Electric Fiddle

Electric Fiddle

Well, I just want to brag about my new toy. I recently purchased a Yamaha electric violin, which was originally intended as a practice instrument for music students (it’s almost silent when not amplified and has a headphone output). I’m thrilled with it! What I like about it is that it doesn’t sound electric, but rather like a decent acoustic fiddle. Well worth the $650 I laid down for it!

Out of curiosity, does/would anyone else out there consider using an electric instrument, or do you think it’s dire blasphemy? πŸ™‚

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I’ve considered going electric and have looked at the Yamaha and also Zeta. If I got one, I doubt our session would accept it, but I’d certainly use it for gigs where there’s a sound system. The thing is, you can find a decent sounding electric for a lot less than a good acoustic fiddle, or at least use chorus and reverb to fill out the tone as needed.

But I’ve hesitated because of the blasphemy factor. Just can’t bring myself to do it. So…anyone have a really sweet sounding acoustic fiddle out there they’re looking to sell?
Will

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Well, Eileen Ivers uses her famous blue electric almost exclusively, so what the hell. She’s used to have a full description of the thing on her website, but I don’t see it anymore.

Jessica Ziegler uses one of the soundpost mikes (the ones that replace the soundpost and the tailpin), and she loves it; they’re about as expensive as getting an electric.

I’m playing with a bunch of violins-in-the-white to teach myself more about my instrument. Three of them are bodies intended for becoming electric fiddles. You’re supposed to take the tops off, drill a hole in the top plate, paint the thing, install the pickup, put it back together. I had intended to simply paint them (in fun colors) and set them up and give them away as Christmas gifts, but maybe I’ll go buy a pickup and try one out as an electric. Mine, probably - I thought I’d do either a Chinese red laquer look or perhaps a glossy black. Might be fun to fool about with the electrical idea on those…

Zina

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Do you make violins, Z? How did you come to be installing pickups in violin bodies?

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When Eileen plays traditional, she’s as good as anyone. I listen to Wild Blue as much as my other cds, but that’s probably because I’m an old rockn’roller. Ivers was the headliner at the Washington DC Irish Fest three years ago, but people left in droves when she started playing reggae and broke out the heavy distortion. She actually leaned into the mic and tried to talk them into staying. And this was a fairly open-minded crowd—jiving to Lunasa and Solas all day.

So can anyone compare Yamaha and Zeta (and maybe a custom electric) based on first hand playing? Or all they all only as good as your amp?
Will

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Will, you’d be amazed (or maybe you wouldn’t) at the amount of people who think that Lunasa is a totally traditional band. I never quite know what to say when somebody tells me that.

I don’t make violins, Jeff — I just thought that playing around finishing and setting up fiddles-in-the-white would be a good way to learn something more about my instrument. I bought a bunch of them cheap ($25 - $65 each) and will be finishing them various ways and setting them up, from reaming the peg holes to setting the bridges and soundposts. Three of them are from a manufacturer who sells them to people making electrics. You pop the top plate off and add the pickups and finish the things. They’re quite cheap, I’m sure they don’t sound great as acoustics, but then I don’t want to practice on something nice, if you know what I mean.

Will, at one point I looked round at electrics. I tried both the Yahamas and the Zetas, plus a few more. I liked the ones from a tiny company in Florida that I can’t remember the name of off hand at the moment, I know that’s not very helpful. But a luthier told me just what you ended up with — they’re mainly only as good as the sound equipment. His idea on it all was, with the electronics, you get what you pay for. I’m no audiophile, they both sounded fine to me, although I did hear the difference when he showed me various setups. What have you tried so far?

Zina

Fiddle Envy

I envy you guys, a violin is already the nicest and loudest thing in Irish music. Why do you want to make it even louder and more interesting?
πŸ™‚

I think if yo’re after amplification, you can get better sound out of an acoustic instrument with the help of a really good microphone. I think you get a better representation of the complexities of the sound this way.

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Glauber, have you not sat around a session trying to compete with a piano accordian? Heh.

I have to say that I really didn’t hear much difference between Jessica’s soundpost mike and any given electric fiddle…

Zina

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As for the accordion, it’s the best argument I can think of in favor of electric fiddles… *heh heh* πŸ™‚

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You know what the most beautiful sound in the world is, don’t you?

That’s when you throw the accordian into the dumpster and it lands on top of the banjo….

*giggle*

Zina

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Ah, yes, and of course you know the difference between an accordion and a dead skunk in the road? Skid marks before the skunk! hee hee…

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You know what you call an accordian player with a answering machine, yes?

An optimist! *grin*

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I think a soundpost mike would probably sound like a pickup, because the mic is too close to the source of the sound, there’s not enough air space for the sound to develop. I prefer a real microphone meant for instruments (not a voice microphone). Actually, when recording i like to use 2 microphones, but that doesn’t work very well for live performance. The key is experimentation until you find something you like.

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The only problem with external mics is you can’t move! Sound men hate it when you move out of the mic’s "sweet spot", and who can play fiddle, flute, etc. without at least swaying a bit?

A friend of mine has a tiny condenser mic in her 12-string that sounds awesome. I believe it’s made by Martin. I don’t know if it would work in a fiddle.

Obviously, we need to move all sessions and performances to Carnegie Hall, where mics are unnecessary!

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I have a friend who uses these little sticky pickups, three or four of them, stuck to different places on her guitar. That way, she feels, she can get all the nuances of sound across the spectrum of the guitar. I actually bought three of them for my fiddle on her advice, but haven’t tried it yet. It actually sounds pretty good on her guitar, and the pickups were remarkably cheap (like, ten dollars each), so I figure it’s worth a try someday.

Zina

Sticky pickup things

Yes, now you mention them i remember the sticky piezoelectric pickup things from my guitar playing days. They used to come with the stick white rubbery goo that’s impossible to get out of the varnish!
I think that’s a step in the right direction; you want to get the sound of the full instrument, or at least sample the sound from different places in the instrument. The bridge is not a particularly good sounding place, at least in guitars; you need to so some amount of signal processing to make that sound good (i think the Ovations have 6 independent pickups in the bridge with active electronics to make them sound good).
I’m not sure how well the guitar pickups would work on the violin, since the harmonic range is much wider. They would have to be good quality pickups to work.

For recording (flute) i like to have 1 microphone about halfway between the blow hole and the middle of the flute, and another close to the end. This gives me some interesting stereo effects. Another good position for the second microphone is overhead, behind the player, slightly to the right. Sometimes i like to have the microphones very hot and play softly. I detest artificial "reverb"; it’s a pet peeve of mine.

For performance i use 1 microphone in front of the blow hole, since nothing else really works; but i try not to catch "wind" on it. I like the Senheiser (MD421) microphone because it has a good sound and it’s robust enough to carry on the road.

I would expect the Yamaha electric violins to sound better than an accoustic violin with a pickup or a bridgepost microphone, since it’s been designed as an electric.

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Hmm. I don’t know about that last, Glauber. Violins are made a certain way to make the sound travel from strings to bridge, across both plates through the bass bar and soundpost and reverberate within the body and back. The wood of the plates, arches, thickness of the plates at different places, etc. all have effect. Response time depends on all those things and more. What gives the violin the timbre of the human voice is that it’s almost as complicated a space as our bodies are (or so the luthiers tell me).

A lot of people feel that electrics, because they depend on either just the reverberation from the strings (negligible — as you probably know, without a bridge connecting the strings to a plate, a violin is nearly silent), bridge and possibly the top plate, are missing some of the nuances (most of which I can’t personally hear; as I said, I’m not an audiophile). Some of the electrics don’t even have a full top plate, and their sound is, from what luthiers tell me, all from the bridge and strings.

On the other hand, a great deal of the luthier trade is built around the mystique of the violin, and a lot of people feel that snobbery about missing top plates and such is an effort to keep that mystique up.

There ARE makers out there who experiment with differently shaped violins, electrics, and other such. There are folks, as I’m sure you know, for whom the making of an acoustically perfect and efficient instrument is a life challenge (personally, getting through my day is mine). I wasn’t expecting to get all this stuff thrown at me when I decided to learn about my instrument (originally all I wanted to learn was how to change the strings, soundpost, bridge and pegs!), so I have to say that it’s all very confusing to me.

Zina

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I’m with you, Zina. My experience has been with guitar, not violin, but once you go electric, the parameters change. In the electric guitar, you have basically a solid body that will vibrate. It helps the notes sustain, but doesn’t affect the sound that much. With an electric, you’re faking the sound by adding electronics, because the pickups don’t care at all about all the complex vibrations that are happening in the air inside the instrument. Some manufacturers have become very good at this faking.

Of course the electric has advantages, such as the dynamic range (you can play much louder than an acoustic, but also much softer, if you want to practice). Not having to deal with microphones makes recording very easy, you can get professional quality recording in your garage.

I don’t like electrics myself.

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Jeff, I would n’t consider an electric fiddle for sessions but if you did any kind of solo/band work then possibly. Apart from having to carry more stuff along to a session, what sort of signal would it give to other players in your session,even,dare I say it,the piano accordianists?

If you do go the electric route then I don’t see why you should n’t experiment with feedback etc. but as someone said elsewhere,it’s best if you know the ‘rules’ before you muck about with them,whatever they may be(back again to Tommy Potts!).But in the context of communal sessions- it’s too much in your face,I think.
By the way,does anyone have experience of the Starfish electric fiddles?
Yours, unplugged but a great admirer of John Cale, Dave

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Zina - the little sticky pickups are made by Barcus Berry and are nicknamed "bugs". They make one especially for violin. Put it on the bridge. Do not, repeat DO NOT put it on the body of the instrument, the gum will mar the finish!

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Huh. They told me that these were non-finish marring sticky things. Righto, I’ll experiment on the wrecker fiddle on my wall. πŸ™‚

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I have a friend who uses a Skyinbow 5-string electric fiddle/viola, made by Kenny Johnstone in the Shetland Isles, which is fine. I don’t use an electric, because I don’t want to have to carry 2 instruments around for when I’m in an acoustic situation.

I often find I have to compete with loud instruments like a drum kit and amplified bass. It’s totally possible to do this effectively with a good pickup like the Shadow or the Fishman. Both of these have ‘fins’ that slot in the gaps in the bridge. They have negligible effect on the sound quality of the fiddle when unamplified, so can be left on all the time. To eliminate feedback, it’s best that the fiddle has a pre-amp and I use a Boss PQ4 pedal which allows 2 volume levels, which is handy for backing singers quietly, then loudly at solo time.

Greetings from Scotland!

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Hey, Kevvy, I totally forgot about the Shadow - good call! I knew someone who used one on her viola & it sounded good. Good point about the pre-amp, too.

Jeff

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I appreciate the practical uses of an electric fiddle. I play mandolin in an amplified band, so I know all about the importance of a good pickup.

I certainly wouldn’t object on moral grounds - electric guitars, hammond organs, samplers, drum machines - they’re all great in their own way, but the electric violin is something I can’t warm to. I’m told that the range of sounds it can produce is unlimited, that it can sound just the same as an acoustic violin. But whenever I hear an electric violin, whether it’s Eileen Ivers or Nigel Kennedy, there’s something about its sound which grates on me, like chalk on a blackboard, or worse, a fingernail on unglazed porcelain.

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Yes, I know what David means. The first pickup I bought was a Barcus Berry, I think Californian, device that screwed onto the bridge and gave just such a sound as you describe. There’s always a danger that thinking about the amplification level in an electric violin (or a pickup) will take precedence over the natural quality of the fiddle sound. My point was that I think I’ve found a good compromise that gives a fair representation of your instrument but at high volume.

About 6 years ago I played at ( my one and only) stadium gig at a festival in France, where the sound was organised at a very professional level by the best engineers. One of them asked me what I was using because he hadn’t heard such a good fiddle sound from a pickup before, and it was, as I said, my Shadow going through a Boss PQ4 pedal. This gear costs about (converting currency) $250 which is a lot cheaper than buying an extra instrument for loud occasions.

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Just took a look at this discussion. Use a Fishman pickup on an accoustic fiddle, because it won’t feedback like a a microphone does.. I agree that a well set up mike/pa delivers a more natural sound. I often find myself fiddling at community events where the stage is shared by a lot of different types of music, over the course of a day, and have grown tired of having a medley of tunes destroyed by feedback. Unless the soundman is extremely competent, (personally, I am not), the pickup is a safer way to go. It is a lot less effort to use the pickup; the fiddle is more responsive to the bow. If the pa is set up for exclusively accoustic instruments, then I will use a mike as long as it is a Schure 56 or better. Largely, the reason for the pickup is to deal with pa, which can be quite variable from event to event. But, the pickup is always a second choice; I prefer the accoustic sound whenever possible.

Q: An earlier message in this discussion mentioned the use of amplified fiddles in sessions with accordions. How are amplified instruments received in such sessions?

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I don’t know, Scotty, I’ve never had the brass to walk into a session with my electric! I imagine that at least at some sessions, there’d be a violent ejection involved…

For those debating the sound quality of an electric fiddle, I’ll state again that the Yamaha, if run "dry", has a very convincing sound - none of that weird ambience you hear on Jean-Luc Ponty or other jazz albums (seems to be a characteristic of Barcus-Berry fiddles). With both mics and pickups on acoustics, I’ve had serious feedback problems - the feedback from a fiddle is at least an octave higher than from a guitar, and it can make ears bleed at 500 yards!

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Violent ejection,,, perhaps the fiddler being violently ejected from the pub? πŸ™‚ Yes, a friend of mine has a Yamaha, and it is awesome. She is concerned about how people might react to her fiddle, so she uses it at home, with headsets on. It is a lot quieter for practice than an accoustic. I keep telling her to take it out with her. It looks so unique, and she is so talented that nobody would dare criticize her.

The Fishman pickups can sound quite good when set up right. Peter Chaisson in PEI has a fiddle/pa combination that is as good as amplified fiddler ever can be. Having heard his setup, I knew that if I ever got a pickup, it would be a Fischman, because I know that it can deliver the particular sound that I want.

My setup can be improved a lot, but I don’t have any idea what to do to get the sound that I am after. As it is, it is an advantage for me to have a device which is constant, whether it be a mike or a pickup. Having the same thing (pickup) allows me to get accustomed to it, and adjust my playing over time, so that I am getting better results than I did when every mike was different.

Met a fiddler at a street festival, from Toronto, playing TexMex. He has gone back to using a microphone, after years of plugging in a pickup. He has the experience to be able to tell the sound man what he needs, and the knowhow to get the most from the mike. As for me, I want to avoid that 20 minute sound check in front of the audience, and get on with tunes. Maybe in a few years, I’ll feel differently.

Never had feedback with a pickup, unless I got too close to a microphone…, didn’t know that it was possible. When it comes to pa,
I am a wimp.

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Scotty — you naive SOB…IS there anyone so talented that no one will criticize them?! Heh.

Hm. Now that I think of it, SHOULD there be? hehehe…

zls

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Hi Folks,

I just found this group and have enjoyed reading peoples comments. I wanted to add my $0.02 on the subject (like everybody, I have my opinions). Sorry if it’s too long of a post, but I’ve been focusing on this subject recently & wanted to share what I’ve been finding — hope it’s useful!

I carry 2 fiddles — a good acoustic and a Yamaha electric. I play alot of weddings, contra & ceili dances and the occasional concert — usually through a PA system & about half the time I’m doing my own sound.

The Yamaha is fun to play, looks cool and generally sounds pretty good with no feedback.

On the downside, the Yamaha lacks the character of an acoustic violin — the sound is nice & warm, but a little sterile (i.e. lacking familiar overtones). Also, since you don’t get much sound from the instrument itself, you really need your own amplifier on stage. Without one, by the time I’m loud enough in the monitor mix to hear myself, my bandmates are ready to kill me. I guess electric guitarists have known this for decades.

So I usually prefer to play on a "real" fiddle and use an Audio Technica Pro35 clip-on condenser mic. This allows free movement, reduced feedback problems (if placed correctly) and nice natural sound. See
http://www.audiotechnica.com/prodpro/profiles/PRO35x.html if you haven’t seen these.

I’ve found that attaching the pro35 to the edge of the chinrest and pointing it down at the area between the bridge and the tailpiece gives the best sound . (used to aim it in the bass f-hole, but found that this causes terrible low frequency feedback & boomy bass.)

Also, the the low-rolloff switch position is best since the lowest musical frequency on the violin is ~193 Hz (open G string). Allowing the mic to respond below 100Hz is just asking for noise & low frequency feedback.

I also have a Fishman pickup and can get an acceptable sound out of it with the right preamp, but I don’t really like it — too much bow & finger noise & still a little harsh.

I wouldn’t recommend even trying to use one of these without a *very* high input impedance preamp like the one Fishman sells. Without it, all the lower frequencies get sucked out and you’re left with a very thin & harsh sound w/lots of scratchy bow noise.

Other folks have mentioned the Kurmann soundpost pickup — it’s supposed to sound better because it is more isolated from bow & finger noises. They even claim it’s good enough to record. I’d love to hear one.

Recently I tried one of the Shadow ("stick-on") pickups mentioned & am planning to buy one. They’re only about $65 for just the pickup. I intend to replace the Fishman with the Shadow for times when feedback is a problem.

I’ve also heard the Schertler pickup on a mandolin and it sounded beautiful. They cost about $500 though so I think I’ll try the Shadow first.

Has anybody ever tried the K&K pickups? www.kksound.com They have some interesting looking pickups.

Nice group — I look forward to reading & posting in the future,

Rich

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Question: I have a Fishman pickup, and am wondering if I can plug it directly into my cassette deck to make self recordings? Will it mess up any electronics?

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Hi Scotty,

The Fishman puts out a line level signal so you should be OK.

It might not sound very good unless your cassette deck has a very high input impedance. Remember the piezo crystal can’t drive a very big load (lower impedance = bigger load, higher impedance=smaller load) and the bass tends to get sucked out first leaving a harsh, thin sound.

How do you tell the input impedance? Try it & see how it sounds. You will generally get less bow & finger noise from a microphone than from a pickup, but it depends on placement.

If you can get a microphone (even the little computer condensers don’t sound that bad) and somebody else to play the fiddle, listen to the sound over a pair of closed headphones. Move the microphone around until it sounds best & that will be the place to record.

I was doing this last night & found that with the microphone I was using (an EV N/D408), close to the bass f-hole sounded nice, also about a foot off the point where the neck meets the fingerboard.

Well, I’ve rambled on again. I hope some other folks add their advice too.

Good luck,

Rich

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