Electric Violins: Preamps

This post is part of a series. Read our previous posts for more information about electric violins, amps and pickups.

Do I need a preamplifier for my electric violin?

Short answer: Yes. A preamplifier, or preamp, is key to getting a great tone out of an electric violin, viola or cello.

Long answer: We need to get technical.

The electric string instruments and pickups we stock at Johnson String Instrument all use variations of piezo electric sensors (piezo for short). Piezo pickups work differently than the magnetic pickups found on electric guitars; instead of sensing a string’s vibration, a piezo pickup senses an instrument’s vibration.

Piezos work best under pressure, which is why these pickup systems are usually found in or beneath the bridge of an instrument. As the instrument vibrates, the piezo generates an electrical signal that can be amplified. However, piezos have ultra high impedance outputs. In order to maximize the frequency response and tone of a piezo pickup, you must match it to an ultra high impedance input. This is what a preamp does: it buffers the impedance of your signal, making it fuller and stronger.

Why is this important? Most amplifiers and accessories on the market are designed for electric guitars and their impedance, not electric violin. Plugging a passive electric violin directly into an electric guitar amp will work, but the sound you get may not be what you were expecting.

Do I need to buy a preamp?

That depends on your setup. Many electric instruments already have on-board preamps that take care of this impedance mismatch. These instruments are what is called “active” and typically require batteries. “Passive” systems do not require batteries.  An external preamp is highly recommended with these piezo systems. The chart below shows products we carry and which category they fall into:

These passive pickup systems all produce a very strong signal so a preamp is not mandatory. However, we highly recommend a preamp to maximize your instrument’s amplified tone.

The benefits of external preamps go beyond impedance matching; all have XLR outputs, allowing you to connect easily to a PA system. This is a major time saver when playing live. When you connect to a PA, you  do not have to leave your tone up to the sound guy; most preamps feature tone-shaping EQ controls. Many preamps on the market also have boost functions, allowing you to boost your volume by a few decibels when you are ready for a solo or need help cutting through the mix.

NEXT: watch for our Preamp Buying Guide to find out which preamp is right for you.

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Copyright © 2017 · All Rights Reserved · Alex Wagner

Electric Instruments: Pickups

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This post is part of our ongoing Electric Instruments series. Check out our previous posts on finding an electric violin, getting started with your new electric instrument, and choosing an amp

You want to start experimenting with electric violin, but you either don’t want a second instrument or need something budget-friendly. What’s your best option? Electrify your acoustic by installing a pickup! Now for the harder question: which pickup should you choose? Like finding the right electric violin or amplifier, there are different factors to consider. First let’s take a look at different pickups options that are available:

The Realist

This is one of our favorite pickups at Johnson String. Designed by Ned Steinberger of NS Design fame in collaboration with David Gage, the sound quality is fantastic. Even though the pickup element sits under the bridge, your instrument’s acoustic tone will not be affected. However it can only be installed by a luthier, so it is not easy to remove.

The Band by Headway

Players looking for a pickup that is easily installed and removed don’t need to look any further than The Band. This instant-fit pickup wraps around the body of your instrument using Velcro, making it easy to take off when you don’t need it. The Band produces a strong, lively tone suitable for a variety of styles from fiddle to classical.

LR Baggs Violin Pickup

If you are looking to transform your violin into an “electric-acoustic,” then a replacement bridge like the LR Baggs violin pickup is a great option. Featuring a transducer embedded in a Despiau Superior bridge blank, this pickup will effortlessly capture your instrument’s inherent dynamics. However, this also means the pickup requires professional installation to fit your instrument. The LR Baggs was our pickup of choice when creating our JSI Performer-Acoustic Violin.

The next step in selecting a pickup is to consider your needs. If you need to be amplified on a regular basis and do not mind leaving a pickup on your violin, the Realist or LR Baggs are great options. If you need a little more flexibility or only need to amplify your violin once in a while, the Band may be the one for you. It is difficult to make a wrong choice with any of these options as each produces a great sound that can always be tailored with a little EQ.

Finally, all of the pickups mentioned in this post are “plug and play.” This means that once installed, you can plug straight into an amp or PA system and start rocking and rolling. While preamps are not required with any of these pickups, they are highly recommended. Look for my next post to find out why!

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Copyright © 2016 · All Rights Reserved · Alex Wagner

Electric Instruments: Amps

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Finding the right amplifier can be just as difficult as finding the right electric violin. Unfortunately for us electric violinists, most amplifiers on the market are designed for guitar, specifically electric guitar. Now, any amplifier will amplify your electric violin, but you may have difficulty getting the exact tone you are looking for. Why? A violin has a much wider frequency range than a guitar, and produces many over and undertones. Through years of trial and error, I found that most electric guitar amplifiers cannot quite handle the upper octaves of a violin; they start sound quite shrill once you get to the E string.

The best solutions we have found here at Johnson String Instrument are amplifiers designed for acoustic instruments and guitars, like the Fishman Loudbox and the Roland AC series. These amps are designed to reproduce the sound of the instrument that you plug in, a tremendously helpful feature when you are trying to make your violin sound like a violin. Acoustic amplifiers can also handle the wide range of a violin, and most have anti-feedback systems which are extremely useful when you are using a pickup on an acoustic violin.

Figuring out which one to purchase? This decision is highly dependent on what you are planning. A little amplifier like the Roland Mobile AC is surprisingly loud, but would have difficulty competing with a full band. It is a great little amp for practicing, traveling and busking. If you are looking for a portable amp that is loud enough for small venues and groups, a Fishman Loudbox Mini or Roland AC-33 will do the trick. The Loudbox Mini packs a little more punch, which the AC-33 counters with an on-board looping function you can use to channel your inner Andrew Bird.

Looking for more volume to play with a rock band? The Roland AC-60 or Fishman Loudbox Artist should do the trick. If you need even more volume to compete with guitarists using tube amps and drummers with full kits who like to play loudly, you may need the power of the Fishman Loudbox Performer. The performer will allow you to be heard in any situation.

Any of these amps are a wonderful choice and will help make your electric violin sound like a violin. If you decide this isn’t what you want, you can always dive into the wonderful world of effects and add distortion, delay and modulation stomp boxes; stay tuned for more on these and other topics related to electric instruments!

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Copyright © 2016 · All Rights Reserved · Alex Wagner

Electric Violins are a new take on a classic instrument

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The world of electric violins is a small yet wonderful world. If you are ready to take the plunge, then read on!

The first step in choosing an electric violin is determining what its primary use will be. Are you looking for an instrument for performance or for silent practice? What style of music will you be playing? Rock, jazz, classical? It is also important to consider the tone you are looking for; do you want an instrument with a more acoustic tone, or an instrument with a distinct electric sound and feel? Think of the difference between an electric and acoustic guitar.

Now on to choosing the right violin. At Johnson String Instrument we are proud to carry a selection of electric instruments from Yamaha, NS Design, Realist, Bridge and our very own Johnson EV-4 Companion. For an instrument suited to silent practice, the Yamaha SV-130, SV-150 and Johnson Companion are great options. Both the SV-130 and Companion are quite versatile and make great entry level instruments for performance as well.

If you are looking for an instrument with a focus on performance, Yamaha and NS Design make fantastic options. The Yamaha SV-200, 250 and 255 all work well for performance with their advanced pick up systems, but retain the headphone output for silent practice. The NS Design violins all have a focus on performance; from the WAV to the CR model, all feature a unique solid body design. How to choose between a Yamaha and an NS Design? In this author’s opinion, the Yamaha instruments feel and sound much closer to an acoustic violin, while NS Design violins feel very much like an “electric” instrument. Both are very high quality instruments, so you cannot go wrong with either.

Another option is an acoustic-electric violin, like the Realist RV-series instruments. Essentially a regular violin with a built-in pickup system, these instruments provide the best of both worlds. A similar solution is to install a pickup on your acoustic violin. Choosing the right one is similar to choosing the right electric violin: it involves experimentation and knowing what you want out of the instrument.

Once you have chosen your electric violin, there are a few accessories you will need. As far as bows go, you can use the same bow you have always used. If you are looking for something specific, CodaBow has developed the Joule, a carbon fiber bow specifically designed for use with electric violins. Gig bags are available for Yamaha electric instruments, but any standard case can also accommodate their models. NS Design requires a brand-specific case. An amplifier is necessary as well for almost all electric instruments we carry except the Yamaha SV-150, which is exclusively a practice instrument.

Keep an eye out for future posts about choosing amplifiers and more information about electric instruments!

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Copyright © 2016 · All Rights Reserved · Alex Wagner