Ample Ethno Ukulele is a detailed virtual ukulele from Ample Sound, with 32-bit and 64-bit plugin support for both Windows and Mac, as well as a standalone version. It weighs in at 2.15 GB and costs $119.
Like A Smaller Guitar?
After releasing several guitars, which I’ve described as being “good for thinking like a guitarist when playing,” Ample Sound has branched out somewhat with an upright bass and now this ukulele. Now, a ukulele is not far removed from a guitar, so this is not exactly a far leap. In keeping with Ample Sound’s high standards for the instrument they sample, this is a high-end handmade Hawaiian uke made of koa wood – specifically a Kamaka HF-3. It sounds quite different than most of the inexpensive instruments my uke-playing friends own – much warmer and less brittle. The sound is what you’d expect to hear from high-end ukuleles on professional recordings. The close and room mics, as well as the automatic double-tracking option, are additional “luxuries” that take the sound further away from the plunk of the common cheap uke.
The instrument sampled here is a tenor uke, which is usually tuned GCEA – sort of like the top four strings of a guitar but a fourth higher, and with the G string tuned another octave higher in what is technically called “reentrant tuning.” There are two additional tuning controls – the G string is also sampled in a “low” version, and all the strings can be detuned by a half-step or whole-step. Unlike Ample’s other instruments, where strings can be detuned individually, with this uke the tuning control affects all four at once.
The reentrant tuning is a big difference from guitars, and one of the reasons why ukes sound so uke-like, with chord voicings which don’t include many wide intervals. It does create a situation where there are strings far away from each other on the instrument but very close in tuning. Here that is dealt with in a very simple way – all notes are mapped to keys matching their actual pitch, with no transposition for the G string. This makes the string keyswitches more important than usual for realism – for playing melodies, the G string is generally avoided, and this is simple enough. For strums or arpeggios, though, those keyswitches are going to get a pretty good workout, and playing such parts live using a keyboard is not that easy. When programming parts, it becomes easier, especially when using one MIDI channel per string.
So Very Articulate
The included articulations are a pretty complete set – sustains, hammer-ons and pull-offs, natural harmonics, two kinds of slides, palm mutes, pops and a strum articulation. I suppose the fairly narrow range and mercifully short sustain of the ukulele mean more articulations can be sampled in a shorter amount of time than with longer-sustaining instruments. I mean, sustain seems like it would be a good thing until you try to record 50 hits on a ride cymbal which keeps ringing for 30 seconds while you sit there trying to avoid making any extraneous noises. So, it’s just faster and less painful to record more samples with a ukulele than with a guitar – and now that I’ve explained about the evils of sustain, back to our review…
The strum articulation is not the same as the strumming engine, and instead, it represents the harder, noisier way notes are played when strumming chords. Holding down the sustain and strum keyswitches at once plays sustain notes on the E and A strings and strum notes on the G and C strings. This is clever and useful, especially with the automatic hammer-ons and pull-offs enabled, for playing harmony and melody at the same time or adding ornamentation on top of the chords. As an example, think Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s famous version of “Over The Rainbow” which has a whole lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs ornamenting the chords. However, as mentioned above, because the G and A strings cover basically the same range, making sure the right string plays the right notes is important.
I also have to give a special shout-out to the palm mute articulation, which sounds sweet and kind of jazzy. In addition to the articulations, there are various noises sampled – fingering and release noises which are added to notes, as well as a generous selection of muting noises, percussive sounds, etc. There’s even manual vibrato, though it’s realistically limited. Try to play a note with heavy vibrato, and you’ll get a little vibrato and also the audible noise of the string scratching against the fret. That’s very “ukulelish” indeed.
I did mention earlier that the reentrant tuning makes playing chords one note at a time somewhat complicated. The strumming engine takes care of that quite naturally and is as full-featured as the strum engines in Ample’s acoustic guitars, only, well, with two fewer strings to worry about. That reduces the number of possible strokes, although there’s still a massive library of strumming patterns to choose from. This is very useful for quickly triggering complex strumming patterns, although I wish there were more super-basic stock patterns for simple strumming in tracks where there’s also a lot of other things going in. A lot of the complex patterns are good for songs (or sections) which are just uke and voice, though, and to be fair good ukulele players often like to play complex, busy strumming patterns – maybe because keeping track of the fingerings doesn’t take too much mental effort. Of course, really simple strumming is easily programmed one stroke at a time, but having it available in patterns would be even quicker. A few of the metal patterns are actually quite useful as basic reggae and Latin rhythms.
I have to point out one funny “guitarism” about the GUI – the fingerboard inlays. There’s a dot at the ninth fret, like a guitar would have, not the tenth, as a ukulele should. Given the intended audience of this plugin, that’s fine and less confusing to most people than a tenth-fret dot would be, and Ample also put faint dots on the GUI for their classical guitar, which purists would consider just as “wrong,” but it made me smile. You also get typical electric guitar FX such as distortion and wah, which most people will never use, but there’s no harm in including them, and it’s fun to distort a uke without the howling feedback this would incur in real life.
The ukulele is a fun, simple instrument without a broad range or a lot of acoustic power. Sampling an expensive ukulele with this level of detail might seem like overkill, but it’s nice to have a virtual uke which captures the sound of a skilled studio musician with a quality instrument and has enough realism to be exposed in mixes.
More info: Ample Ethno Ukulele ($119)
Ample Ethno Ukulele Review
Sampling an expensive ukulele with this level of detail might seem like overkill, but it's nice to have a virtual uke which captures the sound of a skilled studio musician with a quality instrument and has enough realism to be exposed in mixes.