It’s fair to say that no one has taken the humble little Hawaiian ukulele as far as Jake Shimabukuro. Though the Oahu-born, fifth-generation Japanese-American is well versed in traditional Hawaiian music, his albums have been highly eclectic affairs, incorporating classical pieces by composers like Bach, Paganini, and Rodrigo; his own tunes, which cross over many styles, from fusion to flamenco; pop ballads spanning the ’30s to the ’80s; and rock chestnuts by the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and Michael Jackson. Shimabukuro is a true virtuoso, fleet-fingered as the best rock guitarists, but also capable of bringing out the beautiful subtleties of his tenor ukulele.
Shimabukuro’s latest is called Peace Love Ukulele, and like most of his albums, it is dominated by his original instrumental compositions, with a couple of beautifully achieved covers thrown in the mix: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and a jaw-dropping solo version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The album was recorded at the beautiful, moderne Avex Honolulu Studios by engineer Milan Bertosa. A Chicago native, Bertosa moved to Hawaii in 1988 and since has worked with many top artists there, including the Ka’au Crater Boys, “Bruddah Iz” (Israel Kamakawiwo’ole), the Brothers Cazimero, and many more.
Asked about his technique for capturing Shimabukuro’s ukulele in the studio, Bertosa notes, “I’ll usually use four mics. The basic layout is a Lawson 251—which is sort of a [Telefunken] 251 clone— in front of the uke, slightly above; directly below that is a Coles 4038. It’s kind of a vertical array—those two mics have different characteristics and the two capsules are hopefully as aligned as possible and pointing down at the uke. Then we have these outrigger mics, left and right—AKG 480Bs with omni caps, and those will sometimes be on a plane with those other mics, and sometimes Jake will grab them and stick them right up against the sound board; it depends on what he wants to hear. That combination of four mics in different blends gets us to where we need to go, in terms of capturing what he may be doing at any point in time. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was recorded in Japan [at Sony Studios] and is actually a Telefunken 251 instead of the Lawson, and they’re DPA 4003 omnis instead of the AKGs.” Bertsoa has his own collection of tube mic pres, including the Kauai-made Gitlronics 356, and others from the defunct Curtis Technology.
Any advice for folks recording ukulele—suddenly quite a trendy instrument in indie circles—with just one mic? “Use the best mic you can find and place it about a foot off the instrument, offset up the neck away from the sound hole and pointing down, because all ukuleles have a ‘bark,’” says Bertosa. “Never point the mic directly at the sound hole because it exaggerates that ‘woofy’ note they all have.”