December 2008

Stellartone ToneStyler BASS

Over the past 57 years, there have been many advances in bass guitar technology, one of the most significant being the development of active electronics. Since the introduction of Alembic’s earliest powered EQ and preamp circuits, active electronics have become a ubiquitous feature in modern basses. But the classic tone of a passive bass has never gone out of style, and many players still prefer the more “organic” sound of old-school technology.

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Stellartone ToneStyler BASS

In the realm of passive instruments, not much has changed, particularly in the EQ department—the low-pass filter tone control is still the standard. But with their ToneStyler tone switch, the tech-wizards at Stellartone have created a product that adds several new dimensions to the concept of passive tone control. The new ToneStyler BASS control (list price: $123.60) offers electric bassists 16 distinct tone variations, without batteries, and without any modification to their instrument.

The output of a passive instrument is produced by the magnetic pickup “hearing” the string vibration, and sending it to the amplifier. The tone control is a simple potentiometer with an attached capacitor that attenuates high frequencies through its rotation, allowing only the low frequencies through—a low pass filter. The value of the capacitor determines the frequency and degree of the roll off. But a traditional passive tone pot will cut into the midrange frequencies as well as the highs, resulting in a dark, woofy tone with less impact.

The ToneStyler is not a tone pot, it’s a tone switch, much like the five-position rotary switches found on the old Gibson Ripper bass, except the “steps” between the tones are very close, allowing for a more precise selection of frequency attenuation. To achieve this, the ToneStyler uses 16 individual capacitors that are selected to provide a tonal range far beyond what typical passive instruments allow. The settings are ordered 1 through 16, from the darkest to brightest tone. The sonic goal was to achieve as close to linear response as possible from each setting, meaning each selected frequency is attenuated specifically, minimizing the effect on surrounding frequencies.

Built into a mil-spec, miniature gold-plated, hermetically sealed rotary switch designed for the aerospace industry, the control itself is as close to bombproof as you can get with a precision instrument. The unit is small enough to drop in to most basses without additional routing. The ToneStyler is available in two rotations: The notched version allows you to dial in an exact setting, though clicking through them will require you to use two fingers; the smooth rotation model (add $4) will turn easily with a “pinky sweep,” but the sound is not a smooth taper like a traditional tone pot. Due to the 16 different frequency settings, you will hear the sound “step through” the presets if you spin the control while a note is ringing. This is not a major drawback, and the smooth rotation may feel more familiar to some players.

I installed a notched version of the ToneStyler BASS into my Fender Custom Shop ’64 Jazz bass and was immediately impressed by the increased high frequency response. After a week’s worth of gigging, I vowed never to return to my old tone pot. I found the darker settings retained the note definition and punch that was lost with the original passive tone control. But here’s the caveat: While playing at home, you will notice that some of the middle positions produce a somewhat honky, almost nasal tone—on my Jazz bass, it brought to mind Jaco Pastorius’ sound on his recording of “Donna Lee.” Upon first listen, it sounds strange, but the trick is to experience how it interacts in a live setting—experienced players understand that a hi-fi tone may sound good in your bedroom, but not necessarily onstage. The ToneStyler can darken your sound slightly, or drastically, yet leave the midrange mostly intact, and that translates to getting heard in the mix. The highest setting (16) produces a more open, extended high frequency response, similar to the sound achieved by straight wiring the pickups to the output jack. This feature is a real plus for slappers or anyone who desires full range tone. Backing the control down to 14 returns the treble response to that of a traditional tone pot on 10.

I also tried a different ToneStyler: the JAZZ model (list price: $123.60) in a smooth-rotation version. Although it was designed for jazz guitarists, I found it worked just fine on my Fender Precision bass five-string. Effectively, it has the same tonal range as the BASS model from settings 3 to 16. It doesn’t remove any of the low end; it simply doesn’t get quite as dark as the BASS version. The smooth rotation felt easier to work with on the fly, but I found I missed the ability to locate the settings accurately.

If you are an old-school passive player, the Stellartone ToneStyler will astound you with its purely analog, battery-free expanded tonal capabilities. If you went active years ago and never looked back, it might be time to pop one of these into your old Fender and hear how great passive can sound.

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