Ukulele Pickups: Get the Best Live Sound From Your Amplified Uke
Ukulele pickups are overwhelming to think about. There are different types: UST, soundboard transducer, internal mic – each in either active or passive styles.
Narrow down what you want and you will find many different brands, most with several models that are relatively suitable for the ukulele. Each has different pros and cons and can have wildly different sounds.
There’s no silver bullet, but doing a little homework will go a long ways towards helping you find what you need in a pickup.
Ukulele Pickup Types and Styles
Most acoustic instrument pickups these days are made from piezo crystals. This is because the magnetic pickups found in electric guitars require steel strings in order to disturb the magnetic field and create an electric signal.
A piezo converts sound vibrations directly into an electric signal, without a magnet. This is vastly more useful for nylon stringed instruments.
While the technology is basically the same, implementation of the piezo pickup can vary a bit.
Soundboard Transducer (SBT)
A soundboard transducer is a little piezo disk that is stuck onto the soundboard of the ukulele. Usually this is done internally with a pickup jack installed in the end block to get the electrical signal out out of the uke to an amp. Sometimes though, non-permanent SBTs are installed externally. These often have a long lead with a 1/4″ plug at the end and don’t require any kind of endpin attachment.
Since an SBT picks up the vibrations centered wherever it’s placed, positioning is very important. A correct install will give a sweet, balanced tone while anything else can be a nightmare.
SBTs often have a warmer, more natural tone than other type pickups. However, the wide range of frequencies they reproduce can lead to feedback problems and extraneous noise from arm movement on the instrument.
Under Saddle Transducer (UST)
This type of ukulele pickup sits in the bottom of the saddle slot. The strings pressure presses the saddle down on the pickup and transfers vibrations into the piezo transducer. These pickups require a small hole be drilled on one or both sides of the saddle slot for the wire that goes to the endpin jack. These holes in the saddle slot are invisible, but because of this, a UST is always a permanently installed pickup with an endpin jack.
Because of the direct string-to-pickup vibration transfer, USTs often sound more sterile and “plugged in” than SBTs. This is because less of the instrument’s resonance is is getting into the pickup sound, which also makes this install style less prone to feedback. Most performing ukulele players have this type of pickup in their ukulele because of consistency and ease-of-use onstage.
A mic is also a pickup. It’s very picky and can be difficult to use onstage, but if you can pull it off, hands-down will provide you with the best amplified ukulele sound.
Using a microphone on your ukulele requires careful planning of the whole stage setup. It’s very easy to for an improperly positioned mic to feed back. This is remedied by reducing a stage volume as much as possible.
In fact, the best microphone application for acoustic instrumentation is usually just a nice big condenser mic in the middle of the stage with no monitors. The performers move their bodies and instruments to keep the sound balanced and “turn up” one instrument or another by getting closer to the mic. It’s a beautiful dance to use a microphone like this and it can be highly effective.
Otherwise, a small dynamic spot mic (like a Shure SM57) positioned close to the ukulele can also work, but it won’t sound quite as nice as the “big mic.”
Active vs. Passive
As soon as you sound a note, the pickup converts the sound into an electronic signal and away it goes at the speed of light towards the speakers. Everything in between the pickup and the speakers can be considered electronics, but what happens between the pickup and the endpin jack is of most interest to us here.
An active ukulele pickup has an internal powered preamp built into the pickup electronics. This preamp balances and boosts the signal, sending a “finished product” onto whatever you are plugging into. There are several ways to power this preamp:
- 9V battery – Heavy, but straightforward, popular and has decent headroom. Used by many Fishman pickups like the Matrix.
- 3V watch battery – LR Baggs uses this for their Five-0 pickup. The battery is small, light, and can be easily mounted inside the soundhole via velcro. The drawback to 3V of power is that, while it sounds good, headroom is limited and the sound can be a little clipped
- 2 AA batteries (18v) – Mainly found in D-TAR products. Lots of headroom from the additional voltage, but the additional weight might not be worth it for some people. I’ve also heard of external battery packs that feed the power up a stereo TRS cable.
- Super capacitor: By far the most revolutionary, simple, and light pickup power is the system MISI uses. They figured out how to get a super capacitor to operate like a battery except that it can be recharged again and again without loosing capacity. Simply plug your pickup into a power outlet for a minute and the preamp with work for 8-16 hours.
What is this “headroom” thing? Well, circuits have a maximum amount of signal they can transport before they max out and start to “clip,” or distort. If the circuit is running on more voltage it can transport more signal before clipping. This allows loud strums or plucks to pass through the circuit untouched, whereas a pickup with very little headroom will sound “crunchy” during signal spikes. Of course, the numbers by themselves don’t tell the whole story. LR Baggs was able to make the Five-O run on 3V. It’s probably not as clean as the D-TAR, but it’s still pretty clean.
With an active onboard preamp you basically have a plug-and-play sound. The signal that comes out of the jack is ready to go and can interface with pretty much any mixer without too much trouble.
A lot of ukulele pickups do not have a preamp built in. They send a raw signal to the output jack. This can sometimes be harsh, weak, or “quacky” as people like to say.
This is usually due to impedance mismatch. I don’t claim to know all the details, but thanks to Booli – a long-time sound guru – over at Ukulele Underground, have enough of an understanding to give an overview here.
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