Selecting a Direct Box

Q: I’m looking to upgrade my setup a little… shrink down my 4×10 cab to a equal power 2×10 and maybe buy a DI box for a live PA setting and a studio recording setting. In looking through the number of DI boxes, it’s hard to see what exactly makes a pedal a “Direct Box” as I’ve seen many so-called DI boxes with solo-boosting capabilities, EQ settings, the availability of 2 inputs, impedance matching (what is that?!) … the features are endless, it seems (see your recent review on the Basswitch for my point). My question is this: what makes a DI Box a “DI Box” (what allows a pedal to be called a DI Box), and what do you use/would you suggest as a good first DI Box to play small venues with my passive Stingray IV?

A: Well, essentially, DI stands for direct input. So essentially, of all the pedals that do all of those things you’ve mentioned, the “DI” feature is really just the XLR output that an engineer or sound person will use to patch your bass signal into the board or PA.

While I’m not a gear-head as it relates to the engineering and deeply technical part of this conversation, I recommend you read this PDF from Radial Engineering to get some of the insights you’re seeking.

What I can offer is real world stories on several DI’s, from sound to road-worthiness:

  • Radial DI’s are the high-end standard. They are built like tanks, sound great and come with a variety of options to suit your needs. They’re also fairly compact and easy to carry around. Radials are my choice for a standalone DI box (I like the JDI model).
  • Aguilar’s Tone Hammer kicks some butt if you’re looking for a DI with some extras. It has a wonderful Aguilar Preamp which you can engage or disengage (nice if you want to have a “solo boost” button or just need a little tweak to dial in your sound. It also has the “agro” switch which is an overdrive. A great thing if you want a little crunch, although I’ve never used it.
  • BassWitch. You mentioned my earlier review, and things are well covered there. This is the best “do it all” pedal I’ve ever seen or heard. It has the features of the Aguilar (minus the overdrive) but also includes two effects loops. This has been wonderful for me as I play in SO many different situations throughout the year. I don’t always need all of the features of the BassWitch but, at some point, I will have used them all throughout the year. It’s built very well and sounds incredible.

Those are my 3 favorites. I’d suggest you read up online about what a DI actually does and figure out what your needs really are. I personally, love bringing my own DI with me to larger venues and studios. This way, I know what I’m working with and I can trust it. I hate showing up to a venue with my great gear and have my sound dialed in on stage and they have me going through a 30 year old DI box that’s been duck taped together and buzzes like crazy. Most people are really just hearing me through the house speakers in a large venue anyway, so I’d like to make sure that my signal is strong and clean.

And studio situations? I’m only going to hear myself through the headphones anyway so I need to make sure that I like my sound, otherwise my comfort (and playing) will suffer.

If you just need a DI box, I wouldn’t worry about the “do everything” pedals. Just get a solid, well reviewed DI box, and you’ll save yourself money too. If you’ve come to realize that some of those other features would be handy after all, check out the ones that offer the best combination for you. Practically every company that makes pre-amps, power-amps or audiophile gear of any kind offers a DI in their product lineup. Read the reviews, do your homework, see what people are saying about them and trust your gut.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. I’ve used a SansAmp bass driver for about 8 years, it’s the best £200 I’ve ever spent. In fact, I now can’t stand the sound of a bass without it!

    It gives a lovely, warm tone, has a clean DI, and you can dial up some drive too. It has lasted well, despite the inevitable beer spills and so on!

  2. JIm C

    Check your bass amp head/combo for a Line (XLR) out. If it has this, you may not need a DI box. The Line Out of your amplifier is a built-in DI box. However, as with external DI’s not all built-ins are created equal. XLR Line Outs on my Trace Elliot, Gallien Krueger, and Genz Benz rigs have all been top notch, however I have plugged into a few that have been nasty, so test it out before you decide – you may be able to save some coin…!

  3. JTL

    Check your XLR line out of your amp to make sure it is not connected with your volume levels. I’ve got an Orange amp that has the XLR connected to the master volume. If I tweak the MV on stage, then the sound through the PA is altered….unhappy sound guy. In our case, unhappy band leader because we don’t have a sound guy! And I second the SansAmp comments.

  4. I have a few SansAmp products including their DI. I have done many recording sessions with them until an engineer had me try out a dedicated studio DI. I was impressed at the low end response which led me to further investigate all my options. After a years worth of research and playing thru 2 dozen DI’s. The hands down winner is the REDDI by A Design. If you want your bass to sound its best this one is hard to beat. Only draw back it cost 4x the price of a SansAmp.