April 2001

Acoustic-Electric Bass Ball

In dealing with the notion of bass sounds and bass amplification in jazz, not being a proficient upright player (nor having a righteous upright on hand as a ready reference point), some months ago I turned my attention toward an emerging new category. Acoustic-electric bass guitars are popping up more and more as an alternative reference point for combo playing, and in the course of checking out some interesting new axes, I found myself exploring some traditional and decidedly modern means of amplifying the sound.

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Mesa Boogie Buster Bass 200
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Acoustic Image Contra
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Yamaha BEXC Acoustic-Electric Bass Guitar
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Renaissance Guitars RB-5-FL
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Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Bass Strings
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Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Bass Strings

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Two new combos I tested include a modern all-tube design from Mesa/ Boogie and a radical little solid-state mini from the folks at Acoustic Image, each of which in its own way represented the yin and yang of modern bass amplification. To assist me in the evaluations I called upon many fine instrumentalists, most significantly bassist/guitarist Jerome Harris, a veteran of the jazz wars with Sonny Rollins, Ran Blake, Julius Hemphill, Amina Claudine Myers and Marty Ehrlich, and a trailblazer in the use of acoustic-electric bass guitars, as he demonstrates on his superb audiophile jazz recording Rendezvous (Stereophile).

The Mesa/Boogie Buster Bass 200 1 x 15 Combo represents this trendsetting amplifier company’s first attempt at a truly portable, all-in-one unit, and as such, while it is a bit on the hefty side, as a rule the laws of physics require big transformers, large power supplies, heavy magnet structures, a big cabinet and massive reserves of power to not only accurately reproduce bass frequencies, but to do so with the kind of instantaneous dynamics, frequency extension, timbral focus and fast transient response that the Buster does. To put the Mesa through its paces I employed my Fender Precision Bass, a 1978 model with an ash body and a maple neck, fitted out with DR Hi-Beam Stainless Steel Bass Strings, a heavy round wound set (.050-.070-.090-.110) constructed upon a round core resulting in a very flexible feel with mellow, articulate highs. The bass is set up with fairly high action, the better to dig in with a percussive attack, and as such, I was quite surprised by the transient response of the Buster, which compared favorably with more powerful solid state models, but then with six 6L6 output tubes pumping 200 watts of power, there is no ceiling on this amp’s performance parameters.

Like Mesa’s guitar amps, the Buster’s variable tone controls (treble, midrange, bass) act not only as traditional frequency contours, but offer users an extra level of control over both the amp’s gain structure and its basic voicing. Thus the amount of treble you dial in has a cumulative effect on the relative voicing of the midrange and bass controls, so that in tandem with the high frequency driver’s cut and boost adjustments, the amp can easily be voiced for a round articulate retro sound or for the fast, snappy immediacy favored by modern bass guitarists. Likewise, the seven-band graphic equalizer let me set up two distinctive rhythm and lead bass voicings, and while the EQ is very effective for scooping out frequencies (such as the midrange for percussive thumb slapping effects), I found it most useful for jacking up an extra level of gain, either with extra high-end presence for low-end heft. And no matter what the desired tonal response, the bass reflex loading of the Buster’s original EVM 15L speaker offered an exceptional balance between low end slam and the snap-crackle-pop of multiple 10" enclosures.

Still, while this amp’s speed and dynamic headroom is commensurate with that of the best solid-state combos I’ve played, the most compelling aspect of the Buster Bass 200’s performance, that sets it apart from the pack, is the richness and detail of its tubed midrange. There is a warmth and timbral detail to each note, a degree of distinction between individual notes in a chord, a level of harmonic complexity and a sense of tonal liquidity that is simply intoxicating. This amp really makes you want to play. Nor do you lose this extended level of detail and distinction at low volumes; yet when you need to crank it up, the Buster conveys a feeling of unlimited headroom and reserves of power. In short, the Buster Bass 200 puts out like a baby Ampeg SVT, although the entire combo weighs less than an SVT head alone, and with a built in Tone Luggage Transport System (with detachable handle and built in casters) for relative ease of movement, and a shockingly reasonable retail list of only $1,299 ($999 for the head alone), this combo offers bassists an unprecedented level of dynamic versatility and tonal distinction.

Of course, for some bassists, the Buster Bass 200 is much more amp than they would generally require for the smaller-scale acoustic venues that comprise the bulk of their work. Yet for all the tonal depth and detailing of vacuum tubes, what many bassists—especially upright players—really crave is clean, uncolored power and a ruler-flat frequency response over the entire tonal range with which to accurately reproduce acoustic parameters. Well, pilgrims, your search has ended and I suspect that somewhere down the road, acoustic-oriented jazz musicians—bassists and guitarists alike—will be augmenting their squadron of portable Ampegs, PolyTones, Walter Woods and Gallien-Kruegers to include the Acoustic Image Contra ($699, and an additional $349 for the Contra EX speaker extension cabinet).

You’ve all heard that children’s ditty about the little engine that could, right? Well, wait until you hear this little MF! Weighing in at a paltry 27 pounds, this 14" H x 16" D combo is one of the most amazing solid-state combos I’ve ever heard. The Contra couples a 300-watt class D switching amp with a well-damped closed box speaker enclosure featuring a down-firing 10" woofer, which crosses over to a forward firing 5" midrange at around 800 Hz. The Contra is way more hi-fi than many of us are used to for acoustic instrument amplification, and those upright bassists looking for a truly clean machine will be astonished by the Contra’s performance.

Without getting too deep into its technical aspects, let’s just generalize by saying that the Contra’s Class D switching amp has a flatter frequency response but less of a gain structure than a push-pull Class AB solid state amp, whereas your typical push-pull design would have a more powerful gain structure but frequency-wise it’s all over the place. As a result the Contra doesn’t display the nonlinearity of typical solid state design, and retains a clean, ruler-flat signal to the limits of its operating range, at which point it simply craps out, whereas your basic push-pull’s gain structure is more dynamic if less accurate, and the onset of clipping is much more gradual.

What does this mean in terms of sound? Well, the Contra has both low-gain and high-gain inputs to accommodate active pickups and different styles of piezo pickups. Jerome and I checked out three very different acoustic-electric designs through the Contra, and were startled by the ease with which it reproduced and projected their complex signals.

We began with Jerome’s own Taylor AB1 Acoustic-Electric Bass Guitar, which was outfitted with La Bella Nylon-Tape Flat Wound Strings (the 760N set, .060/.070/.097/.115). A large, single-cutaway, flattop design, with an oval sound-hole in the lower bout, it has backs and sides of South American imbuia, a very warm sounding wood, and a spruce top. I found this large-body instrument surprisingly light and comfortable, and its woody, open sound very much suggested an upright bass, though acoustically it didn’t have the percussive dimension. But when we plugged the AB1 into the Contra, it just opened right up; the amp simply radiated clean, dynamic bass energy, with a realistic, believable attack, exceptional distinction between each string, and excellent harmonic detail. In fact, for all intents and purposes, the amp practically disappeared and I felt as if I were able to enjoy something commensurate to the dynamic range and articulation of an upright. And when we hooked up a stereo pair of Contras, they totally disappeared—it was the most natural, uncolored bass sound I’ve ever heard from an amp. And we also got excellent results from jazz guitar and digital keyboards. In fact, the Contra also made for such a good jazz-guitar amp, we experimented with a rig that leading players such as Jimmy Bruno and Jack Wilkins have been employing to great effect, and for those jazz guitarists looking for a truly clean machine, the combination of the Contra’s tiny, stand-alone head (the five-pound Clarus for $499) and a Raezer’s Edge Speaker Cabinet (in this case the eminently portable Stealth 12, an eight ohm, 32 pound box retailing for $450) is fast catching on among those jazz guitarists who’ve long-favored the Polytone Mini-Brute, but are looking for something even more portable, dynamic and hi-fi. The Clarus head fits into a soft, smallish padded bag with a strap (about the size of a CD Walkman), features a detachable AC Input Connector (allowing you to upgrade to custom power cords for even greater resolution) and connects to the Stealth with a Neutrik Speakon Connector.

The Stealth 12 features a surprisingly shallow, closed-back cabinet design, but designer Rich Raezer has carefully tweaked things with a pair of front-mounted bass reflex ports, with acoustic channels behind them and what we would characterize as a tunable lip (imagine blowing across the top of a soda bottle) running horizontally along the bottom of the cabinet, which houses a 12" Eminence speaker (rated at 100 dB/200 watts). This serves to focus the sound for an exceptionally tight, balanced percussive attack, each string articulated in a balanced, punchy manner, with a subtle holographic quality to chords that is natural and airy, if a touch dry, but I suspect that will appeal to most jazz guitarists who want that last extra hump of volume and attack without altering the acoustic quality of the instrument.

Still, I would recommend employing some sort of external reverb. It really opens up the overall sound. In fact, when I employed a tubed external Fender ’63 Reverb unit ($549), the sound really opened up—more airy and dimensional—although for me, the combo of my tubed 40-watt, black-face ’66 Fender Bassman head, the Fender ’63 Reverb and the Stealth 12 speaker cabinet was the ultimate jazz guitar sound. I also found the Stealth 12 to be an acceptable bass cabinet for acoustic-electric instruments, although if you’re planning on major solid-body transients, you should definitely move up to the 48 pound, 8 ohm, 400 watt Raezer’s Edge Bass 12 ($525).

Finally, having both the Buster Bass 200 and the Contra on hand really enabled us to put two remarkable new acoustic-electric basses through their paces, and whether employed as pristinely amplified or throbbing electric sources, these innovative, cost-effective new instruments certainly possess the musical potential to become sound signatures in their own right—they are both decidedly original, well-thought-out designs.

The Yamaha BEXC Acoustic-Electric Bass Guitar lists for only $999 including case, and for me, whether manipulated with the fingers or a pick, it was a joy to play with its clear, open sound, natural harmonic structure and pinpoint definition. The bolt-on maple neck, with its rosewood fingerboard, was nicely tapered and perfectly intonated from top to bottom, even high up on the low E string—it should appeal to both bassists and guitarists looking for a relatively low-action instrument to double on. Its shallow, lightweight semiacoustic body is made of alder, with a highly figured sycamore cap and maple back and sides.

It features an active magnetic pickup in the middle of the top, and a piezo design in its distinctive rosewood bridge. A balancer knob with a center detent allows you to employ either the piezo, the magnetic or blends between the two. The sound of the instrument is bright, snappy and quick. I found I preferred a touch more piezo in the pick-up blend, and while the sound could tend towards the nasal and penetrating if pushed too hard, the top mounted three-band EQ offered quiet, effective tone contouring, so I was able to achieve just the right mix of air, attack and roundness. And while the attack doesn’t have the punch of an upright or a bass guitar like the AB1, there is a palpable acoustic sparkle and string-by-string distinction that is intoxicating, and the overall sound is unique—every time I plugged in I felt like I was visiting Steve Swallow land.

Finally, for an even more remarkable advance in the art of the acoustic-electric bass guitar comes the Renaissance Guitars RB-5-FL ($2065), a lined fretless five-string from legendary designer Rick Turner of Alembic fame (remember Stanley Clarke’s School Days bass?). Now when musician-writers like myself make comparisons to an upright bass, sometimes our mastery of the metaphor gets the best of us. An upright bass violin, with its curved fingerboard, arched spruce top and arched maple back, capacious acoustic chamber, elevated bridge and internal tone bar has a quality of attack and a magnitude of projection that is quite distinct from anything you’re going to get from any guitar—period. But having said that, the sound of the ampli-coustic RB-5-FL is the closest thing I’ve ever encountered to the tone, attack and forward thrust of an upright bass.

With its bolt on maple neck and rosewood fingerboard (35" scale/nut width 1.75" featuring graphite/epoxy reinforcement bars); a solid wood block under the bridge with string-through-body anchors; walnut or cherry back and side with acoustic tone chambers and a thin cedar top; Turner-designed piezo-bridge pickup (with 18 volt Highlander pre-amp) and its Spanish-styled body contours, the RB-5-FL echoes the classic designs of a Fender Telecaster, a Gibson ES-335 and today’s popular faux acoustic solid-body classical and steel-string guitars. The instrument itself (also available in fretted configurations) is incredibly light and comfortable to mount with a strap, and the minute you touch the neck, even unplugged, it is just bristling with acoustic energy—perfectly balanced and intonated. Plugged in, it is like a grizzly bear in a formal tuxedo. Notes on the high D and G strings have a rich, hornlike attack and just roll off the fingers like butter, blossoming into a complex pallet of overtones. The low-end strings growl and roar with immense extension and focus, and perfect musical balance of punch and low-end thunder.

Adding to the expressive sound and natural feel are a set of specially designed nylon-core round-wound bronze strings from Thomastik-Infeld; they are remarkably flexible, ductile and responsive to even the most subtle nuance, and when you really dig in and attack, the manner in which the RB-5-FL responds is incredibly realistic by upright bass standards. Awesome tone, easy to play, a simple, expressive, original design: the Renaissance Guitars RB-5-FL represents a bold new standard in bass guitar design.

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