I've spoken before on Got A Ukulele of the benefit of a pre-amp box if you are plugging in to an amplifier. Last time we looked at this model from Fishman which is rather good. Time to look at what may be considered a luxury option, particularly with a price tag of around £300. The LR Baggs Venue DI. But does that cost make sense?
I've been a fan of LR Baggs gear for some time, particularly their Gig Pro series of belt clip pre amp boxes. They just sound incredibly clear and natural with acoustic instruments and far more so than any many other pre amp boxes which can still leave the ukulele or guitar with an electric guitar type sound. Above the GigPro is the Baggs Para DI which adds some more detailed tone shaping controls to the mix. Now we have the Venue DI which takes those technologies and adds more.
Essentially, a pre amp box is designed to sit between your instrument and the amplifier or PA system. They deliver a balanced output, can boost the volume and most importantly, allow you to shape the tone somewhat. For a passive pickup in a ukulele they are a must in my opinion, but even on an active pre-installed system they can do wonders with your tone. The DI is a reference to the balanced output that this comes with via a XLR socket allowing you to plug direct into any mixing desk.
With Piezo pickups in particular (especially the under saddle variety) when delivered direct to an amplifier they can give you a harsh or 'quacky' kind of tone. On the more basic pre amps you may see a one, two or three band eq which can help with this. But even three band eqs (i.e. treble, middle and bass controls) can be a little limited and as well as taking out some unwanted noises they can cut some of the tone you want to keep. And that's the first real benefit of the Baggs Venue DI - it comes with what we call parametric sweep controls on the middle section of the tone. More on that a little later.
So setting up the Venue is a simple affair. Simply plug in your instrument to the 'in' jack socket and it fires into life. Give the instrument a hard strum and adjust the gain knob to set the right levels (it comes with a handy traffic light LED meter to ensure you are not over driving it) and that really is it. But to leave it there would be missing the added features of the Venue.
You see as well as the normal controls on bass and treble (including a presence knob for some extra shimmer), the Venue DI has a low and mid tone section control. Those two bands also have a couple more knobs labelled 'tune' allowing you to find unwanted tones in both the 100-500Hz range and in the 500-2.5k Hz bands. What one earth does that mean Baz? Well.... Let's say you are plugged in and you have that typical quacky or electric sound that is so common with piezo pickups, simply turn the one of the two mid dials to full then sweep through with the tune knob until you really boost the offending tone that was sat there in the mix. Then turn the corresponding mid tone down into the negative and it goes away. By doing that you can reduce the offending tones by only cutting those frequencies and not affecting the overall tone in any other way. In short it keeps the instrument sounding as natural as possible. It really does work brilliantly and I noted improvement to tone on all of my electric ukes giving them an amplified voice I have not heard from them before. Of course, you can play with these controls for hours and boost some frequencies as well as cutting them if you need to.
That LR Baggs tone circuitry is just so clean sounding, so naturally acoustic it really did make my ukes sound like different instruments.
But that is not all, it's got more tricks up it's sleeve. First we have a boost stomp button allowing you to automatically boost your signal by up to 9dB when pressed. Why would you need that? Well - lets say you play in a band and are strumming away, but in the song you then play a lead solo and want it to stand out. Simply hit the button and you stand out in the mix with an extra boost. Very handy.
Elsewhere on the front panel we have a notch filter for killing feedback. I really wouldn't begin to understand how brilliantly that works but it just does. Find a bit of feedback howl getting in to your sound - just sweep around the notch dial until it goes away... and it does! It goes away with no impact on the remaining tone either.
Also on the front you will not another stomp switch. That engages the onboard tuner which is a joy to use. The screen is extremely clear and bright, even in sunlight or under bright stage lights and has the added benefit of muting your signal whilst tuning. I can't bear the sound of tuning coming through the PA on stage.
Other features include a phase switch, battery check switch and on the back a send and return effect loop if you want to add in some FX pedals, a setting dial for the Boost switch, and an XLR output to compliment the jack output which sends a signal independent of the volume setting on the Venue itself. That allows about the clearest output you could wish for when running in to a mixing desk. If you are just plugging in to a guitar amp, use the jack socket on the side to output with a standard instrument cable. It also has ground lift switch to help cut out unwanted ground loops that can occur on stage. It pretty much covers all the bases you would want in one box.
Build quality is excellent with most of the unit built of metal so it feels solid as a tank. The knobs have a pleasing feel to them and move really smoothly, most of them with a depression notch to help you find the 12 o clock point in low light. But most of all, it's all about that tone. It's so natural and clear / clean I found it quite unbelievable.
It also runs on a 9v battery with a reported 40 hours life or a 9V transformer. About the only gripe I have about the unit is that for £300, they don't see fit to bundle a 9V power pack with the unit. I find that incredibly selfish for the money, although I would point out that most FX pedal supplies work with this unit as it uses a standard power socket. In other words they are not forcing you to buy a proprietary power supply. Also in the box is a rather nice zippered, semi hard carry case to protect your investment in your pedal bag.
So all in all, fully featured and really does tick all the boxes you would ever need I think. It has a killer tone and build quality that I think you will find it hard to beat, but yes, that comes at a price. Is it worth it? Well that's totally subjective and depends on your budget, but good gear does cost and this is seriously 'good'. I totally expect many would not find themselves being able to justify the price though but would still recommend they check out some other Baggs gear such as the GigPro if they can.
This is a ukulele website and it works wonders with acoustic electro ukes, but also bear in mind that this works brilliantly with guitars too. I've been playing a couple of Taylor electro acoustics through it and am hearing natural tones from the amplifier like I have not heard before with other pre amps.
And finally, I was going to do a video, but the combination of YouTube compression made me feel that it would never do the beautiful tone any real justice. All I can say is trust me - it sounds REALLY good! And if you want other recommendations I know some professional uke players who use these including Tim Smithies (Dead Mans Uke) and Brittni Paiva. Personally, I think it could be the ultimate choice for those wanting great tone. A DI, Pre amp, EQ, tuner, boost pedal and feedback filter all in one unit!
Sweepable mid cuts
Beautiful clean tone
No power supply!
STOP PRESS - I was cajoled into a sound test video - I don't think its the greatest example - and YouTube Compression on the sound is horrible, but it should give you an idea.
© Barry Maz