S2E10 – Recording and Amplifying Your Uke

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Some tips and audio examples of how to get better sounds when recording and plugging your ukulele in.

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Edited for clarity.

Aloha, welcome to the Live Ukulele Podcast. My name is Brad Bordessa. Thanks for tuning in. This is the 20th episode I’ve ever done. The 10th episode of season two. Season one was just short cause it was kind of the end of the year and I don’t really know how the seasons are actually supposed to work. So I just cut it off when I felt like it. This is definitely not the end of season two. There will be more.

But in this episode, I want to talk about recording your ukulele and performing with an ukulele and generally like making it loud, making it heard, capturing the sound from the instrument and the different ways you can achieve this. Because there’s more than ever folks online using YouTube and Zoom to connect with their clubs and stuff and being able to capture a nice ukulele sound is important. And hopefully once all this COVID stuff lightens up a bit and we can get back to playing some gigs… Maybe if you’re a gigger or you want to get out to some open mics or something, that some of these tips could be helpful for you in getting the best amplified sound out of your ukulele as you run it through an amp or a PA.

Don’t forget that the Live Ukulele Podcast is user supported. While there’s no direct support of the podcast, all my work through liveukulele.com is what makes all this free content possible. If you’re so inclined, I invite you to check out my new ukulele course called 6th Sense. It’s all about how to take 6th harmony double stops, move them around the fretboard, harmonize scales, how to play fills around chords, and also how to apply them to a couple of Hawaiian songs, because it’s a very Hawaiian sounding sort of style, subject, whatever you want to call it. Yeah. Check it out. It is 25 bucks and you get 16 video lessons – all recorded with two different cameras in HD. So you can see all the angles and get a close up view of my playing and follow along. The reviews are coming back very positive. It’s nice to see everybody’s support and receptiveness and appreciation for the content. It really warms my heart and makes all this effort that I put into it worthwhile.

When you start amplifying your ukulele, there are a couple ground rules that you need to understand. There’s basically two styles of doing this. And one is capturing it with a microphone. And the other is capturing the sound with a pickup, which would be installed in your ukulele or stuck to your ukulele. And a microphone is just as you would expect, like you’re hearing my voice. It captures the sound in the room. A pick up on the other hand, works through direct vibrations of the sound, getting transmitted into an electrical signal. And while a mic kind of works on the same principle – the mic works through a diaphragm that captures the vibrations as they move through the air and they move the diaphragm of the microphone and create the electrical signal, with an ukulele pickup, it’s actually the physical movement of the wood and of the instrument that get transmitted into sound.

So with those two different styles… They both really have two different applications. If you want the best sound, you’re going to want to use a microphone. In my opinion. There’s no substitute for capturing a microphone signal of an ukulele – be it onstage or in your house. And certainly with Zoom and stuff. We’ll talk about pickups on Zoom and computers in a minute, but certainly with Zoom, it’s easiest and probably gonna sound best if you just use some sort of a microphone to pick up your ukulele.

On the other hand, pickups are more practical in a live environment. With a pickup you have a lot more control over feedback. If you’re plugged into an instrument cable, you can walk around the stage and you can still create sound on your ukulele. Whereas if you’re using a microphone on stage, there’s a lot more variables. And while you can still get a better sound with a microphone, you are anchored in place around that microphone. You have to stand in one spot and keep a relatively static distance between you and the microphone so that the sound stays the same. And also, when you’re running a mic, you kind of need a special or a thoughtful PA set up and you need a thoughtful sound engineer who knows what they’re doing in order to avoid squealing feedback from the microphone or any kind of other problems that would come with the microphone.

It’s a lot easier for a sound guy who doesn’t really know what they’re doing to just plug you in with a quarter inch jack and turn your ukulele up. You’re not going to really feed back. And even though the sound isn’t quite as good, it’s a lot more predictable and practical for a live environment.

So basically that’s the line down the middle is that if you are recording or you’re in your house or you’re in a controlled environment, a microphone is going to sound better. Whereas if you are playing live or in an environment that you can’t really control, then – or you want to move around, that would be the other consideration – then you won’t probably want to use an ukulele pickup.

So enough blabbing. I’m going to throw a couple of different demos up of different styles of amplification so you can hear the difference. And I think it’s going to be pretty obvious to anybody listening the benefit of the microphone. So here I am playing a track into my Neumann KM184, just with that microphone.

So that’s uncolored. No post-processing. Just straight out of the mic into my Focusrite Clarett 2Pre and then into my DAW. This next bit I’m going to throw up there is a DI signal, which is a direct instrument signal or a direct in signal. Straight from the pickup on my Moore Bettah, this is my Moore Bettah ukulele and it’s actually tuned down half a step, which is why it sounds a little bit lower than most ukuleles. The plugin, which is an LR Baggs Element. It’s not the Five-O. I changed it out a little while ago, wrote a post about it if you’re curious. But it’s the LR Baggs Element direct in, no processing.

It’s a lot more plasticky sounding, I think is probably the best way to describe it. In my experience this is, across the board, what happens into computers when you plug a pickup straight in. There’s just no life to it.

Okay. And now, just for giggles, what I’m going to do is I’m going to set up the Neumann and plug in at the same time .o I’m recording two tracks simultaneously, but I’m only going to let you hear one at a time and I’m going to flip flop between them. So you can hear the difference between the microphone sound and the pickup sound, just to kind of make it a more stark contrast and so you can hear them back to back.

So if you’re recording direct into your computer, a microphone is nine times out of 10, going to sound better. And keep in mind, this is without any processing. So if I did tune the EQ up a bit and, or use some of my pedal magic, I could probably get the pickup sound to be a lot better. Just a little bit of reverb and stuff would really bring it to life and make it feel like it was more alive. Because right as it is flat, it’s very dead. But you’ve got to think that, for most people recording into an interface or into their iPad or whatever it might be, that there won’t be any middleman processing. Especially if you’re streaming onto Zoom or YouTube or whatever it may be. So keep that in mind that out of the box, the best way to get a good sound is with a microphone when going into a computer.

So in that clip, the microphone was first and last, .f you had a hard time distinguishing between both of them, you know, I’m kinda bagging on the pickup here because it doesn’t sound as good recorded direct into the computer. But a really interesting thing happens when you’re live. Is that you plug into your mixer or whatever, your PA, and you amplify it. And the sound comes out of the speakers. The sound that comes out of the speakers and exists in a space… All of a sudden the pickup sounds way better. Like if you were to put me on stage and I plug in my ukulele and I use, you know, use my pedal to get the best possible sound out of the instrument, it sounds like its own kind of alive. It’s not as crisp and clear and articulate maybe as a microphone would be. You know, it feels like music. It doesn’t feel like a piece of plastic like it does when you record it direct.

So having the sound come out of a speaker somewhere is a huge part of the pickup sound. And that’s something to keep in mind is not just that pickups suck, and they always sound plasticky and bad and flat. Because if you plug them in and you do some processing on them, they can sound really, really good. But a huge part of that is having the sound exist in a space, I believe is what it is. Is you get the character of the speaker, but you also… Because a microphone hears what’s happening in the room. It hears the actual sound waves as they exist and it’s hitting the diaphragm of the microphone. You can think of your ears kind of as the same way. They’re basically just diaphragms. Your eardrums hear the sounds and they move in and out slightly to capture the vibrations and to turn them into your hearing.

So it makes more sense that when you hear an ukulele recreated via a speaker as its mode of amplification, that it would be a little bit more believable and that your ear can interpret it in a different way. And so to kind of show you what I’m talking about, I’m going to try something that I haven’t really played around with before. I’m going to record with my Neumann. I’m going to plug my ukulele into my PA system – completely flat, no tricks or anything. But I’m going to put the mic in the room and then stand in a different room and play and see what the mic hears coming out of the speaker and see if that changes the presentation of the pickup just by having the speaker and the room involved and capturing the sound with a mic instead of with a quarter inch plug straight into my interface. So now the microphone is going into the interface and the microphone is picking up the PA. But you’re still basically hearing the pickup of my ukulele is the main, the main sound that is going to be captured here.

So that’s really interesting. That’s the first time I’ve done that experiment or heard it back. I feel like it’s a lot more plasticky actually than I expected. It’s kind of retains a lot of the quack and I… Maybe it has to do with where I’ve got my mic positioned in that, you know, the mic is pointed directly at the speaker. It’s about four feet away, three or four feet away from the speaker. And in like a live situation, you’re going to be further from the speakers, right? Even if you’re onstage, you’re probably the closest person to the source sound because you’re listening to the monitor right on the floor in front of you. And so that’s six or seven or eight feet away. Everybody in the audience is going to be even further than that. So perhaps it blooms a little bit more as it gets out into the space and further away from the speaker. That would be an interesting experiment.

But to my ears, it is a significant improvement over the dry direct sound of the pickup. So I wanted to bring that to the discussion because I think that it is a little bit overlooked sometimes in that people say microphones are always best. Which, microphones are usually best. But the pickup is completely viable. But if you’re new to plugging your ukulele in and you just did a Zoom recital or something, and you’re listening back and your ukulele sounds completely terrible because you plugged it directly into an interface or into your computer. That’s probably why is it hasn’t had a chance to be out in a space and brought to life.

The next thing to really talk about is sort of the factors that affect pickups. We could talk about microphones all day, but that gets a little bit more into engineering, which I’m not really an engineer and a lot of people don’t come at the ukulele from that background. And so… An engineer is somebody who works in a recording studio and sets up the mics and press the record button, and kind of facilitates the capture of the music. You can get as nerdy as you want, trying different mics, but because of the separate inherent cost of mics… You know, a good microphone is going to cost $200 and up. That’s an expensive thing to be just experimenting around with. And unless you have like a closet full of microphones or a recording studio you can do these experiments at, it’s probably a little bit less tangible than things that you can do directly to your pickup sound. Which is how a lot of people will be plugging in anyways. Because outside of recording into a computer or Zoom performances, you know, most people are going to be out and about and when you’re gigging, you’re going to be plugging in via a pickup. So what I want to talk about is how you can make that pickup sound better. And some of the different pickup styles and considerations to have.

There’s basically two styles of ukulele pickup. There’s an active ukulele pickup and a passive ukulele pickup. Basically the active one has a battery on board, and it has a lot more output and a little bit of the sound processing is done on board the ukulele before it gets sent down the cable. A passive pickup doesn’t do any of that. It’s just sent on its way exactly as it’s heard from the pickup. And both kind of have their advantages, obviously the passive pickup is going to be lighter in the instrument. Like, physically it’s going to weigh less.

But the passive pickup, because of what it hears that there’s some like mathematical electronic stuff called impedance that I don’t really know a ton about, but the street version of it is that you need your impedance of the output and the input to match. So the output is your ukulele pickup. So say if your impedance of a passive pickup is 3 million ohms. You want an input source that is at least 3 million ohms or more. Because if it’s lower than that, you’re not going to be able to kind of convert the signal and they’re not going to talk nicely to each other. So that’s a consideration with the passive pickup is that if your source and your input don’t match, you get impedance mismatch, and it can be really a huge suck on your tone. Like if you have a passive pickup and you just walk up to the mixer, plug it into the line in, and try and play a song, it’s going to sound like way worse than the examples that I’ve already played for you. It’s going to sound really super thin, and it’s going to sound tinny and there won’t be much life to it at all. And that’s because what’s coming out of your pickup is not well-matched with what you’re going into.

And the way you can fix this is with an outboard preamp, which will take the signal… It has a very high input impedance. So no matter what your pickup is outputting, there’s going to be headroom for it going into the preamp. And then the signal that it outputs is a lower impedance that’s cleaned up and ready for going straight into a PA or whatever. That’s kind of some really detailed nerdy stuff. You don’t need to know all that. But the short version is that if you have a passive pickup, you probably want an outboard preamp to go with it to clean up the signal and to balance it. If you have an active pickup, this is already done for you. So it’s a trade off, whether you want to have a ready to go signal out of your ukulele at the cost of having the weight of a battery inside.

That said, there are alternatives like the MISI Acoustic Trio or the Uke Trio I think it is now. That actually runs on the technology of a supercapacitor. So it’s just a little capacitor that’s actually mounted on the endpin jack on the preamp PCB board. And it’s significantly lighter than having like a 9V battery or even like the 3V watch batteries in the LR Baggs Five-0 pickup. That is a nice compromise for those who want an active pickup, the benefits of that, but also low weight. And it sounds pretty good. I don’t think it’s the best sounding ukulele pickup, but it does sound pretty darn good.

Outside of the pickup type though, there’s not really a whole lot that’s going to affect the sound of the pickup, except for the quality of the installation. If it’s put in by somebody who doesn’t have any idea what they’re doing and does a hack job of it, you’re not guaranteed to be getting the full potential sound out of the pickup.

I’ve had this happen before and you get the transducer put on in the wrong place, or if the saddle isn’t filed flat on the bottom. There’s different situations where you’re going to get hosed on your sound. And so what you can do to avoid this: just make sure somebody reputable puts it in. That would be something to start with. If your ukulele came with a pickup, you can rest assured that it’s probably installed the best it can be installed because those guys do pickup installs day in and day out. They’ve really got it totally dialed in. It’s the aftermarket stuff that a lot of times you have to keep an eye on.

But outside of that, really what it comes down to is your skill and knowledge of how to process the sound. And this is where a lot of people kind of leave money on the table, in my opinion with their ukulele playing is they… They plug in their ukulele so that they can have effects or whatever. And so they buy a delay pedal and a distortion pedal, but they don’t invest in the things that really matter when it comes to cleaning up and making a plugged in ukulele sound really good. And that to me is equalization. Full-stop. Period. That is going to be your biggest asset when plugging in an ukulele. In a live or studio situation.

Because for instance, I’m going to pull up that clip that I recorded earlier of the straight piezo pickup sound. And I’m going to just apply some EQ to it and you’ll hear how profoundly improved the sound is. And granted, what the EQ that I’m going to put on it inside my DAW from a direct source is going to be different than what I usually put on my ukulele when I’m playing live. It’s probably going to be more extreme because you hear a little bit more quackiness in the direct sound that kind of gets taken away when you’re playing live. But the principles are similar. Having really controllable parametric EQ is what it’s called. And a lot of times preamps come with a parametric EQ band. That’s super key. In my opinion, if you don’t have a parametric EQ at your disposal, your sound had better be freaking amazing coming out of your ukulele because otherwise you really need that precise control that the parametric EQ gives you. But here we go, this is the same exact clip just this time with equalization to try and balance out the frequencies and make it sound a little bit more realistic. I’ll do the plain version before and then switch to an EQed version afterwards.

So as you can hear, it’s a little bit more bright and chimey, which is something that the stock pickup sound definitely lacks. And I also scooped out a lot of the quacky mid range that’s kind of like extra squeezed in the sound and pulled that way down. And that usually helps quite a bit. And so those key frequencies, if you do have a parametric EQ at your disposal… A lot of times you can start with a mud scoop at 200 to 300 into maybe 400 hertz. If you scoop out like three db, a lot of times that helps a lot of different ukulele pickups just from being kind of muddy sounding. And if you’re playing live, usually this is the best change you could do. If I could only pick one change to implement on an ukulele live, if I’m mixing it, that would be the one move that I make.

But beyond that, if you have more options or more parametric EQ bands. A band is like an EQ move, whether you subtract from one frequency or from another frequency, each of those different frequency centers is a band. And so if you have extra bands, what you can do is try and cut out a little bit of the quack. And the quack is usually somewhere between five, six, seven, maybe even 800 hertz. And from there you can start to cut out the mids and get rid of some of that plasticky sort of sound. The thing with EQ is that you’ve really got to use it a lot to get experienced with how much is appropriate or how much is too much. Cause you could really just take all the life out of a sound if you over-EQ it. Because you can hunt and search and pick and find and second guess yourself as much as you like. And if you do too much of that, you’re going to end up over-cutting things and it’s going to end up sounding less robust because of what you did, as opposed to just fixing the sound. You don’t want to over fix. Don’t fix it to death. But that just takes practice.

If you have, especially like a preamp or something that has a simple interface, usually your parametric EQ has a frequency center knob that the cut is centered on, but it’ll still affect some frequencies around it. It’s called a bell curve. It’s a curve like you are pulling down in the middle of a clothesline. The second control is just the volume, whether you’re boosting or cutting. And usually for fixes, you want to cut. The only boost that I might add to an ukulele is a high shelf. If your mixer or your amp or your preamp has like a high frequency knob, you could try turning that up a little bit and see what you get.

A lot of people, when you first start playing music and you first start doing live sound, you are afraid of the high knob because the high knob is what will bring out like screeching feedback from microphones. But you have almost nothing to worry about with a plugged in ukulele sound messing with the highs. And even with microphones, if you set up the PA correctly, there’s not a lot to worry about as far as boosting the highs a little bit. I do it all the time now because it makes it sound better, but you do have to set things up right. And a lot of that is just experience.

A great trick for people who are new to EQ and especially to parametric EQ is to boost the frequency and kind of tune the frequency so you can hear the exaggerated frequency. And then when you find a spot where it sounds really bad, then you can know that that is probably the most offensive place I could have the frequency knob. And then you just cut from there. Instead of boosting, you would turn it down into a cut. And that can help you find the offensive frequencies at first when you’re just learning and before you know which hertz corresponds to what sort of tone on the ukulele or on the live sound.

So moving along… I don’t want to drag this out to be a super long episode. I think that this is one of those things that you really just have to experiment with. And I don’t want to give you too many things to think about if you’re just getting started plugging in your ukulele. You just need to really kind of determine what your worst problem is and fix from there. Whether you have a passive pickup and you don’t have a preamp to run with it, or you have a super quacky sounding pickup, you know, get yourself some EQ and be able to try and fix the problem. And just experiment and learn what the different things do.

There’s lots of resources on the web for how to mix. Basically what you’re looking for is… A live mixer and a mixer that happens in a DAW or a recording program, the concepts are similar. The EQs are gonna function very similar. So any experience you get on one or the other is going to be valuable. But I’ll leave you with a couple extra tips as far as, you know, bringing the sound even more to life. And I’m going to continue to work on the same clip inside my recording program, because it’s kind of like a worst case scenario. A lot of times, if I was to play out at a gig, I wouldn’t need to do as many of these things or as extreme things, because it’s already a little bit more alive because it’s running through a PA system and it’s becoming a sound in a space before it hits your eardrums. But because this is like completely bad news recording directly into my interface and I have nothing to start with, I’m going to continue to try and tweak this clip and make it a little bit more alive. And I’ll do that here and walk you through what I’m trying to do to change it.

The first thing that I’m going to do is I’m going to add a little bit of a room reverb. And this is just to try and capture the sense of a space – of the sound happening in a space. Because with the direct plugin sound, all you’re getting is the vibrations from the pickup directly into the computer. So there is no ambience whatsoever. There’s no information to tell your ears what kind of a space the instrument is being played in. And I think that has a lot to do with the kind of plastic-y lifelessness of this sort of sound. So if I put a little bit of a room reverb on it, it’s not necessarily to be a reverb to be an effect like, “Oh, it sounds so pretty because it’s lush” and it’s a, you know, a reverb like you were in a gymnasium. The idea is just to capture the sound of some sort of a room. And just like before, I’m going to play a few seconds without, and then I’ll add it in.

If you’re listening on headphones, you can kind of hear it scatter to the sides as the stereo spread of the reverb drops in. It’s not a huge effect. It’s hard to actually hear. It’s more one of those things that you feel. It just feels like you’re in a room with an ukulele, more so than just a flat 2D sound.

And so again, if you’re playing live, I wouldn’t worry about this step, but for recording, it’s a nice touch to just make it seem like the instrument. It’s like a starting point – as if you had miked the ukulele is basically what you’re trying to recreate. You’re trying to create that quick, early reflections of the ukulele being in a fairly small room. Like, “Oh, I recorded this in my living room.” “Well, it doesn’t sound like it, it sounds like it’s painted on a piece of cardboard.” You want it to sound reminiscent of the place you played the instrument originally.

And from there, I would stack on top of that probably a more effect-y reverb that you’re going to hear a little bit. This would probably be like a hall sort of sound and you hear it a little more. And this is something that I would probably add to a live sound as well, just to kind of give it a little bit of space, make it seem a little bit more interesting and give it some depth.

So this is just reverb on the entire time. The thing with reverb is that it’s easy to overdo it and make it sound kind of silly. Adding effects to the ukulele for effects sake is kind of not an art that has been brought to the forefront of the instrument quite yet, I don’t believe. Like a guitar, you have different guitar sort of sounds like you have, you know, your basic straight ahead rock sound. And then you have maybe like a jazz guitar sound. And then, you know, maybe you have like a spacey Pink Floyd kind of a sound where everything’s got tons of delay and reverb on it. But those different like costumes of the sound, they haven’t really transferred to ukulele yet.

So anything that’s different from the stock ukulele tone is going to be regarded as a little bit cheesy, I would say, for the most part. Especially if you’re just, I don’t know, if you don’t have a super artistic statement to say with the cheese. You know, it’s something to just be aware of, that you can overdo these things quite easily. So use your best judgment and… You know, there’s nothing wrong with there being less reverb at all. If it sounds believable, it’s enough. Whether you want to add more on top of that, that’s sort of your own prerogative. But I do find that live you can use – depending on the space you’re playing in – you can use more reverb and get away with it, especially if you’re playing outside because the sound already is like super dry. There’s no reflections coming from anything. You’re just playing onto the blades of grass. Whereas if you’re playing in a theater, you’re probably not going to add a lot of extra reverb because it’s already, you know, quite reflective and it’s meant to be a lively, lovely sounding space already.

So there’s lots of different things you can do with the sound of a ukulele. I just wanted to put this together to hopefully give people just kind of a basic idea of how to kind of take control of your destiny when you start recording or plugging your ukulele in. Because I see so many people just like let bad things happen to them. They plug in and just trust that it’s going to be great because everybody does this. It must just be as simple as plugging it in. It’s not like a refrigerator or something you plug into the wall and it just works. It just makes your food cold. You’ve got to kind of work at it. And there’s a little bit to know, a little bit to experiment with and learn compared to other kind of tech things that are already done for you.

And the difficulty is that every single instrument is going to be different and every single instrument is going to need slightly different EQ frequencies and slightly different cuts and boosts and some ukuleles just might sound weird in one place and you have to correct in a different way from the next ukulele. And that’s just part of the learning experience of how you can create that sound.

If you want to have a chance to practice this skill and become more comfortable with what the actual EQ does. See if you have a friend in your ukulele group or something that has a mixer with a parametric EQ that you could borrow. And you could plug your ukulele into it or record your ukulele and send the recording into the mixer, and then just, you know, play around with turning the knobs and see what each does and see if you can find a place where it sounds nice to cut out certain frequencies or boost certain frequencies.

And just spending that time in the sandbox, in a learning space of trying things is super valuable. Every time I go to mix my own show or mix my own song on the computer, I’m always learning a little bit different things and how to hear certain things. And, Oh, that needs to be cut at this frequency, but not this frequency, how things shift and interact with each other. It’s truly an art. It’s a completely different art than running ukulele. That’s why there are dedicated sound guys who make a living running sound for the musicians. So the musicians don’t have to think about this stuff. But if you’re small time, like me, odds are you’re running your own PA or making your own recordings. It’s nice to practice this so you have an idea how to make yourself sound better.

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I’ll catch you back here on the next episode. Thanks for tuning in. Be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcasting service. Be safe out there, keep playing your ukuleles, and I will see you down the road sometime in the future. Aloha.