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 best for your ukulele because each instrument reacts differently to a pickup, but I can give you a jump start on your research.
Ukulele Pickup Terms:
Active vs. Passive – Active pickups have an internal preamp (usually mounted on the endpin jack) that is powered by battery (or super-capacitor). This preamp balances and boosts the signal sending a “finished product” onto whatever you are plugging into. A passive pickup has no preamp and sends a raw signal to the output jack. Most times, an active pickup is going to sound better when you “plug and play”. A passive pickup might need an external preamp to clean up its signal. On the other hand, a passive pickup is very light, whereas most active pickups need a 9 volt battery.
Endpin Jack – The place where the pickup signal leaves the ukulele’s body. It’s a metal ¼ in. jack that accepts a ¼ in. instrumentcable. 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.
Feedback - Every soundman’s nightmare. An awful scream of electronic pain that is created when the strings (or sometimes the soundboard) are set ringing by the amplifier. The ringing is then amplified again and again (this is called a feedback loop) until somebody does something about it. Many times the feedback can be stopped just by touching the strings, or by resting your palm on the bridge if you have a soundboard transducer. Generally, the louder your PA or amp is, the harder feedback is to control. Clever positioning of yourself and the speakers along some EQing will take you a long way towards being feedback free. How to reduce feedback.
Internal Microphone - 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. An internal mic is more prone to feeding back than other kinds of pickups because, well, it is a mic…
Onboard Controls - 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 sound hole controls that stick on the inside of the sound hole, allowing fairly easy access without having to do any cutting.
Pickup – a pickup is a transducer that changes vibrations into electricity, which can in turn be used to get the signal to an amp or PA system. The transducer itself is made out of piezoelectric (piezo for short) crystals. A pickup is usually placed under the saddle (UST), under the soundboard (soundboard transducer) near or on the bridge, or floating around inside the body as an internal mic.
Power Sources - The power source for active pickups usually comes from a 9v battery. The battery has a holster near the sound hole for easy access. D-TAR uses 18v (two AA) for its pickups, giving the circuitry more headroom because there is more voltage to work with. MI-SI uses a super-capacitor to hold enough power for 8 hours of play time after a one minute charge.
Preamp – A preamp is a circuit that balances and boosts the signal as it passes through. Preamps can ether be onboard or outboard. Onboard preamps are wired straight to the pickup and are mounted internally on the endpin jack or on the control panel. Outboard preamps are connected between the ukulele and the amp (ukulele > instrument cable > preamp > instrument cable > amp). The Fishman Pro EQ Platinum and the L. R. Baggs Paracoustic DI box are some of the most popular outboard preamps. Usually you will only need an outboard preamp if your pickup is passive. Here is a rough comparison between my ukulele’s passive K&K Big Spot pickup with and without my Fishman preamp.
Soundboard Transducer (SBT) - A soundboard transducer is a little disk (or several) that sticks onto the inside (or outside) of the ukulele. Since they amplify the entire soundboard of the instrument, they are prone to picking up arm movement. It seems that when a soundboard transducer feeds back, it does so via soundboard vibration instead of string vibration, which is more of a bass “hum” than a shriek. In general, an SBT will have a warmer, more natural tone than its UST counterpart.
UST (Under Saddle Transducer) - A UST is a type of pickup that sits in the bottom of the saddle slot in the bridge. The saddle pushes 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, but are less prone to feedback.
Commonly Used Ukulele Pickups
Some of the pickups that are commonly used, or have been used for ukuleles are:
- D-TAR Timbreline – UST, active, power: 2 AA
- Fishman Matrix Infinity – UST, active, power: 9v, soundhole controls: tone and volume
- Fishman Prefix Pro (Koaloha artist models) – UST, active, power: 9v, side mounted controls: volume, bass, mid, treble, brilliance, notch, phase switch
- K&K Sound Big Shot – soundboard transducer, passive
- K&K Sound Twin Spot Internal – soundboard transducer (2), passive
- L.R. Baggs Element – UST, active, power: 9v
- MISI Acoustic Trio – UST (LR Baggs Element), active, power: super capacitor (holds 8 hour charge)
- Shadow Nanoflex – UST, active
As of this moment, my vote for “best ukulele pickup” for my current situation would have to go to the MISI Acoustic Trio. It’s what I just had put into my ukulele. It sounds great, is light, and doesn’t waste batteries. Here’s a quick demo I did of the MISI: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItmVUqM6DO8.
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!