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The Gollihur Music Blog

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


Wining About Tone


I like wine. I'm no oenophile (potential wine snob), but learning about different grapes and wines over the past three-plus decades has definitely enhanced my enjoyment of them. Before you picture failed actors in shirts and ties serving me megabuck wines in pretentious restaurants, you should know that my favorite restaurants accommodate BYOB -- and at the liquor store I hesitate to pick up wines costing more than $13.75.

When tasting wines you learn to be analytical about their character, so you don't just conclude that you like it, but learn WHY you like it (or don't), and the detailed reasons why it appeals to you. Judging basses and amplifiers requires the same analytical capacity and focus. You can chug a glass of wine, sloppily splashing some on your starched white shirt; but this experience will probably not be pleasant or particularly useful. Unfortunately, I've often seen players judge basses, strings, and amps in the same spirit.

It's worth taking your time to tilt that ear towards the amp and really listen to it — and I mean REALLY listen to it. We can probably come up with some special terms of our own to describe the sound from an amp, just like wines that are judged as earthy. What about texture? Is the amp's sound smooth, meaning studio clean — but in being so, does it take desirable edges and harmonics away that help define the sound as an upright bass? Or is the texture a form of distortion that is not a desirable character? Are the highs glassy and clearly real, or is the top end dull and chopped off, stripping life and accuracy from the notes? Are the lows tight, or is there a flabbiness that hurts the definition and true fundamental of that low E?

Pairing wines with food is a major component of enjoying them; a fantastic wine inappropriately matched with the wrong foods can completely sour the experience. It's the same with basses and amps. When playing in a dense mix, either with lots of instruments crowding the same sonic space as bass, or at higher volumes, we may need some of that rough texture to help define notes and effectively cut through the group sound, just as a dry Gewurztraminer wine can better cope with some spicier foods. But if tasteful trio work resulting in a clearly audible bass is the gig, the most natural acoustic sound can be more desirable.

What I'm suggesting is that we must be scientifically analytical when judging sound, whether we're auditioning a bass or new set of strings, or spending time getting to know an amplifier. And further, just like with wines and food, it's sometimes wise to avoid making immediate "I don't like it!!!!!" judgments that are premature, but instead wait for the "finish," by waiting a little longer for those strings to break in — or hearing how your new amp works with other players.

And so, let us raise our glasses and exclaim, "Life is too short for bad tone!" (and bad wines.)


boB

Having heard of Lindsay Lohan's announcement of dropping her last name a la Cher, I felt it necessary to distinguish myself within the bass world. Due to the many Bobs (at least in my generation) I do find it necessary to make mine unique. Heretofore I will be known as boB, just boB. The difference in pronunciation is subtle; ask me the next time we talk.

from our April Newsletter


New Year's Resolutions for Bass Players


Ok, I took some time off and asked Mark and Christopher to come up with a list of New Year's Resolutions. Yeah, it's a corny tradition, but it might stimulate some thought for plans in 2011. It looks like they made a list of resolutions for us rather than themselves, but there are some good suggestions.

  • Practice more - make playing your bass a priority in your life, if it isn't. Even a modest goal - how about every day for at least 20 minutes? Even better, how about resolving to learn a new music piece every week.
  • Take good care of your bass - are you minding the humidity and temperature where your bass "lives?" Paying attention to seams, bridge lean, tuner lubrication? Early intervention is key with so many bass problems - that whole "ounce of prevention" theory definitely applies.
  • Resolve to not hit the piano player every time he uses his left hand... if you can. (No problem, I never hit the piano player under these circumstances. I throw things.)
  • If you don't play with a bow, strongly consider taking it up. It can open new avenues in your playing, and really help you to improve your intonation as well - the nature of pizz tone can "hide" the occasional "pitchy" (who came up with that word?? And when identified, can we throw something at him/her?) note, but the pure, singing notes of arco won't let you get away with it!
  • Remember that playing a musical instrument should be FUN - when it becomes a regular "gig", sometimes we lose sight of the enjoyment and wonder which drew us to the bass to begin with. Recapture that!
  • Experiment with new genres, even if you don't "like" or "know" them as well.
  • Learn a new instrument - and use its differences from the bass to inspire you, and help you to look at how you play music (on bass) from a new perspective.
  • Don't forget to DUCK when going through doorways. Your bass pegbox will thank you.
  • Support other bassists. Not playing this Friday? Go see a local show to support a fellow player.
  • Find your own sound. Play from the heart, rather than trying to emulate the "sounds" of others. The echoes of the masters from whom you've learned will likely be apparent in your own voice, but only you can truly sound like you. Embrace that!
  • Buy LOTS and LOTS of bass strings and other accessories from your favorite bass shop, especially if it's us. Stimulate the economy! (Okay, that one is a little "tongue in cheek.")
  • Pay it forward. Find ways to encourage other players, especially beginners. Share your love of music with those who are just getting started, so we keep the excitement alive. Inspire new players with your knowledge and passion.
Bob, Mark, and Christopher at Gollihur Music - along with our families and musical friends - wish all of our customers a highly musical new year!


Affirmations can be DeeLuxe

If you phone us (well, me), if you come out with the usual pleasantry of "How are you doing?", you're likely to hear "DeeLuxe" or a similarly positive word. There's a reason for that unusual response, and a definite musical connection.

In the late seventies I was a part of a pretty cool and fun band that did parties and weddings -- yes, the dreaded wedding band. But don't put it down, it was at least 80% made up of college educated, very experienced players, and there were no set lists, no rehearsals, just spontaneous musical fun and challenges. Rick Swallow, on keyboards/trumpet/lead vocals would often just start of song, and we had a split second to figure out the tune and key in and come in. For a particular reason that escapes me right now, we brought in a sax player for a couple gigs. He was introduced to me as "Grub", and he spoke only occasionally, and in a decidedly Tom Waits sort of grunt. And at the conclusion of a particularly good tune or solo, Grub would often nod and quietly growl his approval with a gutteral "DeeLuxe".

I liked that.

Flash forward to my "real life" in the business world, where a drone in management, when asked how he was doing, always muttered a "Bleegh!" or similar negative response. Ok, I admit, I was under the influence of a couple new agey courses, but I decided it was pretty foolish to tell the world, and especially yourself, that you were feeling sucky. Affirmations were the focus at the time-- basically, it's recognizing that you hear and believe what you say about yourself. If you make a mistake and say "stupid!" to yourself, you are calling yourself stupid, which is, in fact, pretty stupid, particularly since you'll eventually start to believe yourself.

It was then I adopted DeeLuxe as my personal attitude, or at least the primary way I would express how I was feeling if somebody said, "How're ya doin'?".

While I have always been a positive and optimistic person, the actual practice of this particular affirmation came in handy in the future. Especially when I lost my job, was diagnosed with cancer and lost my vocal cords, and then lost my next job when that bank was merged into another. I'm not going to pretend that positive thinking was an everyday cure during some of those dark days, but it sure didn't hurt to continue to tell myself I was Definitely Doin' DeeLuxe.

1971 911TForgive my detour into positive thinking, but feel free to join me! And understand my motivation if, when you ask how I am doing, I say "DeeLuxe!"

Bob

P.S. I bought a 1971 Porsche 911T in 1987, because it was cool, and after it was 16 years old a Porsche was finally within my price range (though I spent the purchase price again on repairs in the next three years - oh well). Getting the D Luxe personalized plate was a must. I had to sell the car (dammit!), but I still have the plates and the positive attitude!




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