Amplifying the cello: Part 1

I haven’t tried to amplify an acoustic cello since around 2007, when I sprung for a Yamaha SVC-210 electric cello. Prior to switching to the electric cello, I was frustrated in my efforts to amplify my acoustic cello using the Fishman C-100 piezo: thin sound, boomy and with a tendency to feedback in the midrange. I added the Fishman Platinum Pro-EQ to my gear bag and that helped a little, but I was still unsatisfied. I was flying internationally frequently with the cello in 2007, and the capability of the SVC-210 to fold and fit in the aircraft coat closet sealed the deal.

Today however, I regularly have cello students who are interested in amplifying their acoustic instruments. These students aren’t likely to invest 3k in an electric cello, and need something that sounds good at a reasonable price point.

Trying to give some guidance, I see that since I last looked in 2007 there are several new players in the cello amplification field. Realist, Feather, Headway, AKG, and Shure. There are piezos, contact microphones, gooseneck condensers, built-in bridge pickups, and a mysterious new strap-like technology called “The Band”. Prices range from $5 to about $650 for amplification solutions, and that’s not including the cost of an EQ or preamp. Most of the solutions fall within the $100 – $220 range.

I see several electric cellists on youtube have review/unboxing videos of particular pickups, but I don’t see a good overview of all the options. Is a $250 Realist pickup really (sorry) 50x better than a $5 one? If there are differences, how are these differences measured? Which sounds better, a contact mic, a gooseneck condensor, or a piezo? How do these different technologies work? How do different amplification goals (sheer volume vs. accuracy of sonic reproduction) map onto the different amplification options?

To answer some of these questions I’ll use a combination of my ears and the expertise of a professional. I’ll reach out to Farsheed who is an electric and acoustic engineer, working at Soapbox Music and Shure Microphones.

I’ll begin at the low-cost end of the spectrum, with a $5 clip-on microphone off Amazon, and see how it sounds through my Emperor 2×12 speaker cabinet.

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