My “quest” for a great UBass sound started pretty much the moment I played a UBass for the first time. You can read about how it all started here
I can’t say exactly when I first started thinking about tone and sound. I think it was early on when my musical journey began. It wasn’t a conscious thing at first but now when music has been a big part of my life for so long I have come to understand that it’s very important to me. I’m not alone, this is something many musicians think about daily. The search for the optimal and “perfect” sound is one of the things that drives us to become better musicians.
How to pick-up the sound of the ubass strings
Although a lot has happened since I started to play ubass back in 2010 one thing has been constant, the way ukulele basses are constructed and designed regarding how to pick up the sound of the vibrating string.
It spells: under-saddle piezo pickups
What we can use to pick up those vibrating strings all comes down to what stings we use. If a string has some kind of metal that is magnetic, like steel or nickel, the options are quite a few regarding picking up those string vibrations. You can use a magnetic mic, a piezo, or a contact mic.
When the ubass was first introduced only one type of string was available and it was made of synthetic rubber, polyurethane (Insert link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyurethane ), and there is no metal whatsoever so a magnetic mic wasn’t an option.
Manufacturers decided to use piezo pickups since they can pick up the vibration regardless of the material. They are also good at picking up sound ”locally” i.e. mostly in the bridge where they are installed under the big saddle.
The piezo can reproduce low end in a good way but high frequencies can sound pretty harsh. This is however not a big deal with the Pahoehoe (or other “rubbery/plastic” strings since they lack pretty much all frequencies above 1000 Hz…
A piezo can work very well for ukelele basses and I’ve happily played all my UBasses since day one getting a great sound. The biggest issue is getting an even volume across all strings. Still, I haven’t seen this as a big problem. If, for example, my e-sting has been lower in volume I have tried to rock it a bit at the bridge to find the sweet spot and then compensated with a playing technique where I play the e-string a bit louder than the other strings to get a good balance.
Having a great amp is also important. The amp has to be able to reproduce those low frequencies picked up by the piezo.
Some pre-amps have the option to engage a low cut so the lowest frequencies are cut out and that can help to get a better sound. I have never used these live but when I record UBass (or any bass really) I always put on a low cut filter to tame the lowest frequencies.
If you’re interested in getting to know more about how to record UBass please leave a comment below and I’ll try to write a blog post (or more) about this topic!
As new strings have been developed more options for picking up and amplifying the UBass are now available. Some strings now have enough metal in them so they can be used with a magnetic mic. I have been experimenting a lot with this but there isn’t any commercial UBass with this option on the market yet. But this will hopefully change in the future.
One goal with the UBass is to get a sound and feel similar to an upright bass.
This has been available since day one with the Pahoehoe strings. These strings have a very big and round sound but sometimes it is hard to get a clear and precise tone (i.e. pitch) because of the lack of high mids and treble.
There are now options and some strings are manufactured with a mix of materials.
There are round wound strings and flat wound strings that have a nylon silk core with some kind of metal wrapped around the core.
Here’s a song recorded with the round wounds strings:
Here’s a UBass duet jam where both UBasses uses a flat wound string
In the Summer of 2018, I decided to record a version of the Gershwin classic Summertime.
I wanted to include a technique I’ve developed where I play percussive rhythms with my right hand on the body of the ubass while I play notes using hammer-ons with my left hand on the fretboard. Hard to understand what I mean?
Here’s a link to the video. I guess it’s easier to see and hear this instead of me trying to explain in words!
To be able to pick up those rhythms played with my right hand I had to find something to compliment the built-in piezo…
Eureka – I found it!
I remembered a visit to the Fuzz Guitar Show in Gothenburg back in 2013. One of the companies having a booth at the show was Ehrlund Microphones, a Swedish company making high-end microphones. They also make a contact mic that is very popular among musicians playing acoustic instruments.
I briefly tried it on the UBass I brought but wasn’t blown away since they didn’t have a bass amplifier available that was able to deliver those lovely low-end frequencies. Though with an amp that’s able to deliver and amplify the low-end it’s a whole other story…
Fast forward to 2018. One of my colleagues plays violin and had one of the Ehrlund contact mics he uses when he wants to amplify his instrument in a live setting. I remembered that time I tried one back in 2013 and decided to see what I thought about it now.
My goal was to pick up the percussive elements using it in conjunction with the built-in piezo. The contact mic, from now on referred to as the Ehrlund EAP (Ehrlund Acoustic Pickup), worked like a charm and I was able to get a great sound of my bass-drum-instrument!
My first video from 2018 using the piezo+EAP combo:
For a while, I have thought about the possibility of using only the EAP to pick up all the sounds of the ubass.
Here’s part of the press text for the Ehrlund EAP:
”The Ehrlund Acoustic Pickup (EAP) is a linear contact microphone for instruments with an acoustic sound box such as the guitar, violin, double bass, and ethno instruments.”
Well, the UBass fits the above description pretty well!
PLACEMENT – WHERE TO PUT THE EAP
Since a contact mic is made to pick up the sound of the surface, where it’s applied with adhesive putty, it’s important to find the spot where they can pick up the best sound.
The UBass has a pretty small body so the search has to be based on a combination of finding a sweet spot with the practicality of a place in the body that’s not in the way of the desired playing technique. You also have to be super conscious about your playing technique since the Ehrlund EAP will pick up just about everything you do!
Placement One. I have two EAPs so experimenting with different positions and A B these is super convenient.
In the first example we will listen to the sound we get with the EAP close to the bridge.
Treble Side EAP
Bass Side EAP
Placement Two Under the top near the sound hole and under the top (upper bout)
In combination with the built in under saddle piezo
Melody and bass part on ”How insensitive”
I decided to make a comparison with a mic shootout I did back in 2012. Please start by (re-)visiting those tests:
That way you will have a great reference when listening to the Ehrlund EAP-recordings below.
Links to other reviews about the Ehrlund EAP