Happy Friday everyone! Alright, so we’re less than a week away from Christmas and although most of you have probably already checked off your gift list a few days ago, there’s no reason why you can’t get that special bassist in your life a little extra – especially if that bassist is yourself! Today, we’re going to be looking at how to go about choosing that perfect bass amplifier. Although they are similar to your normal guitar amplifier, a bassist requires many different things from their amp then would a guitarist so it’s important to keep that heavily in mind and know exactly what to look for when shopping around for a new one. Alright, let’s get started!
Solid State versus Tube
Although most of us won’t like to admit it, probably the single most important thing that goes into selecting a new amp is cost. If you’re looking for nice loud amp with plenty of power that won’t thin the wallet, a solid state amplifier might be just what the doctor ordered. By contrast, tube amps are costlier – and many times a lot costlier – as well as generally much more fragile.
So, why the big difference? Why not just buy a solid state if they’re cheaper and more durable? It’s all about the sound and more importantly, the way they sound when they reach their upper limits. Although solid state amps will play plenty loud, the distortion they attain once overdriven is not exactly a particularly pleasing sound. Also known as digital distortion, this type of overdrive produces square wave forms full of odd harmonics that sound brittle and generally unnatural. Be aware that in some cases – such as with electronic music – this type of distortion might be the one you’re after. In comparison – like most analog gear – the distortion reached by tube amplifiers will produce a much more naturally sounding and pleasing tone thanks to the harmonic end-results of its triangle wave form. If you want a bit of growl in your bass that doesn’t sound digital, a tube amplifier might be the right one for you.
In any case, the good news is that nowadays solid state amps are usually built with plenty of headroom in order to avoid overdriving them and although the potential for annoying digital distortion should definitely be in the back of your mind, it shouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker, especially if you don’t plan on playing some heavily overdriven bass lines a la Muse. Guitarists on the other hand are generally more concerned about digital distortion since an overdriven guitar tone is a staple of many different genres.
To Combo of Not To Combo
Just like with a standard guitar amp, you’re going to have to determine if you’ll be needing a high gain unit. If you will be playing mainly in the studio or relatively small venues, you can probably easily make due with a combo amp – thus named because of the combination of the amp head and cabinet in one unit. Back in the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, there weren’t really too many of these combo models although the Fender Bassman with a 2x12 cabinet pretty much set the standard. Most of today’s combo amps with a closed back will play loud enough for pretty much anything except the larger venues. Most also allow you to add an extra cabinet which a lot of bass players like to do in order to reinforce the lowest octave. If you’re planning to play on the big stages such as auditoriums, large halls or open arenas, you’re going to need a high powered amp head with at least a single or double cab to get the job done.
These mega-watt monsters can play loud and clean right down to the low E-string. If you need a rock-solid foundation that will be felt as much as heard, nothing beats a high powered amp driving two 1x15 cabinets or a single 2x15 although it's worth noting that both Fender and Hartke offer closed-back 4x10 cabinets, which – when matched with a 1x15 – will produce a wider frequency response that is favored by bass players who have active pickups equipped on their instruments.
If you don’t necessarily have to have that pure analog sound of tube, solid state amps with modeling effects offer a lot of value. You can buy a basic "practice" amp today that will deliver almost any tone or effect you might need or want and it will also work great as a studio amp. These budget friendly models provide everything from clean tones to a full-out overdrive along with most of the "must have" effects that bass players look for. One of the benefits that these amp modelers have over the standard tube – besides their larger tonal character range – is their ability to deliver most sounds you want without adding something you don’t: Noise! Today, pretty much all effects – even multi effects like chorus and delay plus reverb – are designed to be amazingly quiet. Still though, it has to be said that there are plenty of purists out there who feel that there is simply no substitute for the real-deal sound of an analog tube amp. And in the end, each player has to decide for themselves how to craft their own signature tone.
Does Size Matter?
We’ve all heard that bigger is better, but what about when it comes to bass amps? Well, not necessarily. Modern bass cabinet designs can reinforce low frequency response in a properly built 4x10 cabinet and actually allow them to handle a low B-string (which produces frequencies even lower than a 42Hz E-string) which up until recently was thought of as impossible. A larger 15-inch speaker on the other hand will still move a room with lot of low-end rumble so we still see a number of 1x15 or 2x15 combo amps and cabinets - great for smaller gigs and practice rigs. What's best for you? Well, that depends. A lot of successful bass players are relying on great cabinet design and spending less time worrying about the size of the speaker itself.
Unlike guitar amplifiers, there are generally fewer small bass practice amps. The reason is simple – most bass players would rather invest in a higher quality amp suitable for all applications instead of paying for two of them. No matter what type of bass amplification you choose, the odds are very good that it will be perfect on stage or in the studio. Also be aware that some players prefer to run their bass signal through a direct box (DI box) so they can use their existing pro-quality processors to compress or smooth out a bass for recording purposes. Another option is to use both a DI box as well as a mic on a cabinet, as the combination can produce outstanding bass tracks that sit well in a mix.
In the end though, the right bass amp for you comes down to your needs and what type of sound (or sounds) you will ultimately be looking for. Whether that means going with a solid state amp along with modelers or sticking to that classic sound of a tube amp, crafting that perfect signature tone that fits your style is by far the most important factor in selecting an amp. Happy hunting!