Yesterday, we talked a bit about the basics of EQing a bass amplifier. If you haven’t read it, it’s worth taking a look at, especially if you’re still new to the world of bass amps and frequencies. Today, we’re going to keep things going with more important factors regarding amps and tone including setup, positioning, bass frequencies versus room acoustics and more. Let’s get to it!
So now that you know how to work the EQ on a bass amp along with the particular sound features relegated to each of these frequencies, we can talk about setting up your rig properly for performing. If you’re still in the school of thought that simply plugging in your amp to the wall and your bass to the amp means you’re good to go – I’ve got news for you. Exactly where you setup your amp has an effect on how it sounds. Not only that, where you – or the audience for that matter – are standing in relation to the amp matters as well. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, what your amp is on or leaning against along with its size, shape and surface materials that make up the room will also affect sound. So, with that said, in order to achieve a consistently good sound from your electric bass, you’re going to have to learn how to compensate for each of these. If you’ve ever wondered why your amp sounds killer in your rehearsal room but a little flat on the same settings in a particular venue, this is why.
The reason proper amp placement is so important is because bass frequencies are omni-directional which means that they react similar to how water does when a rock is tossed in a pond; the sound waves form outwardly in an expanding circle from the source – in this case, your bass amp. When these frequencies crash into surrounding surfaces, they are either reflected back at you or absorbed. The frequencies that bounce back are the ones that cause a particular problem known as frequency cancellation. Frequencies – such as highs or mids – can become eliminated when reflected sound waves crash back into the next wave of sound coming from the bass speakers. The result is a big muddled sound – no bueno!
In certain cases, you might not be able to completely eliminate some frequency cancellation, but there are plenty of things you can do to keep this at a minimal. First thing’s first – never put your amp in the center of a room! If you were to picture your room from above with your amp at its center, as soon as you start playing, sound waves will bounce off all four walls which and will certainly come right back towards the amp. And since sound travels pretty fast, it essentially hits your amp almost as soon as it comes out. You can try messing with the bass amp EQ all you want but that will probably do little to help. This is why you always want to place an amp close to a wall. You can move it pretty close, but don’t let it touch the wall as this will cause it to vibrate and enhance the bass frequencies and throw off your sound. Placing the amp about a foot away will minimize the reflection from the wall behind you. It also extends the distance between the wall directly in front of you which is a good thing.
While you might not be able to do this at a venue, consider placing acoustic dampeners in your rehearsal area. These are basically anything that can reduce sound from reflecting all over the place. You might know a buddy or two that put carpet, blankets or even egg cartons on their walls. No, they’re not trying to stop the government from spying on them – they are giving their room acoustic treatment to minimize reflections (this also reduces sound from bleeding outside in case of sensitive neighbors). In professional studio settings and live concert halls, more professional means of acoustic treatment are employed by using materials such as metal, glass or stone to improve the overall sound of the room. You can honestly even use a messy drawer with all sorts of nick-knacks on top of it since the key here is to keep the frequencies from bouncing straight back to your amp.
Finding that Sweet Spot
That’s essentially how you deal with frequency cancellation. Now that we’ve got that covered, it’s time to talk about where you the player should stand. If it’s merely practice, it’s really not a big deal but if you’re performing live or recording in a studio, there’s a certain distance you should stand from your amp in order to hear it effectively. A good quick rule of thumb for discerning where to stand will depend on the size of your speakers. If your rig uses a 15” speaker, 15 feet is usually where you’ll be able to hear it best. If you use a 10” speaker, 10 feet is the sweet spot and so on. And having multiple speakers won’t change this; each speaker will still throw sound about the same distance ahead – they don’t add up as far as that sweet spot is concerned. Unfortunately, you don’t always get to decide where you’re standing so it won’t always be that sweet spot – especially live where the venues change. You might need to make room for other equipment, the stage might be too small or maybe even your pedals and mic simply won’t reach. In this case, you’re going to have to trust that at the very least, the audience will be hearing your bass at its best.
If you’re standing in the ‘sweet spot’ in front of your bass rig and are still having troubles hearing yourself, before you reach for the volume knob, check and see where your speakers are aimed at. If your bass amp is sitting on the floor, your sound is probably slapping you somewhere in the neighborhood of the back of your calves up to maybe your lower back – not your ears. Wedging a piece of wood under your amp so that it points up at about a 45 degree angle should be adequate if you’re 10 or 15 feet away from the amp. If you’re much closer you may need to tilt the amplifier back at a more extreme angle or put it on a chair or both.
Okay, now that the amp is in the best spot possible in the room, and you’re far enough in front of it and/or have it angled in such a way that the sound is actually reaching your ears – you can now listen to your bass amp and determine what needs to happen to the sound. Do you need more low end or less? Are you lost when the distorted guitars or drums kick in? Now is when you get to play with your bass amp equalizer. Try boosting the LOW frequencies if your sound is too thin or trebly; boosting MID frequencies help to bring out finger-style playing nuances; LOW MIDS help bring out the ‘snarl’ of your bass; boosting the HIGH frequencies will increase your presence, or the sound of a pick on the strings. Mix and match to get your desired sound pretty much.
The Problem With Frequencies
Sometimes despite all the thought you’ve put into your sound and your bass amp and cabinet placement, you’ll still end up with some frequencies that are too weak or too overbearing. Bass amp tone setting is part art and science; here are some tips.
Too Much Low End (Bass frequencies): As a bassist you can never really have too much bass frequencies right? WRONG! Sure, dealing out the cellar-dwelling low end is part of the job description, but not when you have so much thud that you can’t even distinguish the notes you’re playing. Rather than boost HIGHS or MIDS to compensate you can also try reducing the amount of bass – even if it feels like the wrong thing to do as a bassist. Another good tip is to get your amp off the floor, use either a chair or a milk crate or something else that breaks the contact with the floor and isn’t hollow itself. When your bass cabinet rests on the floor (especially on a hollow stage), the floor resonates with the cabinet causing a massive bass boost that can’t be EQed out of your sound. If nothing else works for you and you don’t mind investing some money to improve your sound, you can check out some sound control padding or foam (or any other applicable acoustic damper) to go under your amp.
Too Much High End (Treble frequencies): Too many HIGHS will give you a harsh and noisy sound, turn them down and see if your sound is improved. If you need some clarity you can position your picking/plucking hand closer to the bridge or try boosting some of the high mids frequencies. Playing at loud volumes especially if you have sketchy wiring in your electric bass guitar may not be addressed with bass amp equalization tweaks alone;. you may require a noise gate or filter that will suppress those high frequencies from exiting your speakers. Does your bass speaker cabinet have a built in tweeter? Tweeters deal out the highest parts of the bass signal coming out of the speakers and often have a dial on the back or side of the cabinet that allows you to reduce the volume or disable it completely. If you still have too much treble in your sound, consider placing the bass cabinet directly on the floor.
Too Many Mid Frequencies (Mid-range frequencies): To most bass players the mid frequencies are our friends. They help add clarity, depth and snarl to the notes and allow us to maintain some sonic real estate that even loud and distorted guitars rarely occupy. But as you can probably guess, too much of even a good thing can be bad. Excessively boosted mid frequencies can give a ‘honk’ to your sound that is possibly more annoying than the other two problems combined. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this problem as a direct result of room acoustics – more often it is from bass amplifier equalizer tweaking gone wrong without correctly placing and positioning your amp. To fix the MID problem, you’ll need to revisit your amplifier EQ settings after you position the bass amp in the best possible place (see positioning your bass amp above).
And one last thing – your bass amp EQ will change in every room. But here’s the good news, even after you’ve found the perfect sound and set-up for your bass amp, it’ll all fly out the window as soon as you walk out of that room and play a gig at a bar, in a backyard or in a gymnasium. Every single room (or lack thereof) has its own acoustic properties that will help or hinder your bass guitar sound. As much as we’d all like a perfect bass amp tone system that we could just ‘set and forget’, there is no such thing currently available. The best solution that you have is to keep the above recommendations in mind each time you set your bass amp up anywhere. These tips will help you rise out of the sonic mud and impress others with your consistently great bass sounds (yeah…maybe someone will notice, it could happen!).