Soprano Intonation

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TheBathBird
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I play soprano almost exclusively and I’m lucky enough to have some very nice instruments, but the intonation on them just isn’t as good as it is on bigger ukes. It’s always a bit of a compromise.

Strings definitely make a difference, and I pretty much always find higher tension strings improve intonation. Also, as Bill pointed out, technique makes a huge difference. It’s very easy to bend a relatively floppy soprano string out of tune, and anyone who’s more used to playing larger sizes, or guitars, is quite likely to fret harder than necessary when they switch to soprano.

I love playing classical pieces on the soprano, partly because I find it delightfully incongruous, but also because I enjoy the challenge (I’m no Sam Muir 😂) of trying to get clear in-tune notes right the way up the neck!
 

DuckyI

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This is a nice thread. I play soprano exclusively and would say this. Their intonation is always slightly imperfect, they go a tad sharp towards the upper end. However, this is still within very narrow margins so on a well intonated soprano this sounds ‘in tune’ to most people’s ears. The player’s technique is also important, a heavy fretting hand can cause intonation problems.
 

DuckyI

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I play soprano almost exclusively and I’m lucky enough to have some very nice instruments, but the intonation on them just isn’t as good as it is on bigger ukes. It’s always a bit of a compromise.

Strings definitely make a difference, and I pretty much always find higher tension strings improve intonation. Also, as Bill pointed out, technique makes a huge difference. It’s very easy to bend a relatively floppy soprano string out of tune, and anyone who’s more used to playing larger sizes, or guitars, is quite likely to fret harder than necessary when they switch to soprano.

I love playing classical pieces on the soprano, partly because I find it delightfully incongruous, but also because I enjoy the challenge (I’m no Sam Muir 😂) of trying to get clear in-tune notes right the way up the neck!
We posted at the same time and you have made all of my points better than I did 😀
 
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Seths Cat

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It's strange I play guitar first and foremost so I was hesitant in buying a soprano as my first ukulele, you would expect my choice be a tenor I guess. I have a tenor and concert purchased after my soprano, the tenor and concert were quite inexpensive as I needed to sample the feel against the soprano and guess what it's the soprano every time.
 

Graham Greenbag

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It's strange I play guitar first and foremost so I was hesitant in buying a soprano as my first ukulele, you would expect my choice be a tenor I guess. I have a tenor and concert purchased after my soprano, the tenor and concert were quite inexpensive as I needed to sample the feel against the soprano and guess what it's the soprano every time.

The Soprano is a joyful thing and particularly when you play (no pun intended) to its strengths and accept its weaknesses. Concerts and Tenors have their own merits too, I quite like my Concert Ukes but the Uke next to my chair is virtually always a Soprano.

I play other instruments too and they have cost me way more than what I’ve shelled out on Ukes. My Ukes are all relatively inexpensive, but when well set-up even a humble laminate Soprano can be a joy to play. Mine now play mostly in tune (intonation) and are just not so loud as a Luthier built instrument and don’t have quite as much sustain as a Luthier built instrument - I can live with 80% of the results for way less than 20% of the price, but we’re each different so YMMV.
 

anthonyg

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What kind of tuner ( or whatever tool) are you using to assess the intonation?
What brand, how many increments does it have?

Intonation problems are common on ukuleles and soprano ukuleles however I don't expect the intonation to be perfect for 7 frets and then go sharp.
I suspect the accuracy of your tuner is an issue.
This is something that needs to be worked through, systematically, one step after the other.

Even on ukuleles with excellent intonation, 3 strings might behave for 12 frets yet one string will be out a little.
 
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Seths Cat

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Just completed a quick test using my D'Addario clip on tuner and Korg tuner both are accurate and more to the point are reading the same. I am using a light touch when fretting notes, this is normal for me anyway.
Checking my luthier made guitars, one steel string and my two nylon string acoustic guitars which are ridiculously spot on and I mean exact. I have revisited my Soprano and without logging ever note and its reading generally upto the seventh fret it's fine. The intonation does then creep sharp upto the tenth fret.
At the twelfth even more, I have an indicator stating +/- 15 cents on my Korg and at its worst its within the 15 cents.
When switching all devices off and listening to the soprano it sounds fine.
These are my findings.
 

DuckyI

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Just completed a quick test using my D'Addario clip on tuner and Korg tuner both are accurate and more to the point are reading the same. I am using a light touch when fretting notes, this is normal for me anyway.
Checking my luthier made guitars, one steel string and my two nylon string acoustic guitars which are ridiculously spot on and I mean exact. I have revisited my Soprano and without logging ever note and its reading generally upto the seventh fret it's fine. The intonation does then creep sharp upto the tenth fret.
At the twelfth even more, I have an indicator stating +/- 15 cents on my Korg and at its worst its within the 15 cents.
When switching all devices off and listening to the soprano it sounds fine.
These are my findings.
Okay 15 cents seems like a LOT. Just tested on my Tkitki and it is a couple of cents difference between notes tested open and 12th, and 3rd and 15th.
 

John Colter

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"When switching all devices off and listening to the soprano it sounds fine" - that's good enough for me.

First of all, you are playing to produce sounds that satisfy your own sensibilities - then, of course, the sensibilities of others. Your playing does not have to produce perfection of pitch, as measured by an electronic device.
 
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Seths Cat

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Thanks for posting this it's good feedback I was hoping someone would do a quick test.
I must admit testing intonation is easier on a guitar compared to a Soprano but as I said previously I dont have any experience with ukuleles only guitars and dont wish to be expecting the same intonation on a Soprano if it's not achievable, but maybe it is.
 
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Seths Cat

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John
Your comments do make total sense, but it's always the case that you do expect more from something hand made which is an expensive purchase. I do have a Ohana soprano, its intonation is better which is ironic as it cost me very little.
 

John Colter

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John
Your comments do make total sense, but it's always the case that you do expect more from something hand made which is an expensive purchase. I do have a Ohana soprano, its intonation is better which is ironic as it cost me very little.
Comparing the Ohana and the hand made soprano you have said that the intonation of both sounds fine. It's only the electronic tuner that is making you dissatisfied. If you think there is something wrong with the hand made soprano, it is easy enough to check the accuracy of the positioning of nut, frets and saddle and the height of the strings. All you need is a 12" (or 30cm) steel rule. I doubt that you would find anything amiss.
 

Graham Greenbag

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…. but it's always the case that you do expect more from something hand made which is an expensive purchase. I do have a Ohana soprano, its intonation is better which is ironic as it cost me very little.
Your hand built instrument likely does give you more than your Ohana soprano, and I have an Ohana concert so I’m not biased against the brand. It’s just a case of what the more is and whether that has value to you. I’ve not got an Ohana Soprano because I don’t like narrow necks and narrow spaced strings, but I‘d love to have a luthier built soprano with a wide nut and thin solid mahogany construction. Intonation a little sharp? Well on a Soprano I’d want at least 2mm of compensation at the saddle - I think that a bit more would be better - and if it ain’t there then I’d be thinking about shaping a new saddle to give me that figure. Fluorocarbon strings need less compensation than Nylgut and Nylgut needs less than Nylon - well that’s what I find, YMMV.

Funny story here. I bought a very old Mahalo and it sounded ‘pants‘. The saddle was ramped and inserted such that the crest was nearest to the nut. I took the saddle out and placed it back such that the saddle crest was furtherest from the nut and gained a big plus in sound quality. As it happened the bridge - as appeared to be the case on all the old Mahalos I’ve bought - was positioned a bit too near the nut too, but a small shift in saddle crest position can have a great effect.
 
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pondweed

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I've made a couple of sit-back saddles where the bridge slot holds the base, which right-angles backwards then up. For worse intonation than just swapping the pointy bit round! I wondered whether anyone has come across (ebay, whatever..) extruded section in anything of decent density that would fettle, to make this easier? A lot of cheap ukes could do with it...
 

anthonyg

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Just completed a quick test using my D'Addario clip on tuner and Korg tuner both are accurate and more to the point are reading the same. I am using a light touch when fretting notes, this is normal for me anyway.
Checking my luthier made guitars, one steel string and my two nylon string acoustic guitars which are ridiculously spot on and I mean exact. I have revisited my Soprano and without logging ever note and its reading generally upto the seventh fret it's fine. The intonation does then creep sharp upto the tenth fret.
At the twelfth even more, I have an indicator stating +/- 15 cents on my Korg and at its worst its within the 15 cents.
When switching all devices off and listening to the soprano it sounds fine.
These are my findings.

I don't want to be an ass, yet to give you good advice and not lead you further astray, we need you to "log every note", and tell us where its at.
Excellent intonation is all about paying great attention to very fine details.

Maybe some more saddle compensation will do the trick, maybe it won't. Maybe lowering the action at the saddle a little with help, maybe it won't. Fine details matter when deciding what to do.

If it plays well, is loud and resonant up to the 7th fret then keep it. That's soprano ukuleles for you. They are not renowned for being great instruments right up the neck and in fact are better known for open position playing.

I have a hand made tenor ukulele with quite good intonation that plays well up to fret 10, but after that it sounds quite shrill, good intonation or not.
 

Mfturner

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For the same absolute tolerance, a soprano will have more relative pitch error. To have similar intonation, a shorter scale instrument needs tighter tolerance of fret, etc placement. In other words, a 1mm error on a soprano is like a 1.4mm error on a tenor, or almost a 2mm error on some guitars. So I do think there’s something to sopranos being more difficult to get the same performance, although I’m not saying it’s impossible.
 

John Colter

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Bill1, that's very good advice. Sorting out and setting up a cheap uke is a hugely useful learning process. Mass produced ukuleles usually have the frets in the right places, relative to each other, as they are produced by an automated process, but is not unknown for the nuts and the bridge/saddle to be incorrectly sited, relative to the fretboard. The 'action' (string height) is often wildly wrong.

I still have a Yellow Mahalo from earlier in this century. After some fettling it turned into a decent little instrument.
 
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Seths Cat

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As of today I am working away for a week unfortunately, so will not be able to do anything.
I do intend to ask the builder for advice though.
👍
 
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Seths Cat

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Bill 1
Great suggestion and thanks for the information its definately something to think about. My Ohana is a good soprano but as you say still not super cheap to start practicing on. But your other suggestions of a Mahalo could be
👍