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.
|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.
|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.
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.
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!