Bass players – this scenario is probably familiar: You show up at a gig, meet the sound tech, and are pointed to the direct box du jour. Sometimes you get a nice box, but equally as often, you’re handed a mystery DI that’s all dinged up and covered with a layer of duct tape.
Even though you'd rather rely on the DI output built into your amp, many sound techs avoid them because the signals tend to vary from amp to amp.
With the sound tech’s box, you might get a usable sound to the house if the tech know his stuff, but when you run from the 1/4” jack out to your amp – youch! It’s sometimes impossible to get decent tone from your beloved axe. You can chalk this up to a cheap DI, but sometimes your tone gets messed up because of passive loading on the jumper connection. With a passive bass, you’re better off with an active DI.
The frustrating part is that a DI box has a simple job to do – convert the high-impedance signal from your bass to a low-impedance signal that’s suitable for plugging into the soundboard via a mic cable.
With this DI dilemma in mind – having encountered it many times on gigs – I set out to find some bass-specific active DI boxes, ones that provide a bit more than an XLR output to the house PA and a passive link to your amp. It turns out that this is a great time for bassists seeking a reliable, high-quality solution, with lots of good choices out there.
This article introduces you to four bass DI’s, each with a little something extra for tone shaping possibilities: the Seymour Duncan Paranormal Bass Direct Box, the MXR M-80 Bass D.I.+, the SansAmp Programmable Bass Driver DI and the Radial BassBone Tonebone. The street price of these boxes – each a high-quality unit – ranges from $140 to $230. All four should be available (or can be ordered) from your local shop or online retailer. There are others to consider, too, but I thought these four would round out a versatile group that demonstrates the range of DI's-with-something-extra out there.
I’ve played out with some of these – and other – DI boxes. And although comparing them in different gig settings with different sound techs would be one way to go about it, I really wanted to gauge the four boxes with all things being equal.
To get the skinny on these boxes, I plugged my sunburst/maple/black-block ’74 Jazz Bass (with Fender flatwounds) into them one at a time, each run via their 1/4” output into a Workingman’s 12 combo amp. I also ran the DI signal of each into a Behringer mixer and through a pair of M-Audio studio monitors.
Bring on the Essentials
The Seymour Duncan Paranormal Bass Direct Box has the essential ingredients to get the job done. It’s a solid metal box with a big rubber pad on the bottom. With the Paranormal (my vote for the best pedal name), you get three basic sounds without turning a knob during the gig: bypassed, preamp with EQ, and slap contour.
In bypass mode, the pedal incorporates what most good pedals do – true bypass where the unaltered sound of your bass goes straight to your amp while offering a nice DI signal to the board. As expected, this worked just fine, with a high-quality switch that did its job reliably.
The preamp with EQ mode worked great, but it is especially cool if you play a passive bass – it provides the sounds of an active bass with three bands of quasi-parametric EQ (hence the “para” part of the name). All three bands (bass: 30hz, midrange: 650hz, treble: 5.2khz) have 12 db of cut and boost for plenty of tone shaping. The signal was low noise and added a nice bit of punch to the Jazz Bass with the bass control bumped up a bit.
Finally, for you slappers, the Paranormal has a switchable slap EQ curve that adds extra bottom while scooping out some of the midrange – just the thing for gigs where you play both styles and don’t want to have to tweak your EQ between songs. The slap curve goes on top of your basic EQ settings, so that you get the same basic tone and level, only now it’s slap-friendly.
On the back of the Paranormal is a little black button (unlabeled!) that lifts the ground of your DI send if there’s a ground loop causing that annoying buzz through the house sound system.
If you’re just looking for the essentials, the Paranormal offers a hefty box and sturdy knobs with useful tone shaping and a nice DI for about $140.
A couple of small caveats. First, changing the battery requires removing four screws to open the box (but you can also run off 9 volt power). Second, if the pedal isn’t turned on when you plug it in, you’ll hear a pretty big zap through your amp the first time you hit the Bypass switch. That’s easy to work around, though – just plug in both the guitar cable and the amp cable before connecting into the amp.
Take the Essentials, Add Distortion
The MXR M-80 Bass D.I.+ brings the features of the Paranormal (minus the slap contour) and adds gated distortion plus a few other handy options. Once again, the M-80 is built into a hefty metal box with sturdy knobs, as well as a three band EQ – the manual doesn’t mention the EQ center points, but whatever they are, they get the job done with a broad sweep and a musical sound.
A nice addition is a level control for the preamp’s clean sound – it could be used to add a bit of boost for solos. For example, you could run the box in bypass mode for regular playing, then switch to bring in the EQ/boost for solos or louder songs. The M-80 doesn’t stop there, though – it includes a “color” switch for a scooped sound with a big bottom end (but it’s not the kind of switch you can reach with your toe – gotta bend down).
The second half of the M-80 is its gated distortion. This is switchable with a second sturdy button on the right side. When you turn on distortion, the pedal automatically adds the color switch – that way, your distorted sound still has plenty of bottom. It also bypasses the clean volume setting but retains your EQ settings. It does have a distortion volume level, though.
Between a blend knob and a gain knob, the M-80 can put out quite a range of sounds, from a slightly dirty tone to a heavy grind. If you turn up the gain just a bit and blend in moderate distortion, you’ll get a sort of edgy sound. Crank the gain, crank the gate’s trigger, turn the blend all the way up – you’ll get a veritable chainsaw coming through your amp and into the PA.
The gate is a really cool feature, a key to making heavy distortion manageable. Essentially, because distortion is accomplished through high gain settings, you’ll get a lot of noise as distortion increases – but the gate takes care of that, silencing the noise when you stop playing. Because the gate is variable, you can set it up for varying durations of the distortion effect.
You can power the M-80 with the usual nine volt battery or wallwart. But this pedal also accepts phantom power from the PA – very handy for reliable power without the clutter of a wallwart.
One last handy feature of the M-80 is a parallel output to send your signal to a tuner. But there’s no tuner mute function to take full advantage of that link, so it’s a bit less handy.
In all, the MXR M-80 Bass D.I.+ is a nicely designed box – bulletproof, as the manual says – that includes clean logical controls and good musicality. If you’re looking for distortion, the M-80 can let you bring one less pedal to the gig, too. Expect to pay about $140 for the M-80.
Can’t Make Up Your Mind?
If you’re looking for more tailored versatility for your sounds, the SansAmp Programmable Bass Driver DI might be just the thing. It offers three footswitchable settings, plus bypass, for a total of four tones in one pedal. Unlike the first two DI pedals discussed here, each setting is discrete, rather than adding a second variation (slap contour, distortion) to a base sound.
There’s a bit more of a learning curve to the SansAmp, but not a big one really. Similar to the other boxes, you dial in your tone with the Bass, Treble, and Presence controls and get your gain or dirt with the Drive (like tube amp overdrive) and Blend (the amount of tube emulation). Unlike the other two pedals, you can actually save your settings for instant recall – just double-tap on one of three preset switches, and voila! the setting is saved.
The manual offers some 16 helpful sample settings to get you started, too. The Flip Top setting, for example, brings the drive up half way, cuts the bass and treble (to push the mids), adds a dose of presence, goes full out with tube emulation, and then brings up the level to make up for lost gain. The SVT Style, in contrast, pushes the bass a bit, cuts a bit of treble, eases up the presence and tapers off the gain just a little. There’s a big sound contrast between the two, and both are convincing emulations.
On opposite ends of the sound spectrum, settings like King’s X and Crimson push a lot of distortion via the Drive knob, while Full Range/Clean provides a useful setting for piezo pickups (and the 1 meg input impedance is fine for that, too).
With no midrange setting, you might pause a moment, but as the manual explains, you can increase midrange by reducing bass and treble, and vice-versa.
The SansAmp offers several options that provide amazing versatility. Drive a power amp? No problem. Go straight into your bass amp’s input? That’s fine, too. Bypass your amp’s EQ via the effects return? Can do! Go into the sound board without an amp? Good to go!
Some of the other pedals offer a few of these options, but the SansAmp’s gain settings plus boost button can match your pedal to all of those tasks with ease.
You might wonder at first how to keep your settings straight. After all, there is only one set of knobs, which might not match your current presets. But finding a preset is actually simple. When you turn one of the knobs, the channel light begins to blink. When you’re close to the preset position, the light blinks rapidly. As you get farther away, the blinking slows down. You know you’re in the right place when the light becomes steady.
Like the M-80, the SansAmp can be powered in three different ways – battery, wallwart, or phantom.
Two other push buttons can come in handy for adjusting output levels. First, the XLR Out Pad provides a 20 db cut to the soundboard if your signal is too hot. Next, the 1/4” Out Boost goes the other way, helping match the SansAmp’s level to your amp’s inputs.
About the only thing really lacking from the SansAmp is a tuner output. Otherwise, there are a lot of bells and whistles all packaged thoughtfully into one tough metal box.
If you’re the kind of player who needs widely varying sounds out of one bass during a gig or recording session, the SansAmp might be just the one – fat tube sounds, meaty distortions, deep dub – all at the click of a button. The SansAmp is a bit spendier than the first two pedals at about $210, but it can do some things that few others can.
A Bigamous Bassist?
If you’re not happy with just one bass at a gig – say you need a 5’er and an electric upright like I do – the Radial BassBone Tonebone is just the thing. Unlike the other pedals, the Bassbone can manage the EQ and level settings for two basses. But it can also switch one bass between two EQ settings.
This is a really versatile pedal. Channel 1 has a neutral bypass setting, but it can also be switched into either fat or scooped EQ curves. Channel 2 has High (5.6khz), Mid (470hz) and Low (75hz) EQ knobs with a good amount of cut and boost for each.
The BassBone’s Level knobs take a bit of time to understand. Unlike the SansAmp and the M-80, the BassBone’s level controls are cut only – essentially a level trim rather than variable gain. At full clockwise, the output matches that of your bass.
Also unlike the other three pedals, there is no effect bypass setting. Think of it as switching-with-EQ rather than as an on/off effect pedal and you’ll understand what the BassBone does.
Besides a tuner out, the BassBone has a switchable effects loop to keep potentially noisy pedals out of your signal chain until they’re really needed. But that same switch can be toggled to kick in a signal boost instead. (Or even both an effect and a boost at once.) It would be nice to have both possibilities available separately, but there is already a lot going on with six knobs, three sliders, two stomp switches, five jacks, an XLR output, and a power input (this unit runs only on a special 15 volt power supply – no battery option).
The effects loop is a little unusual to set up, but it’s not daunting. Rather than using send and return jacks like on most amps, the BassBone uses an insert jack to save space. Plug in a stereo 1/4” plug with two mono 1/4” plugs attached – I got one at my local music store, right off the rack. The tip plug goes to a pedal’s input jack, the ring plug goes to the pedal’s output jack (notice ring = return?).
Given the tuner output jack, I thought it was an oversight not to have a tuner mute, but the manual shows that even that is possible with a little bit of hacking. Just plug a plain 1/4” plug into the effects loop, set the Boost button to the effects loop, and there you go (the manual recommends skipping the barrel and trimming off the soldering tabs for a smaller profile).
As with the other three pedals, the BassBone is a quality device with a sturdy metal box and top-notch switches. If you play doubling gigs, this will be just your thing – it’s handy to have your levels and EQs preset rather than tweaking the amp between every bass change. The BassBone is the most expensive of these four boxes, going for about $230.
So…Which One to Pick?
The good news is that all four of these bass DI pedals are quality devices, both in construction and in sound. The big difference is the feature set. If you just need some tone shaping and a nice DI, the Seymour Duncan Paranormal is a great choice. Distortion, plus EQ, plus DI? Go for the MXR. Lots of sound shaping possibilities? That’s the SansAmp’s forte. Doubling? The BassBone – while not its only trick – is ready for the job.
So as you think ahead to the big festival gigs in spring and summer and you remember that duct-tape-special DI the sound guy gave you, keep these four pedals in mind. Any one of them can make your experience with a sound tech much more predictable, so that you can concentrate on what you’re really there for – the music!
Dan Berkowitz, the "Dean of the Blues Bass," has played electric and upright bass since the early '70s. He plays regularly with The Tornadoes - a blues, swing and R&B outfit that performs throughout the Midwest. Dan also plays acoustic blues, jazz and the occasional pit orchestra gig. Dan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org