Saturday, December 14, 2013

Bass Pedals: Basic to Playhouse

Bass Pedals: Basic to Playhouse

A student of mine recently asked me to explain bass pedals, from the basics on up. It’s no secret that almost every guitarist uses pedals as part of their artistic pallet of sonic colors and textures, and for a guitarist to show up at a gig without pedals is almost unfathomable.

Bassists, on the other hand, are usually expected to bring only a clean, strong foundation, without any real color beyond the sound of their fingers, bass, and amplifier. I’ve gone through stages as a player where I used pedals for color only when absolutely necessary, and I’ve also gone through stages when the sounds I heard in my head required some effect for the type of gigs I was doing at the time.
Many pedal manufacturers use true bypass as a major selling point, but in my opinion, the richer harmonics of the sub lows of my signal never stay completely unaffected when my pedals are in standby mode. And for me, this is the only major drawback of using pedals. While power buffers and quality patch cables can help minimize this problem, I play bass, not guitar (which exists more in the midrange and is not quite as sensitive to this issue), so I might opt for no pedals at all to keep a pristine tonal path. In fact, the few times my pedalboard has gone down mid-show while out on tour, the FOH engineer confirmed that he got a richer bottom-end when the cable was plugged straight into the amplifier. With all that said, my current local gigs and main touring gig require that I use pedals. And for me, there are necessary pedals, less necessary pedals, and “candy” pedals (the ridiculously fun ones that will get you fired from certain gigs if used too liberally).

The Basic Needs: Preamp/DI, Compressor, and Tuner
I believe a preamp/DI pedal is an absolute necessity. Not only will you be familiar with the DI at the gig since it’s your DI, you also have the opportunity to warm up the sound and dial in some overdrive. (Personally, I use this type of pedal as an amp simulator, and never really dial up more of the heavily distorted tones it’s capable of.)

The basic pedalboard for bassists should also house a compressor pedal, since they really help make most basses punchier and more even. Because I play 5-string basses almost exclusively, having a compressor pedal helps that 5th string blend in better with the other four—both in frequency and tone. And finally, a tuner should certainly be part of the basic pedalboard, but because of the tone-deterioration possibility mentioned earlier, I run a parallel line to it instead of running my sound through it.
The Next Step: Secondary Distortion and Octave Pedals
In addition to a tube-warmth pedal that stays on my pedalboard permanently (which I only use for amplifier-type coloration), I use a separate pedal for a heavier distortion sound that really pops. I prefer a very present bite in the high end, though I’ve noticed that a lot of other bassists try to avoid this in their distortion settings. This tone is equally usable for heavy metal and Larry Graham-type lead-funk tones, and that’s why it is almost a necessity for me.

When it comes to octave pedals for bass, their use can be heard on many classic records, and they can really make a dramatic statement. During my first years as a professional bassist, I was a 4-string player exclusively, and using an octave pedal enabled me to play the occasional low C or D when needed, and more importantly, allowed me to cover basic synth-like pop tones with a traditional 4-string instrument. While it can be a cool and fun effect for solos, an octave pedal can also be used to propel an entire song and provide you an additional voice as a player—giving you the opportunity for a greater variety of gigs.
The Fun Ones: Envelope Filters, Chorus, Reverb, and Synth-Bass Pedals
I have to start this section with a disclaimer: If you are a funk player exclusively, these pedals might actually belong in the section for basic pedals. Since I primarily play pop, rock, soul, and modern country, these types of pedals are pure, playhouse candy for me. An auto wah/ envelope filter is a pedal that is as effective for bass as a traditional wah is for guitar. It can make a solo or other part really sound like its own thing by making a stronger sonic imprint and stronger artistic statement. I actually have two different envelope filters on my pedalboard, so I’m able to better replicate different, classic funk tones. And for stepping even deeper into funk land, I also employ a bass-synth pedal for an assortment of wacky settings for really out-there sounds, or more traditional, moog-esque synth tones. But I have to watch out: This pedal can absolutely blow up a PA if used recklessly.

When playing solo pieces—and ballads in some cases—a good chorus pedal will come in handy by providing higher notes with a gorgeous voice. Using chorus in a band setting also totally works (Duff McKagan on the Appetite for Destruction album and Mark King with the band Level 42 are great examples), but you have to use diligence since it’s possible to make the whole band sound slightly out of tune. And when it comes to reverb pedals, they too can be tremendously useful for bass-solo pieces. I like to really indulge in reverb when I’m performing a solo piece in order to emulate the acoustics of playing in an old cathedral. It inspires me to play fewer notes and helps me use a greater dynamic range.
Choices in pedals are such an individual thing, and my pedalboard is a very personal setup. So if you are just beginning your adventure in bass-pedal exploration, the best starting point is to prioritize from basic to fun based on what’s ideal for you and your style.

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