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Framing the Debate
I live in Nashville, and it’s an exciting and wonderful hotbed of musical activity and community. It’s not unusual to run into a great player or artist at the grocery store or gym. In certain neighborhoods, it seems like a big-name player or producer occupies every other table at the coffee shop. I ran into a friend of mine at the gym a little while back who plays for an über-popular artist. He was telling me his plan of creating a Stonehenge-like formation of three Ampeg 8x10 cabs at one of his shows. A few months later, when I ran into him again, he said the artist had taken all the amps offstage. I asked if it was, in fact, because of the hugeness of said Spinal Tap rig that all the cabs were moved, but he said no, it was just the trend. (And, sadly, he never constructed his amp monument.)
This bit of information got me thinking. With the growing popularity of in-ear monitors and the ease of running direct, it seems that more players are opting for the “no-rig” mentality. I am from the old school, where I love to have air moving and my amp where I can get to it and feel its impact. Of course, on bigger stages that doesn’t really matter, because my rig is so far away. So here is the debate: amp or no amp?
”Why, Yes, I’ll Have an Amp” . . .
We are creatures of habit. We started playing in the bedroom or garage on a small amp, then moved to a bigger amp, and then had visions of a really big amp with a wall of speakers behind us. Little did we know that there were tricks and dummy cabs involved with some of our adolescent fantasies. Strangely, we still pushed forward and continue, to this day, to carry an amp around. And one that is usually too big.
But this is the bass, right? We’re supposed to rattle the rafters and shake behinds into submission. As players, it’s our job to move air and fill up the room with our 40 Hz goodness. Plus, many of us are working the clubs where our amp has to be there because the monitors are nonexistent and the PA simply doesn’t handle what we offer. Plus, the drummer needs a place to rest his drink.
Seriously, though, having an amp onstage is a blessing. Every room is different, so having the ability to EQ and adjust certain aspects of your rig is priceless. In my opinion, unless you are playing huge venues, the audience in the first few rows misses out when the amps are not onstage. I remember being hit in the face with the sound from Richie Sambora’s stacks when my band played the same festival as Bon Jovi. The tone and feeling change when the amps are somewhere else and there are flown arrays or front fills trying to compensate. It doesn’t always work.
. . . vs. “Why, No, My Amp Stays Home”
Can you imagine walking into a gig with just your bass? I mean, you could sit back and just smile at the B3 player as he loads in his Leslie cab! How wonderful would that be? Trends are moving that way, thanks to things like sweet-sounding DIs and micro-effects systems. There’s no more bulky anything to carry. And the sound is just as good, right?
Well, the truth may be hard to swallow. My buddy who started all this rattling in my head told me that he was going to run three lines direct and blend them with different modules to get his sound. And let me remind you that they are using in-ear monitors in arenas and stadiums, so the sound he hears will be exactly the same every night. I imagine that if you find the right DI or effects device, then your sound won’t change either. And by cutting stage volume, you allow the PA to actually do its job and amplify the band, not amplify around the band. Plus, with an amp out of the picture, you just saved room in the car for the guitar player’s gear.
My two cents: I am for the amp. Even though we are “on ears,” I still want the amp. I stand in front of my rig for nothing more than personal indulgence, a pleasant reassurance that all is right with the world. Air is necessary for life—and bass as well. But my opinion doesn’t matter in this one. You have some bullet points laid out for you, so the rest is up to you and what best suits your needs.
Even if you aren’t changing your rig because of this column, hopefully you will jump into the debate. That will be the fun part. For online readers, there’s an open comment forum under this article, where you can debate back and forth to your heart’s content. Or, if you just want to chime in, that’s fine too. If you are reading this from the printed page, then start the discussion with your band. You could be very surprised at the results. Either way, keep playing—and keep it simple.
Steve Cook is currently fortifying himself in the back of a tour bus, awaiting the low-end revolution. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org until the coast is clear.