‘Ukulele Pickups: All About Transducers

‘Ukulele pickups are overwhelming to think about. There are different types: UST, soundboard transducer, internal mic – each in either active or passive styles.

Narrow down what you want and you will find many different brands, most with several models that are relatively suitable for the ‘ukulele. Each has different pros and cons and can have wildly different sounds.

There’s no silver bullet, but doing a little homework will go a long ways towards helping you find what you need in a pickup.

Contents:

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‘Ukulele Pickup Types and Styles

Most acoustic instrument pickups these days are made from piezo crystals. This is because the magnetic pickups found in electric guitars require steel strings in order to disturb the magnetic field and create an electric signal.

A piezo converts sound vibrations directly into an electric signal, without a magnet. This is vastly more useful for nylon stringed instruments.

While the technology is basically the same, implementation of the piezo pickup can vary a bit.

Soundboard Transducer (SBT)

Soundboard Transducer Ukulele PickupA soundboard transducer is a little piezo disk that is stuck onto the soundboard of the ‘ukulele. Usually this is done internally with a pickup jack installed in the end block to get the electrical signal out out of the uke to an amp. Sometimes though, non-permanent SBTs are installed externally. These often have a long lead with a 1/4″ plug at the end and don’t require any kind of endpin attachment.

Since an SBT picks up the vibrations centered wherever it’s placed, positioning is very important. A correct install will give a sweet, balanced tone while anything else can be a nightmare.

SBTs often have a warmer, more natural tone than other type pickups. However, the wide range of frequencies they reproduce can lead to feedback problems and extraneous noise from arm movement on the instrument.

Under Saddle Transducer (UST)

Under Saddle Transducer Ukulele PickupThis type of ‘ukulele pickup sits in the bottom of the saddle slot. The strings pressure presses the saddle down on the pickup and transfers vibrations into the piezo 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. These holes in the saddle slot are invisible, but because of this, a UST is always a permanently installed pickup with an endpin jack.

The saddle and pickup element must have superb, even contact to make sure that each string is amplified at the same volume.

Because of the direct string-to-pickup vibration transfer, USTs often sound more sterile and “plugged in” than SBTs. This is because less of the instrument’s resonance is is getting into the pickup sound, which also makes this install style less prone to feedback. Most performing ‘ukulele players have this type of pickup in their ‘ukulele because of consistency and ease-of-use onstage.

Microphone

A mic is also a pickup. It’s very picky and can be difficult to use onstage, but if you can pull it off, hands-down will provide you with the best amplified ‘ukulele sound.

Using a microphone on your ‘ukulele requires careful planning of the whole stage setup. It’s very easy to for an improperly positioned mic to feed back. This is remedied by reducing a stage volume as much as possible.

In fact, the best microphone application for acoustic instrumentation is usually just a nice big condenser mic in the middle of the stage with no monitors. The performers move their bodies and instruments to keep the sound balanced and “turn up” one instrument or another by getting closer to the mic. It’s a beautiful dance to use a microphone like this and it can be highly effective.

Otherwise, a small dynamic spot mic (like a Shure SM57) positioned close to the ‘ukulele can also work, but it won’t sound nearly as nice as the “big mic.”

Active vs. Passive

As soon as you sound a note, the pickup converts the sound into an electronic signal and away it goes at the speed of light towards the speakers. Everything in between the pickup and the speakers can be considered electronics, but what happens between the pickup and the endpin jack is of most interest to us here.

Active

An active ‘ukulele pickup has an internal powered preamp built into the pickup electronics. This preamp balances and boosts the signal, sending a “finished product” onto whatever you are plugging into. There are several ways to power this preamp:

  • 9V battery – Heavy, but straightforward, popular 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 clipped
  • 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 pickup power is the system MISI uses. They figured out how to get a super capacitor to operate like a battery except that it can be recharged again and again without loosing capacity. Simply plug your pickup into a power outlet for a minute and the preamp with work for 8-16 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. It’s probably not as clean as the D-TAR, but it’s still pretty clean.

With an active onboard preamp you basically have a plug-and-play sound. The signal that comes out of the jack is ready to go and can interface with pretty much any mixer without too much trouble.

Passive

A lot of ‘ukulele 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.

This is usually due to impedance mismatch. I don’t claim to know all the details, but thanks to Booli – a long-time sound guru – over at Ukulele Underground, have enough of an understanding to give an overview here. You can read some of his original writings on impedance here.

Impedance Mismatch

Impedance is the resistance a cable or circuit imparts on a flow of electricity. The higher the impedance, the more power is lost to heat.

Passive pickups have extremely high output impedance – 1 Million Ohms or more. Most amplifier or mixer inputs (with the exception of “hi-Z” inputs) expect something closer to line level impedance – 100-600 Ohms. Or, at the very least, an electric guitar output which is 1-2k Ohms.

That’s a very large discrepancy between what is provided by the passive pickup and what is expected by the amp. Because the difference between the real and expected resistance is so high, you can expect (paraphrasing Booli here):

  • Weak signal
  • Loss of frequecies below 500hz (all the warmth frequencies)
  • Piezo “quack”
  • Hum and interference when sent through cables longer than 10′

To address these issues, you need a device that can translate the high-impedance passive pickup output to a more reasonable line-level output impedance. This usually comes in the form of an acoustic preamp. In addition to impedance matching the signals, they often offer some great EQ sculpting tools which can go even further towards making your uke sound better plugged in.

LR Baggs Venue DI for ukuleleI swear by the LR Baggs Venue DI. It’s a fabulous piece of equipment that has an expansive EQ section and a built in tuner. But at three times the price of something like the ADI21 by Behringer, it’s only something you’ll be able to justify if you’re performing a lot. (The Behringer gets rave reviews from those who use it.)

Main thing is that you have SOMETHING! Unless you have zero expectations, showing up to a gig with just a cable and a passive pickup is going to be a huge crap shoot in the sound department.

Parts of an ‘Ukulele Pickup

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.

pickup endpin jack

Endpin Jack

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, the preamp is usually mounted onto the jack on the inside of the uke.

Transducer

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. You can’t see it unless you take your strings off and remove the saddle.

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 an adhesive. You can see it if you peer into your uke with a mirror.

Battery

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.

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 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 process of getting it in your uke. External solutions not included, installing a pickup, at the very minimum, requires drilling a hole in the tail block of the ‘ukulele. This is where the endpin jack is mounted. The only part you see is a little button about the size of four stacked pennies, but this will forever become a part of your instrument.

Before you despair, remember that an endpin doubles as a strap jack!

Once you decide that “Yes! I want a pickup!” you’ve got to find somebody who can do the job. It’s certainly a project you can do yourself. There’s not much to it, really, and you’d save some money. But if you’ve never done it before and expect a great sound from a nice instrument, it might be a good idea to find a third party to do the work.

It’s a fiddly task and getting it correct makes all the difference in the world, believe me. Because of how a pickup works, the sound can be downright terrible before you might realize that something isn’t right. If you redo the job, you might find the same pickup sounds fabulous. Which is why it’s nice to get it done right the first time.

Chatting 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. But get a couple opinions. There are a lot of competent folks up for the task, but there’s also plenty of schmucks who are looking to make a quick buck and get you out the door.

Expect to pay $50-100 in addition to the cost of the pickup for the labor cost.

Here’s a cool video on how a pickup is installed from Hawai’i Music Supply:

Common Pickup Solutions

Over the years, many ‘ukulele pickups have come into development, allowing for better sound, control, and less weight. But several have had more success and widespread use than others.

While you’d be forgiven in thinking that buying the most expensive pickup will get you the best sound, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the install. The best-sounding pickup in the world in one ‘ukulele could sound like the worst pickup in another if it’s not put in correctly. I’m dead serious.

Top Dogs

The two “best” ‘ukulele pickup solutions (as of 2018) seem to revolve around the LR Baggs ‘ukulele UST element. This UST is used in both the LR Baggs Five-0 ($150) and also the MISI Acoustic Trio Uke ($135). Both of these pickups are active, but are each powered with very little weight in different ways.

The Baggs utilizes a low-voltage circuit that runs on a standard CR2032 watch battery. This provides power for perhaps 10 hours of play time before it needs to be changed. You can run it for much longer, but the performance suffers. (Ledward Kaapana supposedly went for over a year without ever changing the battery despite his gig-heavy schedule.)

MISI completely reinvented the game for the Acoustic Trio by employing a rechargeable super capacitor instead of a battery. By plugging the pickup into a wall outlet for a minute, you get 8-16+ hours of play time. Unlike a battery, a super capacitor’s charge capacity never wears down. I have one in my Kamaka that lasts as long on a charge now as it did six or seven years ago.

Since MISI recently came out with their Acoustic Trio Uke (before it was just the “Acoustic Trio” and had a Fishman UST element), I’m not sure which of these two pickups I’d buy to put in a new ‘ukulele these days. Both are fabulous. Right now I give a slight edge to the LR Baggs Five-0 simply because it sounds so fantastic in my Moore Bettah. It also has a little volume control knob that can be mounted inside the soundhole, but I believe the MISI has that option as well. It really comes down to which preamp voicing you like best.

Other Options

While the Baggs and MISI are widely used and praised, they are by no means the only options. Before there were ‘ukulele-specific pickups there were acoustic guitar pickups. So crossover technology has been used for a long time.

The most notable example of this might be the Fishman Matrix series ($160 for the Infinity). Kamaka uses these pickups in their artist ukes. So Jake, Kris Fuchgami, Herb Jr., and the rest of the Kamaka lineup are likely running this setup. It’s a more punchy, bright sound with a percussive edge than the Baggs UST element.

Other people looking for a less-invasive, cheaper install with lighter weight and traditional tone seem to be using the K&K Aloha Twin ($80) or Big Island Spot ($40). These are nice passive pickup’s with a warm, natural sound. However, unless you like playing with fire, you want to factor in the additional cost of a preamp to go along with any passive pickup ($30-300).


Getting the Most Out of Your ‘Ukulele Pickup

Lots of ‘ukuleles have pickups in them. But oftentimes they aren’t maintained or used smartly. Here are some things you can do to get the most out of the pickup.

Use It!

Many people just let their pickup (sometimes the uke too!) sit unused. It’s a piece of gear they got “just in case.”

But letting electronics sit is just asking for corrosion to happen. At least plug a cable into the jack every once in a while to keep the connections clean!

I’ve seen many folks over the years who say “Yeah, my ‘ukulele has a pickup!” get onstage only to find it doesn’t work or the connections are scratchy beyond usefulness.

Replace the Battery

Just because your pickup makes sound doesn’t mean it’s running at 100%. There’s a lot of sag room between optimum operation and a totally dead battery.

In that sag-zone occurs any or all of the following:

  • Low-end frequency loss
  • Lower output
  • Less headroom – or distortion
  • Hit-or-miss sound

You can usually go a long time on a single battery, but if you’ve got a big gig coming up and you want your uke to sound its best – change the battery!

Get a Preamp

For a passive pickup, a preamp is almost a must-have (see “Impedance Mismatch” above). But it’s also nice for active setups as well. Your signal is more polished, you usually have more detailed EQ control, and you can push a louder signal to the amp or board.

As I said earlier, lots of people rave about the budget-friendly ADI21 by Behringer. At less than $30 it’s hard to go wrong. Though it’s simple, shoot-from-the-hip approach leaves out a gain knob and notch filter which can both be very handy.

If you want a premium piece of gear with all the goodies, I highly recommend the LR Baggs Venue DI. It’s a toolbox that goes with me to almost every single gig and even if I don’t need it, the little extra help to my sound and built in tuner are an awesome luxury. I’d buy another in a heartbeat if mine broke (though I’d be surprised if Baggs didn’t take really good care of me if that ever happened).

Tweak the EQ

Even the best ‘ukulele pickup could probably benefit from a little equalization to make it shine. With EQ you can shape the tone to scoop out frequencies that overpower or are problematic and boost ones that need a little help.

I can’t overstate the usefulness of a parametric EQ. If your preamp, mixer, or amp has one – learn how to use it! The ability to dial in precise frequencies to boost or cut probably makes it the most essential tool in a soundman or engineer’s toolbox. Even if you aren’t a soundman, having your tone dialed in to this level of precision will make you sound much better.

So where do you turn the knobs to?

The easiest – and possibly fastest – way to learn how to use a parametric EQ and what the problem frequencies are on your uke is this:

Boost the mid level and then, while strumming or picking a note, sweep the mid frequency knob back and forth slowly. Listen for which tones jump out much louder than others when you sweep by them.

Usually, the one that hums, spikes (jumps to a hurting-your-ears level), or sticks out the most is the one you should cut. So locate that spot with the mid frequency knob and then turn the mid level knob down until you cut the tone just enough so that the ‘ukulele sounds more natural.

It might take a few tries and some very concentrated listening before you get a good result. Practice makes perfect.

If you have the luxury of a second parametric EQ, you can repeat the above procedure to find the second most offensive frequency (if there is one) and cut it as well.

Easy does it! It’s very easy to suck the life out of a channel by pulling the mids back too much. The more you cut, the less the uke will cut through the mix.

General Frequency Guide

180-300hz is often the problem frequency on ‘ukuleles with balanced signals (i.e. active or WITH a preamp). This range contributes to a muddy, thumpy sound.

500-1khz is often the nasally range you get when you run a passive pickup without a preamp (usually because there aren’t any frequencies below this range!). This often needs to be cut quite a bit, probably also with a boost around 200-400hz to warm up the sound.

600-1khz can beef up your sound live, but might be a slippery slope if recording.

1-2khz will bring out the pluck and attack sounds of your uke and give it a bit of bite.

4khz+ adds brilliance to the sound.

EQ Settings in the “Real World”

For fun I went back into a song called Fallout off my album, If Only, and exported some examples of before and after EQ. This was recorded on my Moore Bettah tenor with an LR Baggs pickup into my LR Baggs Venue DI with the EQ set flat.

Keep in mind these are settings for mixing a recording – which can need very different EQ from live situations.

Soloed Uke DI – Without EQ:

Soloed Uke DI – With EQ:

It sounds alright before the EQ, but easing off the lows just a bit and scooping the 680hz area really cleans up the sound. Notice how it’s not a super dramatic difference. This is because I have a good out-of-the-box pickup. But it’s also because EQing is about subtle changes. It’s SO easy to overdo it.

Typical ukulele EQ setting

Here’s what those curves look like (frequency is on the bottom, amount of +db cut/boosted is on the left)

If I was using the same setup into a PA and playing live, I’d tweak the EQ on my Venue to look something like:

Live EQ settings ukulele

I’ll remove the bass if I’m playing with other people to avoid muddying up the sound, increase the cut at ~190hz if it’s a muddy room, and boost the 1-2k range if I need more bite. If I’m in a funny position in relation to the speakers, I might cut out the low-G boom with the notch filter.

It all depends.

Conclusion

lrbaggsfive0Something 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. Weigh the options for yourself and do some research.

Good luck in your search!

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