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pulelehua
08-14-2011, 07:09 PM
There are a zillion threads about the sound of a ukulele. About the sound of a desired ukulele. A zillion. I counted.

I'm not a luthier, and I've only played about 10 types of ukulele.

In my limited and under-educated view, a ukulele's sound is based on:

1. Size (including dimensions specific to builder/brand)
2. Shape of body
3. Wood type: back, sides and top
4. Wood thickness (especially on the top)
5. Bracing pattern, type, array, etc.
6. String material
7. String thickness
8. String tension
9. Relation of string tension to soundboard flexibility
10. Fingers of person playing it (skin texture, fingernail length)
11. Relation to body of player (is the vibration being dampened?)
12. Weight of headstock
13. Space/room in which ukulele is being played
14. Differences between samples of same make, model, etc.

When we talk about what a ukulele sounds like, I don't think there's much point talking about 10, 11 or 13. After all, those factors would be different for us. But when we watch a video, those factors might be significantly influencing our view.

Based on observation, we mostly talk about 1, 3, 6, 7 & 8 around here.

I know there's a certain difficulty in talking about some of the other points, but I think we sometimes come to conclusions which are a bit naive (myself included).

My Kala ukulele, I'm convinced, has a sound negatively affected by its top thickness and possibly bracing. That's because I've played some ukuleles a bit like it, and so can compare, and try to work out what's different.

My custom is totally unlike any ukulele I've played. So what makes it sound like it sounds would be hard for me to quantify. I'd have to ask the luthier.

I suppose what I'm suggesting is that:

1) maybe we should try to widen some of our discussions
2) maybe we should get more opinions from luthiers

It would be great to actually have some luthier-specific insights. Chuck Moore is great at piping in regularly, but for those other luthiers lurking, please do share your wisdom. I for one would be most grateful.

Also for those who have seen a LOT of ukuleles come and go, you probably have the layperson's insight born of experience.

I was going to post something on another thread and thought to myself, "What the hell do I know?!" and decided to shut up. And then decided to shut up publicly.

Hence this.

dawhealer
08-14-2011, 11:12 PM
Also for those who have seen a LOT of ukuleles come and go, you probably have the layperson's insight born of experience.

I'm fairly new to the ukulele, but I've been playing acoustic guitar and other acoustic fretted instruments (mainly banjo and mandolin) for over fifty years.

I've learned that, pretty much for the most part:

1. Laminated back and sides are pretty much irrelevant; the top is most influential to the sound and solid tops are much preferred. Torres drove this point home with his "papier maché" bodied guitar in the mid-1800s. Jose Ramirez makes flamenco guitars with laminated cypress backs and sides (but solid tops) that go for five figures. I have two concert classical guitars that have laminated backs and sides. They weren't cheap, but they sound pretty close to my all solid Sakurai/Kohno which lists for over $8K and THEY didn't cost nearly as much as the Sakurai/Kohno. All three have solid tops. One spruce, two cedar.

2. A laminated top can sound really good (or really crappy), but it's not going to sound any different thirty years from now than it does now. A solid top might (or might not) open up, but a laminated top never will. Personal experience speaking.

3. Tone is highly subjective and relative to the player's personal preference.

4. There is no such thing as the overall "perfect" acoustic instrument, be it a guitar, uke, banjo, mandolin, oud, etc.

5. You should play it first if at all possible. If you can't, make sure the seller has a decent return policy. If you play it and you like the way it sounds and plays and can afford it, buy it. If you don't, keep looking. Factors that make a difference here are: weight, balance (does it stay in one place or "slip down" towards the head?), ease of fingering, finish of frets, width of neck, size of frets.

6. Acoustic instruments are like people. They're all different. They may be similar, but each has its own unique characteristics and "personality." Case in point: I have a Martin DM acoustic guitar that's part of Martin's Road Series guitars. Not a particularly high-dollar instrument as far as Martins go. I got it to have a decent guitar to gig with that I wouldn't have to worry so much about getting damaged as some of my higher-end guitars. Someone at the C.F. Martin company was definitely on their game when that guitar was made. I've played it against a '64 D-18 and a couple of D-28s and I'm real pleased with the way it sounds compared to them. The guy I bought it from sold it to me for $435. Seriously.

I've literally lost track of how many guitars I've owned and played since 1959, but it's a few. Some good, some trash, all part of the learning experience. For guitar bodies I prefer mahogany over rosewood (but I'm not locked into that). For mandos I prefer maple bodies. For both I prefer spruce tops. Don't know yet on ukes, but my father-in-law's old solid mahogany Silvertone sure sounds good compared to my Lanikai or my Mitchell. I imagine most of the same principles apply. I'm excited to explore ukes now and test that theory. Sorry I waited so long to take the uke seriously as an instrument.

Great thread you started, BTW.

PhilUSAFRet
08-15-2011, 03:00 AM
Wow, such great insights and only two posts!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

saltytri
08-15-2011, 03:51 AM
3. Tone is highly subjective and relative to the player's personal preference.



Individual hearing is another factor that may come into play when considering subjectivity and preference. We all have different frequency response curves and the upper end tends to trail off, especially as we get older. When I recently tried out hearing aids for my age-related high frequency loss, it was immediately obvious that this has a profound effect on the perceived sound of a particular instrument and string set. The take-home lesson was that the report of someone else as to how an instrument sounds might be an interesting piece of information but has to be taken with a grain of salt.

dawhealer
08-15-2011, 06:50 AM
Good point, saltytri. I haven't had my hearing tested, though I probably should. I think it's pretty good, but that could be subjective as well. I ain't no spring chicken, though sometimes I forget that.

I belong to a guitar forum and I can't tell you how many times I've gone there and seen a thread titled "What's The Best Guitar For. . . . " or "What's The Best Sounding Guitar?"

When I was younger I went through a lot of guitars looking for the "perfect" one. I finally realized that there's no perfect one and that (especially when it comes to acoustic instruments) playing guitar is a lot like playing golf when it comes to your equipment. You're not going to play a round of golf with just a putter or a driver. It's why you have a bag full of clubs. I have a dozen guitars and will sometimes have four on stage with me when I gig. For me, one size doesn't fit all.

I've been playing uke for just a few months, already have three of them and am currently bidding on another. That was more of a whim and I didn't expect to win, but it looks like I might. I'm not prone to GAS any more, but if I run across a guitar I like and can afford it, I'm probably going to buy it if I like the way it sounds. I reckon it's going to be the same with ukes. Besides, I still don't have a tenor or a baritone. Plus, my wife is learning to play the uke as well. Good thing they're small, but we may still have to add another room before it's all over. :eek:

knadles
08-15-2011, 06:52 AM
...

Great post. Where's the "like" button?

Pete

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
08-15-2011, 07:44 AM
Good thread. Just off the top of my head I can think of a few more subtle things that "I believe" have an effect on the sound of an acoustic instrument.

Sound hole size and placement.
The thickness and treatment of ALL body components (top, back and sides)
Height of strings above sound board.
Neck and fret board material (including any stiffeners added).
Bridge material and placement.
Saddle material
The type of finish used.
Atmospheric conditions (arid or humid) in which it's played.
Age of the instrument.
More debatable will be the type and size of kerfing or lining. Some will even include the size of fret wire and type of glue used in construction. I like bindings because I feel it really stiffens the rim. Lots of voodoo, mojo, smoke and mirrors come into play in the construction of an instrument. The builder's technique and intuition based on experience is crucial. Every builder has his/her own theories.

I'm sure there's more. But probably the most important component is the proficiency of the player.

southcoastukes
08-15-2011, 07:49 AM
Robert Ruck is one of the deans of American Lutherie. Here's an interview he did in American Lutherie. It's about guitars, but applies pretty well to the ukulele too. First this part on the qualities a good instrument should possess:


A range of POWER. Dig in, and it gives you more.

A wide spectrum of tone COLOR. You can shift from sweet and bright to dark and heavy.

DYNAMIC RANGE from the lightest pianissimo to double forte.

EVENNESS. You can count on equal power and sustain from the lowest bass to the highest notes.

TONE QUALITY that inspires, and that the player is enamored with.

One instrument should cover the GAMUT from Renaissance to atonal music. You shouldn't need two or three instruments to express what you want to express.

And finally, PLAYABILITY, or none of the other qualities are accessible.

There are plenty of guitars that are a lot of fun, but that are lacking in one or more of these characteristics. You might like playing it at home, but would you want to walk onto a concert stage with it?

Then, more apropos to this thread - what makes an instrument sound good:


How much of your current success is because of the designs you have developed, and how much of it is just because you have gotten better?

I have gotten better, but my take is that the design is the most important thing. I have sometimes asked my students what is more important: The materials, the design, or the maker? They usually say it's the maker, but if you gave Hauser I, or Ignacio Fleta, or Jimmy D'Aquisto the design for a $50 Stella, it wouldn't matter who made it. If you are the greatest tire maker in the world and you have to make a square tire, it just isn't going to work. A guy who rounds off a stone is going to make a better product.

It doesn't take all that much skill to execute a design and make a good-sounding, functional guitar. You may have joints with gaps, and the guitar may not last as long, but it's going to work. Those things are not going to make it sound bad. But if you leave the top way too thick, all your fine joinery is not going to matter. Some of the old Spanish guitars are just incredible, but a lot of those guitars are pretty rough. A lot of fairly inexperienced modern makers do better cosmetic work than those old Spanish makers, but they knew what was important.

A lot of this lengthy article is biographical, but if you want to see it all (including a discussion of composite tops), there's a reprint here:

http://www.guitarsint.com/luthiers_bio.cfm/luthierid/72

Then I'll add on my own - something so basic that Mr. Ruck didn't even have to consider it when it came to guitars. That is the relation of tuning to body size. There is nothing more basic in stringed instrument design that having strings which resonate in a range appropriate to the size of the body. Scale then helps determine the power and response of those strings. Those are the foundations of design, and especially with the larger ukuleles, those principles are pretty much ignored.

As a result, we have a lot of talented builders making the best square tire they can manage.

pulelehua
08-15-2011, 09:45 AM
Then I'll add on my own - something so basic that Mr. Ruck didn't even have to consider it when it came to guitars. That is the relation of tuning to body size. There is nothing more basic in stringed instrument design that having strings which resonate in a range appropriate to the size of the body. Scale then helps determine the power and response of those strings. Those are the foundations of design, and especially with the larger ukuleles, those priciples are pretty much ignored.

As a result, we have a lot of talented builders making the best square tire they can manage.

I wondered about this not long ago. With string instruments, there is the "fact" about the perfect ratio of size to instrument, with the violin being perfect, the cello being close, the viola body being a fair bit too small, and the bass body being much too small. Surely, with the case of the ukulele, some size or other is best fit for the scale. I assume you're saying that the tenor is the wrong sized body for the scale. Is a soprano "correct", a concert less correct, and a tenor least correct? And how does this affect frequency response?

pulelehua
08-15-2011, 10:00 AM
Good thread. Just off the top of my head I can think of a few more subtle things that "I believe" have an effect on the sound of an acoustic instrument.

Sound hole size and placement.
The thickness and treatment of ALL body components (top, back and sides)
Height of strings above sound board.
Neck and fret board material (including any stiffeners added).
Bridge material and placement.
Saddle material
The type of finish used.
Atmospheric conditions (arid or humid) in which it's played.
Age of the instrument.
More debatable will be the type and size of kerfing or lining. Some will even include the size of fret wire and type of glue used in construction. I like bindings because I feel it really stiffens the rim. Lots of voodoo, mojo, smoke and mirrors come into play in the construction of an instrument. The builder's technique and intuition based on experience is crucial. Every builder has his/her own theories.

I'm sure there's more. But probably the most important component is the proficiency of the player.

Chuck (and anyone else able to answer),

What is the affect of the "personal" sound hole? I hear a lot about this, and it all seems cloaked in mystery. Presumably, it gives a tiny bit less reflection, and adds a strange bit of flexibility to the side? I've only ever played with one once (for 3 minutes), so really don't know anything about them. I've also heard volume comments. Louder to the player, obviously, but louder overall?

Can we talk sound holes a bit? Why do some ukes use 2 upper bout "shoulder" holes? Is this aesthetic, or does it create a different effect? That is, are the two holes trying to recreate the flexibility and tone of one central hole, or is there a different goal? Does it affect the bracing? How?

Lutes used to use a sort of woven look sound hole. With a lot more wood surface, and presumably less flexibility?

Why is stiffening the rim good? Is that so vibration doesn't get transferred from the top to side, which would... err... do something... bad... interfere with the vibration of the top? Maybe?

What is the effect of the finish? I've never considered finish from anything other than an aesthetic perspective when buying an instrument. Which one does what? Satin? Gloss? UV? Subcategories?

I was just reading about fretboards and some people think ebony and rosewood are very different, and some think there's no difference. Again, I've never thought of it other than aesthetically.

Whew. That's a fair bit to cover. Thanks in advance to everyone who takes a swing. :)

southcoastukes
08-15-2011, 10:18 AM
I wondered about this not long ago. With string instruments, there is the "fact" about the perfect ratio of size to instrument, with the violin being perfect, the cello being close, the viola body being a fair bit too small, and the bass body being much too small. Surely, with the case of the ukulele, some size or other is best fit for the scale. I assume you're saying that the tenor is the wrong sized body for the scale. Is a soprano "correct", a concert less correct, and a tenor least correct? And how does this affect frequency response? There is a lot of study in general on this, and I am not mathematically gifted enough to comprehend it all, but the late David "Kawika" Hurd is about the only one I know of to explain this science in terms of the ukulele.

His web pages are still available. This one shows the basic relation between body size and tuning:

http://www.ukuleles.com/Technology/sounds.html

The instrument that immediately jumps out as being out of line is the Baritone.

Of course, all these data are subject to interpretation. When I first saw this page, my reaction was that he had missed the point. The Soprano and Tenor, in the C tunings on his table, are slightly off as well, but he seemed to be implying that was OK.

Later I saw he had "corrected himself", so to speak, on this page

http://www.ukuleles.com/SetupnCare/TenorTune.html

where he advocates raising linear Tenor tuning to the key of D, thereby raising the low note above the resonance capacity.

That is what I take from this - that the low note should be close to, but above the resonance of the body size for best possible sound.

Of course, what is then left out (and is of lesser importance) is the treble end - and overall range of notes. Would that linear D tuning, for example, be a better fit for a Tenor body than a high re-entrant key of A tuning. Both have A as low notes, but the range on the re-entrant set-up is more closely spaced.

To give my view, the Soprano in high re-entrant C is not as good as it is in D. The 3rd string is subject to the same sort of problem as David discusses with the "low G" string on a Tenor. High re-entrant C on a Concert is ideal. The two tunings I mentioned above are the best on a Tenor.

The Baritone has a multitude of possibilities, some of which can be realized by going to a higher value on the tuning, but bear in mind, that because of that tuning, it is way overbuilt. The same can be said to a lesser extent on the Tenor.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
08-15-2011, 10:36 AM
BTW, the"late David Hurd" is NOT dead but is alive and well making fishing lures and baking excellent french bread. And I've never known David to be late for anything :)

OK, my own personal take on side sound ports one MY OWN instruments only. They do act as a personal monitor, to what degree is something that I can't measure except through me ears. It seems to increase volume from that position perhaps 10 to 15%. And contrary to what you may think, it also seems to increase forward projection as well. IMO, It's the best modification you can have on an uke by taking something away. The body tuning also seems to jump up about two semi-tones. And yes, it discards anything I thought I knew about sound hole size, Helmholtz resonance and such stuff. I don't claim to understand all of this. Sometimes you gotta throw away the books and go with what works.

On the other hand, a recent article in the Guild of American Luthiers magazine talks about testing a certain guitar that had side sound ports. Their final conclusion leads the reader to believe that any increase in volume or improvement in tone is all in your head. (Which just so happens to be where your ears are located! LOL)

RichM
08-15-2011, 10:39 AM
What is the affect of the "personal" sound hole? I hear a lot about this, and it all seems cloaked in mystery. Presumably, it gives a tiny bit less reflection, and adds a strange bit of flexibility to the side? I've only ever played with one once (for 3 minutes), so really don't know anything about them. I've also heard volume comments. Louder to the player, obviously, but louder overall?



As the owner of three instruments with soundports (the "hole on the side"), I have to say they really make a difference. I have a guitar, a mandolin, and a ukuele with the extra hole, and the difference is mainly in the sound to the player. If you've ever noticed how different your instrument sounds when you're listening to someone else play it versus when you play it yourself, part of that reason is that the soundhole is facing away from you when you're playing. The soundport helps direct more of that sound to your ear. Based on my experience, it really does work.

RichM
08-15-2011, 11:03 AM
1. Laminated back and sides are pretty much irrelevant; the top is most influential to the sound and solid tops are much preferred. Torres drove this point home with his "papier maché" bodied guitar in the mid-1800s. Jose Ramirez makes flamenco guitars with laminated cypress backs and sides (but solid tops) that go for five figures. I have two concert classical guitars that have laminated backs and sides. They weren't cheap, but they sound pretty close to my all solid Sakurai/Kohno which lists for over $8K and THEY didn't cost nearly as much as the Sakurai/Kohno. All three have solid tops. One spruce, two cedar.



I *so* agree with this. Some of the best guitars I've ever hear had laminated sides and/or backs. Sometimes I feel like there is a mythology that only all-solid wood instruments are worth playing. A laminated top, on the other hand, is very likely to compromise tone. As someone observed in another thread, all of the Selmer and Selmer-Maccaferri guitars had laminated sides and back-- and they were some of the most remarkable (and LOUD) instruments in history.

southcoastukes
08-15-2011, 12:07 PM
BTW, the"late David Hurd" is NOT dead but is alive and well making fishing lures and baking excellent french bread. And I've never known David to be late for anything :)

I'm certainly glad that David isn't late after all!

Do you by chance know if he ever builds the occasional ukulele?