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Bass Bench: Digital Denial

Not only a game-changer on a technical level, the Kemper Profiler doesn’t even look like the amps we used to know.

They say variety is the spice of life. But how does this apply to musicians?

The last decades brought us a huge wave of digitalization, shaking up many areas of our media and daily lives. But does this digital revolution impact our arsenal of instruments, amps, and effects as deeply as it affects the world around us? Browsing through the ads in gear magazines, it doesn’t appear to. Of course, there is the occasional programmable multi-effect or a modeling amp, but within the last 30 years, our hairstyles have evolved more than most of the products we ogle.

When it comes to performing onstage, we bassists—as well as most guitarists—mainly remain in our very own analog world, though some digital gadgets are slowly insinuating themselves into our gigging hardware. In contrast, digitalization has completely altered the recording scene—something most of us welcomed, as it dramatically lowered the prices of recording equipment, putting it into the hands of nearly everyone. (How this democratization has impacted the overall quality of recorded music is another topic. But for now, let’s just say it’s a reminder that a “recording engineer” is a skilled professional, and doing the job well still requires knowledge and expertise.)

The digital era for stringed instruments started with programmable amps in the early ’90s. “Programmable” only meant they were able to memorize different amp settings and recall them later via MIDI. At the time, I jumped on that train with a programmable bass preamp and soon found myself with dozens of more-or-less differentiated sounds, but more on that in a moment.

I now realize that instead of infinite options, I prefer one great sound I can alter by varying the balance between pickups or with a quick twist of an active onboard preamp.

The next huge step occurred toward the end of the ’90s. Amp modeling simulated the character of an amp or effect using digital signal processors (DSPs) and mathematical models. At first, it was rather easy to distinguish between the original and the simulation. But within the last two decades, refined mathematical models, better DSPs, and increased computational power helped modeling evolve to its current level of quality and success.

But in 2012, the moment was ripe for a game-changer, and this manifested in a new tool that shook up the guitar scene: the Kemper Profiler digital amp. While at first directed at guitarists only, Kemper later added a profile library for bassists. Note that both bassists and guitarists are using the same hardware. The man behind the Profiler, Christoph Kemper, isn’t even a guitar or bass player, though he does work as a music producer.

Here’s why amp profiling is principally different from amp modeling: When modeling, a manufacturer makes a tonal analysis of the original amp or cabinet and converts it into a mathematical model that runs this simulation on your device and its DSPs. Using a profiling amp with profiles drawn from the manufacturers’ public library isn’t that different from modeling, but things get really interesting once musicians profile their own gear and make it publicly available. Profiling is like precisely capturing the tonal DNA of your personal equipment at a specific setting. It analyses how a piece of gear is altering the initial input in all its acoustic parameters.

The possibilities are endless, as one can profile amps, cabinets, effects, or even DI boxes. Once the device is profiled, you’re provided with tools to either work on the data or create new combinations of different profiled parts. Do you have a super-rare amp or vintage signal chain? You can now profile it and leave that finicky or valuable original at home. Modeling amps once promised to be the ultimate all-in-one device; the profiling version might be able to fulfill that promise.

So is this finally Bass 2.0? In a way it is, but—as always—it’s not for everyone, and I include myself in that latter category.

Here’s what happened to my first programmable preamp: Shortly after getting started, I’d created close to 50 different settings for a two-hour show. Though I knew I was probably the only person to hear the differences in my presets, rehearsals felt more like a programming competition with the keyboard player. I had to do it because I could. Occasional changes in the setlist might force me to add presets, but other than that I thought the unit worked okay. But when someone asked me to check out one of the first Glockenklang preamps, I had a change of heart. I heard fully analog, solidly designed electronic circuitry with no gimmickry—just a clear, dynamic, and full-range bass sound in all its glory.

The programmable preamp went out the door the very next day, while said Glockenklang is still with me. I now realize that instead of infinite options, I prefer one great sound I can alter by varying the balance between pickups or with a quick twist of an active onboard preamp. As a tech enthusiast, I’d get lost in the endless possibilities offered by a programmable unit, and would consequently spend my time hunting and collecting sounds, while losing all focus on playing and the fun it brings me.

Which type of player are you?