Getting To Know Your Bass Amp, Part 2
A few months ago, I began discussing the payoffs of bass-player amp knowledge by addressing the importance of matching your cabs to
your amp’s rating. This month, we’ll take a look
at a few more key elements in getting to know
your bass amp and keeping it happy.
Ditch Those Cheesy Cables!
On two separate occasions, friends have
complained to me of a faulty effects pedal.
In one case, the pedal kept cutting out. In
the other instance, the effects loop was putting out only a weak effected sound. In both
cases, though, the problem was a cheesy
cord. We spend tons of money on a decent
instrument, a feature-packed amp, and some
awesome sounding cabs—and then sometimes scrimp on the cables we need to connect everything together. Ditch those cheesy
cables; spend a bit of extra money and buy
some cables you can rely on. That doesn’t
have to mean top-of-the-line, magically
blessed boutique wires (although they are
nice!), but just something with a brand name
and decent strain relief at the ends.
While you’re at it, be sure you know your
instrument cables from your speaker cables.
Although many bass amps have gone to the
ultra-dependable Speakon plug for speaker
connections, many of us are still turning to
cables with 1/4" plugs on both ends for
speaker connections as well as for hooking up guitars and effects. The problem is,
speaker cables and guitar cables do their
specific jobs well, but are pretty crummy for
the opposite use. There are two ways to tell
which kind of cable you have. The first way
just involves literacy: read the cable’s jacket
for a label as either instrument or speaker
cable. The second way is to look under the
hood by unscrewing the plug’s cover. If you
see two separate insulated wires side by side,
it’s a speaker cable. If there’s one thin wire
emerging from a braided shield, you’ve got
an instrument cable.
A Tricky Balancing Act…
The key words here are gain staging: the
way you balance the levels of all the settings
on your bass amp. In the old-school days of
tube bass amps, the plan was easy—max the
master and then dial your channel gain for the
best clean sound. Or, turn down the master
and push the channel level to add some dirt
to your sound. Guitarists playing through tube
amps still do this. But for a solid-state bass
amp, maxing out the master (which nearly
every bass amp has) just adds hiss and noise
to your sound. To set the level on most bass
amps, start with the tone controls all set flat
and the Master around noon. Next, bring up
the input Gain. Usually somewhere between
10 o’clock and 1 o’clock works pretty well,
and many amps have an LED that flashes
when an input goes into clipping. On bass,
input clipping is not a good thing, because
it introduces ugly distortion at a point in the
amp where you don’t want it. Generally, you
bring up the input level until the clip light
flashes on the loudest or lowest notes and
then turn it down just a bit.
We spend tons of money
on a decent instrument, a
feature-packed amp, and
some awesome sound-
ing cabs—and then
sometimes scrimp on the
cables we need to con-
nect everything together.
Once set for a particular bass, you’ll leave the
channel input alone. That’s where the Master
control comes into play—setting your actual
volume. By using this approach to gain staging, you’ll get the cleanest, most solid bass
sound. Internal and external effects can then
add any grit or distortion you may want.
Moderate that EQ!
Your amp’s EQ controls are also part of
gain staging. Sometimes you push up the
Bass tone control to get more oomph, but
then you lose clarity, so the Midrange gets
turned up… and then the Treble, to bring
back the edge. Essentially, you’ve just moved
one gain stage of the amp, possibly adding
noise, distortion and volume that you didn’t
really want. When you’re having trouble cutting through the mix of the band, there’s a
temptation to boost the Bass. In many rooms,
though, that’s just a “mud” knob that sends
everybody else to their Volume control without actually improving the definition of your
notes. Instead, when you’re not able to hear
yourself well enough, reach for a Midrange
control. Although reading owner’s manuals is
passé, it’s good to look up the center point
of the midrange knob—ideally, you’ll want a
control set around 500–800Hz.
A graphic EQ control can do the same thing,
but avoid just spiking up one slider. Instead,
find a slider in the 500–800 range and raise
that as a center of a smooth curve up and
down. What you’ve done is created a frown
shape on your graphic EQ. Many players
automatically go to the opposite, the smiley
face EQ that scoops out the middle frequencies while boosting the boom-and-clank parts
of your tonal range. For most settings, this
produces a tone that sounds powerful on its
own but disappears in the mix. When that
happens, it’s back to the Master Volume for
yet more volume, and then audio stew gets
even uglier. In all, use EQ in moderation.
Think of it like seasoning on a meal: use too
much, or the wrong kind, and the end product is not very tasty.
So there you have it, some of the key aspects
of really getting to know your bass amp.
Give these ideas a try. And read your owner’s
manual to learn the specs of the inputs, outputs, and controls. You’ll be surprised by how
much you can improve your sound.
Dan is a professor by day and a bass player when the sun
goes down. He plays both electric and upright bass in
blues, jazz and pit settings.