The bass is a difficult and challenging instrument as it is; any thing that makes it easier will encourage more people to pick up the instrument and stick with it.
Remembering some of the problems I’ve had in the past in getting a consistent sound and tone for personal practice and public performance, both in the UK and abroad, I decided to spend 2008 experimenting and testing out new products and setups, so that I could be more informed about what will or will not work easily in any given situation
For me, It has been important to consider the whole of the signal chain from strings through to bass through to pickup through to amplifier, and ensure that each of these areas is as good as it can be. Otherwise its like a bad grape in a bottle of wine; it definitely affects the overall flavour. If any one of the areas below delivers a substandard performance, then the overall performance is compromised:
1. Strings / Bridge
2. Body / Tone
4. Head / cab
Strings / Bridge
The string / bridge combination is in my opinion the most important aspect of any bass player’s sound. This determines the amount of work you will have to do to get the sort of sound you want. For the Tradition in Transition tour and album recording, I used The Compass Blue string from Swiss manufacturers velvet ( www.velvetstrings.com ). These strings are very lively, but not necessarily fast; this means that they have a lot of sustain without sounding like and electric bass. The strings themselves have a bright tone, but they are not nasal. I would recommend another string if a player has a lot of bowing to do, but for jazz swinging pizzicato, these strings will take some beating.
Regarding the bridge, I’ve heard of purists complain about adjustable bridges interfering with the tonal quality and projection of an instrument, which I do accept. However, there is no such thing as a standard bridge height; it’s no good having an unimpeded sound at the bridge if the action is too high for you to play more than a couple of choruses! And adjustable bridge allows you to build up level of resistance, whilst beginning with a string height that makes it easy to play. So get an adjustable bridge! It does add £100 – £150 to the overall cost of purchase, but if you are serious about playing the bass, making a nice sound and not hurting yourself, it makes a lot of sense. Fitting an adjustable bridge is a job for a professional luthier, and a good luthier will, out of courtesy also give you good general advice about the care and maintenance of your instrument, which will be a worth a lot more than £150 I can assure you.
Body / Tone
The surprising aspect of the sandarac bass ( www.sandarac.co.uk ) is how even and equal the warmth and resonance are. It is typical for basses to have a majority of sweet notes – notes that sound easily – and then one or two “wolf” notes – notes that don’t resonate as fully as the others, or require a little more effort in order to sustain. On the sandarac bass (Sandy, as I now call her) I was pleasantly surprised to find notes played in thumb position lasting as long and sounding as full as those I played in first or second position. This means it has a feel closer to an electric upright bass, without sounding like one at all; it maintains all the character you would expect an acoustic bass to have. This of course does not happen by accident; from the meticulous attention to the finish, right through to weight and positioning of the sound post, matching of materials for body, soundpost and fingerboard its clear that a lot of consideration goes into the sandarac instrument not only in the manufacture, but also in the after sales setup. Very rarely have I encountered a bass that’s perfectly set up to play at the moment it’s delivered; they all require a degree of customisation. Again, taking this to a professional luthier does cost extra money but it does save so much time and heartache! It’s also a great opportunity to find out about what’s new in the world of bass – and trust me, there are changes every month!
OK, so now I have a bass that sounds great when I practise in my studio; how can I get a room full of people to enjoy that sound?
Steve Laws of Oakdene Music Services ( www.oakdenemusicservices.co.uk ) fitted a prototype MiSi Pickup to my sandarac bass – a The MiSi ( http://www.mi-si.com/ ) is revolutionary battery free pickup system for string instruments including guitar , violin, cello, and, of course bass.
I’ve had the opportunity to road test this pickup now on live gigs and in the studio, alongside other pickups in the same price range, and some that are two to three times more expensive.
As well as the gain level being significantly higher in tests, I noticed that the MiSi pickup seems to be better at mimicking the waveform of an acoustic bass as heard through a microphone. Of course it wont get close to the sound on a microphone, but then a microphone won’t get close to the convenience of this pickup; five seconds to set up, has little or no feedback, and gives full range of response across all the strings ( not just the sound hole at which the mic is pointed )
There is very little coloration, The MiSi pickup send to the amplifier and tone very similar to the sound that I am hearing in my ears at ground zero as it were. Of course, the Little Mark II amplifier has EQ controls, but the whole point of playing an instrument is that you have a good instrument to begin with, that you want other people to hear as is.
The other thing I like about the MiSi is that the pickup itself has an incredible amount of gain, without naming names, I have compared the sound projection with pickups that cost the same amount, and pickups with cost five times as much. And for sound levels it has performed admirably both on paper tests and in the way that the sound made me feel. And the high gain levels mean that I can rely on my amplifier to amplify the sound; I don’t need an extra preamp box to fiddle with. at the speed I play, I just don’t have the time!
Head / cab
I did the pickup tests in conjunction with the Little Mark II amplifier from www.markbass.it, and either a 2x 10 traveller or a 4×10 standard cabinet. I now use the 2×10 for most gigs because it is more than capable of making the already-impressive 500W amplifier sound like so much more, without distorting or colouring the sound… the 4×10 is so powerful that some sound engineers have thought that the bass they hear is coming from the front of house PA!
The lightweight portability of the MarkBass Range is fast becoming the stuff of legend, and the power to weight ratio is simply remarkable. I’ve played venues from the Roundhouse in Camden to the Barbican Hall to the Royal festival Hall, and I have never needed to have either the input gain or the output volume set beyond level 5 out of 10
(The Little Mark II has standard 4-band EQ) plus a very nifty sweep filter with a wide Q - The VPF or Variable Preshape Filter, which boosts the extreme frequencies whilst cutting the midrange. which allows you to characterise the sound in a range of tones from muddy to bright without over emphasising any one tone. In truth, I use this more that I use the 4 band EQ, because it’s easier to hear the difference immediately in a high speed gig situation. To give you an idea of what it can do listen to the start of Daft Punk’s “Around The World” and imagine being able to get that many different tones out of your bass in real time.
The VLE or Vintage Loudspeaker Emulator allows you to recreate the conditions you might have found in older bass amps, where the technology of the time did’nt allow the top end to be so clearly expressed. I play everything from New Orleans swing to late romantic orchestral to full on thrash punk, so it’s very useful for me to be able to play with one switch and instantly recreate and sound from the mowtown era, or from Seattle’s garage bands, or the Dixieland music of the roaring twenties – this feature allows you to do it all.
I’ve now tried this particular combination on a few high profile stages, the most recent being the Brecon and Edinburgh jazz festivals. I also used the strings and the bass for (au naturel!) album recording of Traditions in Transition. What I will say is that this particular setup it has not only passed my own scrutiny with flying colours, but it has exceeded all my expectations for what I could deliver to musicians and an audience as a double bass player.