I get a lot of calls and e-mails from fellow bassists and guitarists alike pertaining to all sorts of equipment problems. One of the most recessing issues I deal with is walking someone through the steps of setting-up their graphic equalizers (you know, the thing with all the sliding tabs that you arrange to look like a smiley-face). Most guitarists do not have to deal with this. Generally speaking, guitar amps sound pretty well with just a few Volume-Low-Mid-High settings to manipulate.
But for bassists, this is often not the case. It is not that our amps are inferior; rather, there are many other considerations outside the amp that bass players must take into consider such as room acoustics, instrument timbre, and of course, musician prerogative. Many easy-to-use amps we first grow comfortable with have the same settings as the aforementioned guitar amps. But when we make that first leap to a bigger gig, and need a bigger amp, we are presented with a number of options regarding amps, and most of these intermediate to higher-end amplifiers have a graphic equalizer.
With this comes the problem that when we first begin to look at these types of amps, we feel overwhelmed not only by the price-tag and options, but the anxiety of “how the heck do I work this thing?” This article will explain how graphic equalizers work, and how you should approach setting their tone in order to get the most out of your amp.
How Graphic Equalizers Work
Graphic Equalizers are set-up in a way so that you can visually perceive the settings of your tones (hence the designation “Graphic”). They allow you to do pretty much the same thing as a Parametric Equalizer, which is adjust the parameters of your tones (hence the designation “Parametric”). However a Graphic Equalizer puts everything into a visual perspective so that you can actually “see” what the tones coming out of the amp should sound like. Graphic Equalizers are given a prefix like “5-band” or “9-band.” The number refers to how many tones you can actually control. Typically speaking, the more “bands” will allow you to tweak the tone ever-so-precisely, and some players favor this. However, some players love the simplicity of a “5-band” or just a Parametric Equalizer.
There are typically three setting options: Cut, Neutral, and Boost. Neutral is in the middle, sort of like the Equator on a globe. Cut is below that line, where you actually “cut” the parameter of the tone. Boost is above the line, which allows you to “boost” your parameter for that tone. When you slide the tabs into these particular areas, they will do exactly what you think: either “cut” or “boost” the output. By leaving the tab at the “neutral” line, you will leave the signal at the output that is set by your other equipment (your instrument, effects pedals, etc.). Most often, Neutral lines will have a little “click” that will let you know when you have locked it into neutral or when you have taken it out of neutral. Please, by all means, play around with your amp so you know what I’m talking about.
How to Approach Setting Your Tone
Typically most people just arrange all the sliding tabs into a smiley-face shape. This is what many musicians refer to as “scooping your tone.” This can work for some musicians. Funk players often “scoop” their tone to get the most attack out of their slapping and popping techniques. But this arrangement is not always appealing to every player. When searching for the tone that is right for you, start from scratch: leave all the settings at the neutral position. Then go from left-to-right, adjusting each tab until you find the right sound. This will take some tweaking, especially if you change venues, as each venue has distinct acoustic characteristics that must be compensated for. It is important to note that if you boost a signal you are actually over-driving that tone. This is caused by the signal being amplified past its typical signal volume, and pushes more signal through the amp. Doing so can add stress on the speakers. However if this is the sound you want, bear in mind that this can cut the speaker’s life-span. For these reasons it’s a good idea to leave the tabs in the neutral position, and just use the tabs for cutting tone except when you have found a room with acoustics that requires boosting, or if you want that sound.
Becoming proficient at setting Graphic Equalizers in order to get the tone we want in various playing situations helps us and thus the band sound our best. The time it takes to become familiar with how our Graphic Equalizer performs at different settings, with different equipment, in different venues, will be time well spent.
For those of us who shy away from amps with Graphic Equalizers when shopping for an amp or from Graphic Equalizers in general, taking the time to test drive them in the store, as just outlined, will show you the full range of sounds that can be achieved. Store personnel often have spent time checking out the equipment and can be a big help when it comes to helping us find settings we like.