Learn How To Play Your Amp!! (Part 1)
We spend hours learning and practicing bass, not to mention fussing for
hours over strings and accessories, and agonizing over pickup and/or
mic choices. However, the amplifier is often overlooked; we plug it
in, twiddle the knobs a little bit, and that's often the end of it.
It's important to understand every
component of the sound
you project. I've heard a lot of amplified basses; and sounding
"bassy" = sounding "muddy." Mumble, rumble, blobby-blobby, thud,
is not a good bass sound.
The whole point of the following exercise is: when you are
playing and something just doesn't sound quite right, you will
instinctively know which knob to adjust.
This is a valuable
talent well worth learning. I could use more technical jargon and
scientific precision in this article, but we're going for general
knowledge and results in these exercises.
with what tone controls actually do
Most amps feature "tone" controls labeled Bass, Middle, and Treble;
each control a band of frequencies. "EQ" (equalization) is a common
way to refer to these tone controls. You are probably quite aware of
the effect twisting those knobs has when you've adjusted a radio or
stereo unit. Turning the bass knob all the way up and the treble all
the way down has the effect of listening to a song that's playing in
the next room with the door closed!
Tone controls split the spectrum of sound into
chunks, sort of like the piano keyboard approximations in the image
to the right (not precise, the drawing is only to illustrate the
concept). Those controls let you boost or cut those frequency bands.
The other drawing is the frequencies of some notes on the upright
bass fingerboard. Speaking generally, the lowest (bass) control
usually affects the frequencies around the fundamental of the notes
we play on our basses. But, for example, when you play the open A
string on your bass, you hear a lot more than just that original
note (the fundamental). There are overtones (also known as
harmonics) above that note that give it character
Severely cutting down the middle and high frequencies down (by turning
down the midrange, treble or whatever your amp has) reduces
your amp's delivery of those harmonics and can hurt clarity. Note: If
you have a graphic equalizer with more than just "low-mid-high,"
those sliders are just further splitting the frequencies into finer
slices - low lows, middle lows, high lows, low mids, middle mids,
etc., so you have even more precise control over the total sound.
Turn Theory Into Practice
and analytically listen to the
effect each knobs has
If the acoustic sound of the bass is louder than the amp, you won't
be able to evaluate the amplified sound, so let's get the amp up in
the air so the speaker is close to ear level. Put it on a couple
milk crates on top of a table, a wooden file cabinet -- anything
that is a solid base for the speaker, but won't make distracting
sounds when it vibrates. Turn the amp up to "Goldilocks Volume" –
not too loud, not too soft... just right
. Too loud, and
you'll overwhelm your senses and screw up your perception.
My recommendation for learning your amp is to play the same series
of notes up and down the fingerboard, repeating as you make
adjustments to the amp's controls, studying the differences. Before
you start, set the amp to "flat" – turning all the tone knobs to the
middle, and locating any graphic equalizer sliders in the middle,
too, so there are no boosts or cuts to any frequencies.
You can start with the highest frequency control (Treble, Highs, the
right-most Graphic EQ slider), turning it all the way down, then
perhaps to 9 o'clock, straight up, 3 o'clock, then all the way up.
Listen carefully to the resulting changes in your sound (good and
bad), and take your time
! Let me repeat: the whole point
of this exercise is, when you are playing and something just
doesn't sound quite right, you will instinctively know which
knob(s) to adjust.
Throughout this exercise, pay particular attention to midrange, low
midrange, and upper bass controls. That's where acoustic bass lives,
and the midrange frequencies can provide desirable texture and
character. It's those controls that help to define the notes and
tone of your particular bass. Don't try to do this all at once. You
need to take breaks from this activity for the best results, as we
all can suffer ear fatigue
. However, once you spend
significant time with your amp, you'll have a better feel for its
capabilities, and the experience may also give you some new
perspective on "your sound."
Create Your Own "Reference Sound"
to make gig sound
adjustments less of a headache
I suggest that you consider developing what I call a Reference
My own definition of Reference Sound
is where I set my preamp and amp
controls when I first walk into a new situation. I know how it should
sound from past experience, and it's a lot easier to start from a
sound that you know "works" most of the time. Once onstage, you can
then make minor tweaks, to adjust for unique room and stage
acoustics. That's where learning your amp pays off
will instinctively know
which knob to twist to quickly and
easily fine-tune your sound to the stage and room. The controls of
my Euphonic Audio iAMP
(mostly used for bass guitar in my case) are far more extensive, so
I actually took a photo of my Reference
settings and taped it to the inside of my rack case.
Most of my on-gig adjustments then only involve tiny adjustment to
bass and/or boosting midrange for clarity.
Let me make one final suggestion. Recognize that, like your bass,
the exact sound coming from the speaker down there on the floor is
not going to reach your audience over one hundred feet away intact.
Someone standing right in front of your acoustic instrument would
hear much more "detail", such as string sound, which is combined
with and complements the sound from the body. By the time that gets
across and bounces around the room, the higher frequencies can get
"lost in the sauce." So, when you develop your reference sound,
please give consideration to keeping some of that midrange detail
that helps define the character of your own bass.
Next time, we'll talk about learning advanced features that
you'll find on many amplifiers and preamps and how they can
further help your sound...
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