~Monday 18th of February 2019~
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Amplify or Electrify Your Ukulele
Bill, aka “Calypso_Poet” in the UkuWorld Community asked a very interesting which hadn’t come across before, namely how to ‘electrify’ your ukulele, i.e. how to add some kind of pickup to your ukulele to add the possibility to amplify it. I’ve written down my experience in Bill his topic, but decided to do a little bit of research and list all of the different possibilities.
To say it with Wikipedia’s words:
A pickup device is a transducer that captures or senses mechanical vibrations produced by musical instruments and converts them to an electrical signal that is amplified using an instrument amplifier to produce musical sounds through a loudspeaker in a speaker enclosure.
Couldn’t have said it better. Pickups have been around since the 1950’s and thus enables us to amplify the sound coming from our ukulele. The same vibrations that are being sent into your ukulele its body to create that lovely ukulele sound can also be picked up by a pickup, get amplified and sent through a loudspeaker. This allows you to play for larger crowds or add for example some cool amplification effects.
More recently a lot of different pickups have emerged, specifically for ukuleles. This can be quite confusing if it’s the first time you’re looking at pickups. To keep things simple you can divide them in two main groups: active and passive pickups.
On guitars, passive Pickups are the ‘original’ magnetic pickups. Without going into too much detail, they consist of many coils of copper wire around a permanent magnet, usually made of Alnico or Ceramic. The location of the magnet in proximity to the strings causes the strings to magnetise, and become magnets, too. Because of this, when the strings vibrate, they disturb the magnet field, and cause an electrical current to pass through the copper wire which is representative for that specific vibration. This current can be amplified and converted to sound. The vast majority of guitar pickups are passive ones.
Ukulele passive pickups are constructed somewhat differently, but the principle is the same. And because of their construction these pickups send the ‘raw’ signal coming from your ukulele strings to your amplifier or speaker (with pre-amp). They give a full and more natural sound. They are also much lighter than active pickups (read on to find out why).
The problem with passive pickups is that the coils of wire involved can transmit a lot of hum and background interference. Passive pickups are also pretty sensitive to feedback, when pushed hard. Another disadvantage is that they do need an external preamp. This means that you can’t directly plug it into a speaker. Any acoustic (guitar) amplifier will work just fine though.
Passive pickups, despite their drawbacks, have a greater dynamic range. If you’re the kind of player that likes to be able to move from whisper quiet, to a screaming wail, then a passive set-up is likely to suit your playing style best. Plus, these types tend to lose high frequency detail, and enhance lower frequencies, giving them a warmer tone.
The Kremona UK-1 is a semi-easy to install passive ukulele pickup which is quite popular and gets some very decent reviews. Also K&K Sound appears to be a very popular manufacturer out there producing passive ukulele pickups.
Active pickups still use far fewer coils because their circuitry includes an active preamp usually powered by a 9V (or 3V) battery. This allows to amplify the signal immediately on or in the ukulele, even before it reaches a speaker unit.
The lower number of coils on an active pickup means that they have a lower natural output (i.e. before the pre-amp), are less susceptible to background noise, and are naturally much quieter in this regard. However, the active pre-amp means that these pickups generally have a far higher output gain than passive models, too. Do remember though that the dynamic range will be lower and tonally, they’re sometimes described as ‘sterile’ or ‘cold’.
What about positioning?
When you’ve decided which kind of pickup technique you want to use (passive or active), you’ll also need to think about what type of pickup you want.
Soundboard Transducers (SBT) are pickups that stick onto the body of your ukulele. It can be on the inside or outside. It picks up those vibrations coming from strings when you pluck or strum the strings. Positioning is very important with these SBT sensors, so always carefully read the manual. SBT pickups allow a more natural and fuller tone than UST (read on) pickups.
Under Saddle Transducer (UST) pickups are installed in the bottom of the saddle slot in the bridge. The saddle will vibrate when you pluck or strum the strings and these vibrations will be send through the UST. These are more difficult to install as they require holes to be drilled for the wiring and very good contact between the pickup and saddle must be present. The very popular active pickup LR Baggs FIVE.O is an UST pickup and used frequently by performing ukulele players.
Hopefully this mini-guide on ukulele pickups gave you a head start when researching which pickups is best suited for you! Active or passive? SBT or UST? All of them have a different tonality and there is not one that suits all.