15 August 2013

Microphone vs. pickup for fiddle

I talk to a lot of fiddlers who wants advice on their stage amplification gear.

Questions about what microphone or pickup to use and with what amplifier or PA.

These questions have so many variables that they are hard to answer.

I have myself done much experimenting and found many good systems.

I base this article on the premise that you all ready have a nice acoustic instrument and the right bow for your playing style.

Now you want to be heard on stage, competing with other types of instruments and so players stand in front of a couple of choices:

- You can play into a stand mounted microphone, much like singers do.
- You can play into a small microphone mounted on the instrument.
- You can use a pickup (a transducers that picks up vibrations) mounted on the instrument
- You can play with a combo of microphone and pickup.

But how do I make the choice between these solutions?
- Well, there are some considerations, which can narrow down the options: Price, reliability, flexibility and sound quality are important topics to take into account.

What are the differences between the solutions?
- Microphones pickup up the sound by air, much like our ears. Often this is perceived to be the most natural way of amplifying an acoustic instrument.
Microphones come in different varieties, that "hear" the sound coming from all directions or coming only from two or even one direction.
The more directional the more the microphone only picks up the instrument it is pointed at. This helps isolation in the mix and also helps the microphones ability to play loud before it start to feedback.

- Most pickups "listen" to the vibrations coming form the area at which it is contact with the instrument.
Pickups are often connected in parallel so that different contact areas can be made on the instrument.
Because pickups only react to vibrations they are less prone to feedback as they cannot hear the other instruments on stage. They will start to feedback when external sounds become so loud that they start to excite the area(s) of the instrument, which they are in contact with.

What about the price?
- Often the microphones are a little pricier than pickups. On the other hand most pickups really needs a suitable high impedance preamp, which is not commonly found in PA systems.

Which is the most flexible?
- Microphones can be mounted or pointed at different instruments and as such they are quite flexible.
- Some pickups require fitting, which makes them work only on one instrument. Others pickups can be moved from instrument to instrument, but often only instruments of the same type. These pickups can be a little sensitive and prone to failure.

What sounds the best?
- As you can hear for yourself in the tests here on the blog both microphones and pickups can sound really good and natural. Microphones will in many cases sound most "natural" pickups often bring more of their "own" character to the sound. What sounds the best is often very different from player to player. The amplification systems are also a big part of the equation - big PA systems are often more linear than smaller PA's or combo amps. You also have to think about what makes you sound the best - what suits your playing style.

I can most often help fiddlers in choosing a system if I know what styles and settings they play in. I do not play only one system but need a microphone and a pickup to be able to adapt to the various venues and groups in play in.

If you play solo or in small bands with only acoustic instruments, I would most probably recommend a microphone solution. Either 1 or 2 over head mics picking up the entire band or a microphone on each instrument.

If you play with a band with drums or horns, a pickup is an easy solution or a very directional microphone or both in a combo.

If you play in a band with electric guitars and drums and you like to dabble with multiple effects at the same time, a pickup is my recommendation maybe even a bespoke electric instrument.

I you like distorted effects you really need an electric fiddle.

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