PDA

View Full Version : Pondering (and looking for) the perfect soprano ukulele



Mivo
07-29-2016, 10:27 AM
Lately I have been spending most of my ukulele time with my baritone and my 1920s Washburn soprano in D tuning. I enjoy the contrast that these two instruments offer.

I've been working a bit more on my timing and sense of rhythm in the past few days, which is something I chiefly do on the soprano. It's just much more percussive and responsive. Doing this, I felt once more reminded of what attracted me to the ukulele initially: the "uncomplicatedness" (simplicity, but not quiet), the playfulness, and the absence of negative ambition. I can just flop down on the bed or the couch, sit in whatever position I want, and make noise. Posture doesn't matter much, and it's just a very straight-forward, immediate, pure experience.

So, that got me thinking what my perfect soprano would be like, and whether it exists or what I'd need to consider if someone built it. Below are some aspects that I would want that perfect soprano to combine:

Volume

Not brash or grating, but loud, with a sound that carries. I think this probably comes down to build (thin top?) and wood choice. I've been thinking about spruce for the top, and a hardwood for the sides and back, but I don't know if spruce would work, especially for a thin top- What are woods to look for? I'd want great projection.

D-Tuning

I love this tuning for the soprano size. My perfect soprano would need to be able to handle it without the top bulging or the bridge ripping off. I don't think this is much of a concern, but ideally, the uke should be built for this tuning.

Light weight

I don't want to have to use a strap, though I don't mind it. The Washburn (dried out as it is after nearly a century) is feather light, and that makes it a joy to hold (also very easy to support). I imagine the Kiwayas are like that, but I've never held one and I have no kitchen scale to weigh the Washburn, but it's really very light with a thin neck.

Friction/UPT tuners

The two sopranos I have came with traditional friction tuners (working fine after 90 years) and UPTs. I think the latter are heavier, but they do allow for very precise tuning, which is nice. They have bulky bases, but well, either would be fine. No geared tuners, though.

Intonation and sound

This is probably the biggest challenge. My perfect soprano has a neck that is usable up until at least the 12th fret. It's probably as much a matter of the strings as the construction, but I'd like the 3rd string to not already get thuddy by the 8th fret. I wonder if for the sound it would be better to only have a 12-fret fretboard so that there is more top to vibrate (I understand the difference is small). I'm not sure whether 12 frets would work for me, but I think I could manage if there is a gain in sound quality (vibrancy). I'd also like clear ringing notes. Sustain isn't very important to me in the context of this hypothetical dream uke. Intonation should be as good as possible for a small scale like this.

Sound, part 2

I covered this above, basically. Clear notes, note separation, a bell-like quality, bright and dynamic instead of muddy or warm. I want to say a rich sound, but that may be a contradiction, and I don't know how to describe it more accurately. A full sound that is not muffled, but has a cheerful quality to it?

Bridge

Actually, I don't know which bridge type would harmonize best with the other aspects I listed. I imagine a string-through or pin bridge may be a good choice here. Not a fan of slotted bridges as the strings seem to inevitably cut into and through it.

Does such a soprano exist? :)

I'd be grateful for ideas on the tone wood, and also the finish. Which finish types lend themselves to good volume? What else is important to achieve the goals I mentioned? If it doesn't exist, what would come close? Or who in Europe would be most suitable to build it?

cml
07-29-2016, 10:47 AM
The best sounding sopranos I've heard were from John S Kinnard. Lots of samples at HMS!

Booli
07-29-2016, 11:08 AM
I dont know if I could be satisfied with 'just one' for it's sound...

Also, looking for 'The One' Holy Grail uke and forsaking all others, for me as a songwriter is not possible because I need different tunings for my low baritone-voice-range, and no, 'autotune' is an option that I vehemently dismiss despite it's offensive and comical over-use in pop music now...

I like having different ukes, in different tunings, as each one provides a different inspiration and mood, for example fifths-tuning or perfect-fourths-tuning as opposed to the modified-fourths that everyone else uses....

Now, OTOH if I were a wandering minstrel and had to carry everything I own on my back, it would be a different story and I have no idea how to choose for that scenario...

But Mivo, I wish you luck on your quest and hope you can find what you are looking for (cue that U2 song playing just loud enough, off in the distance....)

if you do find it, please report back, even if only to prove that such a thing exists and to give hope to all of the rest of us...:)

Mivo
07-29-2016, 11:23 AM
It's just something on my mind. Not sure where I'll go with it, but while having a dinner for one with my metronome, I started thinking about all the different aspects I value in a soprano and which elements contribute to that "perfect" soprano. That also made me realize that I don't actually know which ingredients it would take to get the desired outcome, hence the post. :)

Joyful Uke
07-29-2016, 12:41 PM
The best sounding sopranos I've heard were from John S Kinnard. Lots of samples at HMS!

+1 for Kinnard sopranos.

http://www.theukulelereview.com/2015/06/02/2-kinnard-sopranos-reviewed/

Sanfe
07-29-2016, 03:40 PM
However fun it is to ponder the "perfect" in anything, reality is reality. When I was a younger man, I used to list all the qualities of a perfect woman. From what I can remember of that list, my wife doesn't really reflect much on that list. Yet, thus far into our relationship (13+ years with kids), I'd say we're one of the healthiest couples we know.

Meaning, you can strive to meet detailed specs, but some things are so much more that making sure the overall is of decent quality may be more important. Besides, an instrument is often more than the sum of its parts or its price tag. Like a woman is more than her looks and her . . . whatever.

It seems like you already own fine instruments. Improve your playing and increase the joy you get from it.

Looking for something "better"? I'm afraid you're only going to find something "different." They're all going to bring you joy if you let them, which touches on the idea that most things are subjective anyway. There are no absolutes.

I never dreamt about a perfectly spec'ed ukulele. Instead, I bought a few over the years and have found that they are all great in their own ways. One just sings under my wife's soft touch, another withstands and barks under my heavy picking and strumming, another is perfect for taking out with me for bike rides with my kids, another is perfect for my kids to take to school, another is great for my wife to leave in her office at work, another I take to ukulele gatherings and is bright enough to cut through, etc.

I think it's easier and more practical to own a variety than to seek or spec out a perfect one, though our society frowns upon this approach when it comes to romantic relationships.

Good luck.

WCBarnes
07-29-2016, 03:41 PM
I am more of a concert player, but love the sound of a soprano, so I was looking for "the one" soprano that I could own and pull out when the soprano mood struck me. I was lucky enough to buy the Laughlin 2K that Eddie was selling a couple weeks ago. It is the best soprano I have played. I like it so much that I am very seriously thinking about selling the rest of my sopranos.


So, that got me thinking what my perfect soprano would be like, and whether it exists or what I'd need to consider if someone built it. Below are some aspects that I would want that perfect soprano to combine:

Volume

Mine is an all koa ukulele and the sound is mellow, but can get very loud and punchy when you want it to. It came strung with Worth Browns and they suit it perfectly. I haven't used browns on anything else, so I can't compare those. When it is time to change the strings I will probably try something else, but that is more out of curiosity and wouldn't be surprised if I quickly went back to browns.

D-Tuning

I haven't tried D tuning on this ukulele, but it is built very well and believe it could withstand the added tension.

Light weight

I too have a 1920s Washburn and this definitely feels lighter. I haven't put it on a scale yet, but it is the lightest ukulele I have played.


Friction/UPT tuners

I believe Tim Laughlin uses Waverly friction tuners. They are very light weight and fit the vintage style. They are very good friction tuners, so there are none of the problems of poor tuners.

Intonation and sound

I really enjoy the tone, intonation and sustain. As with any soprano it can get a little tough to get a clean/clear notes/tone the farther you work your way up the neck (I am getting more used to this one in particular the more I play), but it is better than any other soprano I have played.

Sound, part 2

One 5 minute playing session and I was hooked. The sound is great! Very clean and crisp.

Bridge

As Tim replicates vintage Martins it does have a slotted bridge, but that does not bother me.


Does such a soprano exist? :)

Yes. In a Laughlin! :p

For me, this is absolutely the perfect soprano! I do sometimes think about a Laughlin 3K as I love the look, but I am not sure that if the extended fretboard would add anything to an already great package (and that he doesn't make style 2s anymore makes this one special in its own right). The one complaint I have is the bar frets. It makes it a little difficult to slide up and down the neck, but the more I play it the easier it is to do.

I am sure there are other excellent sopranos out there and others will praise them just as much. But for me, my Laughlin is "the one!"

bellgamin
07-29-2016, 05:34 PM
The best route might be to use these boards to find a *reasonably priced* luthier to build a custom uke to the specs you listed in your 1st post. Maybe a solid old-redwood top with solid Brazilian rosewood S&B?

PhilUSAFRet
07-29-2016, 05:43 PM
Found mine when I snagged a "bargain" Kamaka White Label Soprano. Wouldn't have thought so before I bought it cause I'd never played one. Price was just too good to pass up. As a "player", just beats out my Martin pre-war O.

Doc_J
07-29-2016, 05:58 PM
I've gotten down to just one soprano. And don't even have a concert any more.
http://i1298.photobucket.com/albums/ag56/Doc_Jenkins/Moore%20Bettah%20soprano%202012/P1040833_zps2g1ahrt4.jpg

But, OK, I've got about 20 tenors. :p

Rakelele
07-29-2016, 07:50 PM
I was gonna say John Kinnard as well. He'll cover most of what's on your list: Spruce top with contrasting hardwood body (e.g. Rosewood, Cocobolo), string through bridge, Gotoh UPT or Peghed tuners, clear sound with great note separation. For pure tone (and less cost), maybe even pick the Series 1 satin finish over the upgraded gloss. Here are some video samples from HMS:

https://vimeo.com/theukulelesite/videos/search:kinnard%20soprano/sort:date

Other than that, and in a more affordable price range, I would say the Larrivée sopranos check a lot of your boxes, too. Except they have geared tuners (which would be a plus for me, especially for precise tuning).

But as you know, personally, I'd recommend enjoying variety rather than having all in one.

Ukulele Eddie
07-29-2016, 08:06 PM
I don't think there is one perfect uke. But I get your thinking. However, I think it's the luthier, not the tonewood that will make the difference. Key question is budget.

Tootler
07-29-2016, 10:00 PM
As you live in Germany, how about Brueko? Their ukuleles have a lot of the qualities you are looking for. Bright, percussive and made for D-tuning. All solid wood, well made, high quality and very reasonably priced. I have a Brueko soprano and, though I currently have it tuned in C6, I previously had it tuned in D and it sounded excellent. I decided to retune my other soprano to D6 so a dropped the Brueko to C6 and it sounds equally good in either tuning. One of my recent seasons vids was with my Brueko soprano. Here is a link:

https://youtu.be/mEMl3SrLrE0

Rakelele
07-30-2016, 12:21 AM
If you want to go with a regional builder from Germany/Europe, you might want to talk to Claus Mohri (http://www.cmohri.de/docs/ukulelen.php) or Andreas Köpke AKA Pendennis (http://www.bouzouki.de/index.html) in Germany, or Gregor Novak AKA Grenosi (http://www.grenosi.com/) in Austria. He is a member of this forum and likes to build unusual designs.

keod
07-30-2016, 03:56 AM
Love this thread. Thought my UAS was under control but those Kinnards sure sound lovely.

Doc-J - your sole soprano looks fabulous but I don't recognize the headstock - who's the builder?

Doc_J
07-30-2016, 08:57 AM
Love this thread. Thought my UAS was under control but those Kinnards sure sound lovely.

Doc-J - your sole soprano looks fabulous but I don't recognize the headstock - who's the builder?
That soprano was built by Chuck Moore. It is the best soprano I've played.

Ukulele Eddie
07-30-2016, 09:13 AM
Hard to beat that Laughlin 2K, for sure and I'm glad it's in Colin's hands now, who will play it a lot more and who recognizes how special it is.

If also had a Kinnard (cedar/walnut). The Kinnard sound leans more toward a concert. It's a wonderful instrument but I would not say it is a "traditional" soprano sound. If one wants a more traditional sound, than I think a more traditional size/body shape. As Colin noted, I think a Laughlin is hard to beat if that's what you want. Although I hardly ever play soprano now, I found that one hard to let go. When my money boat arrives, I'd like to get a Laughlin 5K some day, just for the eye candy and once in a while playing. ;-).

I also agree that I think the Larrivee sopranos are an AMAZING value. It's a slightly larger scale, too, which is beneficial for many folks. I also think the KoAloha soprano is a super value. Not enough bling for me, but many people prefer the no frills approach. Here is Kalei killin' it:

http://www.theukulelesite.com/shop-by/size/soprano/koaloha-soprano-koa-ksm-00-w-hard-case.html

janeray1940
07-30-2016, 10:47 AM
Like others, I'm not sure there's one, single "perfect" soprano. But I have to say that after a long stretch of solely playing concert scale, I've been revisiting my Kamaka HP-1 pineapple and really loving it. The intonation on that thing is near perfect all the way up the neck, and I like the fullness and slightly higher volume that the pineapple shape gives it.

I'm not familiar with most of the high-end ukes mentioned upstream, but I would like to mention my experience with a custom: it wasn't great. I thought that by giving the builder my specs and having long, in-depth conversations about what I wanted in a "perfect" uke that I'd get exactly that, but - in the end, while it wasn't a bad uke at all, it didn't measure up to my aforementioned HP-1. This was a very highly regarded builder, and if owning something unique and artisan-made was my top priority, the uke would have been great. But my priority was sound and playability, and both fell short, which firmly reinforced my "try before you buy" philosophy. Just because something's off the shelf doesn't mean it won't be as good as or even better than something custom-made.

Joyful Uke
07-30-2016, 10:50 AM
I'm not familiar with most of the high-end ukes mentioned upstream, but I would like to mention my experience with a custom: it wasn't great.

I don't want to derail the thread, but you've mentioned before that you were disappointed with your custom. I've been curious about that, but maybe I should start a new thread to ask about that? Guess that's what I'll do.

janeray1940
07-30-2016, 02:47 PM
I don't want to derail the thread, but you've mentioned before that you were disappointed with your custom. I've been curious about that, but maybe I should start a new thread to ask about that? Guess that's what I'll do.

And I'll respond over there since it is a bit of a different topic. As far as this thread goes though, I really just wanted to emphasize that it's not always necessary to go custom to get what you want :)

Joyful Uke
07-30-2016, 04:39 PM
As far as this thread goes though, I really just wanted to emphasize that it's not always necessary to go custom to get what you want :)

Good point. There are lots of interesting options available.