Interview with Alexander Hohenegger, founder and designer of ALTER EGO Instruments.
If you were to buy an acoustic electric bowed instrument, what are the characteristics you would seek?
When choosing an electric bowed instrument, players usually look at portability, durability, feeling, sound, which are all very important aspects. But maybe the first thing I would consider is whether the instrument adapts well to my style of music and kind of playing.
Let me explain myself: if you play rock music, you may not need an acoustic amplified instrument at all. It may even be counterproductive because of the so-called wolf tones and resonating peaks generated by the soundboard. A “solid body” would usually be fine because it has a more linear tonal behavior. On the other hand, whenever tone color and sound dynamics are a fundamental part of a musician’s voice, fine tuning and electronic setup become an essential part of an instrument’s identity. So I think that setup, personalization, and versatility are important aspects that are often overlooked. For this reason, many classical and Jazz players prefer to amplify their acoustic instrument and disregard the option of having an electric instrument. Portability is often not a sufficient advantage to buy an electric instrument, but if combined with versatility and a convincing sound and playability, an acoustic electric instrument can be a life-changing experience for a performer.
What do you mean by setup and versatility?
I think it is important that everybody recognizes that every acoustic instrument becomes a new instrument as soon as it is amplified. Let’s take the example of the double bass. It occurred to me that double basses with a wonderful, deep yet clear voice get a totally unrecognizable tone when amplified. Versatility is not only a player’s range of styles and techniques. The concept also applies to instruments. Many beautiful traditional instruments don’t have the necessary versatility to adapt to common amplification methods, or different styles and ways of playing, unless…
Unless they receive a new setup. As I told you, I consider every acoustic instrument a new instrument when amplified. As a new instrument, it will present its own characteristics and issues. A new setup performed by skilled traditional luthiers may therefore be necessary. In addition, players and their technicians need to know how to pick up the instrument’s sound. So one should add a competent grasp of the amplification principles to the already technically complex work of the luthier.
How do players amplify their traditional instruments?
Musicians often approach their traditional instrument’s amplification either in a too minimal or a too complex way. A minimal approach is for instance a passive pickup and a long cable. Simplicity is great and many players feel reassured by that, but we don’t want a large part of the sound depending on external variables like quality and length of the cable, especially if the pickup is a piezo.
Why? What’s different with piezo pickups?
Piezo pickups are really, really sensitive, and we usually like them for this very characteristic. However they provide a signal with a much higher impedance than other commonly used transducers or microphones. A very high impedance, if not lowered, is “dangerous”, allow me this term, because the signal becomes susceptible to many disturbances. So, on the one hand I see a minimal approach, for which I understand a musician’s preference, on the other hand there is a too complex approach. For instance the use of several pickups, often similar to each other, and various layers of control with compressors, equalizers, active filters, etcetera. They are great when finely handled, but they require long setup times and, more importantly, they put the instrument at high risk of losing its natural sound features.
And you are between these two extremes?
As always, it depends on the situation and need. There is no recipe to the best setup. My approach with electric bowed instruments follows a backward design. The ALTER EGO electric instruments are conceived for amplification from the beginning. We conceived them to behave acoustically, and they truly have an acoustic voice. In order to achieve that we looked for a synthesis of the interplay of a traditional instrument’s vibrating parts. Our pickup system was developed with a specific desired sound in mind. Let me put it this way, I don’t think that players have to choose between portability and tone, because they can have both. About the setup, we wanted our instruments to be plug-and-play. At the same time, we wanted to provide players with some versatility and independence from sound technicians.
How did you do that?
In the wide spectrum of the amplification continuum, we have identified two electronic setups that we offer with our instruments. Both of them use built-in active electronics, which is simple enough to be considered “plug-and-play”. Our basic setup includes a double polymeric pickup and buffer to impede and protect from any disturbances or absorption due to cables that are less than optimal. This kind of setup is very dependable, and it is a great starting point for a musician who wants to venture into the amplification world. The second setup that we offer is the combination of two mixable pickups of different type.
Yes. Versatility in this case means two different blendable timbres, tones, available for different needs: bow or pizzicato, solo or big band, playing in a dry or a resonant room, etcetera. I said we combine two types of pickups, because we want to avoid layering similar frequency response curves on top of each other. If the pickups are too similar, they may incur in a phenomenon known as counter-phasis, basically the two pickups cancel each other out. At the same time, we kept it simple, we didn’t want to use any active filters or make other adjustments, which can severely decrease sound quality. The setup easily adapts to audio systems and frees musicians from sound engineers and long negotiation during sound check.
It seems pretty straight-forward. Why is this setup not the most common?
This setup requires a well engineered preamp that was the result of more than 20 years of testing. Moreover, it requires a higher quality instrument, which the majority of electric instruments, I am afraid to say, are not. Even with the best pickups and state-of-the-art preamps, it is impossible to create a sound that does not exist.
Getting back to the primary parameters of choice: certainly a decisive factor is the ease of transport, especially for cellos and double basses.
Yes. There are many travel options. I would suggest that cello and bass players always evaluate not only an instrument’s length, but also volumetric space and form of the case. It should not be round or bulky, but thin and proportioned to fit anywhere.
What about durability?
Traditional instruments may also be durable, but they require constant attention to prevent damage and cracks in the wood. An electric instrument should relieve the player from that concern. Durability should also refer to robustness, the relative insensitivity to road bumps and common impacts. A robust instrument should be easy to mount back on. It should be easy to upgrade or repair all over the world. It is not always easy to judge the quality of an instrument, but it is worthwhile to fully evaluate these criteria before one makes any purchase.
What about those strangely shaped instruments? What about playability?
There are instruments that seek traditional forms and others that create new contours. I’m not so concerned with unusual shapes, if they offer good playability. It is fundamental for the player to have a good feeling of the instrument without having to hold it in an unnatural way. The new shape must not impair a player’s technique. Cellists and bassists should evaluate an instrument’s ergonomics in the upper and the lower bout, where the arms and legs rest. Violin and viola players should also pay attention to the weight of an instrument. A few more grams can make a huge difference in the long run. Finally, if an instrument has removable parts, as most travel instruments do, wood components are easier to customize for ergonomics, while other materials, such as plastic, may be more challenging.
The most important factor for the best feeling, however, is the playability of the fingerboard. I could write an entire book about this! A well dressed fingerboard is even more important than the quality of the wood used! Instruments must be easy to play. Only if they are easy to play they can render a musician full service. When evaluating an instrument, especially if it is in the low price range, it is important to verify that its fingerboard is properly scooped, nut spacing correct, string length, curvature of the bridge…
Do you mean that all traditional principles must also apply to electric instruments?
Definitely. It is a misconception to think of the electric instrument as a shortcut. All principles apply. We don’t like traditional double basses with flat fingerboards mounted on very high bridges, why would we be willing to accept it on electric instruments?
What about bridge adjusters?
Normally, instruments with no soundbox have fewer problems with climatic variations and therefore bridge adjusters are not indispensable. I tend to avoid them whenever possible. They stop sound transmission. However, if they are needed to play styles that require different techniques, it is important to verify its good functioning and material. Some metals are more suitable than certain woods for example…
Isn’t this overkill? After all, an electric instrument’s main reason is to be practical.
I gave a general orientation and I think I was able to tell some of the motivations behind the ALTER EGO project, but I do not believe there are rules in choosing. Players have to follow their own personal instincts. A good method for judging an instrument is to play it and feel the reaction of the strings under the bow. This applies to electric instruments too. String musicians who play with a bow may experience the electric instrument as a “play room”, a sort of mental space more than a physical one. The electric instruments should allow musicians to develop personal musical ideas, record them, elaborate sounds and effects, improvise in privacy, maybe with their headphones on. I think that this goes far beyond practical issues. Experimentation may not be a musician’s primary occupation but I think it is an important creative process that bonds students with their instruments as expressive tools or reconnect players with their inner voice beyond their professional routines.
To recap, in one sentence, how would you choose an electric instrument?
I would verify that the instrument I am about to buy does not limit, but enhances my technique and my possibility to explore.