Pickups are one of the most confusing things an ‘ukulele player can shop for. There are different types: UST, soundboard transducer, internal mic, and do you want active or passive? Choose the type you want and you will find many different brands, most with several models that are relatively suitable for the ‘ukulele. Then of course everybody has their own opinion about what sounds best! I can’t tell you what will work for your ‘ukulele because each instrument reacts differently to a pickup, but I can give you a jump start on your research.
Types of Pickups:
Soundboard Transducer (SBT)
A soundboard transducer is a little disk (or several) that sticks onto the inside (or outside) of the ‘ukulele. It picks up the vibrations coming from wherever you stick it. Because of this, positioning is very important when installing an SBT. A correct install will give a sweet, balanced tone while eliminating the sounds of arm movement, etc… In general, SBTs have a warmer, more natural tone than UST type pickups. Example: K&K Aloha Twin.
Under Saddle Transducer (UST)
This type of pickup sits in the bottom of the saddle slot in the bridge. The saddle smashes down on the pickup and transfers the string vibrations straight to the 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. The saddle and pickup element must have superb contact to make sure that each string is amplified at the same volume. USTs have a more sterile, “plugged in” sound than SBTs, but are less prone to feedback. Most performing ‘ukulele players have this type of pickup in their ‘ukulele because of consistency and ease-of-use onstage. Example: LR Baggs Five-O.
Yes, a mic is a pickup. It’s hard to use and very picky, but if you can pull it off, hands-down will provide you with the best amplified ‘ukulele sound. The most common performance application besides a mic on a big stand is a little mic that is mounted on a gooseneck “stand” (a bendy wire) inside the body. The gooseneck allows the user to move the mic around to the “sweet” spot inside the uke. Microphones tend to feedback easier than other pickups and can be hard to manage on a loud stage.
The best mic I’ve used to record ‘ukulele is the Neumann KM184. But for live work, a Shure SM57 is the industry standard. Use it on stage, use it in the studio, sing into it, swing it above your head….
Active vs. Passive:
These pickups have an internal preamp built in. This preamp balances and boosts the signal, sending a “finished product” onto whatever you are plugging into. There are several ways of getting power to the preamp:
- 9V battery: many active pickups go this route. It’s heavy, but straightforward and has decent headroom.
- 3V watch battery: LR Baggs uses this for their Five-O 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 “hairy.”
- 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 is the system MISI uses to power their pickup. They figured out how to get a super capacitor to operate like a battery except that it can be recharged infinity without loosing juice. Simply plug your pickup into a power outlet for a minute and you’ve got a charge that will last 8 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. No, it’s probably not as clean as the D-TAR, but it’s pretty clean.
- Consistent sound
- Balanced signal that can “plug and play” with almost any system
- Heavier due to battery and/or preamp circuit
These 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.
There are some really great passive pickups that hold their own with an active setup, but in most cases, a passive pickup will benefit from being ran through an external – or outboard – preamp. Outboard preamps are connected between the ‘ukulele and the amp or PA and serve the same purpose of the preamp in an active pickup – to balance and boost the signal. The LR Baggs Paracoustic DI or Venue DI consistently get the most rave reviews.
Here is a rough comparison between my ‘ukulele’s passive K&K Big Spot pickup with and without a Fishman Pro-EQ Platinum preamp. The files were recorded directly into my DAW software with no signal processing.
- Fuller, more natural sound
- Lighter than active
- Usually need an external preamp to get the best sound
Depending on what kind of pickup you decide to run, you’ll find that there are some parts specific to certain models and some that are pretty standard.
Every pickup has some way to plug into an amp or a PA. The most common comes in the form of an endpin jack. This is the place where the pickup signal leaves the ukulele’s body. It’s a metal ¼” jack that accepts a ¼” instrument cable. This can also be used for one end of a strap! Usually the jack is secured in its hole by a washer, nut, and then a screw-on cover that makes the assembly look nice on the outside. If your pickup is active, you will often find the preamp mounted onto the jack.
The actual pickup element that creates an electronic signal from vibrations is called the transducer. It’s usually created with piezo crystals which is why most ‘ukulele pickups are classified as “piezo.” If the transducer is the UST type, it’s a little flattened wire that sits at the bottom of the saddle slot. If it’s SBT type, it looks like a little UFO stuck on the end of a wire. This UFO gets attached to the soundboard with adhesive.
Explained in detail above, it is usually mounted in a little pack, bag, or clip inside the soundhole where it’s fairly easy to access.
EQ, volume, tuner, notch filter, and gain are all things you can have at your fingertips if you choose to have an onboard system installed. The controls of an onboard system are usually put in the side of the ‘ukulele – after cutting a rectangular hole in your uke. Some companies are making simple controls like volume and tone that stick on the inside of the sound hole, allowing fairly easy access without having to do any cutting.
Getting a Pickup Installed:
In addition to deciding what pickup you need/want/like you’ve got to consider the collateral damage. Putting in a pickup usually requires drilling a hole in the tailblock of the ‘ukulele. This is where the endpin jack goes. The only part you see is a little button about the size of a penny, but this will forever become a part of your instrument. If you decide on a bigger active system with onboard EQ controls, expect a much bigger hole being cut into the side of the ‘ukulele. Needless to say, once these holes are cut they cannot be undone.
Bonus: an endpin doubles as a strap jack!
Once you decide that you do want to go through with the install, gory wood drilling and all, find somebody who can do it. You can certainly do it yourself, but it might not be the best option, results-wise if you’ve never put in a pickup before. It’s a fiddly task and getting it right makes all the difference in the world, believe me. Google or a chat with some ‘ukulele friends should turn up some luthiers competent enough to do the job. The procedure is pretty much the same as for guitar so even if your local music shop isn’t too hip on ukes, their luthier can probably do the install.
Here’s a cool video on how a pickup is installed from Hawai’i Music Supply:
Commonly Used ‘Ukulele Pickups:
Over the years, many, many ‘ukulele pickups have come into development, allowing for better sound, control, and less weight. Some of the most popular types are listed here:
- L.R. Baggs Five-O – UST, active: 3V, sound hole-mounted volume wheel
- D-TAR Timbreline – UST, active: 2 AA batteries in external pack.
- Fishman Matrix Infinity – UST, active: 9v, soundhole controls: tone and volume
- Fishman Prefix Pro (Koaloha artist models) – UST, active: 9v, side mounted controls: volume, bass, mid, treble, brilliance, notch, phase switch
- K&K Sound Big Shot – SBT, passive
- K&K Sound Twin Spot – SBT (2), passive
- L.R. Baggs Element – UST, active: 9v
- MISI Acoustic Trio – UST (LR Baggs Element), active: super capacitor (holds 8 hour charge)
- Shadow Nanoflex – UST, active
As of this moment, my vote for “best ‘ukulele pickup” would have to go to the L.R. Baggs Five-O or MISI Acoustic Trio. Both have great tone and are light. The Baggs probably has an edge on sound quality, but the MISI is a simpler setup without need for changing batteries.
Something to keep in mind is that a high-end acoustic amp will make any pickup sound better. Likewise, a good pickup will make any amp sound better. Also, a good install could make a bad pickup sound better and vice-versa.
There is no perfect solution. I have yet to hear a pickup that makes the instrument “just louder.” So maybe one pickup has it’s quirks, but another one will too. It’s all just give and take. Weight the options for yourself and do some research. Good luck in your search!