20.1.15

Mike Hind to hit the UK!

Really pleased to see how this has come off - Mike (aka Uncle Elvis) is a great performer, resident in Bermuda but is making the trek to a no doubt cold UK for a mini tour this year!


Mike Hind UK Tour dates

Dates as above and I will certainly be in attendance at at least a couple of them. Being brought to you by the team behind GNUF. If you want to know more about Mike (as well you should) then visit his website on the link below!

See you at one of them!

http://uncleelvis.tumblr.com


19.1.15

Fishman Pro EQ II Pre Amp box - REVIEW

Ah, electrifying a ukulele. A massive subject in itself and something I still see a great many discussions on. My readers will know that my preference is for a passive system, amplifying the signal 'off' the ukulele rather than the glut of onboard systems that are out there cut into the sides of poor instruments. So as well as this being a review of a pre amp box I have used for a good year or two now, I intend to also expand on my thoughts on the subject generally. Here we have my trusty Fishman Pro EQ II box.


Fishman Pro EQ II box
Rugged plastic case


So what are the options for ukulele players wanting to amplify an acoustic instrument. Well, you have two main options. Either buy an instrument off the shelf with a system built in (including pickup and amplifying EQ box / volume control all cut into the body of the uke) - called an 'active' system or fit a pickup strip / transducer / microphone to an acoustic instrument and deal with the EQ and amplification off the ukulele (a 'passive' system). I far prefer the latter, pretty much every time.

There are a variety of reasons, including:

- I prefer less fiddly controls in a box off the uke
- I have seen many less than favourable wiring connections on the onboard units (noise and buzz!)
- The onboard systems add unnecessary weight to the instrument and cut a hole in your instrument!

But mainly it is about quality of tone. With the exception of much higher end instruments (the Godin system for example is VERY good), the onboard systems I have seen on even the highest end Kala instruments (for example) have felt lacking, thin sounding and one dimensional to me. Quite some time ago I stopped buying ukes for either performance or recording with these systems in favour of fitting passive pickup strips to acoustic ukes. The total cost may amount to a little more, but it is well worth the effort to my ears as the results are night and day better in terms of sound quality and control. Going the passive route also allows you to 'electrify' pretty much any acoustic instrument and not find yourself trapped by only buying those that come with an onboard system. Add to that the ability to upgrade either the pickup strips or the pre amps individually and for me the passive route is all good. It's the way most professionals go and some uke makers even refuse to install the onboard systems.

So, if you have (like me) fitted passive under saddle or soundboard transducer pickups to a range of acoustic instruments (as you may have noted I did on my Kanile'a tenor) why is that not the end of the story? Well, with the lack of any preampfification, a passive pickup can sound thin and rather quiet going in to a desk for performance. Add to that of course that you have no control over the sound yourself, and people will  recommend you go for a pre amp unit between you and the sound system. These can be as big as you want them to be, but many are belt or pedal sized allowing ease of carrying and use. Just like the Fishman.

Some acoustic amplifiers may work ok if they have dedicated acoustic input stages, but more often than not I am plugging in to a mixing desk or a PA and prefer to output a better signal that I have control over. A pre amp does a few key things, it boosts the signal, provides a better quality signal and allows control of the system. As such I found myself with this Fishman model and used it on a variety of shows as it aims to tick all those boxes.

(A word of warning for this review, as I have heard Fishman may be discontinuing this model, but I am still seeing them available and in due course you may find some good deals on them (hence this write up). New this cost me about £90.)

The Fishman is a battery powered box, running off a 9v square battery (though does have the option of a power supply) that is very simple to use, with just a single in and out socket for regular guitar lead jacks. I tended towards it as Fishman do carry a good name in acoustic amplification and price wise, whilst £90 may sound expensive, in the world of pre amps it falls kind of in the middle of the prices out there.

The box is fashioned from plastic which was my first concern, but it is a damn tough casing and having dropped this on multiple tiled and concrete floors it has failed to crack or even scratch. Full marks. It also isn't that heavy compared to some I have used. In addition it is nice to see the jack sockets made from metal and not plastic, so they won't fail as quickly as the cheaper models either.

EQ is provided by a range of sliders which move with enough friction to not be loose or wobbly. They are also recessed a little so unlikely to get knocked off as may be the case with round protruding knobs. They are notched at the halfway point so you know where you are in lower lighting which is another nice touch.

Fishman Pro EQ II box metal input and output sockets
Metal input and output jack sockets

We have the usual volume control, plus bass, middle and treble on the EQ plus a 'brilliancy' setting for extra sparkle (or cutting finger noise on lower settings). It's all very straightforward and they work well and have a good range. I used this in the main for cutting mids down to remove the 'bite' often heard with piezo under saddle pickups and it worked well for that. It's not what we call 'parametric EQ' so the settings are limited to just those three (meaning you can't cut out errant frequencies by sweeping through and cutting them) but for most purposes a 3 band is just fine and certainly as good as you will find on any onboard system.

We also have a phase switch. Ah yes, the phase option. Something that will get a confusing answer from even the most experienced of sound guys. Basically - it changes the polarity or direction of the output sound to help avoid feedback amongst other things at the PA end. The instrument projects both its own sound waves and amplified waves which sound better 'in phase' with each other and flicking the switch allows you to swap this. In other words - play with both settings and listen to what sounds best!!

On the reverse of the unit is a metal belt clip (if you want to look like those people who carry mobile phones on belt holsters I guess) and the battery compartment. We also have two gain pots, one for general gain and one for bass which can (and need to) be adjusted before use depending on the pickup. I found that with some pickups I needed to dial this back as I was getting an over driven sound into the amplifier, but that is exactly what this is for. As much as it is a pain to adjust (as you need a screwdriver to do it) I prefer to see that than an easy to knock and alter gain knob as on some other EQ pedals I have seen.

Fishman Pro EQ II box trim controls and belt clip
Trim contols


In use I can't really complain and it does the job it was intended to do well. Sound wise I think I would have preferred a more acoustic tone. Having tested this side by side against something like an LR Baggs GigPro the latter provides that in spades straight out of the box with very little tweaking (in fact it has less EQ altering settings than the Fishman for only a little more money). There is nothing 'wrong' with the tone, but it still felt a little electric sounding for me on a variety of EQ settings.  That was fine for me when running through effects, but on pure acoustic tone you might want something sweeter. On the plus side it is quiet in operation and with a good saddle pickup introduces no hum or buzz which is more than I can say for some onboard systems I have used (the perils of cheap onboard gear!). This gives a VERY clean sound which  will put a smile on any sound engineers face.

Fishman Pro EQ II box battery compartment


Still I certainly don't mean to run it down - it is well built, priced and performs admirably. I even used it on ukes with those dreaded on board systems, set neutral and it improved their tone no end too. Oh and the battery lasted for a year of gigs - trouble free indeed!

Would I buy it again? Well I suppose so, but that is something of a loaded question as I have now replaced it with a higher end system that I will be reviewing soon on Got A Ukulele and intend to gig with. Generally though, yes I would. The Fishman is a reliable answer to the need to amplify passive systems in a small tough package. So if you take my advice and head into the passive pickup area, you will need a good EQ box if you want better sound out of it. I would choose one of these over an onboard system every time. If you have the money - the world is your oyster though with other options.

And if the price is a concern, remember this. The concept of going out to buy a ukulele with a budget of £150 then picking a ready made acoustic electro for £150 - well - you are naturally getting far less for your money in the basic instrument AND in the pickup. If you want to electrify then you should budget on spending MORE on the full package and not the same amount - you get no free lunches.  For me, if you intend to amplify, then that amplified tone has to be reasonable and not something to skimp on.  All of that said, if you only ever intend to plug into small amps at clubs or in a bedroom then perhaps a full system IS overkill, but then you wouldn't be reading this would you? For me though, if you ever intend to plug in to a full stage PA, better tone is worth having - with cheaper models that is where your tone will be found lacking ( and the hum and noise from cheap units will drive you mad!). Remember, not every venue has the worlds best sound engineer on hand and £50k mixing desks to make your cheap system sound good...

(Final point - these are NOT just for ukuleles of course and I have used this quite happily with both guitars and mandolins with pickups fitted!)

Watch this space for another Pre amp box review coming soon - something higher end!

17.1.15

TGI Tenor Ukulele Hard Case - REVIEW

Ukulele cases. Often something that players will skimp on, but something I always recommend. Sure, if your uke cost you $30 you may feel happy with a cloth gig bag, but I look at it this way. If the uke is something that would hurt you in the pocket if you damaged it, then GET A CASE! Thinking of cases reminded me of one I had bought, intended to review, but never got around to it. The TGI Brand ABS case.


TGI ABS Ukulele Case


I've got a whole range of cases and many ukuleles exist quite happily in the zippered pod cases that have become so popular. They are fine, but I don't find the zips last. Still, they still work as storage protection at home as despite what anyone tells you, the safest place to keep your instrument is in a hard (ish) case. The TGI though cost a bit more and came with recommendations as being a 'good one'. I was on the lookout for such a case for my higher end instruments and pulled the trigger on the tenor version (they come in other sizes too) for a shade over £50. Thats not super high end for a ukulele case but more than I suspect many people spend.

Firstly the TGI is made of ABS which I much prefer to plywood as many hard cases are. An ABS plastic case should first deform before it splits so in other words, where a plywood case will split and become useless, theoretically this should be more robust.

The whole case is finished in a kind of carbon fibre look (its not carbon fibre) but a look over it shows it is extremely well put together. In use this fits a variety of my tenors snugly but securely and they slide in to the deep plush lining with confidence.

In terms of protection, I would not stand on this - but then this is not what I expected - you really should only be doing that with very high end cases from the likes of Calton (and spending many times this price) but it is supremly durable. I can say that as I have been using this case on gigs and the like for well over a year now and all is in order despite being dropped and thrown in and out of car trunks on more occasions than I can remember. There is some 'give' in the outer shell which did concern me a little but it doesnt seem to translate through to the uke inside. In short - this is a case for knocks and drops, but not one for crushing or being run over. Remember that!

The other plus with this case above others I have used, tested or seen fall apart are the number of an quality of the catches. In my experience, these are one of the first things to go with cheaper models, but these are seriously constructed and still hold tightly and firmly.

TGI ABS Ukulele Case lining


The handle has also stood up well which surprises me because the rivets holding them on look far from solid compared to the catches. Still, they havent failed in a year of use so maybe I am being over worried. Also riveted to the outside are a couple of eyelets for attaching a strap which is a nice touch though I have not used them.

TGI ABS Ukulele Case clasps


Inside as I say is a plush affair that holds the instrument far snugger than any pod case I have used. The neck support is superb, and that is also added to with an extra padded strip down the inside of the lid which presses onto the neck and instrument strings. It really does cosset the uke!

TGI ABS Ukulele Case handle


With hard cases like this you do of course sacrifice the outer pockets for songbooks and the like, but this does have a small inner hatch which happily takes batteries and a strap as mine does. The upside of course is hard cases take stickers far better, and I love stickers!

TGI ABS Ukulele Case internal pocket


Finally, it is, of course lockable. Probably not the most secure lock in the world and I suspect I could pick it, but its better than many I've seen on plywood models.

In short I would recommend this highly as a good intermediate case for higher end instruments. I suspect if my tenor uke cost $3000 or more I may well be investing in something more substantial to protect my investment, but for the more normal 'high end' instruments, this is quite a step up from the pod and plywood cases and worth your time. This one has been well road tested and has not failed in any way yet.

The TGI Abs cases are available from a range of uke stores including Southern Ukulele Store (where this came from).


16.1.15

Nosy Mangabe - Defying Darwin

Ok ok, a little novelty I guess, but nice uke arrangements, loving the bass, loving the vocals. What you think?





( DIRECT LINK )

14.1.15

Tinguitar Custom Solid Electro Tenor - REVIEW

Back with another ukulele review, and one that many readers have been keen to have a look at since I first announced it was being built. A custom build this time by Tinguitar.com in the shape of a solid body tenor uke.

My readers may have seen my earlier posts introducing Robert Collins, the luthier from Hebden Bridge behind the Tinguitar brand, and know that the roots of this went back to a visit to his workshop in late summer 2014 to talk details. You see, that is part of the Tinguitar process - having a look at wood selections, talking through options and agreeing a final specification with Rob on the build that I then waited patiently for.

Tinguitar custom build solid electro tenor


My choice was for a solid body electric, principally for stage use, as something reliable, tough and that would be resistant to feedback regardless of whether I was playing something soft or throwing it through effects and performing on the more rock end of what I like to play. Solid body electrics remain to be popular and I do get a lot of questions on my recommendations. Sadly, unless at the high end, I find many of them lacking and often question the quality of the likes of Staggs and Eleukes. They may have attractive prices, but when they don't cost much more than a good quality pickup, something tends to give in the end result (usually the electrified sound, which is, after all, their key point).

So knowing the sort of quality that Rob builds having played many of his acoustics, I couldn't resist placing the order and around Christmas time it was ready.

I will just say from the off that this will not be a 'review' in the normal sense and I felt the need to stop short on the scoring system. My reviews all work the same way and impartiality is key, so it felt strange to score this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Rob is a friend, and I didn't want calls of sycophancy, but more importantly, I specified the build in detailwith him. If, therefore, there is anything missing or not up to scratch (there isn't incidentally) it would be as much my fault as anyones for not asking for it. It's an odd one, but in placing the order you kind of expect with Rob to get what you asked for. I would say this though, he has exceeded expectations and has delivered to me one of the best instruments I have played and I say that with no word of a lie. If there was a score here it would be a straight ten out of ten, but I trust you understand how that may be inappropriate to put in writing. Trust me, he makes very fine instruments!

So, we settled on a tenor scale (my preferred stage choice) and understood this would be made to his standard tenor shape mould though with a cutaway (more on that later). Looking through his wood choices I knew I wanted something more understated and simple (no bling) and settled on a main body and neck made from sustainably sourced (re-used) Brazilian Mahogany with an Indian Rosewood top. There were of course many other details we talked about which will come through in this write up, but everything was covered with Rob, even down to the nut width and profile of the neck. Told you it was a detailed spec!

Tinguitar custom build solid electro tenor body


The body construction may look like a solid block of wood but both the body and top are made of two book matched pieces, and the mahogany body is actually first drilled to create a honeycomb of chambers in it before the rosewood top is applied. Not only does this reduce weight, but adds some sustain without creating huge swimming pool holes that will lead to amplified feedback problems. Very clever.

The body is otherwise unadorned and I chose no binding or inlays, letting the rather pretty woods do the talking. And nice woods they are as I absolutely adore the grains,  particularly on the Rosewood top. When they are complimented by the hand applied French Polish finish that Rob gave the instrument they really sing. It's a nice choice of finish (and actually essential to Rosewood in any case) but Rob does not use a spray bay (so no plastic spray finishes on these instruments). It just exudes hand made quality and presents itself as much as a high end piece of furniture as it does a musical instrument!

The bridge is made from Ebony and is as tie bar style with a nut cut from Corian. It looks superb and neat as I expected it would. Under this sits a simple Artec brand passive pickup strip on the advice of Rob himself.

Tinguitar custom build solid electro tenor bridge



Otherwise on the body the only additions are the off centre jack socket on the base and a couple of jumbo strap buttons (no straps coming loose!) on the butt and top shoulder. I think the overall look is superb, but back to that cutaway. I think this really sets the uke of perfectly and balances the look. It's a lovely curve and looks and feels very tactile and natural. I love the way it naturally kind of joins the neck.


Tinguitar custom build solid electro tenor cutaway


Tinguitar custom build solid electro tenor jack socket


Up to the neck this is in effect a single piece neck, but was sawed down the middle and a strip of maple wood added running through the whole piece in a skunk stripe. I think it looks the business and runs from the heel right to the headstock. The neck is jointed into the body with a dovetail so no unsightly neck screws and is all finished off very neatly. Its a fairly chunky heel on account of the otherwise thin body, but it never feels like it gets in the way and works on the eye in relation to the rest of the instrument.

Tinguitar custom build solid electro tenor neck


As I say above, I specified quite some detail on the neck with Rob, taking measurements from a couple of ukes  I really like the feel of as guides (Kanile'a K1 tenor and the Godin Multiuke). As such it has a wider nut than Rob normally builds but a slightly deeper 'flattened D' shaped profile too for my big hands. Even better the fingerboard, in Ebony, is also cut with a radius for ease of playing. That is to say the fingerboard has a very slight curve to it over the width, as do the frets (12 inch radius for those interested) and on top of that he has curved / rolled the edges of the fingerboard to remove any straight edges. It is otherwise unbound but those build features have provided one hell of a comfortable neck on the fingers. It just aches to be played!

Fingerboard fret markers are applied in mother of pearl, with a double dot at the 12th at my request, and these are repeated on the side (naturally!) at the 5th, 7th, 12th and 15th. They are really nicely applied and help with the understated look of the whole piece. Frets are in nickel silver with 14 to the body and 19 in total. All are superbly finished with no sharp edges.

Past the Corian nut (set and finished perfectly) the headstock is a plain affair though accentuated by the stripe on the rear and Indian Rosewood facing to match the body with some nice stripe to it. It's otherwise square, not only in line with some of Robs other tenors, but I hate the repeated use of the Martin crown on ukulele headstocks so it suits me too. You will note there is no logo, which Rob doesn't apply through choice. That is fine but seeing as the instrument has no sound hole where a label could go, I was keen to have something that told me (and others) this was a Tinguitar. Rob happily obliged with as small version of his brand logo on the side of the headstock with a pyrographic pen. I love that!

Tinguitar custom build solid electro tenor headstock

Tinguitar custom build solid electro tenor logo


Tuning doesnt disappoint and we have silver open geared Grovers, pretty much exactly what are on my Kanile'a tenor (though with black buttons) and they just don't get much better on the geared front.

Tinguitar custom build solid electro tenor neck stripe


And there we have it. Aside from Robs own custom fluorocarbon strings in low G as I requested, he has delivered a hell of an instrument in my view. I think it looks the absolute business and was one of those few ukes where you open the case for the very first time and say 'wow'.  I think he was waiting for me to play it but I actually spent the first time with it just drooling over the build. (Then again, I was in hospital at the time, but that is a whole other story).

The first thing that struck me was the weight - helped by that honeycomb inside no doubt, but it is lighter than you expect it to be, whilst still feeling solid in the hand. Nicely balanced too. And that finish is one that you just want to hold and stroke (ok, getting a bit weird now..?). But it is flawlessly applied and just a nice thing to have in the hands.

The neck in particular has exceeded my expectations and feels so nice in the hands and under the fingertips. Working with Rob at the outset does pay dividends as he clearly listens!.

Tinguitar custom build solid electro tenor strap button


But it is all about how it plays and sounds of course, and that presents me with another challenge in a review like this. You see, being a solid electric it makes little noise when unplugged of course and its all about the amplified tone. Some people have asked me in advance what the 'acoustic tone is like' and it's a question that confused me. It's not an acoustic uke and that is NOT what I wanted or specified. Its a solid! If you want an acoustic, Rob also makes fine ones, but we can't get in to comparing this to one of those - that would be like comparing a Stratocaster to a Martin Dreadnought guitar...

But it also presents a challenge as a big part of the tone comes from what you plug it in to. Plug any solid electric (this, or the Godin) into a crappy amplifier and you may be let down, and of course lots of people have different amps.

First test of this was through a Roland mobile cube - the handbag type and it was highly enjoyable, but plugging it into my Roland AC33 and my Marshall AS50R (both with very nice acoustic stages) it really shows it off. The sound is bell like clear and very nicely balanced across the strings (the plague of cheap electric mass market electrics)

There is one word that doesn't get mentioned with ukes that much and that is sustain. Whilst this is no Les Paul (its a ukulele...) the sustain REALLY impresses me - it sings out and makes playing it, particularly fingerpicked incredibly addictive. I find myself not wanting to put it down. It really feels responsive to the lightest touch (helped by that pickup which is giving a hotter output than any electro acoustic I have played), meaning the slightest bit of light fingering is registering well and clear as a bell.

Sure, it sounds like a piezo because that is what it is, but anyone used to setting an EQ on a piezo strip can easily manage the harsher tones that can sound a little overly electric. In fact just dropping the mids a touch was all it took to give me a delightful tone that I immediately liked. Clearly the build and the wood types help here with the overall 'flavour.

Tinguitar custom build solid electro tenor back


I may sound overly gushing but I can only tell you what I am finding with it. It is a joy to play and I think satisfaction with the build can only be part of that. Had I been given this as a completed uke having had no part in the build I can confidently say I would feel the same way. It just does what it says on the tin and exactly how I wanted it to if not better. I can't praise it enough.

He is a clever bloke that Mr Collins. As I have said before, I hope 2015 may be the year that many uke players start to reject the cheap rubbish flooding the market, but if you are serious about your instrument why not make it a custom?

Now, I haven't talked about price, but that is for good reason. This was my specification and in that sense the price was in my control. I could have easily made it much more expensive had I chosen to bling it up, but I didn't and in the end it cost me a very reasonable price, less than some of my other higher end instruments but the exact figure anybody else reaches will vary with their own choices. You may be surprised though.  Put it this way his ukes start at just over £300 for tenors to give you an idea..

HIGHLY recommended.  http://www.tinguitar.com

Have a look at the video review - but do remember - the amp is everything and this is a laptop microphone recording both my voice and the amp!

VIDEO REVIEW



11.1.15

Phil Doleman - Old Is The New New CD REVIEW

It was late on in 2014 when I was hearing the news the one of the UK's highest respected ukulele acts was putting together some recordings for release. I owe both him and my readers something of an apology for being a little behind the curve on this, as I've actually had Phil's new EP in my possession for some time now. Sadly a hospital visit put paid to a review back then, so here we are now!

Phil Doleman EP Old Is The New You - ukulele player
cover image credit - JJ Beardsley

I like to think I was excited about it for good reason. I'm lucky enough to have seen Phil perform live on numerous occasions, and plenty of times in 2014 performing his blend of old time jazz / rag and blues on ukulele all over the country. Looking at the CD, I saw he was including a few numbers I had seen him perform live and that had to be a good thing (seeing as I enjoyed the shows so much).

The CD /download comes in EP format, so just five tracks recorded by Phil and also includes some live stuff. Now, is it just me who likes the fact that the concept kind of harks back to my beloved jazz vinyl records which would often include live takes? A sample of the show experience if you will.

We open with a studio number that I've seen Phil play live many times,  and one that I think he always looks happy to be playing. Dr. Jazz by Melrose and Oliver.  It's recorded brilliantly and a perfect taste of things to come. He puts a real bounce into this one!

I was then pleased as punch to see inclusion of a live version of a track I always really enjoyed seeing Phil play live -  Got Everything ( Don't Want Anything But You) recorded live at the Hebden Bridge Trades Club by Jake Smithies. Often referred to that 'dog and cat song' (perhaps just by me?!) but it gives you a real flavour of 'live Phil' in your pocket.

Track 3 is a really interesting one - particularly since before release I saw photos of Phil recording into some old looking contraptions! For 'Big Bad Bill' Phil took himself off to Sheffield to work with Duncan Miller at the Vulcan Cylinder Recording Company to record a track to a vintage wax cylinder. Would it work? Well the clear answer is yes! This could not sound any more vintage - complete with compressed vocals and wax crackles. It's a really clever idea and gives a great old time feel to the EP.

We have a another live track in 'We Are Both Feeling Good Right Now' recorded in his beloved home town of Belper at Number 28 and the EP closes with the ukulele players favourite of 'Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.'  Uke players take note  - most club renditions of this tune seem to be flabby and slow to me (my own included) but if you want to take tips on delivering this with some verve and swing you need to listen to this version! Nice bass in the background there too, and is that a guitar I hear?

Throughout you are hearing some serious uke talent, but more than that  - a man who clearly enjoys making music and nodding his hat to the jazz heritage.

So in my absence I had luckily put MP3's of these on the iPod not knowing I would come to rely on that device whilst trapped in hospital. They worked wonderfully, and I found myself sat staring at the walls with a smile on my face. I think my comment above on the second track sums this one up the best I can - an EP of Doleman performance for your pocket! If you have enjoyed him live, this really is a no brainer to take him on the road with you! 

My only gripe? It's just an EP - more please Phil!!

You can grab a copy of the EP through Phils website, and I would urge you do!  See link


Tracks

Phil Doleman ukulele EP track listing