Preamps & Effects: Getting a Better Sound

If you’re lucky, plugging straight into an amp will make your ‘ukulele sound great.

But more often than not, you’ll be victim to the quirks and character of your gear. This results in a less than perfect sound.

The Gold In, Gold Out Rule

If you start with a great sounding pickup, there will be much less to fix along the way. It’s way easier to tweak a sound that’s already 90% of the way there than to try and manipulate a crappy sound into greatness.

Be sure to do some homework on pickups and keep your expectations realistic if working with sub-par equipment. If your starting sound is garbage, you’re better off buying a new pickup than a preamp for the money.

Preamps

alix preampA preamp, in a limited sense, is a circuit that boosts and matches your signal with the input of an amp or PA. In most applications, an acoustic preamp comes with several tools to help you tune up your sound.

If you have a passive pickup, an outboard preamp is a must. Without it the impedance levels between pickup and amp or PA will probably mismatched and your sound will suffer greatly.

Impedance

I don’t claim to understand it all, but if your pickup outputs a signal that is not what the input (amp/mixer) is expecting, you’ll have impedance mismatch. This can cause a host of problems that are usually fixed with a preamp. For more on understanding this, check out the some of the great Booli’s posts on impedance: one and two.

Preamp VS No-Preamp Comparison With an Active Pickup

Since an active pickup drives and balances its own signal, it’s not as important to have an preamp, though many people choose to.

I wanted to hear how big of a difference there actually is between using a preamp or not with my active LR Baggs Five-0 pickup. So I made up a little loop switcher that could change between the direct signal and a processed signal with the push of a button. The preamp used is an LR Baggs Venue DI.

The sound that comes out of an active pickup is already pretty refined before it even touches the preamp. My guess is that the difference would be much more noticeable if you were to do this same experiment with a passive pickup. (I don’t have a passive preamp to demo this with at the moment.)

Recording a pickup directly into a computer is the best way to capture a pickup at its most underwhelming. I usually think my pickup sounds great live, but in this video it sounds quacky and lame.

Playing through a PA or amp is a big factor in the overall sound quality of a pickup. Again, I think the difference between preamp/no-preamp will be more noticeable when the ‘ukulele is being amplified.

To me, the demo brings up more questions than it answers. If there were more hours in the day I’d like to do a preamp through a PA demo of the same thing. And also include an ‘ukulele with a passive pickup for reference.

In the meantime, I still use a preamp at every gig.

Preamps I Like

I’ve been plugging my ‘ukulele in and performing onstage for over a decade. For the most part, I’ve “been there, done that” and have found what works best for me over the years. That’s exactly what I’ll recommend to you. It’s not that other preamps are BAD, I just haven’t used them or choose not to.

Personally, I require a parametric EQ section in any preamp I use. It’s the hands-down best way to fine-tune the sound of your pickup and make adjustments depending on the room. This is an EQ that lets you precisely select which frequency to boost or cut (other EQs have fixed frequencies – a less precise approach).

Preamps come in many flavors and the options can be overwhelming.

q\strip diMy two favorites out of the six or so preamps I’ve tried are the LR Baggs Venue DI and the Tech 21 Q\Strip.

Both provide ample amounts of preamp gain, a DI output, and two parametric EQ bands – along with high and low EQ controls. Of the two, the Venue has more features: a tuner, notch filter, phase switch, boost footswitch, and presence knob. However, I prefer the size and sound of the Q\Strip for my needs.

Variations in Preamp Sounds

Here’s a shootout I did with my friend, Tobias Elof, of our preamps of choice at the time (Lehle Acouswitch Junior and LR Baggs Venue DI).

It’s subtle, but interesting to hear the difference in sound between two pedals that do almost the exact same thing. I’d expect this variety in signal coloration from any two preamps.

Direct Input

May preamps (including the Venue and Q\Strip) have an XLR output that sends a line level signal. This is commonly known as a DI – or direct input/injection. By utilizing a DI output you can provide a strong signal right to the mixing board and not worry about signal degradation along the cable.

This can be great if you play through a PA a lot. It reduces the need for an extra DI box. If you play mainly through an amp, you might want – or need – to use a 1/4″ cable anyways and the DI feature will be wasted.

The sound that is produced by the preamp will be basically identical whether using XLR or 1/4″. The only difference will be the level of the signal.

Other Options

Everybody has their own needs and preferences with gear. As such, there are many options suitable for an ‘ukulele preamp. However, finding them is difficult. They seem to get buried under the hype of electric guitar pedals.

I figure it can’t hurt to put together as comprehensive a list as possible of acoustic instrument preamps. “EQ” assumed to be fixed-band based (parametric shown as “para-EQ”). Possibly better options for uke in bold.

  • BBE Acoustimax – ($149) Para-EQ, mute, notch, phase, sonic maximizer, FX loop, DI
  • Behringer ADI21 V-Tone – ($29) Para-EQ, DI
  • Boss AD-2 – ($99) Ambience, notch, acoustic resonance, mute
  • Boss AD-10 – ($334) Two-inputs, Para-EQ, compression, ambience, delay/chorus, anti-feedback, acoustic resonance, boost, tuner, FX loop, DI
  • Fishman Aura Spectrum DI – ($349) EQ, compression, Aura imaging, tuner, phase, FX loop, anti-feedback, DI
  • Fishman ToneDEQ – ($299) Reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, tremolo, phase, compression, EQ, boost footswitch, DI
  • Fishman Platinum Pro EQ/DI – ($299) Para-EQ, low-cut, compression, tuner, boost, notch, phase, FX loop, DI
  • Fishman Platinum Stage EQ/DI – ($149) Para-EQ, boost, phase, low-cut, DI
  • GMF Al1 – ($99) High/low EQ, phase, DI
  • Grace Design BiX – ($295) High/low EQ, boost, mute, DI
  • Grace Design ALiX – ($695) Para-EQ, low-cut, boost, mute, phase, DI
  • Grace Design Felix – ($1075) Two-channels, Para-EQ, low-cut, mute, boost, phase, FX loop, 48v phantom power, DI (2)
  • JHS The Clover – ($199) EQ, low-cut, DI
  • K&K Pure – ($99) EQ
  • K&K Pure XLR – ($177) EQ, phase, DI
  • Lehle Acouswitch IQ DI – ($599) Two-inputs, para-EQ, mute, boost, FX loop, DI
  • LR Baggs Gigpro – ($99) High/low EQ, phase, belt clip
  • LR Baggs Mixpro – ($169) Two-inputs, high/low EQ, 48v phantom power
  • LR Baggs Venue DI – ($299) Tuner, para-EQ, boost, notch, phase, FX loop, DI
  • LR Baggs Session DI – ($249) Notch, saturation, compression EQ, low-cut, mute switch, phase , DI
  • LR Baggs Para DI – ($189) Para-EQ, notch, FX loop, phase, DI
  • Mesa/Boogie Rosette – ($379) Para-EQ, low-cut, notch, boost, mute, phase, FX loop, DI
  • Orange Valve Pre – ($899) Two-channels, para-EQ, reverb, phase, mute, 48v phantom power, FX loop, DI
  • Pigtronix Bob Weir’s Real Deal – ($279) Two-input, crossover, phase, anti-feedback, 48v phantom
  • Radial AC Driver – ($149) Two-inputs, low-cut, notch, phase, mute, DI
  • Radial Tonebone PZ-Deluxe ($249) Para-EQ, low-cut, phase, mute, boost, DI
  • Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre – ($299) Para-EQ, low-cut, notch, phase, boost, mute, FX loop, DI
  • Tech 21 Q\Strip – ($249) Para-EQ, high-cut, low-cut, DI
  • Trace Elliot Transit A – ($299) Reverb, delay, chorus, boost, tuner, phase, notch, EQ, DI
  • Zoom AC-2 – ($199) EQ, boost, tuner, reverb, anti-feedback, DI
  • Effects

    Effect pedals come in MANY varieties. From little stomp boxes to rack mounted studio effects, from making your sound beautiful to making your sound gross, subtracting from it, changing it entirely, effects can do most anything you can imagine.

    That said, the title of this post is “getting a better sound.” So I’ll spend my time on some of the most useful and traditional effects you might use for ‘ukulele.

    Reverb:

    hall of fame mini tc electronicReverb creates a sense of natural space. It’s an organic sound we’re used to hearing and interpreting unconsciously to get a sense of the size of a room, canyon, street, etc…

    You can hear the natural reverb of many environments in this song, recorded live in each place.

    By putting reverb on the sound of an ‘ukulele, you can create a false sense of space. This often makes the sound more evocative and beautiful.

    A reverb pedal often has controls that work like this:

    • Level/Mix – Changes how loud the reverb sound is compared to the dry (uneffected) signal.
    • Time/Decay – Dictates the length of the reverb. This implies the size of the space.
    • Pre-Delay – Longer times push back the first reverb reflections, creating a larger-sounding space.
    • Tone – Turns the treble content of the reverb up or down. The more treble, the more the reverb stands out.

    There are several reverb sounds like: spring, plate, room, hall that are often available as different modes in a pedal. I think plate and hall characteristics usually sound best with the ‘ukulele.

    Delay:

    mxr carbon copy delayA delay effect is pretty self-explanatory: it delays a copy of the sound. This creates a more obvious (less natural), but less dense sense of space than reverb.

    • Mix – Adjusts the volume of the delayed signal.
    • Delay Time – Controls the time between the first note you play and the delayed note.
    • Feedback – The number of times the delayed note is played back.

    Delay is usually best applied to melodies. Strumming with a bunch of delay on your sound can sound kind of goofy.

    Some pedals have the ability to self-oscillate which means the feedback can turn back on itself and get louder and louder. This can break ears and equipment if you’re not paying attention. I’ve seen pros scare themselves onstage with this side effect before.

    Just like reverb, there are a few different delay styles. These are mainly created by the technology used to achieve the effect – or modeled after the sound.

    Digital delay has a bright, clean repeat. Analog delay gets “muddy” and grainy as it fades out. This dark sound sits back in the mix. Tape delay was created using a loop of tape run through a “write” head and then a movable “read” head that played back the delayed notes. This is mainly a modeled sound in this day and age since tape technology is old, huge, and unreliable. Reverse delay sucks the note from end to beginning creating a swell effect.

    Shorter delay times create a slap-back sound, longer ones create more of an etherial echo. I really dig around 325 miliseconds of analog delay with 3 or 4 repeats for what I do.

    Chorus:

    Of all effects, ‘ukulele players are probably most used to hearing natural chorus at their jam group. A chorus pedal recreates this sound by delaying the signal by a few milliseconds and de-tuning and modulating the delayed track a little bit.

    It can be nice for thickening up the sound, but probably borders on not-so-useful in a performance setting.

    Basic controls are:

    • Effect level – The mix between the normal and modulated signal.
    • Rate – Controls how fast the pitch LFO changes.
    • Depth – How much the pitch is detuned.

    Less Useful Effects

    Compression clamps down on signal spikes and brings up the volume of everything else.

    Clipping circuits create three flavors of distortion sounds. Distortion is the result of the signal overloading a solid state circuit. This creates a sustaining buzzy sound like an electric guitar. Overdrive is a milder form of distortion created by a tube amp. Fuzz is an aggressive type of clipping that creates a squared-off waveform.

    Tremolo fluctuates the volume creating a choppy sound.

    Flanger is similar to chorus, but with a shorter delay time and has a more aggressive sucking sound.

    Phaser is the sister to flange except it is a frequency-based effect instead of delay-based.

    Pitch effects analyze the incoming signal and add a second note. An intelligent pitch shifter will track harmony within a set scale, a conventional pitch shifter will harmonize in straight intervals which might place notes outside of the key. An octaver pedal instantly adds a duplicate of your playing an octave above or below (or both) the original signal.

    Filters are fancy EQs that move automatically like an auto-wah Q-Tron or with a foot rocker pedal like a wah-wah.

    Solutions

    Nobody ever died from not having effects. They are a luxury. But a preamp can be a make it or break it piece of gear.

    You can approach pairing a preamp and effects a couple different ways.

    Pedalboard With Single Effects

    The most popular type of effect housing, a stompbox is a small unit with a footswitch that usually focuses on creating only one type of sound. You might pair a reverb pedal with your preamp and put them together on a board for ease of transportation.

    More pedals obviously take up more space. It’s easy to want to have every sound available to you, but to do so you have to lug a huge case of pedals around.

    Over time I’ve realized that all I really use are a preamp/EQ, tuner, reverb, and delay. Here are my picks for a simple, compact ‘ukulele pedalboard:

    Preamp & TunerTech 21 Q\Strip & TC Electronic Polytune Mini 2 OR LR Baggs Venue DI.

    ReverbTC Electronic Hall of Fame Mini

    DelayMXR Carbon Copy

    Power Supply

    strymon zuma r300 front viewHaving several pedals on a board is one thing, getting power to them in a compact and adequate way is another. The last thing you want is a wall-wart plug for each pedal. This takes up a huge amount of space – in addition to being a rats nest – and creates all kinds of opportunities for humming, hissing, and other noise in your signal.

    I’ve been using the Strymon Zuma R300 power supply with great success. It fits neatly under my pedalboard and provides plenty of clean power to up to five pedals.

    Multi-Effects

    A multi-effect uses a streamlined interface to create several effect sounds in one compact housing. Oftentimes, the smaller these units are, the more programing they require to create sounds.

    This makes it hard to make changes on the fly. But if you always use the same sounds, the space and simplicity it provides to your setup are probably worth it once you figure out how to program the unit.

    Do note that all multi-effects are not suited to preamp duties.

    My picks:

    Big Multi-EffectBoss ME series. These pedals can be programed to recall sound patches, but also function as what-you-see-is-what-you-get collection of single effects all in one box. Acts as preamp: No.

    Compact Multi-EffectLine 6 HX Stomp. Stupid expensive, but amazing quality and attention to detail in a small box. It includes an input-loading feature to match impedance and effect options for days and days. Acts as preamp: Yes.

    Pluging Your ‘Ukulele Into a Preamp or Pedals:

    Making the connections between your ‘ukulele, pedals, and amp is not hard, but if you do it wrong you won’t get any sound.

    The basic format looks like this:

    ‘Ukulele > cable > preamp > cable > amp.

    Cables all basically do the same thing. The sound difference between a great cable and a crappy cable is certainly audible, but won’t be obvious to undiscerning ears.

    That said, the quality of the cable will hugely affect how long it lasts. I’ve had bad luck with cheap Fender cables crackling after a few years. This is just one more headache that isn’t necessary.

    So now I spend decent money on cables and haven’t had a single one go bad yet. My choice is Mogami Gold. I’ve had my first one since 2013 and still gig with it every week. When it does give up the ghost I’ll be trying out the Mogami lifetime warranty.

    If you want to plug your ‘ukulele into a preamp THEN an effect:

    ‘Ukulele > cable > preamp > cable > effect > cable > amp.

    For each additional pedal, just add a cable and the effect.

    Powering up

    Make sure your amp is off, then turn on the pedal. Doing this in the reverse order can cause your amp to hear the “pop” of the effect turning on.

    Turn your ‘ukulele volume to 3/4. Then slowly strum and bring the volume of the amp up to the desired level.

    Pedal Order:

    If you have several pedals, lining them up in the correct (or incorrect) order can change your sound.

    Here’s an ideal lineup, though it’s not a hard and fast rule:

    1. Preamp (So that the following pedals have the most polished sound to work with)
    2. Octave
    3. Filters (Wah-wahs, envelope followers)
    4. Compressors
    5. Dirt (Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz)
    6. Modulation (Chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo, etc.)
    7. Volume pedal
    8. Delay
    9. Reverb

    Conclusion and the GAS disclaimer

    Pedals can really help make your ‘ukulele sound better plugged in. Start with a preamp, then a reverb, then a delay if you’re inclined. Everything else tends to being more like toys than tools.

    GAS is known as gear acquisition syndrome. It’s a silly tag people give themselves when they spend lots of money of gear. Remember that pedals, ukes, strings, etc… will NOT make you a better player. Practice does that. Gear simply provides a tool to make it heard.

    So keep it simple and honestly assess what you need.

By Brad Bordessa

I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honoka’a, Hawai’i, where I run this site from a little plantation house in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once borrowed a uke to jam with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me