by Julie Lyonn Lieberman
Last week, I watched a video posted by an electric cellist on Facebook. She had achieved a solid level of technique, but her instrument—a respected brand—sounded like a dried-out piece of aluminum foil. A couple of days later, I stumbled across another video posted by an electric violinist and he sounded like his instrument was down at the end of a long hall. Clearly, the acceleration of electronic possibilities for bowed string players has exceeded sufficient information needed to assess and adjust equipment for the best possible tone.
In the classical acoustic world, it’s status quo to experiment with various brands of strings, the sound post setting, and even different bows to solicit the best possible tonal quality from one’s instrument. But did you know that you can have total control over the sound you generate from your electric? It isn’t as simple as plugging in to any old amp. From the type of strings to the type of amp and all the components in between—such as the preamp, mixer, and special effects—if set up properly, each can contribute to generating mud or a great sound.
Did you know that you could play ten different solid-body instruments through the same set-up and, ignoring the weight and design of the instrument, hear ten completely different results? While you have a right to assume that the manufacturer has given its all to provide you with the best possible internal electronics for excellent sound production on whichever solid-body you buy, this isn’t always the case.
Think of it this way: If you put 10-year-old strings on an Amati and couple it with a bad sound post setting and a ten-dollar bow, you might not think much of an instrument that would otherwise commandeer top dollar at auction. This reality cross-applies to pick-ups and solid-body instruments with an added caveat: that the designer of the instrument you’ve chosen has applied equally high standards to the electronic circuitry as to the visual design, which isn’t always the case. And, when that instrument becomes popular, the maker may turn to another country to manufacture the instrument to cut cost during the manufacturing process. This can compromise its quality.
But let’s assume you have purchased an instrument that has been thoroughly tinkered with for the best possible sonic results. Given the fact that when you go electric, the instrument is only one pawn in a daisy-chain of necessary support equipment, how do you go about getting the best possible sound out of that instrument?
Choosing the Right Instrument
Imagine you wanted to speak to a large crowd of people but have laryngitis and can only muster ten percent of your normal vocal power. Well, if the instrument you purchase does not have enough boost from its internal circuitry, you won’t get the maximum out of certain special effects, like wah-wah. Additionally, the weight and support of the instrument via its chin and shoulder rest set-up can also influence your tone. If the instrument is too heavy or positioned such that you can’t get the right angle for your bow or left hand, the loss of power or increase in physical burden can compromise your sound.
Some companies have been far more successful with their electronic configurations than others. How can you tell? Test the same instrument through three or four amps. As you play on it, ask yourself if you could comfortably play for hours on end given its design. Some instrument makers, like NS Design, provide choices regarding the chin and shoulder rest position while others were designed for only one body type.
Do the Strings Make a Difference on Your Electric?
Strings offer more features than tone: response rate, ability to glide for slide technique, and level of resistance. I use D’Addario Helicore or Zyex strings on my NS NXT violin. Their smooth surface allows me to apply 21st century left-hand techniques such as vibraslide, comet’s tail, vibratrill, as well as an assortment of slide techniques while playing (See my Techniques for the Contemporary String Player DVD for these techniques and more). Their quick response means less work for my bow and left hand. I also like the warmth these strings project. I’ve tried string brands that sound too metallic on an electric, despite how I’ve tried to compensate with my EQ settings.
It’s hard to find strings that provide a dependable tone and response rate that works for all your instruments, if you have more than one. I can depend on D’Addario on my four acoustic instruments and my solid-body.
EQ: What do you Need to Know?
The term “EQ” stands for Equalizer. Most preamps and amps come with an array of knobs that offer control over how much bass, treble and mid-range you wish to mix in or out of your sound. Fancier equipment offers additional adjustment options. In general, bowed strings require slightly less treble than bass and midrange. Otherwise, you will either hear the motion of the bow on the strings or tinsel-town… or both!
You might be tempted to feel overwhelmed by a more complex set of choices. Just use your ears. Set everything down to zero, and try one slider at a time. Then set everything all the way up, and remove one slider at a time to gain an auditory awareness of how your tone transforms—for better or worse via each knob’s position. Eventually, you will arrive at just the right combination for your instrument and amp.
Gain Versus Level
Amps, preamps and mixers nowadays offer more than just one knob to control volume. Typically, the gain knob controls the sound that comes from your instrument into that piece of gear. The volume level affects the output headed out to the next piece of gear or speakers. Yes, this can be confusing. But think of your gain level as something to set and leave as is. Need more volume during the concert? Boost the volume slider or knob. Still need more? Getting distortion? Reduce volume and boost the gain.
Ultimately, your best tactic is to experiment with the initial setting for the gain control. If you turn it up too far, you may hear signal noise. In short, only boost gain short of extraneous white noise and then control your volume with the volume slider or knob.
Why Buy a Preamp or Mixer if you Own a Good Amp?
The preamp can provide additional gain and volume as well as EQ settings. Keep in mind that most equipment has been set up to enhance instruments like guitar, keyboard, and bass. L.R. Baggs makes two awesome preamps that have been nicely configured for bowed strings. The first time I heard their Para DI Acoustic Preamp was at a gig in Colorado with Evan Price (who joined Turtle Island String Quartet shortly afterward). He had a cheap travel fiddle that sounded like a pricey instrument through that box. I bought one the day I returned home!
The mixer also offers additional gain, volume, and EQ control. But its main role is to enable you to plug several sources into the box and go line out into your amp. This is important for me when I’m on the road because I travel with a smaller amp that only has one input and no phantom power. My mixer provides phantom power for the Bartlett pickup mic I use on my acoustic, an input for my NS NXT Design electric violin, and a stereo input for my laptop, iPhone or tablet if I want to use backing tracks or play musical examples when teaching workshops or school residencies.
Stomp Box EQ
Even a multi-effects stomp box can be adjusted to provide excellent EQ options for each sound effect, whether it’s wah-wah, phase shifter, echo, reverb, electric guitar or chorus. If, on the other hand, you opt to daisy-chain a group of special effects, you may be at the mercy of the tonal settings built into each box. These boxes were initially designed for electric guitars. That will work well if you want to sound more like a rock guitarist on your bowed string instrument. On the other hand, if you want to have tone control over each effect, you can opt to use a multi-effects stomp box, mess around with the EQ settings for each of your favorite effects, and save those into an empty bank to keep your favs together in one place.
How to Choose an Amp
Amps aren’t just one size fits all. Certainly, you will need to stay within your price range, but keep in mind that most amps were designed to accommodate electric guitar, keyboard, or bass. EQ possibilities are determined by the type of consumer its maker is targeting. Teenagers, garage bands, guitar-heavy bands versus keyboard-heavy, pro’s, etc. All these factors determine the internal set-up for each line of amps. Is there an amp that has been designed to specifically accommodate bowed strings? Yes, there are a few that stand out as favorites amongst my colleagues. I use the Fishman Loudbox. Cellist Matt Turner prefers a Lunch Box or Crate amp. Some artists prefer tube amps.
Can a Cable Make a Difference?
If you’ve purchased a cheap cable to connect your solid-body to your gear, you may have compromised your tone. Make sure the cable isn’t thin. Look at pictures and compare before you make a purchasing decision. I use an elbow-shaped cable coming out of my NS so that I it’s tucked out of the way of my body and folks that rush past me during soundcheck.
Lyonn’s Top Picks
NS NXT solid-body violin, Planet Waves elbow-shaped cable, Bartlett Fiddle Mic, Mackie mixer 402VLZ4, Zoom (looper and 100 special effects), Boss (dedicated looper), Fishman Loudbox Amp