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DAVID J. KING, bass luthier and consultant on bass amplification systems, discusses ways to overcome the perennial battle between what we think we hear on stage and what the audience is actually getting.



Dear Reader,

I’ve always been struck by the preponderance of poor live bass sound. Musicians show up at gigs with thousands of dollars worth of rig and the bass of their dreams yet the results are often dismal. Their sound often seems clouded and filled with extraneous noise. The unfortunate sound person's best efforts are usually for naught, so he or she has no recourse but to take the bass down in the mix, inevitably filling in the overall sound with extra kick drum. Many bassists are oblivious to this predicament, having for some reason long since relegated that responsibility to others.

The challenges for getting good live bass sound are many...Most players imagine their sound to be in a vacuum, standing by itself, so unfortunately what sounds good solo in their bedroom has little in common with what is needed at the concert hall. When bands practice there is seldom enough thought given to how the instruments blend and who will fit in where in the sound spectrum. Guitarist thrill to extended bass in their sound, while bassists think that every sibilant nuance of their new strings must be broadcasted to the masses. Meanwhile drummers are dutifully covering the sound spectrum from bass drum to high-hat.

The result is that no one is heard correctly and a volume race ensues in both the practice room and on stage. Bassists can most successfully compete with their best foot forward by developing clear, fat fundamental tones enriched with clean midrange...and not much else.

We could start in our search for a good live sound by taking some of our cues from the electric bass pioneers of the 50's and 60's. With very modest equipment they were able to propel their music in a most effective and memorable way, often using short scale basses with hollow bodies and flat wound strings of prehistoric vintage. Few of us today will tolerate dead strings, but we should consider that much of a new string's sound is high frequency clutter. On stage the guitar, cymbals and other high frequency sources will mask most of those highs. Trying to poke through the mix by boosting mids and highs won't clear up the bass part since the harmonic content is mostly finger noise, sympathetic ringing from adjacent strings and buzz or hiss.

Much can be gained by filtering the sound before it is amplified. Bass intelligibility is determined by wave shape. Certain waveforms can cut through better than others. Of course it's best to fit the song with an appropriate tone and then strive for intelligibility from there by cutting out the parts of the signal that aren't essential. In practice this might mean having a couple of different basses, using active or passive pickup configurations.

If you play several styles during a set you will need to sound check each permutation, from reggae to smooth jazz, to see how the room responds. Also if you are touring a regular circuit, you should also take written notes on each venue, you will be back and it will save you some time if you already ‘know’ a room sound-wise. Always talk to the local sound person to find out what works. They in turn will appreciate your concern and do their best on your behalf.

If you own a big rig and are playing in a small venue, stay out of the house mix entirely. A single point source is better at avoiding wave cancellations around the room. For a deeper sound, set your rig against a back wall or in a corner to enhance the boundary effect. If the low end overpowers, move the rig up towards the middle of the stage. Ten-inch drivers tend to focus sound in a narrow beam and aren't as good for filling big rooms. If you are using that speaker configuration you can try bouncing the sound off a back wall to get better propagation but you will loose some highs in the process.

If you mic your amp for the house feed, make sure you aren't distorting on stage. A ‘D.I.’ (Direct Input) is a much better way to go and you would be much further ahead buying one that you like. It's a small investment that can make a big difference. Most bass preamps and amps now come with built in D.I.'s that work well but you might want to experiment anyway. Some of the best bass players I know simply use the D.I. and the house monitors for their signal and leave their rigs at home. They sound better and don't have sore backs either.

Keep your stage volume at an absolute minimum if you are going through the house mains. 2 x 10's are best suited for monitoring, setting them up at ear level or angle them up from the stage. Use them for side fill rather than aiming them indiscriminately out at the audience. This will let the mains sound their best and won't confuse the sound person with a hot bass signal beamed right at the mixing board. The latest trend is in-ear monitors for the whole band and Plexiglas baffles around the drummer. These systems are still expensive but a complete system can be built up slowly by starting first with the vocalist, who seem to love them.

Tell the front of house engineer that you want less overall volume. A house system running at 100dB will have enough headroom and will sound far better than a system that is maxed out at 129dB. Bass requires most of the power in a house system so if all the power is being used up with kick drum, reverb and vocals, your low frequencies will never get a chance. Your audience will go home with ears ringing ears and won't have benefited from a note you've played. Recently I heard about a club that uses a low power FM broadcast instead of relying on the house sound. This way each patron gets their own headset and can adjust their volume as they wish.

Now that's utopian.


You can reach Dave at his web site at… or e-mail him at

Take a look at some of the wonderful basses he has created while at his site.

He can also be reached by snail mail at…

David J. King Bass Guitar Systems

4805 North Borthwick Avenue

Portland, Oregon 97217

(503) 282-0327

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