HomeNotes on Amplified Fiddles

Part 3: Preamps, Amps, and Monitors

In Part 2, I briefly surveyed the main kinds of pickups available for fiddle, argued that a pickup can’t sound exactly like the acoustic instrument in which it is installed, and said that I favor the popular in-bridge piezo types. Now it’s time to discuss amplification options for your consideration. As before, specific companies or products that I mention are not endorsements.

It would be interesting to know how many piezo pickups end up in acoustic guitars per fiddle pickup installed. I bet the ratio is 100:1 or more. This is actually a good thing for pickup-equipped fiddle players--we can now choose from a variety of piezo-compatible preamps and “acoustic instrument amps” (combo amps with a full-range loudspeaker system) which owe their availability to the popularity of amplified acoustic guitars. This popularity wave may have begun in 1989, the year MTV Unplugged debuted.

Piezo pickups are so ubiquitous that virtually all “acoustic instrument preamps” and “acoustic instrument amplifiers” provide appropriate high-impedance inputs. A web search on these key words will take you to products useful for fiddle. Also, the top manufacturers of fiddle pickups sell compatible preamps worth considering. Important preamp or combo amp features include good equalization (EQ) controls, a balanced direct output (male XLR jack) that can be hooked to a PA, a mute switch and tuner output, and an effects loop (side chain) jack.

Some advanced preamps target players who want to sound as acoustic as technologically possible. For example, if you use both a fiddle-mounted mic (see Part 1) and a piezo pickup, a Fishman “Blender” has a preamp channel for each. It lets you mix the two signals for optimum timbre and feedback rejection. A more recent innovation by Fishman is their “Aura” products, which combine a preamp with a digital signal processor (DSP; a kind of specialized computer). This lets you blend the direct pickup signal and a DSP-produced “image” of an actual studio-recorded acoustic violin. Perhaps this technology offers the best chance for making a loudly amplified fiddle sound acoustic. Fishman pioneered many successful acoustic instrument amplification technologies; maybe they will finally disprove my theory of amplification “trade-offs.” More power to them.

Individual fiddlers are unique and should audition pickups, preamps and amps to find within-budget favorites. But I recommend that you do use an amp onstage, especially if your band’s PA can’t supply a special monitor mix to you. The reason is simple: you need to hear more fiddle than anyone else in the band will ever want. Your amp serves as your stage monitor without complicating the job of the sound-person (if any). If you use an “acoustic instrument amp,” branch your signal to the PA using your amp’s or preamp’s direct output. If you use a guitar amp like I do (see below), mic the amp the same way the guitar players do, with a good cardioid dynamic mic like a Shure SM-57 close to the loudspeaker.

My bridge-embedded piezo pickup (see Part 2) seems to over-do the low end, so I cut the bass and crank up the treble on my preamp’s three-band EQ. Then I send the signal to a guitar amp--usually a 1970s Music Man combo with 50-watt tube output and one 12-inch loudspeaker. I hasten to say that most other players may prefer the amps purpose-built for acoustic instruments. But I like the way a clean (not set for over-drive) tube-type guitar amp naturally rolls off the extreme high-end where hissy non-harmonic bow noise can otherwise come through. I also like the spring reverb, a little of which fills out the sound for mid- and fast-tempo songs. Or it can be laid on thick for slow ballads, helping the dancers polish their belt buckles.

Depending on musical genre, you may be tempted to experiment with some effects to expand your tone palette. Insert effects pedals either between preamp and power amp or in the amp’s “effects loop” jack. Reverb is usually a basic winner, of course. Delay (“echo”) is nice if you want to channel Jean-Luc Ponty (or at least imitate his channel). Chorusing can sound like a large string section. Flangers and envelope followers evoke the ’60s. But distortion units work by adding gain and are problematic with pickup-equipped acoustic fiddles, especially if you are nearly as loud as possible using clean amplification. The more distortion you try to add, the quieter your sound must be to avoid feedback.

Good piezo pickups and preamps let you retain the full, natural dynamic control you are used to from playing acoustically. However, for an additional layer of control, you can insert a volume pedal into the effects loop or between preamp and amp. Or a qualified electronics technician can often modify a preamp by adding a foot switch that lets you alternate between pre-set “rhythm” and “lead” gains (e.g., see this link). When you sound-check with your band, make sure your maximum volume settings are below the feedback threshold.

Feedback through a pickup-equipped acoustic fiddle occurs because of the reversibility phenomenon mentioned in Part 2. The body resonates with the ambient sound and couples this energy to the bridge, strings, and pickup. If your band is pretty loud, you may find yourself playing near the edge of feedback. You’ll know this is happening when certain notes seem to “play themselves” once you barely start a bow stroke. And you find yourself urgently damping open strings as you play. Even at volumes below the feedback threshold, you will probably notice the fiddle responding differently than when playing acoustically. In effect, you are playing a different instrument, but you’ll adapt to it and hopefully grow to like it, as I do. Properly amplified, you command tremendous power.

If you need to be louder than a pickup-equipped acoustic fiddle can get, or want to use distortion effects, consider getting a solid-body electric fiddle. (I use the term “body” loosely because most of these look rather skeletal to me.) They have a very high feedback threshold, like an electric guitar. Stuffing foam rubber in the f-holes of an acoustic fiddle might help a little, but not much. You could try what I did with my pickup-equipped mandolin--stuffing its entire body cavity with foam and sealing the f-holes with black electrical tape (don’t do this to a fine violin), yielding a noticeable increase in loudness before feedback. The pieces of foam are tied together with string so I can fish them out.

Here’s one way to summarize these articles so far: As one needs to play fiddle ever louder, one needs to move a transducer ever closer to the strings, reducing and ultimately eliminating the role of the instrument’s body. The trade-off is that the body is critical to an acoustic fiddle’s voice, so you risk sounding very different as you become loud. But that’s not necessarily bad; neither is it where the story ends. In Part 4, I will show that picking up vibrations within or close to a fiddle highlights a little-known, virtually unique property of the bowed instrument. (Hint: look in the mirror.) So stay “tuned.”

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