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Side by Side: Roland VB-99 and GR-33B Bass Synthesizers

VB-99 Patches with Mark Harris

VB-99 Testing the Patches
To evaluate using the VB-99 live, I recruited bassist Mark Harris, who does a wide-range of gigging in Los Angeles, and well as international touring with the band Venice. Initially, we checked out the VB-99 in a studio situation, and there was certainly quite a bit of “wow” factor. Mark immediately remarked that the tracking was excellent, but the VB-99 is more of an extreme signal processor, and does some heavy-duty DSP work on the raw string sound from the bass, rather than simply tracking the pitch of a note and triggering a sound.

We listened as the VB-99 reproduced a range of sounds from upright acoustic bass tones to grungy, prog-rock Rickenbacker bass, to over-the-top saturated lead guitar. Like all synthesizers, whether bass, guitar, or keyboard, part of the secret to success is knowing how to play to the sound. It may be novel to play a bass line from a Ramones tune with an upright bass patch, as I did, but if you want to convince somebody you have an acoustic bass, a walking bass line works much better.

On the gig the VB-99 was slightly less distinct. In this case, “the gig” was a noisy bar situation, always a place without much subtlety. We realized that maximizing the potential of the VB-99 might require something beyond a typical bass amp. A lot of the detail in the sound that was so obvious through studio monitors was lost with a bass amp. The VB-99 does have global settings that include line output, and amp output with and without a tweeter. But using a full-range system with little coloration, like a keyboard amp, seems to yield the best results.

To VB-99 or not to VB-99
Unlike guitar players with their vast expanse of floor adornments, bass players seem to do fine with (maybe) one pedal and a decent amp. In that case, it may be hard to justify the expense of a rig like the VB-99 and GK-3B. Not that justification has anything to do with buying cool new gear. But for the bass player in a demanding cover band situation, the VB-99 could easily be a lifesaver. Rather than a rack of basses, a player could focus on one or two premium instruments and use the VB-99 to recreate the necessary tones. And the VB-99 does more than just turn a Squier P-bass into a Les Paul, it also simulates a wide variety of amps, cabinets, mic’ing configurations, and just about every Boss effect ever made. Plus reverb and delay. Did I mention the unit has pitch-to-MIDI output as well?

Mostly, the VB-99 is still all about potential. While it’s certainly very cool to instantly switch from Music Man, to Upright, to SH-101 synth bass, the VB-99 easily suggests new techniques and approaches. I would love to see a solo bass set using only the VB-99 and a looper. After all, it only takes one imaginative player to write a killer riff with the VB-99 to change the way people think about “synth bass.”