View Full Version : Laminate Uke + Quality Pickup = Good Idea?

09-25-2013, 06:25 AM
So does it make sense, for someone who plugs in regularly, to use a laminate ukulele with a good quality pickup (and amp, or sometimes someone else's P.A.)? I'm asking because I already do this with an Islander MT with a Pono passive, and I'm thinking of buying an Islander Flame Maple tenor (also laminate) and a Baggs 5.0.

(I'm not going spend the money right now on a really nice solid body uke, and my daughter and I could use another laminate for travel / performing.)

A related question (probably addressed in some past threads) is how much the amplified sound varies between a solid body uke and a laminate (as well as by the type of wood, build, etc.) when using the same pickup and amp, but that's not my main question.

The Baggs pickup would be about 80% of the cost of the instrument . . . which would make sense (to me) if the pickup is the main factor in the amplified sound. (I'm choosing the Baggs because it sounds the best to me on an HMS comparison video, and also to have an active pickup in my arsenal.)

Thanks . . .

09-25-2013, 06:54 AM
I have heard some relatively inexpensive laminate ukes that sound very good with a pickup. The have included some Kala's...especially the laminate with the solid spruce top, some Oscar Schmidts, I had a Cordoba solid topped tenor that sounded awesome, and I'm sure you will get some other recommendations. Don't know if I'd install a MiSi on one, but a JJD soundboard transducer would work great. For a little more, the K&K twin spot is a choice too (MyaMoe uses them). The Gretsch and Islander laminates, as well as the Kamoas sound pretty good. Of course, for the same money, I am more likely to get a solid acacia KPK and put a pickup in it. The new Asmus ukes may also be a contended. The one's I've heard sound clips on sound super. They have an all solid sapele with bone nut/saddle, geared tuners, (variety of Mahogany with the same tonal qualities) that is cheaper than half the decent laminates out there.

09-25-2013, 04:42 PM
Phil, thanks for your reply. I didn't like the sound of the Twin Spot on the HMS video; I actually thought the Big Spot (or whatever it's called - the less expensive K&K) sounded better. I'm locked into Islander for now (and eventually, I think, a Kanilea), as I've become comfortable with its wide/thin neck –*unless I find another uke with a similar neck. The Pono passive is no longer available on Islanders, or I'd get that.

I guess what I now also need is an explanation of why an amplified uke is affected by being laminate vs. solid top or all solid – and how much it would/should be affected – because I'm ignorant about such things.

09-26-2013, 04:49 AM
I'm probably wrong, but it seems that any piezo pickup captures the vibrations of the strings/saddle more than the resonation of the top/ back/sides, so any good quality piezo should be fine with a laminated uke.

The Epiphone Les Paul has a solid body (routed from a block of mahogany, according to the literature) and a laminated maple top, with a piezo pickup (and no volume/tone controls). I have two, and they sound fine plugged in.

Any of the transducer types (including the K&K Twinspot, which I have on my Donaldson) should pick up the vibrations of the wood top - and that includes taps, scratches, rubbing sounds. The K&K does require a preamp, according to Bradford, but I haven't plugged mine in yet. At a local open mic, the sound guy said I'd have no problem just plugging in to the DI box, and let him handle the equalization. I didn't have a cable, so I just went with a mic on the uke.

(Besides, I don't know what a "DI box" is, other than an interface between the 1/4" jack and the XLR input on the sound board...)


Paul December
09-26-2013, 05:50 AM
All decent ukes sound basically the same to me through a pickup, so I'd get whatever neck feels the best.
As for a solid body, the ones I've played, they had a hint more sustain and fewer feedback issues. I had an Eleuke and the action was wonderfully low. I don't know if that has anything to do with it being solid or Mim just did a great job setting it up. I have read that too low of an action can negatively effect the loudness of an acoustic, that wouldn't be a concern with a solid body.

09-29-2013, 09:10 AM
KurtS, if the K&K requires a pre-amp then I'm all the more interested in the Baggs; I can't count on people at shows knowing (or sometimes caring) enough to sufficiently amplify or EQ the uke (though when using my own amp I'm fine). I've heard "DI" defined as "Direct Input" and "Direct Injection" and maybe it also should be "Difficult to Interpret" because I'm not sure about it, either.

PaulD, your thought has been my suspicion (and hope), and when I compared my Pono MTD (solid mahogany) and Islander MT through an amp (each with a Pono passive pickup) I thought they sounded different, but not better (though part of the difference is that the Pono is high-g and the Islander is low-G).

Rick Turner
09-29-2013, 01:32 PM
The discussion here involves both "apples and oranges"...UST's (undersaddle pickups) and SBT's (soundboard tranducers). Both types typically use piezo electricity as the voltage generation method; both respond differently to what's going on with their respective locations. USTs are mostly sensitive to the pressure variations imparted upon the saddle with the bottom of the saddle slot being the supporting foundation. SBTs work mostly in accellerometer mode sensing the motion of the top wherever they are located. Knowing exactly what you are talking about is important if you are to have a rational discussion about pickups.

Instrument quality...particularly top vibration quality...counts. And a slight nit-pick...there is no such word as "resonation". There's resonance... The top works with the strings to establish the primary signature tone of the instrument, and it's a kind of a feedback loop. The strings go first, but how the top responds is reflected back into the string vibration. Hence, a UST will sound different in two different instruments as will an SBT. With SBTs the trick is finding just the right spot(s) to put them...you're looking for that microcosmic spot that best represents the overall tone of the instrument.

To further complicate things, there are several commonly used piezo materials, each of which has it's own advantages...and disadvantages. Typically, piezo ceramic pickups can be run passively while piezo polymer pickups really need preamplification as close to the pickup as is practical...thus on-board preamps.

SBTs are much more prone to feedback than USTs.

And with any of these, quality and correct installation rule, and yes, good pickups cost what a lot of folks consider to be their limit for what they'll pay for an instrument. But then, the use of microphones costing anywhere from $1,000.00 to $5,000.00 or more is considered to be normal in recording studios. Why? Because of the superior audio quality. Really good sound costs bucks; it's a simple as that. I think that a lot of folks are just so amazed at hearing an amplified uke that they suspend their critical ears, but once you've heard it really sound good, you'll never forget it.

09-30-2013, 01:50 PM
@Rick Turner: Thanks for that great evaluation of the issues. 8-)


Rick Turner
09-30-2013, 04:09 PM
I'd like to point out that the Baggs 5.0 has a preamp...it is NOT passive, and for good reason.

Piezo polymer pickups absolutely need a buffer preamp as close to the element as is practical. We measured 9 dB of signal loss with only 10 feet of good, low capacitance guitar cable. Why? Because the cable capacitance acts as an attenuator on the capacitive nature of piezo pickups. It's less severe for piezo ceramic pickups, but to many ears (mine included) piezo polymer under saddle pickups...and I specifically mean those mounted in a standard saddle slot with a standard saddle...sound better than ceramic USTs.

Pickup design is at least as much of an art as it is a science, just like microphone design. And if they all sound alike to you then either you have waxy buildup in your ears or you've never heard a really good pickup through high quality amplification. It can be awfully good. It can even sound like the uke itself. Been there, done that...

10-01-2013, 01:20 AM
But then, the use of microphones costing anywhere from $1,000.00 to $5,000.00 or more is considered to be normal in recording studios. Why? Because of the superior audio quality. Really good sound costs bucks; it's a simple as that.

pff, chump change, if you really want a good mic sound, you gotta start with a good mic stand, like this one (http://www.ebay.com/itm/Microphone-Boom-Dolly-for-Schoeps-Josephson-Neumann-AEA-RCA-mic-/251348696000)-
(that ones used so you can get a good deal);)

10-01-2013, 01:32 AM
sorry to stray further Dave, just having fun. To answer your question. Yes, it makes perfect sense. The maple Islander with a 5.0 could be used live with professional results very much like a more expensive ukulele with the same pickup.

10-01-2013, 09:38 AM
Thanks, Rick, for your explanations that were so clear that even my science-challenged brain understood about 94% of it, and thanks, Andrew, for the instrument-specific advice.

Rick Turner
10-01-2013, 01:03 PM
Andrew...good one! Note the nod to Josephson Microphones...they're made literally a block down the street from me here in Santa Cruz, and Josephson makes the mic capsules for Manley Labs mics as well.

BTW, Guitar World is "re-purposing" some of the columns I wrote for them about seven years ago in their new acoustic oriented blog...I just found this today:
http://www.guitarworld.com/amplifying-your-acoustic-oxymoron-and-paradox I would guess that they'll be posting the other ones I wrote as well...I don't know, nobody there tells me anything...I found out about this from my new editors at Premier Guitar Magazine who were hoping I wasn't writing as a columnist for the competition! I'd better go back and read my old stuff to make sure it's up-to-date enough...

Rick Turner
10-01-2013, 01:08 PM
BTW, the best simple explanation of impedance matching I've ever heard is the example of trying to balance a 50 pound child on a seesaw with a 200 pound adult. You move the pivot point so the kid has more leverage, and if you get it right, the seesaw can balance perfectly level though the distance each person will travel when the plank is oscillating will be way different. Impedance matching in electronics is like that...you're trying to balance the weight/distance of a source (pickups in this case) with the best match for the load...the thing you're plugged into. When impedances of source and load are properly matched you get the best dynamic range and the best frequency response.

10-01-2013, 01:19 PM
Thank you for the explanation, Rick - and I did say that I was probably wrong!

I realize I've got 4 ukes with pickups - three undersaddle (Epi Les Paul X2, and Fluke) and the Donaldson with the K&K Twinspot. I've plugged in the first three just to see if the pickup worked, but haven't gotten the Donaldson within 20 feet of my amps.

When I've played at open mics, I've just used the mics, and let the sound guy adjust. I haven't had a good enough monitor to really hear myself- amazing what 24 years of sitting next to the motor inside a Fire Engine can do to/for your hearing...