Question of the Week: I play bass guitar and would like to learn to play the upright. Can I learn on an electric upright first?

1237915901444139591papapishu_Man_playing_contrabass.svg.hiI play bass guitar and would like to learn to play the upright. Can I learn on an electric upright first?

There is no simple answer that would encompass all individuals, but there are some general consideration about learning first on an electric upright bass. There may be something that restricts you from starting on a regular (acoustic) upright bass, so if that is the case, yes you can learn on the electric upright first until the opportunity to play a regular upright bass is possible for you.

If you learn on an electric upright, keep in mind that there will be adjustments that you will need to make, if and when you decide to play the acoustic. Since the electric upright bass has virtually no body, you can conceivably stand as close to the instrument’s strings as you would ever want. You can buy a bass that has some “props” that mimic where the upper bout would be, but it’s still not the same as getting used to playing with a bass’ body keeping you a certain distance from the strings.

The acoustic nature of the upright bass is what makes the tone so rewarding and also unforgiving. Good electric upright basses are responsive to changes in articulation, but no where near the level of an acoustic upright bass. An upright bass has a very expansive palette, which is what makes it harder than an electric upright bass or bass guitar to play consistently, but it also allows you a lot of flexibility through variations in technique which for expressiveness when you get to a higher ability. The same techniques used on an electric upright bass often times does not produce a desirable tone. This is the same reason that a lot of upright bassists complain that electric upright basses are not expressive, electric upright basses don’t sound good when you deviate to far from the sweet spot.

Most electric upright basses sound lousy when playing arco (with a bow), so you won’t be able to develop your bowing technique. A lot of bass guitar players mention that they have no interest in learning to play with a bow, so this may not be an important factor to you. I would highly encourage you to learn to be competent at playing with a bow, because it’ll make you a far better bassist in the long run.

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Acoustic Image Coda+

Amplification History

Thinking back to the amount of hard earned money lost to buying promising amps and selling them later, I have become weary of amplifications. Upright Bassists didn’t have dedicated amplification. Let’s recall our options; Polytone general purpose amps that were shared with guitarists in Jazz Band, GK MB combos that never sounded like the bass, and a myriad of bass guitar amps that were designed with a lot of scooped range and coloration so that bass guitars could sound better. Walter Woods amps were legendary among upright bassists, but the price put it out of my reach and the amp was still at the mercy of scooped speaker cabinets. I liked my SWR Baby Blue (combo) since it was the cleanest and flattest amp out there, but it still had some scooped frequency response. That didn’t matter as much because pickups were still not flattering to hear and didn’t do a good job of reproducing the actual sound of the bass. Older bassists thought that us youngsters had it good because we had choices: the Underwood or the Fishman.

The planets aligned in the last ten years and things got a lot better for us upright bassists. There was growth in the upright bass world more bassists discovering or rediscovering the upright bass., technology got cheaper, and a demand for better products. There were career engineers at companies such as BassBalsereit and Acoustic Image who wanted to come up with products that improved bass amplification. Computer aided design and manufacturing led to better pickups, strings, speakers, amps, and the upright bass took a leap forward in sound and playability. We could actually have pickups and amps that could accurately reproduced the natural sound of the bass.

Go back a little to the 1990’s and Acoustic Image was on my radar from the very first Ad that I saw in the bass magazines. While I liked the idea of an upright specific amplifier it didn’t sound any better than the SWR Baby Blue. Maybe it was actually better, but none of the pickups were accurate enough to take advantage of the improvements. As the years went by, I saw AI improve their amps with each generation. I started using the then revolutionary David Gage Realist pickup and which was far more responsive and full than the Underwood. The difference between the SWR Baby Blue and AI Amp was less subtle. Finally came the BassBalsereit Studio Aktiv pickup and it was time to change amps. However, word on the inside was that a new version of the Coda was in the works so I waited patiently for them to ship it.

This Brings Us to Now

I had the biggest grin when I hooked it up with the BassBasereit Active Studio Pickup.  I set everything up and started to play. My bass was louder, but I wasn’t sure if it was the room making the bass louder. I hit the mute switch which brought the level down and unmuting the amp only brought the volume up, but the sound remained the same. “This is what amplification is about” I said to myself, aside from electric guitars and bass guitars, it’s the whole goal of amplification and sound reinforcement to be as accurate as possible? I loved the sound of my bass and amplification didn’t change any of that, nor did I want it to.

I’m very happy with the Acoustic Image Coda+. It’s dead quiet, no hiss, no buzz, no hum. Loud or soft, high or low, arco or pizz my bass sounds like my bass from the amp. I’m glad that I’m all set with amplification so that I can focus on more important things such as playing.

The amp is also compact and very light at 23 lbs. I purchased the Mooradian Bag with it and I can get the bass and amp in one trip. The padded bag is a must if you want to keep the amp in good condition, because its girth tends to make it bump door jams and catch pneumatic closing doors when you are maneuvering your bass through doorways.

Acoustic Image has a high level of customer support and their warranty backs their amplifier. AI amps are regarded as highly reliable since they are well engineered and well built. My conversations with Rick Jones of AI for various reasons, have been very pleasant. A good company with a good product, that’s a great formula.

After playing some gigs, I’m happy now that I don’t have to worry about amplification. No one comments how great the amp sounds, they comment on how great the bass sounds, which is the best compliment that an amp can get. They wouldn’t be able to appreciate the sound of the bass without the amp. It’s a thankless job being a transparent amp, but it’s the way things should be.

I’m all set with my amplification. DONE!

NS Design NXT Electric Upright Bass

nxt3qfull2NS Design has announced the specification for the upcoming NXT Electric Upright Bass. This bass fills the large gap between the entry level WAV basses and the high end CR series. The most notable difference between the WAV and the new NXT EUB is the difference in country of origin. The WAV bass is made in China, while the NXT EUB is made in Czechoslovakia, where the CR series is made. To save on costs, NS Design nixed certain features from the CR bass in order to keep the prices down

The NXT Series Double Bass opens up a new horizon for the serious bassist looking to play a great instrument on a limited budget.  These new instruments, crafted in the Czech Republic by the makers of the renowned CR Series, exemplify flawless workmanship at an incredible value.

Pizzicato and arco techniques have almost unlimited expressive potential, thanks to the Polar™ Pickup System. A convenient switch allows selection of the traditional arco mode for percussive attack and dynamic bowed response, or pizzicato mode for a smooth, sustained tone. Equipped with single volume and tone controls, the passive electronics deliver unlimited overhead for the ultimate sound without cumbersome batteries.

The solid maple body and neck, together with the graduated ebony fingerboard, deliver a rich, full tone that rings true for every note. Asymmetrical fingerboard relief facilitates an even ‘growl’ from the higher strings and a clear, powerful lower register.  The adjustable bridge and truss rod allow for low, fast action, or for higher string settings that encourage the traditional acoustic player to ‘dig in’ with gusto.

NS Electric Strings and most traditional acoustic strings fit all NS Double Basses, allowing the player to select from a wide range, each with a unique sound a feel. In combination with the easy adjustment of basic set-up parameters, the NXT Series Bass is adaptable to many different styles of music.

A wide array of interchangeable support systems make the NXT Double Bass adaptable to virtually any situation. Standard equipment includes a self-supporting tripod stand with full adjustments for height and angle.  A more traditional end pin stand is available, as well as shoulder strap options that allow for full mobility.

The NXT bass brings world-class design and craftsmanship to a surprisingly affordable price range. With a visual appearance as striking as its sound, the roadworthy NXT is an exciting and reliable partner for the most demanding performance career.

Official price is to be announced. Price is estimated to be in the low $1000 range.

Choosing an Electric Upright Bass (EUB)

NA003481Some of the frequently commonly asked questions of visitors are for advice on which Electric Upright Bass (EUB) they should choose. Everyone who plays one has their preference, so if you ask ten different people you’re going to get fifteen different answers. There is no clearly superior electric upright bass among the different good quality basses (costing $2000+), which is why all of them have their share of endorsements.

I don’t have much ownership experience with the entry level electric upright basses such as the Palatino and NS Design WAV basses. What I can say about them (which bass guitar players can relate to) is that picking up one feels the same way as when you pickup a Fender Squire or some other factory produced music instrument from Asia. There is a lack of consistency and they generally don’t feel or sound as good. After reading various comments from owners of these, these basses can be difficult to play and the sound is far from ideal. It seems that from day two after taking one home, those owners are already looking forward to the day when they can trade up. Circumstances may dictate that you may have to make due with a bass that is within your budget, but these guidelines will still be relevant.

Different Philosophies

People have different ideas of the ideal electric upright bass. Some want it as a direct substitute for an acoustic upright bass, while others want it to supplement their upright bass; as another tool. Players who want it as a direct replacement want it to sound and get as close to the “real thing” as possible, so that they no longer have to deal with some of the difficulties of a regular upright bass. Others have and love their upright basses, but want an EUB to compliment it; for a different sound or different purpose.

I fall into the latter category. In the past I was in search of an electric upright bass to substitute for the upright bass, but after many years, I knew that physically there is no possible way for an EUB to sound like a good upright bass; it’s physics. A semi-acoustic is our version of a guitar with a ukulele sized body. Maybe there will be some hi-tech method of making an electric upright bass sound like an acoustic, similar to the acoustic simulators which make electric guitars sound like acoustics, but it’s impossible physically. During those years however, I did grow fond of the electric upright bass for its distinct sound which expands my tonal pallet. I do use the electric upright bass as a tool also of convenience such as rehearsals or places that just aren’t safe to bring a regular upright bass (uncovered outdoor festivals and microscopic jazz cafes).

String Options

Upright Bass strings is where the tone and timbre of an upright bass starts from. If you want your electric upright bass to sound more like an upright bass and less like a bass guitar, you need to use upright bass strings. An electric upright bass should accommodate standard upright bass strings. Some electric upright basses use bass guitar strings or limit you to strings made only by them. Bass guitar strings will make an electric upright bass sound like a fretless bass guitar and basses that limit you to proprietary strings don’t allow you to change types of strings to adjust your sound. For some odd reason (maybe it’s cost cutting) even higher end electric uprights like the NS Design CR basses come with really crappy strings. I don’t know why NS Design would want to ship out basses sounding far from ideal due to bad strings. Fortunately you can change them out with real upright bass strings, and you have to right away! It makes a world of a difference.

String Length

String length is the term that is used for upright basses, but it’s the same thing as “scale length” for bass guitars. String Length should be around 41 1/2″, which is a common string length of most upright basses. Don’t worry if a bass is off by up to one inch shorter or longer. You should be able to find out this specification on most electric upright basses online. If in doubt, measure it out: measure the length from the nut to the bridge. There are a few companies that make electric upright basses in the bass guitar scale length of 35″ so check this specification prior to purchase. 35″ string length electric upright basses are more of a marketing gimmick which is targeted towards bass guitar players , but these sound just like fretless bass guitars.

Brand Difference

There aren’t huge tonal difference between different makers of good quality upright basses. There are far greater differences between string brands, types and lines. Upright bass strings come in different types of string cores, wrap materials, and gauges, which create hugh difference in timbre. Unlike bass guitar strings which are only steel cores, string cores can also be composed of gut, synthetic, nylon, velvet rope, and various alloys. Among the better electric upright bass brands, strings make a larger difference in sound than the actual bass themselves.

Some makers include electric upright basses with small hollow bodies to allow for resonance. I’ve never been a proponent for hollow-bodied electric upright basses, since they cost more without providing resonance that is anything similar to a real upright bass (once again, it’s like a ukulele body on a guitar). Arguably it is closer to the sound of a regular upright bass, but it’s still far from the real thing. If you want an EUB is a substitute for a regular upright bass, and your goal is to get as close as possible this would be a step closer, but it’s still nowhere near.

Hardware

One of the more significant differences between basses is in the design of their endpin and/or stand. Some basses only have endpins that extend out of the bottom, some are designed held by a tripod, while others have variations of either or both.

My preference is for a stand that allows for adjustments in tilt, whether it be tripod or endpin. My reason is because I use a Laborie endpin for my regular upright bass, which changes the angle of the fingerboard relative to the floor. This is a key, but commonly overlooked factor in choosing an electric upright. The hardware design should allow the EUB to feel transparent; not feel distractingly different than your upright bass.

Some companies like to incorporate features that mimic the bouts of an acoustic upright bass. Bouts shapes vary among basses and I’ve never used it for reference in playing any upright bass. Some people do, so this feature may be important to you if you need some physical cue to help you know where you are at on the fingerboard. As for others of you who use the Rabbath/Laborie Endpin on your bass, the location of the fake bouts on the EUB won’t be in the right location, since you are used to being in contact with the back corner of the bout rather than the front corner, so they are more of a nuisance in transporting and setting up the EUB than helpful when you play.

Get It and Forget It

The purpose of a bass is to be your tool in your musical journey. Remember that music comes from you not the instrument which is your tool to convey your music thoughts. After you’ve spent a few weeks getting yourself familiarized with your EUB and getting it dialed in, focus on the playing to further improve your sound, instead of continuing to obsess about the different EUB’s out there. Remember: It’s the ideas and the ability to convey those ideas that your audience hears, not the slight variations between the different EUB’s out there.

Miking an Upright Bass: Stay Away From My f-hole

Figure3After stating that I prefer the AKG c 416 and its revision the AKG C 516, some people have emailed me and asked if I have tried the Applied Microphone Technology s25b on the upright bass. I have tried it for a few weeks, but there were a few things about it that didn’t work for me. The biggest thing is the placement of the microphone. The AMT s25b is designed to be placed at the f-hole.

I let luthiers figure out how to get the best sound out of my bass and sound engineers figure out how to reproduce the best sound. Professional studio engineers rarely agree. The ones that I have worked with all agree that the f-hole is one of the worst places to mic and upright bass. Put your ear next to the f-hole and have a friend play a little. Notice that the sound that you are hearing is an undeveloped sound? You hear air movement, uneven frequency response and loud boomy lows, and it doesn’t represent the overall sound of the bass because of the lack of definition. This is not the sound that we want if we want our tone amplified accurately.  If the flat frequency graph of the AMT mic holds true, then you are just getting a highly accurate reproduction of this undefined sound. This is equivalent to miking the port hole in you speaker cabinet. If you want to add this boominess to the sound from your pickup, (maybe it’s to make up for the lack of low end from a piezo pickup, in your bass or you just like more boominess than what naturally possible from an upright bass), but it doesn’t make sense to spend $700 on a flat frequency response mic to just to boost boominess, nor are you getting a true tone from your bass.

As a young engineer I kept running into bass players who were obsessed with something they called the “f hole”—so compulsive that at first I was afraid to ask what it was. I was relieved to learn that these were merely the two holes in the front of the bass. They are shaped like a cursive letter “f”. These bassists would insist that the very best sound is obtained by placing a mic right up on one of the f holes, and they usually had a preference for one or the other. I quickly learned that the sound coming out at that point is very dark and mushy, much like the sound of some of those pickups.

Once I was older and more experienced I found the courage and diplomatic skill to distract the bassist just long enough to place a large-diaphragm condenser mic directly in front of and about six inches from the strings, with the capsule halfway between the bridge and the bottom end of the fingerboard.

Click here for the complete source article

Move your head close to the bridge and you’ll hear a better sound. This is where a large majority of sound engineers prefer to mic and the consider the the sweet spot. I am not going to take credit for placing a condenser mic in that location as part of the amplification system, since it have been done already by some really great bassists, one of the most popular: Dave Holland. For an example, you can listen to his Extended Play: Live at Birdland CD.

This is not to say that the AMT is not a good quality microphone, but my preference is for the AKG. The newer tailpiece mounted model AMT S25b-tp would allow for miking where I’d like to pull sound from, but that mic is not removable for transport and it is too tightly focused to get a wider area of sound around it.

The AKG is not bass specific, nor does it need to be for where it’s located at. Because it is not instrument specific and AKG has the resources and experience to put together a reliable, durable, good sounding mic at a much lower cost (you’re sharing the R&D cost with tens of thousands of other people instead of a couple hundred).

I prefer BassBalsereit pickup because it picks up sound fairly even across the sound spectrum and can be cranked up with a good amount of feedback resistance. What sets the BassBalsereit apart is that you can turn the pickup and dial in the best and most accurate sound from your bass. It is the best pickup on the market based on my personal experience. The AKG mic does a great job of picking up the rich tone and nuances from that sweet spot on the bass. This all works nicely with the P.A. system and/or an accurate amp such as the Acoustic Image line of amps.

Choosing a New Bass as a Beginner

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Thompson Bass from String Emporium

I’ve had quite a few visitors to this site that have an interest in taking up the upright bass, but need some advice on how to shop for a bass. The best way of course is to have a proficient upright bass player help you in your quest or going to a reputable shop that deals with upright basses. 95% of you in the world probably aren’t anywhere near a reputable shop, so here are some guidelines. Rather than discourage you and tell you that you’re screwed since you aren’t near a bass shop, I’m going to go against the grain and give some advice that may not be ideal, but are practical in your situation. There’s only so much that I can convey to you over a computer, but just to help you get a start. By this point, you’ve probably have already read so much advice that your brain is close to an information overload.

Most beginners aren’t committed to spending thousands on a bass, so let’s start here. You should set aside at least $1500 for the bass. Don’t buy that $500 bass you saw on Ebay, there’s a reason that it’s $500; it’s guaranteed unplayable and problematic. I’ve heard stories of how people have purchased super cheap basses that imploded unexpectedly or the tuning machines stripped themselves. Once that happens, then what are you going to do? If you take it to a reputable shop, your repair bill can end up more than the bass is worth. You’re ultimately going to have to start saving for another bass. At this $1500 price range, you’re looking at plywood (laminate) basses. Should you get a carved bass? You should if you want to spend the money for it, but otherwise as a beginner a plywood bass will last you for years and since you are nowhere near a shop that can work on an upright bass, the durability of a plywood bass is a big plus.

You’ll have to order a bass from someone who sells AND can properly set up a bass. There are “bass specialists” on the Internet who are clueless about how to setup a bass. They know that basses need to be setup, but they just don’t know how nor do they have anyone set them up. The labor involved with setting up a bass isn’t cheap, so some places use that as a corner to cut to get their prices lower.  Just because they bought inventory and created a website doesn’t make them a reputable dealer. A proper setup is the difference between being able to play a bass easily and being completely discouraged from playing bass at all. I’ve tried playing many basses from the factory and most were utterly unplayable, so they do need to be setup prior to being delivered to you. If you don’t, there’s a very strong chance that you’re going to quit because you feel that the upright bass is too hard to play; string are hard to finger on your left hand and you get buzzes on certain notes. In reality it was only hard to play because the bass wasn’t setup properly. You will hear chatter on-line that a bass needs to be adjusted whenever it travels to different climates. Ideally yes, if you can. This is true, but with plywood basses, they are less reactive to climate changes so you should have a easy to play bass.

Samuel Shen Bass

The best On-line Bass shop that can send you a bass that is properly setup in this price range is The String Emporium. I don’t have any affiliation with The String Emporium except the bass that I had purchased from them. I’m just another customer and I’m recommending them because they provide good product, good service, and a good price. Steve at The String Emporium ships so many basses that he also gets a really good rates on freight also. Another recommend store is Upton Music who sells the Samuel Shen bass in this price range. Samuel Shen basses aren’t exclusive to Upton so you might get a better deal elsewhere, but they do good setup work. They both play well if setup right, but I would recommend the Thompson bass over the Samuel Shen bass, considering that it costs less, sounds better, and looks way better.

Hopefully my recommendation and advice helps you beginners find your new upright bass.

Gil Evans / Miles Davis at the Hollywood Bowl

I’ve been on travels, so the actual concert happened two weeks ago.

The Gil Evans / Miles Davis: Still Ahead concert at the Hollywood Bowl was a performance of music collaborated between the late Gil Evans and the late Miles Davis. This was performed by some of the current heavies of jazz: Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Christian McBride, Jimmy Cobb, Peter Erskine and several other musicians of very high caliber.

This concert was one of the best that I have ever attended in my lifetime. This statement may sound like the commonly 6a00d8341c630a53ef0120a5254c7c970c-800wioverused description of every pop concert a teenager attends, but it’s the simpliest way to summarize the concert. No, I wasn’t screaming like a teenage girl from the addrenaline of seeing my favorite star strutting on stage and lip syncing to a vocal track. No, I wasn’t repeatedly texting my friend next to me OMG! OMG. This concert was a soul digging, synapse charging, audio marathon. I’ve actively listened to Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess countless times, but listening to it live and performed by world renowned jazz musicians makes for an incredible experience. Great concerts remind you why you make the effort and spend the money to make it to these events. This just in time for me after attending a string of uninspired concerts performed by orchestras and ensembles around Los Angeles this summer, I was getting losing much enthusiasm for going to concerts. Don’t get me wrong on that statement, I’m not referring to the lack of musical perfection, but the lack of soul in the music performances.

I wished I had something to write about Christian McBride’s performance. He was phenomenal as to be expected, but I didn’t pay singular attention to him. To only focus on one part of the of the complex tonal pallet created by Gil Evans is to miss the forest for the trees. What they created together was a once in a lifetime experience for people who can appreciate and enjoy tonally complex music performed at the highest level.