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Amplifying the Upright Bass

Most of us will need to amplify our upright bass at some point. Besides… you know you want to! When amplifying your bass, there are a number of components involved in creating the sound that comes out of the speakers. Today, let’s consider a few of them.

Your Bass

Of all the things involved in amplifying the upright bass (pickups, amps, speakers, EQ, etc.) the acoustic sound of your instrument matters the most. Get yourself the best sounding bass you can and set it up well. Use strings that compliment the instrument and fit your playing style. You can make a cheap, plywood bass sound better with EQ’s, amps and speakers, but the better your acoustic sound, the better your amplified sound potential.

Pickups/Microphones

When it comes to turning your acoustic sound into an audio signal, you have a plethora of choices. Basically, however, you are looking at four options:

1. Microphones:
This might be a microphone especially designed for the upright bass, or it might not be. It may be attached to your instrument, or it could be on a mic stand in your general vicinity. Whatever the case is, microphones all operate the same way. They pickup up the vibrations in the air and turn it into an audio signal.

There are several types of microphones (condenser, ribbon, etc.), and several polar patterns (i.e. the microphones directionality) to consider. For live amplification of the upright bass I would suggest a condenser microphone with a cardiod, hypercardiod or shotgun pattern. I advise against omni-directional or figure 8 patterns. Condenser microphones require power of some sort. Some will come with small battery powered preamps, others will not.

Of your options, microphones generally give the most accurate representation of the acoustic sound of your instrument. This is good… if you have a decent sounding bass. This is bad if you have an instrument with a less than evocative sound.

When using a microphone, the feedback potential can be great, even at moderate volume levels. Mics can be used at high volumes provided there are certain factors in place, such as a considerable distance between you and the speaker. For those of us who play in cramped clubs at high volumes with our amps right behind us, using a microphone is generally not our best option.

There is also the question of “bleed” to consider. Use a mic and sit close to the drums for a gig and see what I mean.

2. Transducers or Piezo pickups.
These types of pickups are primarily designed to detect the vibration of the instrument, i.e. the wood. They are attached directly to the instrument: Underneath the bridge, on the bridge, in the bridge, on the belly, on the fingerboard, etc.

Transducers are more feedback resistant than microphones, but not as accurate in replicating the acoustic sound of the instrument. Transducers are the most common way turning an upright bass sound into an audio signal.

3. Magnetic pickups:
This is the type of pickup found on most electric bass guitars. To create a signal they use…magnets. They are designed to detect the vibrating string and use this information to create an audio signal. They only work if you are using strings with a steel content, otherwise…uncomfortable silence. They produce a sound almost entirely unlike the acoustic sound of your instrument, but they provide a high level of feedback resistance.

4. Combinations of the above:
It is not at all uncommon for bassists to use microphones, transducers and magnetic pickups in combination. Neither is it uncommon to have a variety of approaches for assorted musical settings.

For example: I use two transducers (one under the bridge and one under the fingerboard) for traditional Rockabilly. I use both a magnetic pickup and a fingerboard transducer for Psychobilly. I use a bridge transducer and a magnetic pickup when I play jazz combo or with a big band, and since 1995 I have used a magnetic for all my looped/amplified solo projects, or anything incorporating heavy use of EFX. Your specific situation will determine what combination works best for you and your specific musical situation.

One thing to remember is that neither microphones nor pickups operate exactly like your ears. Nothing involving a speaker will ever quite sound like your bass does acoustically. The upside is that if you have a cheap bass, you can hide some of the imperfections with the magic of pickups, amps, speakers and EQ.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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Share your thoughts

david ashley

i’ve got fishman pickup on my upright englehardt bass…play through a small swr strawberry blonde II amp..run back through the soundboard with it..mainly use the amp for stage monitor..works so great…i hate playing in front of a mic with the bass..you wiggle and you hit the mic…the amp gives you so much more control and the sound the band needs on stage..i play bluegrass so they all have to hear it..hate playing without it now…yall give it a try…

Chris Hodges

I run with a Realist tranducer into a D-TAR Equinox 3-Band Parametric/Notch Equalizer
out to a David Eden WT550 into a SWR 4X10 Working Pro. The D-TAR has great frequency responce and is great at isolating feedback making it very useful with small stages and large crouds.

I really hope to ad an AMT clip-on pretty soon but this set up works really well.

Bruno Migliari

One important point was missing from the article: arco (bow) playing wasn’t mentioned anywhere, and from my experience, many a great bassist out there plays both pizzicato and arco. And for amplifying that, nothing beats a good microfone. I have an AKG C16 attached to my instrument’s tailpiece, pointing towards the top, right between the bridge’s feet (as I’ve seen Dave Holland set it), and have the signal sent straight to the front of the house P.A. – but never to the amplifier! I also use a piezo transducer embeded on my bridge – actually, it’s a bridge made by AKG (unfortunaly discontinued by the company) that has a great-sounding piezo embeded into it. I send this signal to both the stage amplifier and the front of the house system. On an ideal situation, I’d run both the mic and the piezo through the P.A. and only the piezo through the stage amp, or bypass it completely and use a stage monitor to hear myself. It works to great effect on jazz gigs, and the sound is the best I’ve ever achieved. For louder settings, I’d avoid the mic and stick with the just the piezo, but that compromises the arco sound a little bit, but not big time. A good alternative is the Realist transducer, which sounds good too and has a more “natural” sound than other well-known transducers, such as Underwood and Fishman. On my bass it sounds great when I play arco style, but not as good when I play pizzicato. I’d recomend a piezo and a mic in tandem as the best solution for every situation.

Peter Williams

I use a realist, headway audio edb 1 (this provides a preamp stage, essential for getting the best out of the realist) and an acoustic image coda series III. I make sure that my amp is on my right side to reduce the risk of feedback.

I take the d. I. from the edb 1 so that I can eq the amp for stage monitoring without changing the front of house sound.

This set up gives me a very good acoustic sound. Only the very top end is missing. Only really noticeable if I’m drumming on the body of the bass in a large venue.

The only time I’ve had a better sound was when blending the same rig with a dpa clip Mic. It was the perfect sound, but too many leads, and too many engineers who panicked when they heard cymbals bleeding through. The result was that I sent the front of house the perfect sound, only to have them totally destroy it by applying a harsh low pass filter.

Sergio V. Quintero Cruz

can one play with a jazz trio or big band without being amplified?? and how can one get a great amount of volume with a plain acoustic bass.. I have a Palatino Billy bass with Daddario Helicore hybrid strings. light