27.7.14

Fishman AG 094 Ukulele Pickup - Review and installation

So yesterday I got around to doing something that I have been meaning to do for some time. Fitting a passive ukulele pickup to my Kanile'a Tenor ukulele. 

Being an expensive Hawaiian uke, this was a somewhat nervous process, but actually, if you go steady and carefully its not all that bad. Thought I would provide a kind of semi review and comment on the installation process to help others out. The model pickup in question was a Fishman AG series 094 ukulele pickup.


Fishman AG 094 ukulele pickup


A quick word in advance on pickups. If you want to go down the electro acoustic route I will always recommend that you first consider the installation of a good quality passive pickup ahead of the on board pickups that feature on many entry level ukes. In my experience, these on board 'active' pickups are rarely of the sort of quality you can get with a passive strip, and often REALLY poor quality. If you think about it - there are electro acoustic equipped ukes on the market from about £100 or so upwards. The cost of this Fishman AG 094 alone is about £75, so what does that tell you about the quality of either the uke or the pickup on the ready to go models? The other advantage with fitting a passive pickup is that you can choose to fit one to any acoustic uke and not limit yourself to certain models. Stores will often offer to fit these for you for a bit of extra money, but as I hope to demonstrate below, its not actually that complicated to fit one yourself.  This post is about the fitting of an under saddle piezo pickup but other types are available, most notably transducer spot pickups that stick on the underside of the top under the bridge. I prefer under saddle models myself though as they pickup less body noise.

So, whats in the Fishman box? Not a lot really - a thin ceramic pickup strip with a wire connected for connecting to the jack socket, and a jack socket itself. And that is it. The Fishman pickup requires that you solder the wires to the jack socket as part of the install process, but there are models out there, such as those from Shadow that come either ready wired, or with plugs to clip them in to the socket. I went for the Fishman as it was very thin, and that meant less work to do on the saddle, but I also found the soldering meant for a slightly easier install. You see, when the whole thing is already hard wired, you need to find a way of getting the pickup strip up through the bridge from the inside out. It can be done, but with the Fishman, you install the pickup strip from the outside in, then solder the wires to the jack socket before fitting that. Much easier.

So what is the process? Well, aside from the soldering, its really just a case of drilling two holes, and doing a bit of sanding.

First up we need to drill a small hole in the bridge to feed the pickup wire through to the inside of the body.  I removed the strings and the saddle (after marking up the bridge for the string positions to allow me to line up the strip so it sits evenly under all the strings) then marked the wire location for the pickup.  It's then a simple case of drilling a hole within the saddle slot right through the top of the uke. The diameter will vary depending on the pickup system, but in this case it was about 2.5mm. Go steady, and ideally drill a very thin pilot hole first to guide the drill, but its really not too complicated. With the Fishman, the pickup wire extends directly downwards from the end of the strip, so a hole drilled directly downwards was needed to ensure the pickup sits flat with no pressure on the wiring. Some pickup strips use a braided pickup and the wire will then need to go into the uke on a slight angle to avoid it stressing. In those cases, just drill on a slight angle towards the edge of the uke

Drilling bridge hole for installing ukulele pickup
Hole drilled for pickup strip wire


The second hole is the one that gets the pulse rate racing, and that is one right through the butt of the uke for the jack socket. In this case it was about 12mm, which is a chunky drill bit, but again I would recommend drilling a thinner pilot hole first to guide the drill. I didn't use a clamp or a vice to hold the uke (rather I had a wife to hold it for me!) but would recommend one if you have one. Again - go slow and steady and soon you will be through. Give the inside of the hole a bit of a tidy up with a file then hoover out the dust and wood shavings out of the uke before you continue. Another word of warning - if you are drilling this way, ensure that the instrument has an end block fitted to take hold the jack socket. This one does, as do most ukes,  but if you cannot see one in your uke I would recommend an alternative system that involves a wire coming out of the sound hole to an external jack. Without an end block you are applying undue stress to the thin side pieces of the uke. I have seen an example of such a fitting where the instrument lead was pulled, and it ripped the jack socket out of the side of the uke leaving quite a hole!

Drilling ukulele for jack socket
Hole drilled for jack socket


And that is it for drilling, so on to the installation.  Feed the pickup wire through the top of the uke and into the body. As I say above, if your pickup system is pre wired, then you need to feed it the other way as everything is connected and I would recommend doing this with either some cotton or thin wire through the body and connected to the end of the strip to feed it back through, but I warn you, that is fiddly!. So with the pickup strip seated in the slot, you can now reach into the uke to grab the loose wire and feed it out of the sound hole.

Fishman AG 094 ukulele pickup seated in saddle slot
Pickup strip seated in saddle slot


Solder the wires to the end pin jack and we are almost there. In the case of the Fishman AG, it comes with a clever multi use jack pin that allows the soldering of secondary pickups, or mic pickups to share the jack, but in the case of this passive strip, its a case of soldering the central 'hot' wire to the tip pin of the jack, and the ground wire to the the sleeve. All instructions with diagrams are on the Fishman website. Another tip here - you will find that you have more wire than you really need, so before moving on, coil the wire a little and either secure the loop with tape or a cable tie to ensure you don't have loose wire flapping about inside the uke.  You can also attach the loose wire to the inside back of the uke with some tape for extra security. With that connected its time to attach the jack socket.

To do this, I fed an instrument cable with a jack that was thin enough to go through the hole in the base of the uke and plugged it into the jack to feed it back out. This takes a bit of fiddling and trial and error as you need to ensure it protrudes through the uke enough to take the locking nut. On the shaft of the jack socket are a bolt, washer and star washer designed to sit inside the uke, and then it is attached with another washer and bolt on the outside to hold it in place. This took a few goes of adjusting the inner bolt to the correct depth to ensure I had enough to work with outside but it didn't take too long. With the socket passed through the uke and enough protrusion to work with it is then simply a case of attaching the outer washer and bolt and tightening it. The jack socket has a hole drilled through the side to allow you to insert a pin or allen key or similar to keep it from turning whilst you turn the bolt. Tighten it up firmly, but not enough to damage the uke finish.  With the Fishman, the jack socket comes with an outer bolt that screws over the jack to provide you with a strap button. Handy!

Jack socket fitted to ukulele
Jack socket bolted in place


And we are almost there. The last adjustment is to now go back to the saddle. The installation of the pickup will naturally raise the saddle higher so your action will need to be adjusted downwards. I actually picked the Fishman as it was thinner than many other pickups meaning less to do here. You have a couple of options. First you could rout the base of the saddle slot down a little so the pickup sets in a recessed chamber but this would be a very delicate process with tools I don't possess. If you go this route you will need to be absolutely sure that the base of that saddle slot remains totally flat as efficient use of of a strip pickup requires even contact with the saddle and body of the uke.  It is also essential you don't go too deep as well as you risk damaging the underlying top of the instrument. The alternative (and the option I took) was to sand the base of the saddle down a little to return the uke to the original action. Again, it is totally essential that you sand the base completely flat, but with this pickup strip it took only about 1mm to take the saddle down.

And that is it really. Re-strung the uke and gave it a test and the volume across the strings is nice and even as it should be. A sign of an uneven saddle or slot base would be one or more strings ringing louder than the others, but no such problems with mine.

As for the quality of the pickup tone itself, well, any passive pickup will perform best through an external pre amp box as they can otherwise sound a little thin. On this one, even without a pre amp it sounded clear enough, but really really nice through my Fishman Pre amp that I usually use on stage. It sounds remarkably natural in tone, like a uke in fact. That may sound like an odd statement, but that is my other complaint about cheap on board systems that run off batteries as I find they make the uke sound too 'electric'. No concerns on this score with the Fishman AG.

There are better and worse pickup strips out there, and you can spend considerably more if you want to, but I am delighted with the ease of installation with the Fishman and with the sound it creates. I accept that for many the process of drilling instruments may be something that scares them, but it's really not all that complex if you are careful and give it time.

As for the Fishman pickup - recommended!

http://www.fishman.com/product/ag-series-1


23.7.14

Beginners Tips - How To Tune The Ukulele

An absolute back to basics tip this one - video guide on tuning the ukulele.


I do get irritated that when absolute beginners ask about tuning, they are often just met with someone shouting 'GET A CLIP ON TUNER' to them and nothing more...



Good luck!


22.7.14

iUke Piccolo Mini Ukulele REVIEW

Back with another ukulele review, and an instrument that has actually been around for a little while now - the iUke Piccolo mini ukulele.


iUke Piccolo Mini Ukulele


A little while ago I reviewed another piccolo uke (the John Daniel Pixie) and in that made reference to the iUke and the fact that I didn't really like it that much. That was based on me having played a couple briefly at uke festivals and nothing more. The UK distributor, Stones Music, got in touch and (rightly) suggested that I actually test one for a while and write up a fuller review. So here we go.

The iUke is a solid topped piccolo or sopranino scale instrument developed by iUke in conjunction with Aquila strings. It is a solid topped instrument and designed primarily for beginners on account of the fact that it is designed to be tuned to standard GCEA tuning but one whole octave above a soprano uke. The strings were developed specifically for the uke to allow this tuning to work, but this was actually one of the things I didn't like about it.

The ukulele retails at around £79 in the UK which is pretty terrific value for any instrument, particularly one with a solid wood top like this one has. This one has a solid cedar top and hardwood laminate back and sides, and is in a pineapple shape and plain finish. They are also available in traditional figure of eight shape and with different top finishes.

Looking at the build at this one, it really is nicely put together. The grain on the solid top is simple, but nicely lined up with the top of the uke, and the laminate sides too are nicely lined up. The sides are, incidentally, a single piece of wood with no join at the base.

iUke Piccolo Mini Ukulele body


The bridge is a rosewood slotted style for easy re-stringing and it appears to be screwed to the top of the uke. Looking inside, all is nice and tidy, with fairly minimal bracing on account of the size of the uke (in fact, I think there is just a single brace on the top and nothing on the back on account of the extra strength in laminate. Kerfing is un-notched but well applied, and the makers label shows both the Aquila and iUke logos, and the fact it is made in China. The label actually says 'Mini Uke' not Piccolo, but there you go, its still a piccolo.

iUke Piccolo Mini Ukulele bridge


The edges of the body are unbound, and that means you see the uke top and back in section, with the top clearly showing off the solid wood. The back though shows off the laminate and looks a little scruffy and I wonder if binding would have been a nice addition. The whole body is finished in satin.

iUke Piccolo Mini Ukulele sides


Moving on to the hardwood neck, this is made from three pieces with a joint at the heel and one halfway down the neck which is unusual. For such a small instrument I would have thought it would be easy to shape this out of a single neck block, but presume this is cost saving. The profile and finish on the neck is very nice though.

iUke Piccolo Mini Ukulele neck


The fingerboard is also very nicely finished and impressed me. Its topped with rosewood which is uniform and dark in colour. The edges of the fingerboard are not bound, but stained so you can hardly see the fret edges. Best of all, the edges of the fingerboard are rolled / shaped meaning you feel no hard edges which is a really nice touch. The frets too, all 12 of them in nickel silver, are really nicely finished with no sharp edges.

Fret position markers are provided on the fingerboard at five, seven and ten in pearloid inlays, but no markers are provided for the player.  Perhaps not essential for a very short scale instrument, but it really wouldn't have been a big deal to add one or two.

iUke Piccolo Mini Ukulele fingerboard


My first gripe with the instrument comes with the width of the nut which I find VERY narrow.  Sure, I get that it is naturally a small instrument, but it is at least 3mm narrower than my John Daniel Piccolo of the same scale. This means a cramped playing area that could easily have been resolved by making that neck a touch wider for virtually no extra cost. As an instrument aimed at the beginner (mainly) I found this a surprise.

Up to the headstock and we have a nice unique design for the iUke with friction pegs fitted in a diamond configuration which I like a lot. The headstock is not faced, but finished in satin and the iUke logo is etched into the wood on an angle.

iUke Piccolo Mini Ukulele headstock


Those tuners are really cheap though, yet they do the job, even with a fair amount of tension on those strings. The washers though are cardboard, and I found that having set the uke down for a day or two, when adjusting tuning they kind of stick on the first turn and need loosening a touch. Still, when tuned these are holding just fine and you could upgrade them easily.

iUke Piccolo Mini Ukulele tuners


And that is about it, bar the specific iUke Aquila strings and a rather nice padded gig bag with an embroidered iUke logo. Not a bad bundle for £79.

What about playability? Well, the uke is light and, naturally very small. I found it easy enough to hold though new players may find it a bit of a fiddle. That is hardly a complaint though as the size is what it is. It's balanced though, and the neck feels good in the hand.

Playing though, that narrow neck does present issues to me with lack of space (though I do have big hands). Some may say that is the challenge of piccolo ukes, but others I have played, including both the John Daniel and the Ohana just felt more natural.

It is loud enough when strummed below fret five, but beyond that it gets so shrill and the sustain goes too. This though is perhaps more a feature of the tuning it has been designed for and more on that now.

I totally GET the thinking behind keeping it GCEA, as that allows beginners to jump to it from a standard soprano with ease as the chord shapes are the same. This too allows a club player to immediately join in with others without transposing at all. What I find though is that the soprano naturally high pitched and shrill enough (especially where several are playing together) and to take that up one more octave again just starts getting into irritating territory for me on sound.  However... strings are there to be changed, and I would be really interested to try some standard Piccolo strings on the iUke to try to find a lower tuning that suited the build. Ukes tend to have a natural sweet spot on tuning and I found that on my John Daniel with CFAD tuning which really gave it a nice balance and richer tone. I see no reason why that cannot work on this as otherwise the uke is built well. As such, I am not going to run scores down on this review for the fact it is tuned GCEA as that can be changed. As for the concept of learning to transpose - its really not that hard, and you would need to do it with a Baritone too. Remember, in doing so, the chord shapes remain the same just the chords they play will differ. I would certainly recommend anyone buying one of these tries that.

iUke Piccolo Mini Ukulele gig bag


At GCEA though, I think this is just too shrill for my ears. The build though is good and the price extremely attractive and am happy to say that my original views have been changed a little.

As usual, here is a video review, and below that the PROs CONs and the scores.

VIDEO REVIEW



PROS

Price
Build quality
Neck finish

CONS

Neck width
Cheap tuners
Anything but high GCEA, please!!


SCORES

Looks - 8
Fit and Finish - 7.5
Sound - 7 (assuming a string change!)
Value For Money - 9

OVERALL - 7.9 out of 10

16.7.14

Stop With The Ukulele Rules

Just some things to mull over for you... Was merely considering the beauty that has been created by variances in the use of instruments to make music. Often it seems that people don't want that for the ukulele...


The Guitar









The Violin






The Piano







Drums





Stop telling people that you MUST play the ukulele this way or that. It's just a musical instrument.... Play what YOU like and what YOU want. Without development and variety on musical instruments I for one think the world of music would be a very one dimensional place.

Thank you!

15.7.14

The Biddulph Ukulele Day 2014!

I love a ukulele event, especially a new one - and Biddulph Ukulele Day in the UK on July 12 was just that.

Held at two locations in Biddulph town, the event was organised by the Biddulph Ukulele group and was aimed at bringing some tuition, guidance and plain good old fun to the town.

Things kicked off with workshops from two of the UK's finest players and teachers - Phil Doleman and Peter Moss, and the day then developed into an open mic, mass jam session at the Biddulph Town Hall. Phil and Peter then took to the open mic stage later on in the day to perform a blistering and unrehearsed set that blew the audience away.

The evening had booked our band The N'Ukes, and we can say that the stage was one of the nicest we have performed on. Many thanks to John Hayley for the sound and lighting rig. Take a look!



and



We loved it and reports from the full day was that the audience were thrilled with it too. I do hope they repeat it as they have the makings of something great going on.