Amplifiers for the discerning player
It should be noted that the bowed string instrumentalist is among the most particular about instrument tone quality. It stands to reason that only an outstanding sound from an amplifier would be acceptable when they make the transition to electric bowed instruments. It is also counter intuitive to play an amazing instrument like a Viper violin and let the amplifier be an afterthought. The awesome sound of the pickups we have available today can't be adequately heard without an excellent amp. So, how do you navigate the wide range of choices in these not-quite-for-bowed-strings amps?
We've spent many years looking for the perfect electric violin, viola and cello amps. Except for Wood Violins' 10 watt violin amp there simply is no such thing as an electric cello or electric violin amplifier, or even one for acoustic-electric bowed instruments. We've had to look to the guitar and bass world for our amplifier gear. While there are nearly hundreds of brands to choose from, it has always seemed like we were trying to cram the beautiful and unique characteristics of bowed strings into gear that just didn't fit.
Many brands we've tried were great for guitar or bass, but could not handle the combination of high frequencies an E string produces and low bass notes on a Cobra or 7 string Viper. So we created a criteria that we felt any amp must meet to be a reasonable choice:
- high frequencies that are not shrill or excessively bright
- mid frequencies with warmth, sustain and clarity
- low frequencies that were both rich and precise
- overall tone that didn't discolor the bowed string sound
- accurate enough speaker drivers to reproduce the subtleties only a bow can create
This was a pretty hard criterion to meet. Electric guitar amps were generally extremely bright; keyboard amps were flabby in the low end. Acoustic guitar amps were better but frequently had very specific tone color outputs that didn't really sound like an electric bowed instrument. Frequently only the heaviest, high wattage amps had the power to drive a 7 string violin or 6 string cellos but still became distorted with some types of bow attacks.
After talking to several professional bass players who gig with amps we were led to a conversation with Phil Jones at Phil Jones Bass amplifiers/American Acoustic Development. Phil and I spoke at length about the project and concluded that Phil was already producing amps that would be nearly perfect for the criterion we felt were essential.
Extensive testing has proven that these amps were indeed what we'd been looking for. The micro speaker drivers that Phil Jones has developed for his cabinets are highly efficient, accurate and refreshingly neutral. In fact they were so good that they added another criterion we hadn't even known to ask for: even with solid body electrics we could actually hear the natural secondary and tertiary vibrations from the wood of the instrument body. With acoustic electrics the ambient sound of the whole violin was present just like a normal violin produces. Finally, an amplifier for the discerning string musician!
The Phil Jones crew has been as enthusiastic about our conclusions as we have. We are pleased to be a Phil Jones dealer and offer these excellent amplifiers to you. We've taken some time to identify which of these suits the various types of electric violins, violas, cellos and basses. Here's the Phil Jones amplifiers we've tested: AAD Cub 100, AAD Cub II 150, AAD Cub 300, PJB Double Four, PJB Bass Cub 100, Flightcase, Superflightcase, Suitcase Compact, Briefcase Ultimate, Session 77. Take a look at them here to see what our research concluded.
We attended the Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Festival for 2016 and were able to put these in the hands of a wide range of players from professional faculty to teachers and intermediate students. As players played them in rehearsal and performance the response was overwhelmingly positive. It was easy to find an appropriate amp for everything that was brought to us including acoustic/electrics and electric basses. The trickiest was the 6 string Cobra electric cello. The E string on this instrument has a strong edge that required some careful EQ work to remedy but the SuperFlightcase quickly became the clear winner for it. We've also performed live many times through several of these amplifiers. Every sound person or audience member was pleased at how well they could hear us without it being unnecessarily loud. These amps transparently reproduce the instrument's tone, period. We believe that is what an amplifier should do.
There are plenty of amplifiers on the market but we didn't set out to find every possible amp that works for bowed strings. We set out to find an amp with the best representation of the thing that separates our instruments from almost every other string instrument: the bow. To date we have heard and tried at least a dozen other brands, but the mad scientist of sound reproduction is Phil Jones and he has spent more hours experimenting in his state of the art sound space than anyone we are aware of. The secret here is small, full range speakers. Nothing he builds uses larger than a 5 inch cone. It defies logic but no one who hears them has any doubt about the pristine quality they represent. The bow is capable of all kinds of nuance and beauty. I'm glad to finally have an amp that allows that to shine through.