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Bass Is the Place

David Gage

Once upon a time, at a forgotten NAMM Show in Anaheim, I was wandering the portals of the convention center when I unexpectedly encountered one of my heroes, master bassist Ray Brown, demonstrating one of Polytone’s popular little bass amps. I wanted to say hello, and thank him for all the music, but he was addressing an attentive acolyte.

My stature being much farther down the food chain, I shut up and listened. The elder bassist wasn’t much concerned with technical issues, but emphasized the kind of spiritual attitude a bassist must possess to function as a team player in a jazz band, and one point Brown made really stuck with me:

“Back then, even with Dizzy, if you couldn’t hear the bass, then the drummer was too damn loud.”

Dig that. And this is Ray Brown talking, man; a musician who made a career out of making himself heard back in the days before pick-up systems and sophisticated amplification were common; just an upright bass player with high action, a percussive attack and, perhaps, even a microphone.

When giants walked the earth: Page, Blanton, Pettiford, Brown, Mingus, Heath, Ware, Chambers…

These days, though, when everyone and their cousin-including the drummer-is miked up, even the most formidable of jazz bassists has to employ some form of amplification. And at a point in time when it seems like everything is conspiring against the upright bassist (including the airlines, who once upon a time let you purchase a ticket so you could sit next to your prized instrument, but now force you to invest in a case), help is on the way in the form of new variations on old instruments, advanced technology for traditional instruments and a variety of practical amplification options.

Amplification schemes and hybrid upright instruments are nothing new to jazz. In 1946, musician Everett Hull came up with a microphone pick-up that he fitted onto the endpin of an upright. This amplified peg beget the Ampeg company, which in turn produced a number of notable products, including Jess Oliver’s famous Portaflex design for a transportable bass amp-the classic Ampeg B-15-and the Ampeg Baby Bass, a primitive solid-body upright that gained limited cachet among Latin players, in part for its ability to emulate the sound of the tumbadora (the big bass conga).

Even today, makers such as Clevinger and Banchetti have come up with interesting variations on the upright bass. Then along came design innovator Ned Steinberger-he of the famous headstock-less, carbon-graphite/fiberglass bass guitar with the patented tuning system-with a truly definitive notion of the electric upright bass, which in turn beget the holy grail: an innovative transducer that offers acoustic bassists something even more elusive-a natural depiction of their instrument’s true acoustic sound, at practical volume levels, through commonly used amplifiers.

Along with recording engineer and bass virtuoso Malcolm Cecil, I had a hands-on audition of both the Steinburger NS Design Double Bass-CR4M and the Realist Acoustic Transducer (for double bass and cello) in the comfort of my home studio, and at the downtown Manhattan location of David Gage String Instrument Repair, a bustling beehive of activity, the Mecca in Tribeca for jazz bassists in particular and acoustic string players in general. And while I can’t imagine that jazzmen strongly identified with the acoustic bass, and possessed of a signature sound, will be jumping on the NS Design bandwagon in great numbers, the Double Bass CR4M is so musical, so versatile and so practical, I’m convinced it will inspire an enthusiastic generation of new practitioners.

“This instrument was not designed to imitate an acoustic,” Steinberger explains. “It’s about, ‘What can an electric upright be?’ I was interested in the brilliance and clarity and definition and sustain you could get from a longer string.”

Still, while the instrument I tested is capable of producing a variety of expressive new voicings, it’s ironic how well it approximates the sound and feel of a traditional acoustic bass. Derived in part from research Steinberger made in constructing a custom six-string solid body electric for Rob Wasserman (featuring round wound strings, a phenolic fingerboard and a graphite reinforced maple laminate neck which is curved inward to follow the arch of the fingerboard-a broad recess for the thumb that runs along the entire length of the neck), the production model of the CR4M I played features a traditional scale, 41.73″ rock maple neck with an ebony fretboard (and dot markers to identify the chromatic tones from register to register); a rock maple body with flame maple facing and an amber finish; a stationary tri-pod stand with adjustable height and tilt adjustments; a lively set of flat wound strings that run through the body; a set of EMG magnetic pickups; and underneath the adjustable bridge, Steinberger’s patented piezoelectric pick-up system.

Dubbed the BiPolar Directional Pick-Up System, Steinberger’s design allows the user to orient it directionally to accentuate its sensitivity to the strings’ lateral or vertical vibrations; laterally in the direction of the bow, for an authentic arco response and a short, percussive pizzicato effect; vertically to give plucked notes a fat, round, even quality with enhanced sustain. The magnetic pick-ups give you a warm, resounding attack with the kind of impact and rich sustain of a fretless bass-but no fretless bass guitar has the balls of the CR4M. There’s an overall volume control; active treble and bass controls with boost and cut; a three-position switch (up for optimum pizzicato, down for optimum arco and middle for a combination of the two modes); plus a mixer control with a center detent (to deploy the magnetic sound by itself or mixed in progressive increments with the piezo).

On the CR4 non-magnetic model we played at Gage’s, this last knob offered variable combinations of the pizzicato and arco response, while on the CR4M magnetic model you could access full piezo orientation, full arco or half and half (but not a variable mix). Still, the bowed response was smooth and natural; the choice of rich, clear, articulate sounds, from natural acoustic to larger than life, was inspiring; and with its pure intonation up and down the neck, even the subtlest of hand motions yielded a big, bloomy vibrato. I was particularly impressed with how full and articulate the Steinberger was at minimal

volume levels.

For me, coming from a Fender Precision Bass, the stability and flexibility of the tripod stand was wonderful, offering unimpeded access up and down the neck. But I suspect that for upright players, used to orienting themselves to the place where neck joins body (to find their notes), and to leaning on the wings of the upper body to access their thumb positions or balance themselves for bowing, the Steinberger bass will require some getting used to. But Steinberger has already devised an adjustable harness type stand, which according to Gage, orients the bass to your waist in a manner more suitable to traditional bowing postures and which has been given an enthusiastic thumbs up by the traditional players. Still, for adventurous jazz players seeking a provocative new voice or a readily portable alternative (total length: 52″) with which to assuage the tiny hearts of budget-conscious leaders-like Latin music players who want a big, flexible sound with punch and for bass guitarists and fusion types who desire a more epansive sonic palette and the added option of arco sounds-the NS Design Double Bass CR4M should spur musicians on to new levels of creativity.

Be that as it may, the Steinberger is not for everyone, but Gage was so impressed with Steinberger’s BiPolar pickup system-particularly the quality of the bowed response-that he wondered if it were possible to devise something similar for an acoustic bass, and thus began the long process of trial and error and endless comparisons that resulted in the Realist Acoustic Transducer. “Ron Carter used to insert a piece of Teflon under his bridge and he felt it helped the sound,” Gage recalls. “And I’d observed that before there were bridge adjusters, people would stick a shim of wood under the bridge to get it up higher so that it would clear the fingerboard and they could play it. And it was amazing how it didn’t affect the sound. Essentially the bridge is not moving, it’s everything above it.”

The Realist appears to house its piezo crystal element in a small, flexible, rectangular sandwich of plastic and copper foil that can thus be shaped to conform to the top of the bass. This allows you to position it at the very crossbeam (which acts both as reinforcement for the top and as a tuning mechanism). Thus you can reproduce the organic sound of the whole instrument-the strings, the bridge, the vibrating spruce top, reflective maple back and bass beam-not merely some peripheral aspects.

And no pre-amps or direct boxes are necessary. Just plug it right into a standard bass amp, as we did, and with all settings flat, you can crank it up to imposing volume levels, yet still retain your true acoustic balance without any discernible peaks on top or bottom-like a very expensive, sophisticated mike, reproducing a flat signal response over a wide frequency range with excellent off-axis rejection and no feedback. The sound is richly textured, transparent and revealing, warts and all; the arco sound is remarkably airy, natural and uncolored; while the pizzicato sound accurately portrays the complex tone of the entire instrument-the attack on the neck, the vibrating strings, air moving in a chamber.

For those musicians who are totally committed to the purity of expression that defines the acoustic bass, the Realist Acoustic Transducer is a liberating experience.

Amping Around

Now all you need is a good portable bass amp, and therein lies the rub. Did I say portable? That’s practically an oxymoron when it comes to true bass reproduction. Bare minimum, you need a speaker with a serious magnet structure; a robust cabinet that won’t vibrate and get all boomy and indistinct; a beefy power transformer to help reproduce transients. But practically speaking, lugging around a big head and a large speaker cabinet is not in the program for most upright jazz players, nor is that necessary for most piano trios, singers or small combos. But as the bands get bigger, and guitarists and keyboardists begin cranking up, then the need for volume and projection becomes more of an issue.

The combo bass amp is still very much a work in progress. Going back to the ’50s, most bass combos were really guitar amps in sheep’s clothing. Even the famous 4 x 10″ tweed Bassman combo, which Fender recently reissued, gained legendary stature as a guitar amp when bluesmen like Buddy Guy, who couldn’t afford a Twin Reverb, would plug in and, out of practical necessity, turn it up to 10-thereafter guitarists would revel in saturation and overdrive characteristics unimagined by Papa Leo Fender’s design team. Not that the Bassman wasn’t an adequate bass amp. I own a 2 x 12″ 1966 black-face Bassman, and it is a cool little bass amp, but at 40 watts of tube output, if you require that next level of volume or the ability to accurately track fast transients, well, you’re s.o.l., dude.

The natural evolution of sound during the burgeoning rock era created its own demand for more practical amplification schemes, and when bassist Norm Sundholm went out on the road with the Kingsmen to make the world safe for “Louie, Louie”, he soon discovered the inadequacy of combos in much larger venues. This led him and his brother Conrad to concoct the first high-powered tube bass amps under the name Sunn. By the end of the decade, Ampeg responded with their Super Valve Technology-or SVT-300-watt beasts configured with an armada of 6550 tubes and 8-10″ cabinets that were popularized by the Rolling Stones.

But for jazz and R&B bass players of the 1960s and ’70s, the benchmark product was an all-tube, single 15″ combo where the power section tucked away in the cabinet for easy transport, which Ampeg has recently reissued as the B-15R. This 100-watt update hosts a bevy of modern features, such as a balanced XLR line out, a choice of midrange frequencies, gain and master control, while retaining the classic tone, punch and projection of the original, which at 117 pounds is surely compact, but hardly the last word in portable.

Ditto the Buster Bass 200 from Mesa Boogie, designer Randall Smith’s first all-tube bass combo design. Weighing in at roughly 110 pounds, Buster is available as either a 2 x 10″ Wedge combo or a more traditional cabinet (weighing in at roughly 110 pounds), featuring either a 2 x 10″ or a 1 x 15″ driver/horn tweeter combo with a Tone Luggage Transport System. It also has an integral set of casters with a rugged retractable handle for wheeling around your 200-watt, son of Kong (and SVT) combo, replete with assignable seven-band graphic EQ, 600 ohm XLR balanced out, and silent record mute switch, for the kind of tone, speed and impact its designer giddily suggests can disembowel the first five rows.

Still, for all the tonal richness of tubes, many modern upright players and bass guitarists gravitate towards modern solid state designs for greater power, clarity, transient response, low frequency control and ergonomics, as solid state designs offer the promise of efficiency in terms of noise, size and weight; though, again, in terms of true bass reproduction-the beef-you get what you pay for. Two of the biggest names in contemporary bass amplification are Peavey and SWR, whose ultra-modern designs set the pace for bass in a variety of applications.

Hartley Peavey, the Henry Ford of the American musical instrument industry, has long been known for marketing cost-effective, battle-tested, eminently musical amp designs, and his bass combos are particularly respected, such as TNT 115S/BW bass combo, a 150 watt, 82 pound single-15″ combo in an enclosure tuned to 40 Hz, with a host of useful features, such as a crossover with frequency variables from 200-2000Hz, foot-switchable chorus, DDT compression, seven-band EQ, and contour, bright and punch switches. More amp than you need? The 50-watt Basic 112 is only 47 pounds, but features the DDT compression and a four-band EQ, along with a 10db gain switch and a headphone jack.

When Steve W. Rabe of SWR began putting out amps in 1984, he was responding to the need of professional bassists for amps that reflected modern techniques and could deliver a natural sound with a road-worthy build. At 80 pounds, the 2-10″ SWR Super Redhead offers 350 watts RMS output, and a complete complement of valuable features for the studio or jazz player, including an XLR pad and ground lift, variable midrange, switchable turbo bass and transparency, plus a high frequency horn. Of particular interest to acoustic bassists, at 45 and 50 pounds respectively are the 120-watt Baby Blue II and Basic Black, the former featuring two 8″ drivers and a single Ferr-Fluid 5″ cone tweeter-a hi-fi design for situations where volume is not the issue, but a purer, more “natural” sound is required-while the latter features a single 15″ and a piezo tweeter, for a punchy, portable, accurate depiction of bass transients.

And now, even industry giant Fender, whose guitar amps have helped define the modern musical instrument turf, has gotten into the act by introducing a new series of Bassman amps-only this time they actually are bass amps. Available in four rugged, road-worthy solid-state Bassman configurations (the Bassman 25/60/100/400, whose nomenclature reflects power output and size, ranging from the 33 pound Bassman 25 to the 80 pound Bassman 400), the Bassman 100 would seem to fill the bill for jazz players, with a 15″ driver/piezo horn, an active/passive input pad selector, and an Enhance circuit which allows users to adjust the EQ to a particular playing style.

Still, for jazz players who don’t require such power or elaborate tone-shaping circuitry, there’s Gallien-Krueger, who offer an imposing line of high powered heads and cabinets and combos for any application, but whose flagship product as far as double bass players is concerned is their classic micro-bass combo, the MB150S-112. With its special aluminum chassis and cabinet, it houses a single 12″ driver in a 24-pound package, putting out roughly 100 watts (150 into an external speaker) and may be mike-stand mounted. It features a limiter and low boost, with adjustable contour and presence, but its clear, relatively uncolored output that recommends it to double bass virtuosos such as Dave Holland and Charlie Haden, and in the MB150E-112 configuration it features a chorus and parametric tone shaping features.

Finally, a new name with a new sonic wrinkle from down south in North Carolina, is the Acoustic Image Contra, which offers double bass players the option of a clear, flat, uncolored output, by installing a 300 watt Class D switching amp in a unique cylindrical enclosure, weighing in at only 25 pounds. It features 1-10″ downward firing bass driver, and 1-5″ forward firing midrange-tweeter unit. They claim to deliver omni-directional output from 800 Hz on down, with a sound that offers bassists a clean amplified characteristic, quite unlike the more contoured sound of traditional bass amps. Fender and Peavey report that they are also working on analogous designs aimed specifically at upright acoustic bassists and jazz guitarists who employ acoustic-electric boxes. First chance we get to try any of these new designs, we’ll report back to you on how they perform in an upcoming edition of Gearhead.

Originally Published