How To Choose An Electric Violin Part 3: Amplifiers


Ok, so you’ve either bought an electric violin or fitted a pickup to your existing instrument. Well done! Now we need to think about how to make some noise with it!


 Do I need an amplifier?


Not necessarily. Many people buy electric violins as quiet practice instruments, in which case you can use headphones. Depending on the violin you may need a little headphone amp to power them but you don't necessarily need an amp for home practice.


Even if you're playing your violin on stage, an amp is not always necessary. Like acoustic guitars, electric violins are designed so they can be plugged directly into a PA (that's musician talk for Public Address System, or the big speakers that make noise either side of the stage) via a DI box and many violinists simply do that rather than invest in another expensive piece of kit. Plugging directly into the PA generally sounds very good as long as you want a traditional sound, so it's not necessarily something you would only do to save money – it's a good solution as a means of amplification.


It sounds like you're talking me out of it!


Fortunately for us sales guys, there are quite a few scenarios where amplifiers are an important tool to have available!


Firstly, PA systems aren't all equal and you might end up playing in situations where you can't plug into the PA – perhaps it only has a few channels and you've already got vocals and backing tracks running through it, perhaps the band doesn't use a PA at all and everyone else just runs through their amps, or perhaps if you're playing solo at wedding receptions you might find the PA the DJ set up isn't suitable to plug your violin through. So, if any of those situations sound familiar or if you're planning to play in lots of different situations an amp is appropriate.


There's also the issue of on-stage volume. If you're playing in a band and are plugged in to the PA, you might be able to hear yourself through the main front of house speakers but they're going to be facing away from you and if you're struggling to hear yourself you can't really ask to be turned up without ruining the balance of instruments for the audience. For this reason larger PAs also have monitor speakers on the stage that independent of the front of house mix, allowing musicians running directly into the PA to hear themselves. However, unless it's a professional sound rig with multiple channels of speakers so that each musician gets their own mix you'll be sharing those speakers with any singers, keyboards and even drums. Monitor speakers are also prone to feedback so if there's a lot of loud drums and guitar amps on stage you might not be able to be loud enough without feedback. Having your own amplifier gives you an easy way to hear yourself without having to worry about what the PA is going to be like at each gig, so they take away a lot of the uncertainty of playing multiple venues.


Lastly, electric violins are a good platform with which to take the sounds you're making beyond the sounds you would associate with traditional violin. Electric guitarists get a range of different sounds out of their amplifier and often plug into lots of different effects pedals in-between the guitar and amplifier - those pedals can do all manner of weird and wonderful things to the sound of the instrument. Why should guitarists have all the fun?! For many players the relationship between instrument, amplifier and pedals is an integral part of the beauty of the electric violin in its own right.


What sort of amplifier should I buy?


Dedicated amps for violins are probably a little too niche for there to be much of a market for them so you're unlikely to find many electric violin amps when you search on Google. Fortunately there are plenty of amps that will do the job brilliantly – we just need to figure out which.


The main questions to consider are how loud you need the amp to be, and whether you want the amp to faithfully reproduce the sound of an acoustic violin or to colour the sound to make it something distinct.


The most common amp used for violin are transistor based amps designed for acoustic guitars. These are designed to offer a wide, flat frequency response that captures the harmonic overtones of an acoustic instrument and they are designed to have what is referred to as clean headroom, which means they do not distort as they get louder. Some acoustic amps also offer battery power so they can be used for busking The quality of sound depends on the amplifier but once you're away from the absolute entry level they will give you a fairly good approximation of an acoustic violin. Acoustic amplifiers of less than 40 watts are really only suitable for home and limited practice, so if you're buying an amp to perform with look for something between 40 and 100 watts. We recommend the AER Alpha 40 and Compact 60 as professional level amplifiers ideal for the violin, and the Fishman Loudbox as a good alternative on a tighter budget.


Alternatively you might consider an electric guitar amp. Where as a good acoustic amp tried very hard not to colour the sound it produces, electric amps do the opposite and the choice of amp is a big element of an electric guitarist's tone. If you view the electric violin as a means to create new sounds rather than as a utility to make the violin louder, you may find this colouration is desirable. Traditional guitar amps were made with valves and these are still very common today – valve technology is very different to transistor and if you go with a valve amp you will probably find 15-20 watts is enough to be heard over guitars and drums, however they typically distort as they get louder so be aware that things might get fuzzy as you lift the volume! We've had great success using small Fender amps for violin and the 15 watt Blues Junior is a good starting point.


There is also a more modern take on the electric amp which is using digital technology to create a very versatile amplifier that can recreate the sounds of multiple different valve amplifiers. These are cheap, practical and they can be a lot of fun, especially as they often have effects built into them. Modelling amps are typically a little quiet for gig use but for experimenting at home they're great – we recommend the Fender Mustang GT40 as a perfect starting point for modelling.


If you're playing solo, you might want to consider a portable PA system. These typically have two speakers that can be spaced apart from each other and they usually radiate sound more effectively than an amplifier. Some amps such as the AER Compact 60 can be chained to a second speaker to give you the best of both worlds.


Lastly, if you've run out of money and we're into 'grab an amp – any amp' territory, most amplifiers will work up to a point including keyboard and bass amps that typically have plenty of clean headroom.


Why do some amps have more than one channel? Do I need more than one channel?


If you're playing solo and only need to amplify your violin, probably not. Most larger acoustic amps give you two independent channels so you can amplify more than one instrument, so for very small gigs you might run vocals into one and the violin into others.


Many amps also offer an input for a music player, so if you want to play back music from your phone or tablet they're ideal for that as well.


You keeps talking about effects – sounds fun!


Yes it is!


There are multiple effects that can be added to the signal from your violin to make it sound different. You can buy these as standalone pedals, as a unit with multiple effects, or they can be built into the amplifier.


Distortion effects are stock in trade for the electric guitar world and they can really make a violin growl and snarl. Be careful for earsplitting feedback when you use it! My favourite distortion pedal for violin is the Pro Co Rat II, a thoroughly nasty sounding pedal that will add lots of fizz and fuzz to your violin tone, but there's also the much more controllable MXR GT Overdrive to consider.


Dynamic effects primarily include compression when in pedal form – this smooths out changes in volume so your quieter playing with be more audible in the mix. It's not the most common pedal and it's not what we'd consider 'fun' but it does a useful job in some contexts. The Red Witch Grace is a good pedal compressor.


Modulation effects cover your basic wibbles and wobbles. Chorus is the most common of these and phaser and flanger are other examples. I'm not a fan of chorus for violin as it seems to react oddly with vibrato (itself technically a modulation effect if somewhat differently executed!) but phaser and flanger ad a cool swoosh to the sound. Tremolo – a pulse in the volume of the signal – can also work well and there's a great new Danelectro tremolo that sounds very good indeed with violin.


Reverbs and delays are the most common effects used for violin. These simulate the sound of the instrument in a large space, from a wash of colour that you might hear in a large hall to a distinct echo. Reverb is almost indespensible and is often built into amps for that reason, but even if you already have it on the amp Fender's truly wonderful Marine Layer reverb is still the first pedal I would look at as a violinist – just buy it and thank me later! A great starting point for delay is the Way Huge Aua Puss.


Lastly, looper pedals are a very popular tool for violinists. These allow you to record a small phrase, play it back and play over the top. Since you can also record what you play over the top, you can layer sounds together to create an orchestra of string parts – well as long as no-one changes the chord progression. Ed Sheeran and KT Tunstall are great examples for people who have used looper pedals as creative tools, whilst violinists who have used them to great effect include Andrew Bird and The Dirty Three's Warren Ellis, who is a great benchmark for using effects with violin generally.


Sounds like I'm ready to make some noise! Anything else I need to know?


You're pretty much good to go. Remember choosing an amp is a very subjective thing and it's a good idea to try amplifiers first – don't be afraid to take your violin into a guitar shop to try them, whatever looks you get (if they're staring they're probably just trying to pluck up the courage to ask you to join their band) and of course we welcome people trying out gear with their violin at Forsyths, especially pedals where we have a lot of fun showing them off to string players!


One more boring bit but we need to say it: as a musician your ears are really important and you only get two of them. Loud amps are a lot of fun but you can do a lot of damage to your hearing, especially if you're exposing yourself to the sort of piercing high frequencies the violin can produce when cracked through an amp. Do yourself a favour and buy yourself a set of Alpine earplugs: they're £20, they don't muffle everything you hear as the cheap earplugs you've probably tried from Boots and they'll save you a very soul destroying conversation with an audiologist when it's too late to repair the damage.


Other than that, have fun and make noise!