Learning to Hear? really?

Yes, you know, maybe this is just my problem, but based on how many bass players I hear that play even louder than me, this must be problem for more than just me.

I love to fee the speakers pushing air past my pant legs and feeling my molars rumble with every note I play. But I know, if I’m feeling these things, I’m WAY too loud. As an upright bass player, volume is a big issue. I play with a drummer and 3 other guys playing electric, acoustic, mandolins, harmonicas… and 3-4 part harmony. Playing at a low volume on stage can make it hard to hear my note. A fat acoustic guitar playing a low E in trampling on my sonic turf. and the earsplitting high-hats start dulling my ability to hear what little high-transient that I was able to hear before the band started. Then there is ear fatigue over the course of a 3 hour gig. So, what to do?

First, really learn what your instrument “should sound like.” As I said, I love setting up my amp at a gig, and dialing in some extra boom, and cranking the tweeter to have a crisp clack on the attack. Then I put down my bass, the drums set up, a bunch of other musicians show up and we sound check. I know I’m louder than most everyone on stage, but I can’t hear myself. Really, cant hear it. Weird things is, if I hit record on my iPhone, then listen back, the bass sound fine and even a little loud (I know how phone compression works, but it’s more than that). My phone can hear me, the drummer is locked in with me, the sound man, if there is one, says turn down and I cant hear a thing that I’m playing! Why? Simple, I set the amp to what I thought would sound cool and big and powerful instead of setting my amp to sound like my bass only louder. MBOL (my bass only louder) this is what an upright player should shoot for. But, I love the smilie face eq, the contour button, the enhance knob. This is the clarity killer.

Play a little quieter and see what happens.

I have been obsessed with small amps. For many good reasons, but in the long run… Meh… I should note, that I drive a Smart Car to most of my gigs and I have to fit my Upright bass, my amp, any additional gear and a change of clothes into it, so having a tiny amp is important. Plus, I’m in my 50’s so hauling a big amp sucks, and multiple trips back and forth to the car is no good either.

These little amps are great for keeping your volume down, but you spend all your time trying to make it louder, getting blisters from digging in too much or just plain disappointed in your tone. I have really been wanting one of those new Trace Elliot ELF amps and 2×8 cab. I’ve been down this rabbit hole many times before with TCE, Phil Jones, Roland and a few others.  The only exception I have found is the Gallien Kruger 112MBS. These little combos are amazing and best of all have the head-room to handle the Upright’s dynamic range. Yes, it colors your sound a bit but that’s to easy clean up. And the flexibility of being able to turn off the internal speaker and use it as a head for larger cabs, leave the internal speaker on and add an additional cab to push a little extra air for mid sized clubs or use it with the internal 12″ speaker for rehearsals and small clubs. My GK is OLD and beat, I’ve replaced the speaker and sometimes it distort for no reasons (I’ll write another post on the importance of reliable equipment), but over all, this is a super solid amp. Look around YouTube and you’ll find upright players from all genres using this amp. And it sound just like all of it’s big brothers, so if you end up at a gig with a back line that has a GK 800rb and 8×10 cab, your tone will be similar to what you hear at rehearsal with this little amp.

Back to the point, playing quieter “might” make your drummer play a little lighter to hear you and in return allow the other band members to play a little lighter allowing you to do a little less sonic battling and create a more harmonious experience. This past week at rehearsal I showed up with NO AMP on purpose. I plugged into our PA, dialed in a flat sound and we played. I had to really listen to find myself in the mix, but when I recorded a few songs, the bass was loud and sounded pretty good.

Speed Counts.

Bass frequencies are  low and slow, and that slow speed can suck. I play a bit of slap bas and I need the clack to hit fast. Additionally, when playing rock music, I need the note to hit on the down beat, not open up half a beat later. Playing through the PA, I missed the way a bass amp can feel/sound a little more… immediate. Compressors, EQs and preamps can help to kind of time align your sound (it’s not real time alignment but it can feel that way). So, now the challenge, to find a pre-amp, that makes your bass sound like MBOL, to have a compressor that still allows an upright to breath, and the flexibility to push this to an amp, a PA system or a set of headphones. I think that’s my next search. For now, I’m using either my little GK or my Fender Rumble 200 and trying to accept the flattened eq and the high-pass filter. And concentrate on hearing myself in the live stage mix instead of wanting to hear myself ABOVE the live stave mix.