instrument pickups are frowned upon except for the bass fiddle in many cases. While music would never evolve if traditions were inviolable laws, sometimes traditions are reasonable. For example, I was in a bluegrass band where, one by one, players switched from mics to direct pickups as if it were a musical arms race. Accordingly, we became over-loud and certainly less traditional-sounding. And we were sometimes frowned upon except in the most rowdy venues.

Hearing yourself well is especially critical while playing a fiddle. Using a microphone, you can’t rely on stage monitors without courting feedback. (Properly set up, in-ear monitors, or IEMs, side-step this issue essentially by making a live soundstage emulate a studio environment. This is still an exotic approach for most work-a-day bands so I won’t discuss this further here.) Where you’re standing, most of the fiddle sound is coming directly from your instrument. The amplified sound you do hear is mostly back-wash from the main PA speakers and room reflections. This sounds like “fullness” that increases as you lean into the mic. You’ll know that you are amplified; obviously you need to hear some of the amplified sound to develop and maintain good mic technique.

But if you can’t hear yourself well, find yourself constantly leaning into the mic and playing hard, or otherwise can’t express the dynamics you need, then most likely you are sitting in with a band that’s too loud for you to use a microphone. You should then consider using a direct pickup. I will pick up the discussion there in Part 2.

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