Here's something a bit different for you. A passive ukulele pickup that requires no drilling, no gluing, no taping to the body. It's the UK-1 Pickup from Kremona.
Kremona are a east European company who you may have heard of for their instruments, including their ukuleles (including this one I reviewed a while ago), who also have a range of instrument accessories. This one is designed to give a pickup solution to those people who don't want to start drilling holes in their ukuleles or gluing / sticking / taping spot transducers to the soundboard. A totally removeable system that used a piezo electric strip to amplify in much the same way any other piezo pickup does - through amplifying vibrations.
The clever part of this is that the pickup is designed to slip under your strings and stay in place through the string tension in the knots at the bridge. Want to remove it? Simply loosen the strings and slide it out. And here we meet the first issue that is hugely relevant to any ukulele player. This system will ONLY work if you have a standard tie bar bridge on your ukulele? Have a slotted bridge or a bridge with pins? Nope, this won't work. The whole concept behind it is that it uses the tie bar knots to hold it in place. Now that we have ruled out huge numbers of ukuleles, let's look at it a bit closer...
The pickup strip element in this is housed in a sandwich of extremely thin wood with a fatter part at one end that houses a female 3.5mm jack socket. Apart from the socket and the piezo strip itself, it's all made of wood and is unbelievably light weight. In fact it's so delicate I was convinced I was going to break it simply installing it. I still think it's going to break eventually, but I will come on to that later. It's made in the EU (if such things matter to you) and can be picked up (geddit!) for between about £40 and £50 or about $70. That's not a bad price for a pickup and I usually spend a bit more than that for an under saddle variety that I need to drill holes to install.
So I loosened the strings and carefully slotted it under the loops then tightened them back up. I can confirm that when up to pitch the UK-1 is indeed held securely in place and will not drop out or move. What I don't quite understand though is why the raised jack socket end doesnt face down instead of up. On most tie bar bridges, if it was reversed, this would keep it facing down towards the top of the ukulele, but instead this is sitting up and proud with free space underneath it. For that reason I am extremely concerned that too much pressure on the top of the pickup from an arm or case lid pressing on to the socket area is going to simply snap it off the rest of the strip. Getting the attached cable caught and pulling it may do the same thing. In fact I may even see if it works installed upside down, but every photo I have seen of it has it this way around with the logo facing up.
Anyway, we now have it installed. The UK-1 comes with a jack to jack instrument lead with a 3.5mm jack on one end (for the pickup) and a regular mono ¼ inch jack on the other end for the amp or desk. The whole cable is about 8 foot long. I have a number of gripes with the cable. Firstly, it's not the best quality cable and rather thin, but mainly because that length is just too short for regular use. I suppose it's fine if you are plugging in to something right by you but for stage use having only 8 feet of cable is incredibly limiting and you are probably going to need to extend it. So if you are going to extend it anyway, why actually make the cable 8 foot long? A far better option would have been to have a short cable with a female ¼ inch jack socket about a foot long that you could tape to the ukulele or tuck into your strap - and then allow players to use a regular jack to jack guitar cable of their choice to connect this to their amp or desk. As it is, you get 8 feet of unnecessary cabling. Ho hum. (Poor choice of words, with a pickup the last thing you want is 'hum'..).
Oddly - the packaging proudly states that the pickup comes with a one year warranty, but that the cable only has a 30 day warranty. One can only ponder what they think is going to happen to the cable in the space of one month...
So pickup fitted, and cable connected, we are good to go. How does it sound? Well, first things first, this is a passive pickup so will certainly benefit from being run through some form of pre-amp pedal or box to give it a bit more power and tone shaping before something like a mixing desk. That's not a gripe in itself though and I mainly use passive pickups as I find they sound more natural without all the unncessary electronics and battery packs inside the ukulele. I also (personally) tend to prefer under saddle pickups myself as they cut out much of the unwanted body noise created from arms rubbing on the top of the instrument that I get with soundboard transducers. That's partly due to my playing style, but there you go. Plenty of other people go with under saddle pickups for the same reason. With this one being so exposed, we shall have to see how that issue goes.
I plugged this in to a Roland AC-33 acoustic amp for testing - so that essentially becomes the pre amp and I used no other tone shaping or boxes inbetween. It's a very nice clear amp that provides decent EQ if I need it, but is otherwise excellent in vanilla for acoustic instruments, and will also expose any flaws in the sound like hum and muddiness. Sound wise, I will deal with the positives first. The pickup works well. I had half an idea they would work like those hideous ones that you clip on the headstock, but this actually works, and really well too. The sound is very clear, very natural - almost like a microphonic sound and certainly on a par with good soundboard spot transducers I have used like those from K and K. It's essentially the difference between spot transducer pickups and under saddle strips - the latter have a knack of sounding 'quacky' and articficial (whilst removing body noise), whilst spot types tend to have a more open and natural / woody sound (but can pickup all sorts of movement sounds). This is definitely at the more open end of the scale and really rather nice. Under saddle pickups they can take a bit of work on the amplifer EQ section in cutting unwanted mids to remove that quack in a way I don't tend to experience as much with spot transducers. This one too needed little adjustment at the EQ and that's a nice thing. It was probably slightly bassy, but that's easy enough to roll back on an amp. I was also surprised at how little drive it needed so it also runs rather 'hot' in its output already. I still think it would need some sort of pre-amp to run it to a desk as opposed to an amplifier, but into an amp it sounds just fine as it is.
The negative though is connected to how and where it is positioned and just how sensitive it is to the noise you don't want. You see the pickup is not the only thing doing the work on this. The body of the pickup jack mounting (the square section at the right hand end), the jack itself and in fact a good foot or so of the cable act like a pickup too. So basically anything that rubs against those creates a massive unwanted scratching and rumbling sound through your amp. And even if you avoid touching it with your arm, even the action of the cable slightly moving against the body comes through loud and clear. It's really odd. I get more reaction from the pickup when tapping the jack socket or cable with my fingernail than I do tapping the bit under the strings. It's almost like the whole thing is picking up which is really not what you want. It's not body noise in the normal sense that you get with a transducer spot - rubbing the ukulele body doesn't pick up too badly - it's just touching the darn cable! The only solution to that it seems to me is to then firmly tape a good length of the cable to the body of the ukulele to keep it out of the way and stop it moving completely. But then if you are going down the route of taping things to your ukulele then it kind of defeats the object of this - just buy a better quality spot transducer and tape that to the top instead? Even with those you have to avoid touching the cable. Which leave me wondering what the USP of this one actually is?
So all in all, a nice idea, with a good sound, but somewhat let down by the cabling design that actually puts it nowehere above the obvious alternatives that I can see. It's also massively delicate and I just dont see this surviving more than a few gigs before something snaps. That's not something that I ever have an issue with using spot transducers. I guess these make sense if you have a vintage or borrowed instrument you don't want to mark with tape or drill into (assuming it has a tie bar bridge of course), but it's then let down by the unwanted noise that even the slightest movement of cable creates if you don't tape it down. So it kind of falls between being neither one thing or the other for me.
I've done a short video piece on it you will find below using a simpler amplifier (a Roland Mobile Cube) - bear in mind this is the sound out of an amp and in to another condenser microphone, but you will immediately get the idea with the body noise issue. The point is not to demonstrate the tone, more to demonstrate the noise. Perhaps others have come up with a solution for resolving the noise - and if so, I would be glad to hear it. My other gripes remain though and I am just not convinced this would last long if you were regularly gigging.
Nice open, natural sound
Very easy to install
Pickup part is indeed removeable which will suit delicate, borrowed or old instruments
Too much noise from cable unless taped (negating the non removeable element)
Included cable is not great quality and a shorter link cable would make more sense
Incredibly delicate and likely easy to break
Unusable on slotted or pin bridges
© Barry Maz