Ukulele amplification... Some love it, some hate it, but this is clearly something that is becoming more and more popular. As such I thought I would take a look at a reasonable option for amplifying your ukulele. The Roland Mobile Cube.
I must say, I don't really understand the 'you can't amplify your uke' brigade. Amplification means different things depending on the circumstances. Go to any large festival and you will see professional after professional plugging their instrument in to ensure they can be heard! Equally you can go rock with a ukulele or perhaps you just want a bit more oomph for busking. Its all good.
Perhaps the most common type of amp I am seeing beginners going for are the small battery powered units, such as the HoneyTone amps, or the Orange Cubes. Personally I don't like the ultra small amps as I find they give a very very thin sound to an instrument which is already kind of thin sounding. At the other end of the scale there are full on stage amps, but these are not really practical for bedroom practice or busking on the street. But there are a few amps in the middle ground, and having played many, the Roland Cube series is something I think is well worth looking at.
The Mobile Cube is something a couple of members of my band use and I have been so impressed I bought one myself. When we are on a big stage, we use a large PA - so why do they have them? Well, for a bit of fun, for busking, one has used one as a keyboard monitor in practice sessions. We even had our bass player run through one when we appeared on BBC radio and didn't have space to take our full rig in.
The Roland Mobile Cube is part of a wider line of smaller and larger amps in the cube series, but I have long thought that the Mobile gives about the best bang for buck, features versus tone versus money in the range. And at £120 to buy, it really is a good deal. Sure, its a lot more than a £20 battery belt clip amp, but.... well, you get what you pay for....
The Mobile Cube is a battery powered 5 Watt unit with an array of inputs and tweaks that make it shine. (note - it can be plugged in with an optional AC adapter too). But the real trick is the battery life. Roland claim this will run for 15 hours straight on 6 AA batteries, which really is some going I am sure you will agree.
The unit is cased in typical Roland bombproof type construction. Yes, it is plastic, but it feels like a tank. And having seen one of our band drop one from table height to a tiled floor leaving not even a scratch... well.... I wouldn't recommend it, but it goes to show.
The batteries power two separate 2.5W channels, left and right, which power two 4 inch speakers behind a grille. Yes, this can be a stereo amp too!
Inputs to the Mobile Cube are on the side with an input for microphone (sadly a line jack in and not an XLR socket), stereo jack input for either guitars, ukes etc (using one of the inputs) or stereo instruments like keyboards (using two). We also have a mini jack input allowing you to play back an MP3 track or similar and left and right RCA inputs for a feed from, say, a CD player, a mixer or sound processor. Pretty fully featured.
On the other side of the amp is a headphone socket, a power switch and a socket for the optional AC adapter.
Controls for the amp are on the top, and split into three sections, Mic, Instrument and Effects. The mic channel has a volume control and nothing more. The instrument channel has a selector knob for acoustic guitar, keyboards, Audio (for MP3 playback) and three electric guitar inputs - clean, overdrive and distortion. With a uke plugged in, any of these can really be used, but I had best results with either the acoustic guitar input or the electric guitar on clean. Also within the instrument section is a chorus button which applies a spacey chorus to the instrument sound. Sadly, this is just on or off and cannot be adjusted. To my ears, chorus can easily be over done, and I think this one would benefit from being toned down a little. Its also a shame that the chorus can't be applied to the vocal microphone input too.
The effects section consists of an overall tone control (and something that applies to the whole output. It would have been nice to have a separate tone for the microphone) and a fairly basic but useable effects section that offers both delay and reverb. Sadly though, not at the same time! It uses a rotary dial that builds up the delay, and when you get past 12 o clock, the delay turns off and it builds the reverb. I've seen this system on a number of amps and find it a bit limiting to be honest. That said, the effects sound nice, what with Roland owning Boss, they should do! Personally though, I think I would use them sparingly. And remember, you do have other effects (of sorts) on the electric guitar section where you have an overdrive and a distortion).
Batteries are inserted in an easy to open hatch on the back of the amp, and the back also has a grounding screw in case you get any hum or worse.
Another couple of neat features are the screw on the base of the unit that allows you to attach it to a vertical microphone stand - useful for getting sound at head height for busking, and the roland branded hand strap with super strong button connectors - you can feel at ease carrying this as it is going nowhere! (Incidentally, with batteries installed it weighs 2.5kg!). Finally we have a button called 'Centre Cancel' on the AUX channel. That takes the MP3 or CD player input and cuts out the centre frequencies from the track you are playing, ideally leaving just the instruments for you to jam along to. Results will vary on this, but its a neat feature.
Finally, the looks. Well, like a lot of Roland gear, it is somewhat utilitarian, but its more about function over form!
So all in all, a sweet looking package. On to the sound!
Do not let that 5W power put you off, this thing can go surprisingly loud and would work perfectly on the street on a busking slot (especially if, in a band, you had a few of them). It stays pretty clean on tone all the way up to ten, though it is possible to overdrive it if your uke is pre amped and running hot. The unit then doesnt so much distort as clip, but I found it rarely happened with my Godin electro which does output a high gain signal when turned up.
As I said above, I found the nicest sounds for uke on either the acoustic or clean electric settings. The overdrive is a little muddy sounding to my ears, but the distortion is huge fun. I actually found a very nice atmospheric type sound with the amp on clean electric, delay up to about one third and the chorus on. But then, its each to their own and you will find all sorts of combinations.
I was surprised at the natural tone which, for such a small unit was erring on the bassy side and I found I preferred the tone knob a little higher - even with a uke!
But overall it is pretty no nonsense and sounds great!
I have gripes, but they are really things that can be solved by looking at the bigger amps in the Cube series (XLR input for the microphone, dedicated microphone tone control, adjustable chorus etc). And bear in mind, the features on this alone far outweigh pretty much any 9V belt clip amp you may be thinking of. One thing that would be great for them to change is for power to be cut when things are disconnected. The power switch is kind of hidden away and the light that shows the unit is on is tiny. Twice now I have unplugged and forgot to switch off the master power. Something as simple as the power switch being larger and on the top would help!
If you are thinking about looking at amps for lower key, practice or busking type play on your uke, I would suggest that this needs to be near the top of your shopping list. Highly recommended.
(Being Roland - they are available all over to buy such as HERE )