What is a violin pickup?
A violin pickup is a device that attaches to a violin to project the violin's sound electronically. For many violinists, a microphone is the way to project their sound to a large audience. However, this typically forces a violinist to stay in one spot on a stage, and it leaves their instrument to the mercy of a (sometimes finicky) sound system. How embarrassing would it be to have horrible feedback while you play your instrument? Yikes! Violin pickups all but eliminate this anxiety.
There are various kinds of violin pickups, and they are sold by many reputable companies. The main thread between all of these models, makers, and differences is the desire of a violinist to avoid a traditional microphone and essentially make their acoustic instrument optionally electric.
An electric violin pickup can change everything about a violinist's playing. When plugged into a pedal or mixer, your instrument can sound like a guitar (electric, acoustic, grungy!), or any other stringed instrument. When plugged into a pedal, there are almost limitless options for the sound your instrument produces. What fun!
In contrast, a violin microphone is an option for a lot of violinists. Violin microphones are viewed as the most "realistic" sound as the sound being project is the literal sound from your instrument, not the vibrations coming from your violin. Some recording artists prefer a microphone to a pickup because they feel like it is more indicative of their actual instrument, not the vibrations coming from their strings.
Violin pickups are viewed as less fragile than microphones, however, and they are usually left on the instrument while it stays on stage or rests in a case. The violin pickup does not transmit sound by itself, unlike a microphone (don't hiccup next to your mic!). Many instrumentalists will enjoy simply plugging their instrument into a 1/4" jack when they get to a venue and calling it good! If you're playing in a band, it's going to be very difficult to determine the tiny nuances of a microphone versus a violin pickup anyway.
It's fair to say that whether you desire a microphone or a pickup, both will project your sound to a large auditorium or audience. If you desire the pure sound of your instrument or are content to use the violin's natural acoustics through a violin pickup is completely up to you as a violinist.
What is the best violin pickup?
This is a debatable question and one that does not have an exact answer. It is fair to assume that you will get what you pay for: cheapness typically does not yield results that you will be happy to share with others. Therefore, be sure to only purchase an electric violin pickup from authorized retailers, and if you do not have the sufficient skills to install it yourself, be sure to enlist a specialist. That being said, here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the best violin pickups.
This manufacturer is highly respected, and its product was personally used by the author. This product stayed on my violin for over 10 years with no problems whatsoever and withstood violin lessons, treks to faraway places, and even an unfortunate jostling on more than one occasion.
This fantastic pickup uses a micro-vibration sensor that's been embedded into a Despiau violin bridge and a 1/4" jack input port. It's discreet, does not impact the acoustic integrity of an instrument, and is easily removable if you need to have your violin fully acoustic again.
If you're interested in comparing various sounds produced by this excellent product, the LR Baggs website has a wonderful set of examples of what your instrument could sound like with a LR Baggs violin pickup.
This awesome pickup is the best option for those who would like to remove their violin pickup regularly but still want the option to quickly plug into a sound system. Unlike LR Baggs' offering, you can simply clip this pickup on to your bridge, and let the sound system do its job! This option by Barcus Berry is also slightly more economical than the LR Baggs option. It's important to note that if a pickup can be simply clipped on, it also has the potential to fall off, although this has not been reported as a problem with this product.
Fishman Violin Pickup
This is the most expensive option for violin pickups, however, it boasts that it has exceptionally authentic and balanced sound throughout all the strings. Its users report an exceptionally clear tone. Not unlike LR Baggs, this pickup is anchored within a Despiau violin bridge and has an anchored jack that is positioned next to the violin chin rest.
Violin pickups and violin microphones are essential to those musicians who desire to play to a large group or want to alter their sound to match a group's esthetic. People who enjoy movement on stage, or want to avoid embarrassing feedback would benefit from using a violin pickup as opposed to a violin microphone, and those who want the true sonic tone of their instrument should explore microphones instead of pickups. However, remember that both options will be sufficient if your goal is to blend and meld with a band or a group!