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The Gollihur Music Blog

Learn How To Play Your Amp!! (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about basic amp controls and specific methods for learning their effects. This article, Part 2 (of 3) covers the tools (and concepts) for managing preamp gain, as well as some of the features which can have an effect on preamp gain, like compression and alternate inputs.

Preamp (input gain) and Master Volume controls are two different controls entirely, and how you use them can have a big effect on your sound. This brings us to the important topic of...

Gain Staging
Instrument amplifiers have separate preamplifier and power amplifier circuits, and most have a volume (gain) knob to adjust the levels of each. The way these knobs are adjusted can help -- or hurt -- your sound. What the preamplifier and power amplifier do is pretty simple; they each multiply the bass signal.
  1. The Preamplifier takes the relatively low level signal of your instrument and preamplifies (multiplies) to a medium signal level that is at a high enough level to feed the power amp.
  2. The Amplifier then takes that stronger signal and multiplies it to an even higher level to power your speaker.
Generally speaking, if your instrument and/or preamp signals (volumes) are too low and your Master (power amplifier) level is too high, you're likely to have extra noise (usually "hiss" or "static.") This is because the percentage of good bass signal is low, so the preamp increases general background noise in the signal along with the bass. On the other hand, if your instrument level and/or preamp signal (volumes) are too high, they can cause distortion, and other ugly sounds, as they overwhelm the input capacity of the power amp.

The trick to setting these controls properly is to find the "window" where the incoming signal has sufficient level to provide adequate volume without excess noise, but not so "hot" that it overloads the input and causes distortion. Our friend on the left demonstrates the signal levels as you play bass; he's a 6'4" foot guy in an eight foot room. Just as you play notes, he jumps, but if you play a note that makes him jump higher than the amplifier's ceiling (maximum level)... well, it's bloody.

Some amplifiers provide assistance: Peak, Overload, or similarly labeled lights, or a meter, are designed to tell you when you have reached the preamp's or amp's design limit. There is no "standard" (or if there is, nobody abides by it), so experience or experimenting should tell you just how ugly things get if that light flashes too much or stays on. To set my amp's input gain/volume control,
The Straight Dope: if an amp has a power rating of 300 watts, even if you add more preamplification (gain) to try to make it louder -- well, that's like trying to put 400 gallons in a 300 gallon septic tank. The brown seeping over the 300 watt limit represents the brown sound; let's say it sounds like something brown.

The bottom line is that an amplifier cannot get louder than it is designed to get, at least not in a "pretty" way.
I will play my lowest note at the loudest instrument preamp and/or volume control level (play hard and continually) and adjust all the knobs to a point (all the way up on my bass guitar) and adjust the input gain control on my amp so that little light only flashes a tiny bit. That way you'll know you shouldn't distort, but still have a strong signal that will have a full sound. Listen carefully for distortion, because those lights and meters are calibrated differently depending on each amp's design, so you will know what works best for your particular amplifier.

Note: Depending on the amp, turning up any tone controls (bass, in particular) may also increase the effective preamp volume and can put you back into that distortion place, so compensate by reducing the amp's input volume/gain control if necessary. You can also use this to your benefit: if you are at the limit and still need more volume, roll off some bass and then turn up a little; lower notes take more amplifier power to reproduce than the highs and mids, and while you won't have quite the "bottom," it may increase your percieved overall volume.

High/Low and Passive/Active are just two examples of labels you may find next to input jacks. Usually, the two different jacks allow for two different fixed levels of gain (see above) - one for the higher level of output for instruments with active preamplifiers or other electronics, and the other for lower-gain "passive" pickup arrangements. Unfortunately, there are no industry standards, but you'll find when you plug into one of them your bass will be quieter. That is the jack to use if you use an external preamp, or if one is built into your bass, meaning it is "active." The other is for basses with passive (no preamp) instruments, so it is "louder", offering more gain (volume). It is important when considering Gain Staging, above, so that your preamped, and therefore usually louder, signal does not overload the preamp inside your amplifier. Some amplifiers have only one input jack but may have a switch or button to decrease the input sensitivity; like with the jacks, your ears should tell you which to use.

(this blog continued on the Gollihur Music Blog page)


Learn How To Play Your Amp!! (Part 2, continued)

(continuation of part 2)

Drive, if included, is usually a knob alongside the input gain control. The design goal is to add character to the sound, such as a tube saturation or mild to wild intentional overdrive, which can add thickness and/or distortion to your bass sound. Some amps include preamp tubes (aka "valves") or tube emulators, and in that case a gentle dose of drive can add heft to your notes. Off is usually a good position for these controls if you want a pure upright bass tone, but as with these other controls, experimentation is worthwhile.

Compression, Limiter: An Upright Bass, when we pluck it enthusiastically, can put out a huge burst of sound. Compressors and Limiters soften and minimize that peak so it doesn't overload the amp and/or annoy your bandmates. A Compressor can usually do it more gracefully than a simple Limiter (depending on its design), but a compressor's primary role is to squeeze the dynamic range of the notes you play, so the quietest are a little louder, and the loudest are a little quieter. You'll notice compression being used when you watch a TV show -- where if the whispers were at their original, actual volume, they would be hard to hear, and an explosion in an action scene would make you jump out of your chair. Amp makers may include simple single knob compressors, or less often, a more comprehensive unit with up to four knobs for precise control. Compression is not something generally needed for upright bass gigs, except in special situations, such as for taming the impact of rockabilly slap. Using compression well would take up an entire article on its own -- so Study user manuals, and experiment extensively before using.  Rule #1: If you can "hear" the compressor working (a "pumping" sound) it isn't set right. Subtle = good.

A final word on Too Much Bass Disease: Yes, I know you are playing a bass, but don't automatically turn up the bass or push the deep switch! If you've read my other writings, you know this is a pet peeve of mine. This is due to the many upright and electric bass players I've heard, or tried to hear, only because they are so far down in the bassment that their all their cool musical activities are buried in rumble. And dammit, so many can't take the constructive criticism or objective advice from their band members or another bass player. "This is the way I play," or some similar justification makes for the ugly status quo. And yes, I am like one of those reformed smokers, because I remember my own past self-defeating leanings towards the Deep Dark Side.

So check out these features (if available) on your amplifiers, perhaps it's time to adjust these controls and carefully listen to the results, so you are familiar with the tools at your disposal. All of these are potential ingredients in creating your Reference Sound. It may be time to revisit Part 1 and go back to the drawing board for some tweaks.

Coming soon: Part 3 - Parametric EQ, Notch Filters and other useful features!


One might ask...

Genz-Benz...after over ten years with just two amplifier companies, why have you added Genz•Benz to the mix? As usual, it comes down to the same reason I first began to use, and then sell Acoustic Image and Euphonic Audio's stuff. My never-ending "in search of" philosophy brought me to another amplifier company, one that has some gear unlike what we currently have, as well as some options for lower priced amplification solutions for you, our customers.

I don’t know about you, but my pattern for gear adoption has usually been driven by gig needs. Lately, electric bass gigs have been mostly the blues on electric five string, leading me to look for a more "tubey" sort of sound, not unlike the legendary Kern IP-777 tube preamp I used to pair with a power amp a dozen years ago... but lighter and more compact. I should mention that its replacement, the Euphonic Audio iAMP800, was to meet the need for a more articulate yet still warm sound that could better cut through a dense mix, the primary gigging needs at that time, and something I still admire and need.

A Genz•Benz Streamliner 900 will sit atop my new Euphonic Audio NL-210 (coming out in late October 2011) 2x10 speaker cabinets, as my electric bass guitar (and very loud URB/EUB) rig. The Acoustic Image Contra (now Coda Series 4) remains my favorite for low to medium volume upright bass gigs, and my compact EA Doubler (or Streamliner)/EA Wizzy 10 rig will also still see service for small electric gigs and some URB/EUB stuff. Just like having two upright basses set up for different sorts of gigging duties, having multiple rigs is also a good thing if you have the resources to do so.(Yes, there are advantages to owning a music store as well as having kids that are well past their college years.)

But back to the Genz•Benz gear... The Genz•Benz Streamliner amps have three 12AX7 preamp tubes utilizing six gain stages, so it is definitely very Old School Tone Land. Their other amps, and most other “tube preamp” rigs on the market, have but one tube in the preamp section, so the result can be far less “tubey.” In fact, many of those amps seem to use their single 12AX7 tube more effectively in the marketing of the amp than in the actual circuitry, but the Genz•Benz are not in that category. I should also mention that all the Genz•Benz amps have tube preamps with solid state power amp sections, and some even have circuitry to lend a tubey tone to the power amp's limiter, so doesn't go splat when you hit the wall.

Amps with tubes can have characteristics that can make them desirable... or unacceptable. You have to decide what you want your amp to do for, or to, your bass tone, and also recognize that all do not offer the same characteristics. The perceived benefit of a tube in the preamp section is a desired coloration of the sound, and varying the level of tube involvement and gain level of the circuit can take it from mildly warm, somewhat fat, or all the way to overdriven nastiness... if the amp maker includes that ability. My personal goal was more “heft,” with more body in the higher register, with a subtle smoothness and softening of the overall bass signal. The price you pay by going in this pillow-ish tonal direction can be the loss of some of those edges to the note that help it overcome a dense mix, as well as some jagged overtones that exhibit the distinctive character of your bass.

Of the Genz•Benz lineup, the Streamliner’s three-tube preamp definitely can deliver more of the pillowy, rich sort of old school goodness, but can also get pretty intense and driven as you advance the tube gain control. The Shuttle and ShuttleMax single-tube preamp offers a slightly less intense tube experience, not as thick or dense, but still pretty satisfying, and is probably a better choice for players who want to play on both sides of the fence. The Genz•Benz ShuttleMax 9.2 is in a class by itself, offering both a tube and FET (solid state) channel that you can mix for a little sharpness in your cream, or move between tube and clean channels depending on the gig or song. I have been swaying back and forth between the Streamliner and ShuttleMax, as the surgical fine tuning ability of the latter is quite attractive, similar to the Euphonic Audio iAMP800 (now iAMP Pro) I have used for the past several years.

In any case, one does have to step back and evaluate their personal amplification goals. None are wrong, all are valid, and admittedly, the differences can be quite subtle... especially in the mix. We are indeed fortunate to have the variety of such highly capable and precise bass amps and cabs from which to choose.

I should also say how thankful I am that Class D amps and Neo speaker cabs arrived just in time for the decline of my ability to carry the heavy stuff. What a wonderful world!

Bob

This blog preempted "Making Friends With Your Amp (Part 2) ", but it will be published shortly.


Making Friends With Your Amp (Part 1)

We spend hours learning and practicing bass, not to mention fussing for hours over strings and accessories, and agonizing over pickup and/or mic choices. However, the amplifier is often overlooked; we plug it in, twiddle the knobs a little bit, and that's often the end of it. It's important to understand every component of the sound you project. I've heard a lot of amplified basses; and sounding "bassy" = sounding "muddy." Mumble, rumble, blobby-blobby, thud, thud is not a good bass sound.

The whole point of the following exercise is: when you are playing and something just doesn't sound quite right, you will instinctively know which knob to adjust. This is a valuable talent well worth learning. I could use more technical jargon and scientific precision in this article, but we're going for general knowledge and results in these exercises.

Familiarize Yourself with what tone controls actually do
Most amps feature "tone" controls labeled Bass, Middle, and Treble; each control a band of frequencies. "EQ" (equalization) is a common way to refer to these tone controls. You are probably quite aware of the effect twisting those knobs has when you've adjusted a radio or stereo unit. Turning the bass knob all the way up and the treble all the way down has the effect of listening to a song that's playing in the next room with the door closed!

Tone controls split the spectrum of sound into chunks, sort of like the piano keyboard approximations in the image to the right (not precise, the drawing is only to illustrate the concept). Those controls let you boost or cut those frequency bands. The other drawing is the frequencies of some notes on the upright bass fingerboard. Speaking generally, the lowest (bass) control usually affects the frequencies around the fundamental of the notes we play on our basses. But, for example, when you play the open A string on your bass, you hear a lot more than just that original note (the fundamental). There are overtones (also known as harmonics) above that note that give it character and clarity. Severely cutting down the middle and high frequencies down (by turning down the midrange, treble or whatever your amp has) reduces your amp's delivery of those harmonics and can hurt clarity. Note: If you have a graphic equalizer with more than just "low-mid-high," those sliders are just further splitting the frequencies into finer slices - low lows, middle lows, high lows, low mids, middle mids, etc., so you have even more precise control over the total sound.

Turn Theory Into Practice and analytically listen to the effect each knobs has
If the acoustic sound of the bass is louder than the amp, you won't be able to evaluate the amplified sound, so let's get the amp up in the air so the speaker is close to ear level. Put it on a couple milk crates on top of a table, a wooden file cabinet -- anything that is a solid base for the speaker, but won't make distracting sounds when it vibrates. Turn the amp up to "Goldilocks Volume" -- not too loud, not too soft... just right. Too loud, and you'll overwhelm your senses and screw up your perception.

My recommendation for learning your amp is to play the same series of notes up and down the fingerboard, repeating as you make adjustments to the amp's controls, studying the differences. Before you start, set the amp to "flat" -- turning all the tone knobs to the middle, and locating any graphic equalizer sliders in the middle, too, so there are no boosts or cuts to any frequencies.

You can start with the highest frequency control (Treble, Highs, the right-most Graphic EQ slider), turning it all the way down, then perhaps to 9 o'clock, straight up, 3 o'clock, then all the way up. Listen carefully to the resulting changes in your sound (good and bad), and take your time! Let me repeat: the whole point of this exercise is, when you are playing and something just doesn't sound quite right, you will instinctively know which knob(s) to adjust.

Throughout this exercise, pay particular attention to midrange, low midrange, and upper bass controls. That's where acoustic bass lives, and the midrange frequencies can provide desirable texture and character. It's those controls that help to define the notes and tone of your particular bass. Don't try to do this all at once. You need to take breaks from this activity for the best results, as we all can suffer ear fatigue. However, once you spend significant time with your amp, you'll have a better feel for its capabilities, and the experience may also give you some new perspective on "your sound."

Create Your Own "Reference Sound" to make gig sound adjustments less of a headache
I suggest that you consider developing what I call a Reference Sound. My own definition of Reference Sound is where I set my preamp and amp controls when I first walk into a new situation. I know how it should sound from past experience, and it's a lot easier to start from a sound that you know "works" most of the time. Once onstage, you can then make minor tweaks, to adjust for unique room and stage acoustics. That's where learning your amp pays off -- you will instinctively know which knob to twist to quickly and easily fine-tune your sound to the stage and room. The controls of my Euphonic Audio iAMP (mostly used for bass guitar in my case) are far more extensive, so I actually took a photo of my Reference Sound settings and taped it to the inside of my rack case. Most of my on-gig adjustments then only involve tiny adjustment to bass and/or boosting midrange for clarity.

Let me make one final suggestion. Recognize that, like your bass, the exact sound coming from the speaker down there on the floor is not going to reach your audience over one hundred feet away intact. Someone standing right in front of your acoustic instrument would hear much more "detail", such as string sound, which is combined with and complements the sound from the body. By the time that gets across and bounces around the room, the higher frequencies can get "lost in the sauce." So, when you develop your reference sound, please give consideration to keeping some of that midrange detail that helps define the character of your own bass.

Next time, we'll talk about learning advanced features that you'll find on many amplifiers and preamps and how they can further help your sound...

-- Bob
Note: Bob's Blog (and additional blog posts) can now also be found on our Wordpress Blog Page.


Transitions, or, I hate packing!!


By the time you read this we'll be heading towards (or completely moved to) our new headquarters (World Headquarters??) in Sewell, New Jersey, which is in Gloucester County. The move is the weekend of July 9th. Sewell is considered a suburb of Philadelphia, and if you draw a line straight south from Philadelphia and dead east from Wilmington, Delaware, we're pretty close to where those lines will cross. This is territory quite familiar to me, the county from which I traveled to gigs for about twenty five years, where I lived before moving to the Jersey shore.

Having Gollihur Music leave Ocean View leaves me with a bittersweet feeling, but it also gives me a large building for my many hobbies as well as a JamBarn for local musicians and friends. That's the sweet part.

We're very happy to nearly triple our floor space in the new Sewell building. It's gotten quite tight here in Ocean View, and we had a lot of fun finding room for all our stock this past holiday season, filling a 10x20 foot shed to the brim as well.

We've been blaming the general chaos and somewhat messy atmosphere on the small building, but then I've been using that excuse for almost fourteen years. We'll see...

Please use our new phone number, 856-292-3194, and address to contact us. Or visit us in our usual place: right here at Gollihur Music.com. We're not moving from there! Bob




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