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. If you try to polish a turd your maximum potential will be limited. 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.
A 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.
Since an active pickup drives its own signal, it’s not as important to have a second preamp. But the additional tools you gain with one of these dedicated units usually make it a worthwhile piece of gear anyways. (I have an active pickup and will always choose to have some sort of preamp in my setup because of the control it gives me.)
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. This is an EQ that lets you precisely select which frequency to boost or cut (other EQs have fixed frequencies that are less useful).
Preamps come in many flavors and the options can be overwhelming.
My two favorites out of the five or so preamps I’ve used over the years 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.
Effect pedals come in many varieties. From little stomp boxes to rack mounted studio effects the sky is the limit with the sounds they can create.
An effect unit is just a box (or nowadays, a computer plugin) that changes the signal somehow. Sometimes an effect adds to the sound, subtracts from it, changes it entirely, or any combination of the three.
For simple tasks, a small pedal housing can do the trick. When more knobs, features, or a display is required, pedals can get larger quickly.
The most popular type of effect housing, a stompbox is a small unit with a footswitch that usually focuses on creating one type of sound. Since stompboxes often focus on doing one thing well, they are ideal for getting the most specific tones. You can pick your favorite model for each effect.
Just like it sounds, a multi-effects unit provides several sound changing options in one. These units are often a bigger because they can have a (sometimes generous) handful of foot-switches and parameter knobs.
A multi-effects unit can give you way more options for your money (and floor space), but a drawback is that you are stuck with only one brand’s effect sounds.
Some multi-effects are essentially a bunch of stompboxes in one housing. Some are patch-based where you scroll around on a display to dial in sound presets. Patch-based multis allow you to switch from one unique sound to another that is completely different with one foot switch – something that would require a lot of tap dancing with stompboxes!
Rack-mounts are far less common than the previous two. A rack mounted effect is often top-of-the-line, big bucks, and usually used in a studio or on the road by big name acts. These effects sit up off the floor in a big flight case and are not foot-switchable unless you have an external controller.
These days, almost any effect sound you can imagine can be created by a computer. A huge number of plugins have been created to emulate sounds of stompboxes and other effects units. You can run these emulations on a laptop with almost any DAW program.
Because of a computer’s processing power, you can achieve high levels of quality and unique sounds that otherwise wouldn’t be possible in a pedal. This format is obviously not as practical for live use when you want to be able to turn effects on and off with your feet – though it can be done with MIDI controllers.
Common ‘Ukulele Effects:
Is the first ‘ukulele effect that comes to mind. Many pros use at a little bit of delay when they perform or record. A delay effect records the notes you play and then repeats them back after a specified amount of time (kind of like yelling into a canyon). The typical controls for a delay pedal are:
- Level/mix adjusts the volume of the delayed signal.
- Time controls the time between the first note you play and the delayed note(s).
- Feedback/regeneration is the number of times the delayed note is played back. Some pedals have the ability to self-oscillate which means the feedback can turn back on itself and get louder and louder. Just be cautious of this because if you aren’t paying attention, your delay pedal can become a very loud beast quickly.
There are a few different types of delay – or modes that try and emulate the different types. Digital delay is probably the most common with a bright clear repeat that doesn’t change as the delay fades out. Analog delay usually has less time available and the repeats lose their treble frequencies and get “muddy” as they fade out. A lot of times the analog delays have a modulation feature which adds depth and a “warble” to the repeat (the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man is the gold standard for analog delays). Tape delay is super old-school and only used by die hard fans due to maintenance and reliability issues. A loop of tape is run through a “write” head and then a movable “read” head plays back the delayed notes. You move the read head to change the delay time. It’s safe to say that the Maestro Echoplex EP-3 is probably the most famous tape delay.
A great article about delay times (specifically about U2’s Edge) can be found here: http://www.amnesta.net/edge_delay/
Is another echo type of ‘ukulele effect. Instead of repeating back clear individual notes like the delay pedal, a reverb unit creates a wash that sounds like the note(s) are held out longer on a wave (like a basketball bouncing in a gym). This is a good option if you would rather just have a little extra space filler, but not hear individual notes.
- Level/Mix – changes how loud the reverb sound is compared to the dry (uneffected) signal.
- Time/Decay – dictates the length of the reverb.
- Pre Delay – controls how long it is before the reverb starts after a note. This is usually a very short time, but can lead to the reverb having a more delay-like sound.
- Tone – turns the treble content of the reverb up or down. The more treble, the more the reverb stands out.
There are several different reverbs types you might hear about. A room reverb has a small sound, hall is a bigger sound, church or cave is even bigger, spring reverb is created by actual springs that are in some electric guitar amps, and modulate detunes the reverb for a deeper, more extreme effect.
An equalization pedal is less of an effect and more of a sound shaping tool. It allows you to raise or lower the level of individual frequencies. EQ is nice to have control over because the average ‘ukulele needs some tone doctoring when you plug it in. An EQ pedal can help reduce harsh treble frequencies or a muddy low-end. You can use equalization to create a sound that is unique and more interesting than un-EQed ‘ukulele. Graphic EQ pedals are controlled with “frequency bands”. Each band is centered on a certain frequency and is controlled by a slider. With the slider, you can control how much you cut or boost each frequency. A parametric EQ revolves around the same idea, but has an additional control to change where the frequency band is centered. This can be useful for cutting out a very specific frequency that is feeding back.
Can be a nice ‘ukulele effect if used with taste – it can get annoying quickly and too much takes away from the ‘ukulele’s unique sound. What a chorus pedal does, is delay the notes you are playing by a few milliseconds and de-tunes the delay track a little bit, modulating the pitch that is detuned. It gives you a kind of fat, swirl sound. A great example of a chorus sound is the Police’s “Message in a Bottle” or just about anything by Nirvana. Basic controls are:
- Effect level – changes how loud the doubled track is. The mix between the normal (dry) and effected (wet) signals.
- EQ or Filter – changes the overall tone of the chorus.
- Rate – controls how fast the pitch changes.
- Depth – changes how much the pitch changes.
Some other effects include:
- Compression boosts low volumes and cuts back on high volumes. It can also be used to increase the perceived sustain of a note as the compressor clamps down on the initial attack, but as the note fades it releases and allows more volume through.
- Distortion is the result of to much input, which overloads a circuit and makes the signal buzz. Almost all classic rock lead guitar is distorted. This is probably the most annoying ‘ukulele effect. People always seem to think that any instrument through a distortion pedal will sound like an electric guitar, but it won’t. ‘Ukuleles especially seem to sound really “fizzy” through a distortion pedal. Try an overdrive or fuzz pedal instead. They seem to react better to an ‘ukulele pickup.
- Overdrive is a milder form of distortion. More of a BB King sound.
- Tremolo fluctuates the level of the incoming signal up and down. This was used a lot in old surf music and more recently in “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day.
- The flanger was originally invented when a studio engineer played two analog tapes back at the same time and held his finger on one to slow it down. It creates a swirling type of sound. Eddie Van Halen used flanger on many of his lead parts. Personally, my favorite example is Eric Johnson’s “High Landrons”.
- The phaser is the sister to flange except it is a frequency-based effect instead of delay-based (EVH “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love sound)
- A pitch shifter analyzes the incoming signal and adds a harmony 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 octave pedal instantly adds a duplicate of your playing an octave above or below (or both) the original signal
- The wah-wah is a rocker pedal that sweeps through the “Q-range”. The Q-range is a spiked section of the EQ spectrum. As you move the pedal back and forth, the spike moves from treble to bass. An auto-wah creates sounds like a wah-wah, but without the expression pedal input.
Wet vs. Dry – The effected signal is called the wet signal. The un-effected signal is called the dry signal. Many times the “mix” knob on a pedal is considered the “wet mix” or something similar.
When you plug in an ‘ukulele effect, the signal line looks like this: ‘ukulele>cable>effect>cable>amp. With more than one effect it would be like: ‘ukulele>cable>effect>cable>effect>[add cable>effect as needed]>cable>amp/PA.
You need at least one instrument cable besides the one from your ‘ukulele to your amp (more depending on how many effects you are plugging in). Instead of directly plugging the cable into the amp, plug it into the “input” jack of the effect unit. (I’m assuming at this point that you have either installed batteries or plugged the effects unit into a wall outlet). Plug one end of the second cable into the “output” jack of the effect unit. Plug the other end into your amp. Make sure all volume controls are at zero on the ‘ukulele, effects, and amp. Turn on the effect first, then your amp so that the pop from turning on the effect doesn’t hit your amp. Slowly turn up the volume on the amp, effect(s), and ‘ukulele until you can hear a picked note. Turn the effect on by stomping on the switch and adjust the parameters to your liking. Be sure to refer back to the manual to make sure you don’t miss anything important that might cause damage.
If you have several pedals, lining them up in the correct (or incorrect) order can change your sound in big ways. The main reason for optimizing your signal chain is to figure out what pedals interact with each other the best.
In general, if it sounds good, go with it. That said, the generally accepted pedal order goes like this. All are optional. Just skip through the list until you find the pedals you have:
- Preamp (So that the following pedals have the most polished sound to work with)
- Filters (Wah-wahs, envelope followers)
- Dirt (Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz)
- Modulation (Chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo, etc.)
- Volume pedal
- Delay and Reverb (Delay usually goes first)