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Turn My Amp Down? I Can Barely Hear Myself

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Bigger is not necessarily better

A little technical talk here. Why are 10″ speakers preferable these days over 15″?  I’ve frequently been asked turn my bass amp down and/or roll off the lows by the people mixing, yet if I turned myself down anymore I wouldn’t be able to hear myself and rolling off the lows sound awful. I’m just trying to get a good sound at a reasonable level. The reason? I was using a 15″. Here’s a reprint of an Electronic Musician article by Glenn Letsche titled Speaker of the House for you gearheads who need to know why you’re better off sticking with 10″ speaker(s). Use multiples if you need to increase your stage volume. I wouldn’t buy an SVT for the upright bass, but the principle is the same overall for bass speaker selection.

Are you irritated with your stage rig because the low end sounds muddy, boomy, or thin? Did the sound person bounce you from the main mix at the last gig because your bass was too loud out front-and the real kicker was that you couldn’t even hear yourself on stage? Well, it may be time to investigate a new speaker cabinet. However, don’t go blindly into the forest of speaker sizes and configurations.

This may be hard to accept, but big, sexy, 18-inch speakers and biamped systems do not necessarily deliver the hippest bass sound. If you lust for a truly fabulous bass cabinet-one that will help you tear the roof off most clubs and compel those sweaty bodies out in the audience to move and groove-you must forget the technobabble about SPL, dB output, and frequency response. In fact, you can also rip up all those spec sheets, gang, because now it’s time for some good, old-fashioned common sense about 10, 15, and 18-inch speakers. Let’s check out which speaker configurations are really the best for producing slammin’ bass using the only measuring device we can trust: our ears.

The 18-inch colossus. Eighteen-inch speakers are great-if they’re part of a triamped concert sound system. For that application, they pump out tons of low end to help produce a full-range sound spectrum by anchoring the mid and high frequencies. But, for the bass player, an 18-inch speaker will sound too “woofy.” In addition, these giants project your sound too far beyond the stage. Typically, the sound waves do not develop until they reach the middle of the room. This means that on stage and in front of your amp you can barely hear yourself, while out front, the sound person is pulling down your fader to avoid getting clobbered by bass! In these cases, front-loaded cabinets (in which the speaker faces out) are bad enough, but folded-horn cabinets with the speaker facing the rear are a nightmare. So do yourself (and your audience) a favor and resist the machismo-fueled temptation to go with big, bad speaker cabinets.

The 15-inch giant. Fifteen-inch speakers suffer from the same sound dispersion problem as 18-inchers: the farther you move from the speakers, the louder they get, and the better they sound. This can be a drag, because most bassists stand close to their rigs. And who is out front, getting pummeled once again by bass frequencies? Right-the soundman. You can bet that your bass is no longer being suitably mixed into the main house speakers. Fifteen-inch speakers are typically front loaded in pairs. Although this configuration was the “standard” for years, I have never known a bass player who was content with this setup. Small wonder. In an effort to improve the sound of these cabinets, some bassists would upgrade the system with expensive speakers. That move would improve the timbre somewhat-especially at low volumes-but once the level was cranked up, that awful “woof tone” would reappear. Obviously, this is not the optimum system for a bassist who is serious about his or her sound.

The biamp boondoggle. Frustrated with their tone, confused bassists often run to the nearest music store, where a salesperson may suggest biamping a rig for true “audiophile” bass. (The term sounds good-whatever it means!) Various speaker combinations are auditioned-an 18 and a 15, an 18 and a 10, and so on. Everything looks great on paper. The rig even sounds wonderful when tested at home. But at the gig, once again, the bass frequencies simply disappear. There are lots of highs and lows being produced, but the low-end punch is gone. What happened? Well, when you biamp a bass guitar rig, you delegate the low frequencies to one cabinet (loaded with an 18- or 15-inch speaker) and the upper frequencies to another cabinet (typically loaded with a 15- or 10-inch speaker). As I stated earlier, on paper this looks like a great idea. But in practice, the midrange thrust of the overall bass sound is a whisper, and your ears are screaming, “Something is wrong here!” No, you’re not going crazy: a couple of bad things are definitely happening. First, the sound at the crossover point of the two speaker cabinets tends to disappear, creating an obvious vacancy in the tonal spectrum. Second-and more important-for a true, punchy bass sound, any note plucked on the bass guitar must saturate one size of speaker. The biamp system is robbing you of monster tone! It’s one thing to biamp or triamp a P.A. system to accurately reproduce each and every instrument in the band, but a bass guitar doesn’t require that level of signal manipulation. In this instance, more tonal options only serve to dissipate the aggressive wallop of the bass. The subwoofer system. A biamp configuration that can work-if used with extreme caution-is the subwoofer system. The massive low frequencies these systems generate are often unwieldy, although under rare circumstances, a subwoofer can produce incredible results. For example, when I played bass with Robin Trower, he wanted to feel a “blanket” of bass under his (very loud) solos. In that situation, my subwoofer system supplied a huge low-end floor to the sound of the power trio, and Trower was happy. Of course, in another performance situation, the added bass might have been too much, making the music mix sound muddy and flabby. Again, incorporate subs with caution. To set up a subwoofer system, your bass preamp must have separate subwoofer and full-range outputs. You must also have a separate stereo power amp. Send the subwoofer output of the preamp to one channel of the power amp, and connect a 15- or 18-inch speaker cabinet. Then send the full-range output of the preamp to the other channel of the power amp and connect that channel to a full-range speaker cabinet (preferably a 4 x 10 configuration). Bring up the volume of the full-range channel first, and set it to the desired volume. Now, set the crossover point for the subwoofer output between 100 Hz and 200 Hz (or wherever it sounds good), and crank up the volume until you achieve maximum thrust. If you’re using this setup for an appropriate application, it should work like a champ! The power of ten.

Okay, here’s the secret of a bass player’s success-the speaker system that works consistently in 95 percent of all live performance situations. It’s simple: tens, tens, and more tens. Ten-inch speaker cabinets (2 x 10, 4 x 10, or 8 x 10-you can’t lose!) supply tons of lows, mids, and highs. These cabinets will keep your bass sound tight and muscular. Trust me, your notes will sound big, round, and articulate. And if you still believe that an 18-inch speaker cabinet should kick butt on a “puny” 10-inch system, line up the two configurations side by side and compare the sound. Your ears will not lie to you. The tens will convert the most skeptical player. I guarantee it. After all, twenty-something years ago, Ampeg unleashed its SVT amp with 300 watts and two 8 x 10 cabinets (sixteen speakers!). This rig produced the first bass body massage and became the unofficial standard of stadium and club stages. Each of those 10-inch speakers acted like ten strong Swedish fingers, working and kneading every muscle in your back. Your body tingled with every pluck of the strings. Passing time has brought numerous refinements to speaker technology, but the functional concept of 10-inch speaker systems for the bassist rocks on. In fact, that old SVT sound continues to be a much lusted-after tone.

Why reinvent the wheel? Savvy players stick with what works best, and 10-inch speakers are the prime choice for raging bass sound. Now get down and go deep!

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