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Make Friends With Your Amp!

August 15, 2011

We spend hours learning and practicing bass, not to mention fussing for hours over strings and accessories, and agonizing over pickup and/or mic choices. However, the amplifier is often overlooked; we plug it in, twiddle the knobs a little bit, and that’s often the end of it. It’s important to understand every component of the sound you project. I’ve heard a lot of amplified basses; and sounding “bassy” = sounding “muddy.” Mumble, rumble, blobby-blobby, thud, thud is not a good bass sound.

The whole point of the following exercise is: when you are playing and something just doesn’t sound quite right, you will instinctively know which knob to adjust. This is a valuable talent well worth learning. I could use more technical jargon and scientific precision in this article, but we’re going for general knowledge and results in these exercises.

Familiarize Yourself with what tone controls actually do
Most amps feature “tone” controls labeled Bass, Middle, and Treble; each control a band of frequencies. “EQ” (equalization) is a common way to refer to these tone controls. You are probably quite aware of the effect twisting those knobs has when you’ve adjusted a radio or stereo unit. Turning the bass knob all the way up and the treble all the way down has the effect of listening to a song that’s playing in the next room with the door closed!

Tone controls split the spectrum of sound into chunks, sort of like the piano keyboard approximations in the image to the right (not precise, the drawing is only to illustrate the concept). Those controls let you boost or cut those frequency bands. The other drawing is the frequencies of some notes on the upright bass fingerboard. Speaking generally, the lowest (bass) control usually affects the frequencies around the fundamental of the notes we play on our basses. But, for example, when you play the open A string on your bass, you hear a lot more than just that original note (the fundamental). There are overtones (also known as harmonics) above that note that give it character and clarity. Severely cutting down the middle and high frequencies down (by turning down the midrange, treble or whatever your amp has) reduces your amp’s delivery of those harmonics and can hurt clarity. Note: If you have a graphic equalizer with more than just “low-mid-high,” those sliders are just further splitting the frequencies into finer slices – low lows, middle lows, high lows, low mids, middle mids, etc., so you have even more precise control over the total sound.

Turn Theory Into Practice and analytically listen to the effect of each knob
If the acoustic sound of the bass is louder than the amp, you won’t be able to evaluate the amplified sound, so let’s get the amp up in the air so the speaker is close to ear level. Put it on a couple milk crates on top of a table, a wooden file cabinet — anything that is a solid base for the speaker, but won’t make distracting sounds when it vibrates. Turn the amp up to “Goldilocks Volume” — not too loud, not too soft… just right. Too loud, and you’ll overwhelm your senses and screw up your perception.

My recommendation for learning your amp is to play the same series of notes up and down the fingerboard, repeating as you make adjustments to the amp’s controls, studying the differences. Before you start, set the amp to “flat” — turning all the tone knobs to the middle, and locating any graphic equalizer sliders in the middle, too, so there are no boosts or cuts to any frequencies.

You can start with the highest frequency control (Treble, Highs, the right-most Graphic EQ slider), turning it all the way down, then perhaps to 9 o’clock, straight up, 3 o’clock, then all the way up. Listen carefully to the resulting changes in your sound (good and bad), and take your time! Let me repeat: the whole point of this exercise is, when you are playing and something just doesn’t sound quite right, you will instinctively know which knob(s) to adjust.

Throughout this exercise, pay particular attention to midrange, low midrange, and upper bass controls. That’s where acoustic bass lives, and the midrange frequencies can provide desirable texture and character. It’s those controls that help to define the notes and tone of your particular bass. Don’t try to do this all at once. You need to take breaks from this activity for the best results, as we all can suffer ear fatigue. However, once you spend significant time with your amp, you’ll have a better feel for its capabilities, and the experience may also give you some new perspective on “your sound.”

Create Your Own “Reference Sound” to make gig sound adjustments less of a headache
I suggest that you consider developing what I call a Reference Sound. My own definition of Reference Sound is where I set my preamp and amp controls when I first walk into a new situation. I know how it should sound from past experience, and it’s a lot easier to start from a sound that you know “works” most of the time. Once onstage, you can then make minor tweaks, to adjust for unique room and stage acoustics. That’s where learning your amp pays off — you will instinctively know which knob to twist to quickly and easily fine-tune your sound to the stage and room. The controls of my Euphonic Audio iAMP (mostly used for bass guitar in my case) are far more extensive, so I actually took a photo of my Reference Sound settings and taped it to the inside of my rack case. Most of my on-gig adjustments then only involve tiny adjustment to bass and/or boosting midrange for clarity.

Let me make one final suggestion. Recognize that, like your bass, the exact sound coming from the speaker down there on the floor is not going to reach your audience over one hundred feet away intact. Someone standing right in front of your acoustic instrument would hear much more “detail”, such as string sound, which is combined with and complements the sound from the body. By the time that gets across and bounces around the room, the higher frequencies can get “lost in the sauce.” So, when you develop your reference sound, please give consideration to keeping some of that midrange detail that helps define the character of your own bass.

Next time, we’ll talk about learning advanced features that you’ll find on many amplifiers and preamps and how they can further help your sound…

— Bob

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