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Zen & the Art of Bass Tone


What the Bass Brunch Gang Says

Mike Visceglia
When canvassing the bass brunch gang about tone, the general philosophy was that the player needs to control his or her sound as best they can before handing it off to a soundman or engineer. So now that we’ve spoken about instruments and strings, let’s go beyond the bass and talk about cables and DI boxes.

There has been significant progress made in cable technology and an important contribution has been made by Planet Waves. Rob Cunningham, Planet Waves product specialist, explained these advances. By attaching shielding to the ground on the amplifier side of the cable and having dual layers of shielding, Planet Waves has virtually eliminated ground loops and noise interference, creating a transparent signal that is “direction oriented.” I use these cables both live and in the studio and have found them to be first rate. Using what they call “In = Out” technology – essentially using low capacitance – they’ve made cables that transmit the full sonic spectrum. This kind of transparent transmission is obviously critical in the ability to control one’s tone.

Bass brunch-ers, Chris Anderson and Paul Nowinsky (Ricki Lee Jones, Les Paul, Keith Richards), were quite vociferous about the use of the Radial JDV direct box. It is what they call an “honest” DI that will send out to the front of house soundman or recording engineer exactly what you’ve given them. My conversation with Peter Janis, president of Radial Engineering, shed some light on the unique qualities of their JDV direct box. It was explained to me that all DI boxes have one thing in common – they are constructed with negative feedback loops that have been considered an intrinsic part of the design, but negative feedback loops impede signal flow.

While high-end audio companies like Neve boast that they’ve created circuitry that’s “almost free of feedback loops,” Radial’s JDV box has no feedback loops. It also has 30V internal rail voltage, whereas a typical DI box has 3V. An average passive bass puts out about 1V, but an active bass can put out as much as 10-15V. You can easily see how the common DI box can be overloaded, thus diminishing signal flow and consequently, tone. Having an internal rail voltage of 30V eliminates all possibilities of overload. The Radial JDV also has a feature called “drag control” that matches to the impedance of your instrument. So what you have with the Radial JDV is a box that passes your signal and sound with the greatest degree of fidelity and virtually no coloration. It was unanimously agreed that a low-quality DI box could subvert all of the gains made in the preceding tonal chain.

Obviously, there have been great gains in the field of bass amplification. I had a lively discussion with Dave Boonshoft, CEO of Aguilar Amplification and frequent bass brunch attendee about this. I like his idea of thinking of bass amplification as “completing an incomplete instrument.” In other words, the bass guitar doesn’t stand on its own like a saxophone or violin. It needs an amplifier to “complete” it. With that in mind, Aguilar thinks very thoroughly about the subtleties of the instrument, the attack, how well the note opens up and the replication of natural overtones when designing amplifiers and tuning speaker enclosures. It helps that the CEO of the company is a bass player himself.

One of the bigger advancements in amplification, specifically among Aguilar designed amps, has been the development of non-distorting preamps that can faithfully reproduce bass tones below 200Hz. Most consumer oriented preamps produce lowlevel distortion that will color the tone of the bass. Another advance in amplification has been in the area of onboard EQ. With more precise graphic and parametric EQs, one can target frequencies that need to be addressed.

An interesting point was made regarding equalization at the bass brunch by Ivan Bodley, bassist for soul legend Sam Moore. He said that if you invert the normal smiley-face EQ curve to a frown-face curve with 500Hz as the high point, you generally will have a tone that cuts through most live band performances. He and others at the brunch felt that 500Hz seems to be the most important definition point in order for the bass to sit in the right place on the spectrum.

Veteran NYC bassist and bass brunch participant, Frank Canino, made a great point regarding live bass tone. He said that you should shape your tone according to the character of the bass drum. In other words, if the bass drum has a high pitch point, you can warm it up by boosting lower frequencies on your EQ curve. Conversely, if the bass drum is muddy, you can make it more defined by boosting middle and higher frequencies. This is a good rule of thumb to improve the live sound of any rhythm section.

Jeff Kerestes (left) and Brian Murphee contemplate the Zen of tone
Speakers and cabinet designs have also come a long way. When speaking to Larry Ullman, CEO of Euphonic Audio, he talked of great progress in their enclosures with the development of “transmission-line” technology, where the tuned port design eliminates unwanted frequencies as determined by the speaker size, and allows for maximum speaker response time and “air movement.” Euphonic Audio’s goal is to make highly efficient, yet highly portable enclosures. They don’t make cabinets for speakers larger than 12 inches. EA’s idea is to create a lighter speaker cone without sacrificing rigidity, allowing for quick response with durability.

Larry also said that EA uses almost 100 percent neodymium magnets, which create a stronger magnetic field. Aguilar cabinets are much more varied in size and are tuned to take into consideration the specific needs of the style of music that you’re playing. They make enclosures of many sizes, up to their DB810 cabinet for louder players that demand a “stiffer midrange,” according to Dave Boonshoft. Their goal is “coherency” of tone across all styles of playing through the detailed design of the enclosures for their various speaker configurations.

The Zen
As we complete our journey in search of bass tone, let me try to elaborate on what I consider the most important aspect of tone, and yet its most intangible corollary. You can take the most well made bass, most transparent cables, preamp, amp and cabinet combination and have the greatest players all play on the same equipment – yet each will have a completely different tone! Why is this? Why do Jaco, Jamerson, Marcus, Will Lee or Anthony Jackson sound so unique? Nothing can create tone more than the player’s personal relationship to music and his or her instrument. The mind, hands and interpretive skills of the player can literally “draw” tone out of the instrument. A player’s touch can never be adequately analyzed or defined. The years that it takes to perfect the expression of music on the bass in a masterful way is the most complete way to attain great tone. There are no great shortcuts. The technological advancements made in the various aspects that have been discussed are primarily tools that aid in the attainment of tone. Take it to heart and buy all the gear you desire, but don’t try to circumvent the intensive amount of time it takes to learn the art of bass playing. The quick route simply won’t work. Great tone is the possession of the master – go and become one!

I’d like to thank everyone at Premier Guitar and all my bass brunch buddies for allowing me the benefit of their experience and knowledge and for contributing to the community and craft of the bass. I’d also like to thank Dave Boonshoft of Aguilar, Larry Ullman of EA, Rob Cunningham of Planet Waves and Peter Janis of Radial Engineering for taking the time to inform me about their great products. Please check out for more on what I’m up to and for info about the NY bass brunches. Thanks and keep your ears open!

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