Less Bass(es) is More

Decluttering is liberating. I’m down to my main bass, travel bass, Coda bow, and compact amp; and I am as content in life with what basses and accessories that I have, as I have ever been in my life. I’ve come full circle.

Like most bassists, I love trying “better” (i.e. more expensive) basses and products. There has to be a reason why something costs more right. If it costs more, it must be because most people want it, therefore supply and demand say that it’s worth more. If it costs more, it must be better. Even when I had a good bass, it wasn’t too long before I’d start eying more expensive basses. I went from an old plywood bass, to a French bass, and it perpetuated to the point that I had a nice 19th century Italian bass, unlabeled, but still a beautiful instrument.

My first good bass was an unlabeled 19th century French bass. There were some “appraisals” about who the luthier was, but it’s all just an educated guess. I had it later in college and it was a fine bass, but it needed work to get it to its potential. Unfortunately work=money. When it finally was where I wanted it to be I was pretty much broke (being broke is synonymous with being a young musician anyhow). When one of life’s big tragedy hit, the family came first and ultimately I had to give up the bass. It’s not all altruistic, I made some regretful decisions to trying to keep the bass, but to the point the bass was the only thing I had of monetary value. I was sad to see it go, but that’s part of life; back to a plywood bass.

Years later, when things improved, I had my appetite for an Italian bass. I fell in love with an unlabeled early 19th century Italian bass. Having the Italian Bass was nice for the first few years, but having one can actually be a burden. It was temperamental; sometimes it would sound nice, other times it woke up on the wrong side of the bed. It felt delicate, which can be a good thing, but also a bad thing. I loved how it sounded, it wasn’t the most playable bass because it was both temperamental and its violin corners were beautiful but not the most ideal. This is not representative of all old Italian basses, but it’s not unusual that each have their own character for the better or worse. As the orchestral auditions and low paying orchestral gigs lost priority, so the Italian bass started seeing the outside world less. No way was I going to take it to any of the tight “stages” for the club and restaurant gigs; basses that have endured that circuit have their share of battle scars, so instead, it gradually became a museum piece than a instrument.

When I was fully committed to other genres of music, I decided to get a nice German Bass that I could take anywhere. The bass is a workhorse; a circa 1920’s German bass with no history associated with it. No label, no heritage. Plays well but probably need a new fingerboard soon, but it can wait. It looks lovely and has a beautiful grain, but it won’t stand out in a bass shop. It sounds very nice, but nothing spectacular; not much different than any other good quality German bass out there. I’m sure that other people tried this bass before moving onto purchase other basses which they preferred. I had intentions of buying a different bass that sounding good on paper, but didn’t make the cut. When I tried the bass, I didn’t immediately think “I’ve got to have this bass”. I set it aside and moved on to try other basses. At decision time, I was wrestling between this one and another for a couple of hours. I finally decided upon this bass, and was giddy about having another bass to get acquainted with.

When another of life’s difficult situations arose (which usually coincides with bills and payments) I decided to sell the Italian bass. To my surprise, I didn’t miss it nearly as much as I thought I would. Yes, it’s hard parting with any bass, but nothing feels amiss. The German bass actually pairs with me nicely. I try to take care of it as well as possible, but I don’t feel like a historic preservationist as I did with an Italian bass; I can go out an be a musician. It can go wherever I need to be, whether that is a small corner of a cafe or a nice concert stage. I don’t doubt that this is a keeper for many decades to come, maybe until it’s time to lay down a bass for the last time and I would have no wants of another bass. Even though I’ve owned “better” basses, this is my favorite. The reason isn’t quantifiable, it just is so. Sometimes you have to go full circle to figure out what you want in life, but it would have been far cheaper had I figured it out at the beginning.

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The Maple Engelhardt Tailpiece Experiment

In my last post, I mentioned that I was a looking for a lightweight tailpiece and tried a composite one, which snapped and broke. Jonas over at the Double Bass Guide mentioned the cheap maple ones that come on lower end basses. That though had crossed my mind, but Jonas’ bringing it up reaffirmed that it wasn’t a crazy idea would be worth looking into. It does seem odd to put a $20 tailpiece on the $10,000 bass, but then again, it would be odd to spend $150+ to possibly get the same results if I’m looking for functionality. The high end maple tailpiece look fantastic and are well crafted, but that gets negated on the Old German bass that I use for Jazz where I have the two XLR jacks with integrated preamps from the BassBalsereit Aktiv and AKG Mic attached to the underside of the tailpiece.

I’ve put in the order for two of the Engelhardt Maple Tailpieces for $20 each from Jack’s Music Store to experiment with. If I like the results of a maple tailpiece, I’ll consider getting one of the Mike Pecanic Tailpieces or the BassSpa ones.

Upright Bass Composite Tailpiece Failure – Snap! Bang!

I was standing in the same room as my basses when I heard something give and then there was a loud bang. When quickly glanced at each bass, I discovered that it was the Old German Bass with the composite tailpiece that I just installed a few days ago, which I was going to write about. Yup, broken in less than a week. I found that the composite tailpiece had failed at the joint where the tailgut goes. C’mon, they were strung with Animas so I wasn’t asking them to hold bridge suspension cable type strings. “Space Age Material”… riiiiight. I’m not going to try these again, because when something breaks like that, it sticks in the back of my mind even with a replacement. I definitely don’t want to wonder it the tailpiece is going to give again when I’m on the way to my next gig.

I’ve always been open minded to newer materials and advancements in materials that seem promising in improving on older pre-existing norms. Right when I received it, I was already questioning if these composite tailpieces are an improvement over wood tailpieces. I had my apprehension even before installing it anyhow, but it was more-so because it didn’t sound very good even in hand. Tapping on the ebony tailpiece it had a resonant sound, but with the composite tailpiece it sounded like plastic, because well …. essentially it is fancy plastic. Yes, because it was very lightweight the bass seemed louder and more open, but there was some loss in quality in the upper harmonics. The bass just didn’t sound as crisp. The lighter weight is welcomed, but plastic as a material just isn’t. I’m not sure that I can recommend that you switch from the common ebony tailpiece to a composite, such as a Wittner. The tailpiece gave up on me before I did on it so let’s just part our ways and move on.

Onto the next thing. I contacted both Mike Pecanic and Jake at the BassSpa in Vancouver because they both make tailpieces out of several types of woods so maybe I can have the best of both worlds, light and resonant.

A Thomastik Spirocore Story

Seems that there are a lot of newbies that know to ask for Spirocores, but don’t know why. I still love Spirocores, even though I’ve moved away from them in recent year.

I’ve been a long time Thomastik Spirocore user when it came to strings for most jazz work. These  are considered THE STANDARD, for jazz players, and have been for decades. A vast number of jazz bassists as well as known names such as Ray Brown, Dave Holland, and Christian McBride use Spirocores. If you are a jazz bassist, at some point you’d have used Spirocores. They are bright, loud and have a ringing that people associate with a bass sound in jazz. There are many reasons to love them. They aren’t expensive, they sound good on almost any bass, they don’t get washed out by other instruments in ensembles, they are durable; among other reasons. You’ll hear complaints about the G string being to twangy, the set being too high in tension, or some other complaints; remember it’s not a perfect string but it’s a highly regarded and respected string.

We at Thomastik have created a revolutionary orchestral jazz bass string.

Spirocores were not designed with the intent of making the best Jazz string; their intention was to create a better orchestral string. Some bassist would say that it was fate or divine intervention that Thomastik-Infeld created an orchestral string that worked so well for Jazz; a string that jazz bassists still highly regard and love to this day. It is not as if Thomastik surveyed jazz bassists and set out to design a string based on that criteria, the truth was that Thomastik created a new line of strings which Jazz bassists ended up liking and gravitated towards because it had characteristics that worked great for jazz.

How I Ended Up Wanting Spirocores

As most young bassists, I started out with a pretty lousy plywood bass for several years before college. What strings the bass came with were the ones that you played. You were lucky to have matching strings, and even luckier if yours had Spirocores, but you were clueless that it was a Spirocore since the local music store was clueless in identifying bass strings. Actually it was a curse because you’d spend years hoping to find that great sounding string via happenstance that you didn’t know was a Spirocore. Gut strings?… No one ever brought them up. If you were savvy enough to ask for a gut string, you’d either get a response that no one uses gut anymore and/or find out that gut strings cost more than what your bass was worth. Gut was the boogieman, we’ve heard about it, but never seen it and we were to forget that we heard about it. So we spent years getting very familiar with steel strings.

When you broke a string and had the money to replace that one string (what kid had the money to get a whole set?), you went and asked for a bass string. They’d point at the various packages on the wall, until you clarified that you need a double bass string. At that point they’d dig in their drawer and try to find are replacement for the string that you broke. After displacing dozens of violin strings, voila! “oh oops, this is an A you need a D”… voila! they get you your shiny new string. You might get whatever brand they happen to have in that drawer. It might be a Spirocore by chance, but it usually was some cheap string such as Super Sensitive or the like. Most of the time you’d end up with some other orchestral string until …. one day you were handed the string that looked like the one that you remembered sounding so good with the words “Spirocore …Thomastik-Infeld”

Parting Ways in College

Things between me and the Spirocores were good until college and the bass curriculum required technically difficult orchestral pieces in addition to jazz.  At this point, I started learning about the existence of other brands and types of strings, ones that bowed a lot easier. I bounced back and forth between the Flexocores which were great in orchestral and the Helicore Hybrids: the-worst-of -both-worlds orchestra and jazz string, but they worked for both.  After college I couldn’t get a hold of a second bass fast enough so that I could have a dedicated jazz upright bass with Spirocores.

Other companies have tried to create strings that “improve” on what people like about the Spirocores, but most players seem to inevitably return to the Spirocores. I’ve moved away from steel core strings, so they no longer are on my basses, but I still recommend them to beginners who want to play mostly pizz because you can’t go wrong with them. Competitors of Thomastik have tried to improve on the Spirocore with their own steel core “jazz string” and have failed to upstage them, because it’s hard to beat the tried and true set of Spirocores.

Acoustic Image Ten2 Ex

Remember back when I said that the Acoustic Image Coda+ was a godsend and that I have all that I needed in amplification? Remember how I said that it was everything that an upright bass amplifier should be and that there was no need to do anything else.

I was wrong.

This past weekend, I was running the Czech-Ease bass and ran into a problem at a large venue. I had the BassBalsereit pickup plugged into the Acoustic Image Coda+ and the DI to the PA board. During my own sound check, everything was good. As usual, the amp was so transparent that the only way I knew that it was doing its job was the fact that I knew the bass couldn’t get that loud on its own. All seemed well until the ensemble was just really loud. I could barely hear myself so I started turning up the master volume knob. Cranked up really high, I could finally hear myself, but at the cost of tone out of the amp. The sound produced was no longer flat and certain bands of frequencies were more pronounced than others. The sound coming out was better than the days of bass guitar amps, Polytones, and GK MB, but it wasn’t what I’ve become spoiled with accustomed to.

Everyone knows that if you want more volume, you need more speakers, not more watts. The 800 watt Coda+ amp is plenty for what I do, but I just wasn’t moving enough air. So here is the solution and latest addition; the Acoustic Image Ten2 EX extension speaker. Pictured is the Acoustic Image Coda stacked on top of the Ten2Ex. I’m confident that this should do the trick.

The theory is normally the Coda is great for most moderate level situations. It doesn’t make itself known since it’s sonically invisible with its flat reproduction and downward facing woofer. The bassy punch (presence) come from the bass itself and the speakers just reinforced the bass. When the set gets LOUD, the forward facing 10″ is needed to reinforce the punch from the bass since the natural punch gets lost in the wash on stage.

For the mere cost of two packs of Velvet Anima Strings, I could buy the Contra Ten2 EX ($629) More on this when I get a chance to put the speaker and combination in real situations.

David Gage Czech Ease

CE_full3After the custom NS Design CR4T was damaged in shipping, I was in the market again for another Electric Upright Bass, since I strongly detest dot markers and it would take months for NS Design to make me another CR4T. I decided to go with the David Gage Czech Ease, even though it is significantly harder to transport than a EUB. I’ve known about the Czech eases, but the first version was mediocre in sound and I wanted to keep my traveling bass as compact as possible. The second revisions definitely are better, which offset its larger size compared to the EUB. I ordered it through Southwest Strings which is a company with a very high level of integrity.

When I was at the local shop, they had a rental Czech Ease that I rented since the NS Bass was damaged and I had a travel gig that I needed it for right away. I’ve heard of these for years and it sounded like a great opportunity to give it a try. When I returned, I was doing some price shopping for a better price on that Czech Ease and that’s when I stumbled upon String Southwest’s fantastic deal. In fact, the price was one that I haven’t seen since it was first introduced, which made me suspect an error in the pricing. I called them, they took the order and honored the price. Shortly after they promptly corrected the mistake on their website, but they did make good on the price. This is how a company wins people’s loyalty for life. They could have said it’s a typo and not made good on it, but they did what people with integrety do, they made good on their word.

I’m already enjoying the acoustic nature of the Czech Ease over EUB’s. It won’t replace my old German bass, but I do see using it for places where I chose the EUB because of its size and durability (small restaurants and outdoor gigs). Time will tell if dealing with the larger size of the Czech Ease over the NS Design Bass dampen my outlook of it being the idea travel bass, but the right now, the quality sound is so far worth the extra effort. There is no way that a EUB will ever have the ability to produce the acoustic timbre of the Czech ease, but the EUB was much more convenient. I have already decided to use the BassBalsereit “Studio” Pickup and AKG c516 mic from the German bass. The nice thing is that it only take a minute to move them from one bass to the other.

Question of the Week: Acoustic Emulators

I’ve been asked and have run across the same question several times over the last few years. Effects pedal manufacturers have a product out called an Acoustic Simulator or Emulator. They were created so that solid body electric guitar players can have the sound of an acoustic steel string guitar by merely using this pedal.

It’s a simple pedal with four control knobs (function is Boss’ description of what they do):

  1. Level: controls how loud the signal is
  2. Body: controls the resonance
  3. Top: controls brilliance & harmonics
  4. Mode: adjusts how large of a guitar body this is supposed to emulate.

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I bought the Boss AC-2 (same as AC-3 nix the reverb) and tried in on the NS Design Electric Upright Bass here are my impressions:

On the EUB, it most obvious thing that it does is EQ everything so that the lows are boosted. Different ‘body’ settings boosted the lows differently. It’s a clean boost, but it didn’t do anything that turning the bass knob on the amp couldn’t have done.

There was no pecievable resonance on the lower octave on the bass. Lows just sounded boosted.

Three octaves up is where I heard a slight hint of resonace when the knob was turned to ‘Jumbo’. It’s not the type or amount that you would hear on a regular upright bass.  It’s almost like the resonance that you would hear on a hollowbody EUB. By hint, it means that I had to really listen to hear it. Your average non-upright playing joe would not perceive this readily. Any other ‘Modes’ than ‘Jumbo’ and the resonance is imperceivable.

Brilliance really didn’t do anything perceivable except add noise (hiss) when boosted and act like a treble knob.

Here’s the problem with the pedal, it’s noisy. I used it for a few casual gigs to try it out and it didn’t do anything odd or bad to the sound. The slight resonance was a welcomed add. I stopped using it after a while because while the resonance was not easily perceivable by most, the hiss was.

I wouldn’t completely discount the pedal since there were no compatibility issues with the NS upright bass, but the benefits weren’t enough to outweight the negative for me. If you do decide to try this on your EUB, I wouldn’t recommend it on with any EUB with a high impedance pickup. The NS has a built in preamp to drop it to low impedance, but you may get a undesirable dirty sound if you plug a high impedance source into electronics designed for low impedance signals.