Making a recording of your ukulele playing is a fabulous memento of your work, whether you’re sharing with family and friends or releasing an album. It’s also FUN and can be a huge testament to your efforts a few months or years down the road when you hear how much you’ve improved.
It’s easier than ever to create a high-quality recording. With the advent of computers and their companion technologies, literally anybody can freeze his or her music in time on a hard drive.
I’ve been fascinated by recording since 2009 sitting in Hualalai‘s spare bedroom tracking little ditties on his now-vintage Lexicon Omega interface. During college I got to step up to a real studio experience at Seaside Recording Studio on Maui to record my first real single.
After that I began producing my own projects, recording and mixing my EP, Point A and LP, If Only. In 2022 I mixed Dagan Bernstein’s EP, Hōʻale and currently produce a podcast that publishes 20 episodes a year.
All that to say, I have a lot to share. I’ve wasted an embarrassing amount of money on gear that didn’t do what I needed.
Hopefully, this guide can help you avoid those pitfalls.
Start by Making Your Source Sound GREAT!
The source is the most important part of the recording. This is the sound of the ukulele itself and everything that is captured by a microphone.
Used to be that time was money in a professional studio. While nowadays we might be recording our ukuleles at home, there’s still a lot to be said for preparing for a recording session as if every hour costs money.
Practice your song a lot. If you can play the part easily, the process will be much more enjoyable.
With enough practice, theoretically you should be able to play the song perfectly while recording. If you weren’t ever able to play it right in practice, there’s no reason to think you’re going to succeed in front of a mic.
Better to spend more time practicing than to set up the gear and get frustrated when a miracle performance doesn’t occur.
Make sure your ukulele is in tune. This may seem obvious, but I’ve heard a lot of amateur ukulele recordings that sound bad because the E string was flat. How to tune guide
The difference in volume between your ukulele and other junk can make or break your recording. The quieter your studio environment is, the more you can turn your uke up before you hear the subway or the neighbor’s drier or any other foreign sound.
So try to find a quiet place to record. Internal rooms that don’t have exterior-facing walls are great. Try to put as much solid mass (i.e. walls, mattresses, heavy blankets, etc) between you and any loud noises as possible.
Ideally, the room should have a pleasing sound. Avoid spaces with a flutter echo that “boing”s when you clap. The room should sound good when you play in it.
Bonus points if you play your way around the room and find the spot where the acoustics are best. This should be your performance spot for the recording, if possible.
A lower noise floor is always better, but don’t get too carried away. Sound proofing is difficult and expensive and likely won’t be the weakest link for new recording engineers.
Any noise you yourself make when you move will be picked up by the mic. Wearing quiet clothes helps avoid extra rustles. Be especially mindful of hard buttons or rivets. When in doubt, t-shirts and gym pants!
If you’re going to tap your foot, make sure it’s muffled. Place a folded towel under your foot. Even if you can’t hear the tap, it can still vibrate the floor and travel up the mic stand.
Sit in a quiet chair. No moving parts or loose legs, please.
A Simple Recording Setup
You don’t need much to record these days. A simple setup can cost under $100, with solid amateur-level options capable of capturing high-quality recordings only requiring a $300~ investment.
Usually, a microphone is the best way to capture the most realistic ukulele tone. Pickups are convenient for performing on stage, but they have a vastly inferior sound.
For beginning recorders, just start with a single mic until you get comfortable with the basic skills. Any mic will work, but usually a condenser microphone will give you the best results out of the box.
The most simple setup involves a USB mic. This captures the sound and transmits it into your computer via USB.
A USB mic is great for getting started and is sufficient for many folks, but it’s not expandable and limited in quality. If you don’t like it, you have to start fresh with a new set of gear.
Traditional Microphone with InterfaceMost microphones plug into a traditional XLR cable. This makes for a more modular setup that requires a way to convert the analog audio source (XLR cable) to a digital signal that can be fed into a computer.
The device that makes this analog to digital signal conversion is called an interface. Most entry-level ones include built-in mic preamps to adjust the volume appropriately.
Something like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 would be a great start for most uke players. You can go cheaper, but the Scarlett line is the gold standard for amateur recording.
Thing to consider when selecting an interface:
- Phantom power – necessary for most condenser mics
- Amount of gain it produces for quiet signals
- Can it accept both XLR and 1/4″ signals?
These all depend on your needs, so be sure to think about how many things you want to record at once (you can always overdub) and get something that will work well with your expectations and/or give you room to grow in the immediate future.
In my experience, audio recording doesn’t take that much computer power until you start rendering many tracks or adding effects. But be sure you have at least the minimum requirements on the DAW’s box.
Digital Audio Workstation
Once you have an interface plugged into your computer, you will record the signal into a piece of software called a DAW – digital audio workstation. It allows you to create tracks for each interface input source, along with mixing, editing, and much more.
Which of the many DAWs you choose totally depends on your operating system, budget, and needs.
To get started for free, use these:
- For Mac: Garageband comes stock and is a great place to start
- For Windows: the go-to, bare-bones freebee is Audacity
If you have the money and want a nicer user experience and toolset, consider upgrading to a paid DAW.
Currently, I’m a huge fan of Reaper. For $60, it’s a fantastic, flexible choice.
Before you can start recording there are some basic steps you must take to get your gear and hardware ready.
Plug an XLR cable into your mic. Then plug the XLR cable into your interface and plug the interface’s USB or firewire into your computer.
Position your mic stand approximately like the picture. About a foot away from the 9th-12th fret and angled towards where the neck meets the body is a good starting point.
Nothing affects the sound of your recording quite as much as mic placement and there are no rules. You can spend as long as you like moving the mic and listening to the effect.
In general, the further towards the headstock – over the fretboard – you go, the brighter the sound. And vice versa over the body. Even though it’s tempting, typically you don’t want to point the mic at the soundhole. You’ll end up with a woofy sound.
If you bring the mic really close, the sound can be overbearing, but the signal to noise ratio will be great. Further away tends to pick up more room ambience, but the sound can be more alive.
The hardest part about this whole process is getting your interface to talk with the computer. On Windows you might need to download a driver. Don’t be afraid to Google tutorials on your specific interface or DAW.
Open your DAW and switch the global (preferences/settings) input (and usually output if you’re using headphones or speakers through the interface) to the name of your interface.
Creating A Track In The DAW
Before you record audio you need a track to put it on.
Add a new track to your DAW, arm it for recording, and select the correct input. You should see movement on the track meters corresponding with any sound you make.
Setting the Gain
You want to send a generous amount of volume into your DAW without it clipping. When the signal “clips” it’s too loud for the A/D converter to process. This results in ugly digital distortion that you should try to avoid.
Adjust the gain knob on the interface until the meters in your DAW show a rough average of -18db with the loudest peaks hitting -12db while you play.
If you’re unsure, it’s always better to keep the gain on the low side. With digital recording you can turn any quiet signal up without introducing any noise. But once it clips, that distortion is baked into your recording.
It’s time to finally sit down and record something! Set up is done, the song is practiced, your ukulele is in tune – it’s time to track.
Set yourself up in your quiet chair, finalize the mic positioning, and press the record button! Take a few bars of silence to get in the “zone,” then begin your song.
It’s best to relax into the performance as much as possible. The practice is for getting it right. Hopefully by now the performance is effortless.
When you play the final note or chord, stay quiet for a few moments and don’t move. This lets the sound fade out naturally without any other noise.
If you like what you played you can call it quits, but most people do several takes – or passes of the song – to find the one they like the best. Be sure to create a new track for each take unless your DAW has a “takes” feature.
If you want to add a second part to your song you can overdub.
Turn off the record arm for your recorded track (you don’t want to overwrite it). Add a track to your DAW project and now you can record and listen back simultaneously.
Recording the overdub should be very similar to recording the first track. The only difference is you must listen to what you previously played and react to your performance to stay in time.
If you jam with people a lot or play in a group, this shouldn’t be a problem. But if you’ve never played with anybody before it will be a new skill you have to develop!
Once you have a track or two, you can mix it to polish the sound.
Move the faders to balance the volume of the tracks to each other.
You can apply EQ to each track to change the volume of specific frequencies. It’s often nice to cut a little 200-300hz to reduce the muddy sound that often occurs when recording ukulele. Experiment and use your ears.
Adding a little reverb can make your performance sound like it’s in a 3D space.
To learn more about mixing, ask if you can assist the sound guy at your uke club or other organization with a PA.
What I Use:
To see what I’m currently recording with, check out this page:
If I was starting out in this day and age, I would probably buy an NT1-A from Rode and a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. This will get you a great enthusiast-level setup for under $400. (If you’re starting completely from scratch, Sweetwater has this great bundle that adds headphones and a mic stand to the NT1-A and Focusrite.)
The best way to learn recording is to do a lot of it. Find opportunities to help run live sound or record your friends, pay attention, and ask questions when you can’t figure it out on your own.
I follow Graham at The Recording Revolution on Youtube for video breakdowns of recording techniques.
Sound On Sound is a British magazine with an ever-expanding, if slightly outdated-looking, site. Lots of articles on things like acoustic treatment and how to mic vocals and guitar/uke at the same time (not as easy as you’d think!).
Your library will have books on the subject.
Sharing Your Songs
If you’re comfortable with your performance, it’s satisfying to share your music and engage in the ukulele community as a recording participant.
First, you need to export your song from a HUGE .wav file to something more upload friendly. File > Export usually works. Chose .mp3 since it’s the most widely supported “lossy” file type. This will be a downgrade from the original .wav quality, but it will save a ton of space and bandwidth.
The best free place to share your work is probably on SoundCloud. It’s a nice, clean site that seems to be the remix capital of the internet, but also has a small, thriving collection of uke players posting their songs. Creating an account is free and uploading is easy.
If you want to publish your tracks more professionally, I love Bandcamp.