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Don Rickert Musician Shop

Different Approach to Achieving the Range of an Octave Violin and Octave Viola: Part I

Posted by D. Rickert on

This article is by D. Rickert Musical Instruments, a highly regarded designer and maker of acoustic purpose-built octave violins and violas, as well as 4-string and 5-string electric violins. All of these instruments are sold via Don Rickert Musician Shop. We have no reason for bias on the topic of acoustic vs. electric instruments, as we make both! Hopefully this lack of bias is reflected in the following article.

Introduction  New FX 5-string revised violin headstock final build 2 scaled

This is the first in a three part series on the topic of using a 4-string or 5-string electric violin (and acoustic instruments with the right kind of pickup installed) together with the necessary effect signal processors to achieve a sound either one or two octaves lower than the violin’s or viola’s actual tuning. Our focus here is on achieving lower octaves; however the principles apply to other amazing sonic feats as well, such as playing harmony to your own playing in real time, or generating the sound of sympathetic strings, such as would be found on a contemporary Hardanger fiddle or a Baroque Viola d’Amore.

In this first article, I address the matter of whether an electronic option to violin octave synthesis is a desirable alternative for you.

Our Acoustic Bowed Octave Instruments

When we started our company almost a decade ago, it was the musical instruments division of Wiederholt & Rickert Partners, LLC (DBA Don Rickert Research & Design), a design research and new product development firm.

Our musical instrument endeavor, originally called V-Gear™, is now called D. Rickert Musical Instruments, whose online retail operation is, today, called the Don Rickert Musician Shop. Our original focus was creation of “impossible” acoustic instruments, specifically:

  • Travel violins and fiddles with a decent sound and were, rather than essentially toys, ergonomically identical to full size violins (same body and playable scale length, detachable chin rest and shoulder rest, etc.)
  • Designing and making the best acoustic octave violins in the world: This translated to creating instruments that were powerful, loud and sounded amazing, all without the aid of amplification.

Due to our obsession with continuous improvement based on customer feedback and the fact that we are part of a company that invents new things, both our travel violins and octave violins have evolved dramatically, resulting in our current product offerings for both classes of instrument. We now have octave violas as well as octave violins. See relevant product listings at the Don Rickert Musician Shop:

Electronically Synthesized Octave Violins and Violas

We are about to suggest a different way of achieving a sound one or even two octaves lower than a regular violin or viola. This alternative involves the use of a conventionally tuned electric violin or viola in conjunction with signal processing equipment to achieve a very satisfying octave conversion.

Hopefully, in our recent article, Your Amplified Violin Not Working with Effects Processors?: The Problem is With Your Pickup! we put to rest the myth that violins do not work with effect processors, including octave converters. For those who like the details, that article is a “must read”.

In practice, a 5-string electric violin makes the most sense, as it covers the ranges of both the violin and viola. If you prefer the longer strings of a viola (e.g. because you are a violist), a 5-string electric viola, which is tuned just like a 5-string electric violin, makes good sense.

Doing the octave conversion electronically is actually the preferred method for many performing artists, as there are many advantages, which I will discuss below.

There is an important topic that must be addressed first: Why an acoustic solution might be best for you. In other words, why electric instruments, electronic signal processors, amplifiers and the like might NOT be a good fit for you.

Why an Acoustic (NOT Electric) Solution Might be Best For You

You just don’t like the idea of electric instruments

If you are of sufficient age, you were horrified when Bob Dylan “went electric.” If you are younger, you WOULD have been horrified. We understand this. I mean really; our company has grown based on its acoustic instruments. Of course, we have done many custom electric instruments along the way and have entered electronic instruments in major musical instrument design competitions.

Anyway, the emotional attachment to true acoustic instruments is understood and respected here.

The cost (i.e. money limitations)

The cost of an acoustic octave violin or viola from us averages about $2,000, plus the cost of a decent appropriate bow (about $500). An electric violin capable of lower octave synthesis can be higher. Our current high-end hand-made electric 5-string violins are just shy of $3,000.

Note: We just announced two really nice electric violins that cost less than $2000 in 4-string configuration. Yes, they both are capable of lower octave synthesis. See:

A “living room” or small venue amplifier and the minimal signal processing equipment for achieving good-sounding octave synthesis can be had for about $500. Going beyond the bare minimum can quickly get much more expensive.

So, the cost of entry is a bit higher, but not really that much more than an acoustic instrument.

You believe that an electronically synthesized octave violin or viola cannot sound as good as an acoustic octave violin or viola

This simply not true. With a high-quality instrument and necessary external equipment, a very realistic sound of an acoustic octave violin and/or viola can be achieved. If you remove the “realistic” sounding constraint, an electric violin playing a synthetic octave lower can sound much better than any acoustic instrument. But you may remain unconvinced about electric violins and their associated peripheral equipment.

Your intended use requires an acoustic instrument

There are many musical situations that fall into this category, such as…

  • You travel with your instruments for the purpose of jamming with musicians located at your destinations. When I used to “commute” to work in Dublin, Ireland (alternating 2 weeks in Ireland, 2 weeks in the States), I always had at least 2 acoustic fiddles (often one an octave fiddle) with me for pub jam sessions (simply called “sessions” in Ireland).
    • Contrary to popular belief, air travel is quite easy with a pair of full-size acoustic violins in a double case. You just have to get used to having to check all of you other baggage.
  • You play in an all-acoustic group
  • You compete in fiddle competitions, none of which allow amplified fiddles…you gotta’ use a microphone (You would not normally use an octave fiddle, acoustic or not, for this purpose anyway.).

Anyway, you get the idea.

If You Are “On the Fence” Regarding the Acoustic vs. Electric Question?

There is an option that is a pretty good compromise. That would be a reasonable quality “intermediate” or better acoustic violin with the right type of pickup system installed. The result is an acoustic-electric fiddle. Even the most acoustically oriented professional fiddlers use pickups on their instruments. I have seen fiddlers in even the most traditional Old-Time string bands use a pickup.

Now, if you are going to be using an octave effect processor, you must use a Barbera multi-transducer bridge pickup.  If you want to know why, read the previously-cited article, Your Amplified Violin Not Working with Effects Processors?: The Problem is With Your Pickup!

Don Rickert Musician Shop routinely installs Barbera pickups on acoustic violins and violas in such a manner that they can be easily removed when you want to use your regular bridge. The pickup, including a wired polycarbonate tailpiece (with gain control) and unobtrusive side-mounted clamp-on output jack of our design, costs $550. A fancier tailpiece, such as a Dov Schmidt “Harp” and installation of Wittner FineTune internally geared tuning pegs (highly recommended) adds a bit (about $250) to the cost. We are currently finishing up such an installation on a T-Rex Octave Viola and will post some photos when completed.

In Part II of This Series, I will deal with the advantages of the electric violin approach.

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