How’s it going, audiophiles? Whether you’re planning on shredding out on the electric guitar, laying down the grooves on a bass or even punching in some melodies on a keyboard, you’re going to have to have to get yourself an amplifier. Although there are plenty of universal truths about what to look for in amplifiers that apply to instruments of all kind, there are also certain specifics that should be noted. Today, we’re going to be checking out on what to look for in a bass amplifier. Let’s get to it!
The first thing – and probably most important thing as far as consumers are concerned – that stands out as a major difference between tube and solid state amps is the price difference, specifically that tubes are pricier. Sure, there are plenty of $2,000 solid states just as there are plenty of $500 tube amps but if we compare the two types using similar quality amplifiers, the difference is a lot more noticeable. The single main reason for this is simple; solid state amps are far cheaper to produce than tubes. Price aside, solid state amps are also far more durable than tubes which are notoriously sensitive to improper usage that can lead to break downs. So, if solid state amps are cheaper and last longer, why would anyone consider a tube? Well, that answer for that lies in the human ear; it’s all about the tone. When overdriven, (pushed to the limit beyond the point where the amp can produce the sound cleanly), tube amps produce a 2nd order (even) harmonic whereas solid states produce an odd order harmonic (3rd order), if both are of the "push-pull" type. Transistor (solid-state) distortion sounds HARSH to the human ear, whereas even harmonics are more easily tolerated, even melodic. This pretty much means that a tube amp can be "pushed" further without being intolerable.
In the case of guitarists, this is a very important difference, especially if you are deliberately trying to go for that classic, tube overdriven sound. Sure, there are plenty of solid states with amp modelers (more on that later) that come close to recreating that specific sound, but they are usually more costly and still haven’t convinced the old school analog die-hards to make the switch. On the other hand, bassists don’t really need to worry about tube versus solid state all that much unless they are also specifically looking for a natural tube sound when the amp is pushed to its limits. And if you’re worried about a solid state amp giving you that harsh 3rd order harmonic we talked about, no real need to worry as they now come with plenty of head room so that you can pump out plenty of volume for your bass without needed to push it to its limits. So, to reiterate, does solid versus tube matter for a bassist? Yes, but not really, at least nowhere near as much as it does for a guitarist.
Does Size Matter?
In order for you to be playing in style (and by style, I mean, with sound) you must have an amplifier to power your speakers. The first typical design is to have the speaker in a cabinet by itself and a separate amplifier sitting on top of it, known as a head, plugged into the back of the cabinet. The other is a combo amp which combines the head and the cabinet in one package. There is no real quality difference between the two arrangements if they are in a comparable range. It's a matter of personal preference, though the combo is usually a bit cheaper. Combo and heads aside, you’re going to have to determine how much power you’ll need for your situation. For practice or low volume rehearsal you can get by fine with a 100 watt amp. When it comes time to get serious about making yourself heard at a full volume practice session or on stage, you should be thinking more in the 200- to 400-watt range. Look for dual channels, which allows you to set up two completely different sounds with effects—say, a hard driving sound for rock and more mellow sound for ballads. If you will be playing mainly in the studio or relatively small venues, you can probably easily make due with a combo amp. Most of today’s combo amps with a closed back will play loud enough for pretty much anything except the larger venues. Most also allow you to add an extra cabinet which a lot of bass players like to do in order to reinforce the lowest octave. Unless you’re planning to play on the big stages such as large auditoriums, large halls or open arenas, a combo amp should fit the bill.
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If you’re planning on going the head route – or adding a cab to a combo – the first thing you’ll probably think about is what kind of size you should get. We’ve all heard that bigger is better, but what about when it comes to bass cabs? Beginning bassists might assume that since they're moving low end frequencies primarily, the biggest speaker available would be the best choice. Not exactly. True, the bass reaches lower notes than the guitar but it can also generate some incredibly high frequencies. This is why many bass players choose to employ a cabinet with either two 12-inch speakers (2 x 12) or four 10-inch speakers (4 x 10) rather than one massive 15- or 18-inch speaker. The problem with trying to reproduce the entire range of bass guitar frequencies in one speaker is the sound can get a little muddy and bassists typically want a clean sound. This is important so it’s best to remember. Also, there are cabinets on the market that come with four 10-inch speakers and a monster 15-incher beneath them, but these are in high dollar territory and you won't need them if you're just starting out.
Unlike guitar amplifiers, there are generally fewer small bass practice amps. The reason is simple – most bass players would rather invest in a higher quality amp suitable for all applications instead of paying for two of them. No matter what type of bass amplification you choose, the odds are very good that it will be perfect on stage or in the studio. Also be aware that some players prefer to run their bass signal through a direct box (DI box) so they can use their existing pro-quality processors to compress or smooth out a bass for recording purposes. Another option is to use both a DI box as well as a mic on a cabinet, as the combination can produce outstanding bass tracks that sit well in a mix.
If you don’t necessarily have to have that pure analog sound of tube, solid state amps with modeling effects offer a lot of value as far as the range of possible tones are concerned. These models provide everything from clean tones to a full-out overdrive along with most of the "must have" effects that bass players look for. One of the benefits that these amp modelers have over the standard tube – besides their larger tonal character range – is their ability to deliver most sounds you want without adding something you don’t: Noise! Today, pretty much all effects – even multi effects like chorus and delay plus reverb – are designed to be amazingly quiet. Still though, it has to be said that there are plenty of purists out there who feel that there is simply no substitute for the real sound and in the end, each player has to decide for themselves how to craft their own signature tone.