Amplifying – or plugging in – an ukulele is a blessing and a nightmare. It allows you to make your ukulele many times louder than it sounds acoustically, but to get a halfway decent sound through an amp or PA, a lot of things have to go right.
Learning to operate the gear involved is an experience in itself, so if you’re not a technical person or get frustrated easily by poor results, you might want to take a deep breath before jumping in…
What you Need
The bare essentials for getting this job done are an ukulele with a pickup, a cable, and an amp or PA.
A uke with a pickup
Any ukulele will do, but it needs to have a pickup installed in it. A pickup converts sound vibrations into an electronic signal. This allows you to strum the strings and pass that sound through a cable. Just like magic!
You also need a 1/4″ phono jack mono instrument cable. It sounds complicated, but it’s the same kind of cable used for electric guitar. As long as it’s an “instrument cable” you should be golden.
As you can see here, there are tons of options. Pro Co, Planet Waves, D’Addario, Fender are all decent. It’s kind of the luck of the draw how long they will last until you jump up to the $50+ range.
Get one that’s 10′ or 15′ long. Any longer than that and the cable wire itself can start to drag your sound down due to capacitance, depending on your pickup.
Knowing what I know now and having spent $100 on cables that died on me, a new 18′ Mogami Gold cable seems like a smart, long-term investment right off the bat.
Amp or PA:
This is the muscle that actually makes your ukulele louder – a speaker in a box.
An amplifier is an all-in-one package that includes the circuitry and speaker(s) in a single compact box. Many times an amp will have features tailored to its intended instrument (electric guitar, keyboard, acoustic instruments). An amp is probably your best bet if you are new to plugging in your ukulele. A Fender Acoustasonic 15 sized amp will give you a few options and a clean sound.
If you want more volume, configuration options, and the opportunity to amplify additional instruments or microphones, a Public Address System (PA) is what you’re looking for (here’s a simple one). A PA has more components than an amp: a mixer that controls the volume of each channel and sums them together, an amplifier circuit (if using passive speakers), and speakers. The trade-off for the PA feature set is convenience.
How To Plug In
First, plug your amp into an outlet. Before powering up, make sure that all volume knobs or sliders are at zero. If you turn the amp on and it’s live you might get a loud surprise.
Plug one end of the instrument cable into the jack on the bottom of your ukulele until it “clicks” into place as far in as it will go. Plug the other end of the cable into the “input” jack on your amp in the same fashion.
If your ukulele pickup has a volume control, set it to 3/4 of the way up to start.
Turn the volume up on the amp as you strum the strings until you reach the desired volume level.
After setting volume, often equalization is the next main thing you want to adjust. This controls the tone of the sound. How you set the EQ is very subjective to preference, but there are some good tips on the pickups page if you scroll down to the “tweak your EQ” section.
Depending on your pickup, your sound might benefit greatly from a preamp that balances and boosts the signal.
Let’s be honest: 90% of people who want to try plugging in their ukulele do so because they want to play around with effects – the fun sounds they’ve heard they can make by turning some knobs. An effect is a circuit housed in a box that add to or change the signal. It usually lives in a little pedal on the floor.
Feedback is the nasty screeching sound that you hear when a mic gets too close to a speaker. This can also happen with acoustic instruments and in a lower register. You get feedback when the speaker vibrates the pickup source and feeds the signal back through the system. This creates a loop that gets louder and louder.
There are two kinds of feedback:
- High Frequency Feedback – Just like it sounds, high frequency feedback is a nasty, dog-melting shriek that makes you want to pack up and go home. Most times HFF is created by a microphone being too close to a speaker, but it can also be created by ringing strings on an instrument.
- Low Frequency Feedback – This happens when a bigger surface (like the instrument’s soundboard) catches the vibrations of a speaker and starts a feedback loop that exists in a low register – more of a hum than a shreik.
Eliminating feedback starts with your setup. Nine times out of ten, if you put your ukulele or mic directly in front of a loudspeaker or amp producing any decent volume level, it will feed back.
Instead, line yourself up so that the speaker is angled at least 45 degrees away from your instrument or the mic. This can be achieved by moving your amp or speakers to the side or by shifting your position. Being behind your mains as much as possible helps a ton. Many times this is all it takes to run feedback-free all night long. Experiment.
If you’re still having trouble, take a look at the room you’re playing in. Surfaces reflect sound. The harder the surface, the more sound it will reflect. If you set up in a small concrete basement, there are probably very few places you can put your mic to avoid feedback. I’ve heard of monitors (speakers on the floor pointing up at you so you can hear yourself) being so loud that the sound bounces off your face and into the mic, creating feedback.
Other things to try:
- Turn down the volume. If you crank any system loud enough, it WILL feed back.
- Change the EQ. Amplifying an ukulele is rarely even in the EQ department. By twiddling the knobs you can often find a more natural sound that doesn’t emphasize frequencies that tend to feed back.
- A notch filter is a sharp EQ cut at a very specific frequency. This feature can usually be found on a good preamps or amp. It basically removes the entire problem frequency, but is such a thin slice out of the pie that your ear doesn’t notice.
- Reduce the resonance of the instrument. Some people stuff socks inside the ukulele’s body to dampen possible body vibrations at loud volumes. Others say to duck tape the sound hole closed.