Dealing with Different Environments and Bass Tone

Bass amp knobs

Photo by Mike Hoff

Q: In 25+ years playing, one problem has plagued and perplexed me the entire time… from one band practice to the next I swear the tone of my bass changes. One day my bass tone sounds like it’s dialed in right where it needs to be the next my strings sound dull or my amp tone isn’t punching they way it was before. I’ve marked my gear settings, tried changing strings… I’m worried I am experiencing hearing loss, but the doc says that it’s not evident. Is this common or are gremlins messing with my gear after practice?

A: For starters, I wonder if you’re talking about a regular practice space and the tone changing from day to day or within different scenarios and locations.

  1. If you are in a regular space, and you feel that your tone is changing from day to day, I’m not really sure what that might be causing that. I would imagine that there is some variable that must be changing but you said that you’ve noticed this for your entire playing career (25 years) which confounds me a bit. The variable could even be as small as you moving the cabinet a foot to one side or the other.
  2. If, however, you are speaking of different rehearsals (gigs, sessions, and so on) in different settings then, yes, your tone can change quite a bit depending on a pretty large list of variables. Here are some things to ask yourself and consider.
  3. Is the cabinet sitting directly on the floor? Even turning a cab on its side – so more or less of the surface is in direct contact to the floor – can drastically change the way your amp sounds.
  4. If the floor is hollow, the vibrations will resonate throughout as well as travel from the floor, through a mic stand and into any live mics.
  5. If your curious, play for a bit with your cabinet making full contact with a wooden floor and then elevate it onto some foam or egg-crate cartons or something. It’s a completely different sound! Typically, you lose a ton of bass once you “de-couple” the cabinet from the reverberating floor. It can be a great way to fix a boomy room (at least for the bass player). It really tightens up the bass frequencies.
  6. Is the back of the cab in or near the corner of the room? This can cause a bit of a “bass trap”, where a portion of the room will sound extra woofy and undefined.
  7. The reflective surfaces in the room change the sound from room to room. Concrete walls one night and wooden walls the next? Curtains against the back wall versus glass in another room? HUGE difference in overall sound and the way the bands volume will impact you.
  8. Even rearranging the gear or furniture in the room will change the way it sounds to varying degrees – wall hangings alter the sound as well. Everything in the room reflects the sound and alters the way it will sound in every other part of the room (to greater or lesser degrees, of course. I’m not saying that dropping your back-pack on the floor will completely change the sound of a room, of course).
  9. It could even be where you are standing in the room. Some rooms sound drastically different depending on where your ears are in relation to the sound source and reflections. I frequently turn on my rig only to discover that the setting that was giving me the sweetest bass sound ever just the night before suddenly sounds harsh and clicky in this new setting. Every room is different and will warrant changes to your EQ and/or pickup blend.

Additionally, sometimes the sound that works best in the context of the full band doesn’t actually sound all that good by itself. I usually like way more bass and low mids in my sound when practicing or just playing by myself but will dial it way back when my sound is interacting with kick-drums, keys, etc. Once the band is playing, I usually have to use a much more defined sound. Therefore, if you have a band rehearsal and it sounds great but then come in the next evening to shed by yourself, you may be scratching your head at how crappy the previous evenings tone sounds to your ears out of context.

Readers, have you ever had this feeling that you just can not get a consistent tone out of your rig? Even in the same musical setting (like a practice room)? Please share your recommendations in the comments.

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. Michael Goslin

    Also the electric voltage can raise and fall wherever you play, that makes a great difference in your sound!

  2. Oneness Loves

    Good points, most players are even aware of these changes that impact the precieved tone.

  3. how the other musicians EQ themselves can also have a huge effect on your tone as can how the musicians themselves play – do they overplay and leave no space? are they playing in the lower end of the spectrum (left hand for keys, pedals for organ, lower strings and neck position for guitar) and muddying up the sound?

    • Ross

      This is what I thought…If you’re gear is always the same but sounds good one time and not the next then the other players are changing their EQ/Volume/Position/etc….

  4. dale

    I find a good, usable sweep able mid section makes a huge difference in getting my tone as close as possible as quickly as possible

  5. Marco

    The surface of the ground also plays an important role. Carpet sounds a lot smoother than plain wood planks or normal stage surface, because it isn’t that bumpy and more like an anborber.

    I tend to put my cabinet always on a chair or on a empty crate of beer. I still get crispy highs and driving mids without to worry about the material of the ground at the gig. The ground shaking bass is usually produced by the subwoofers of the pa system which is enough for me even if i stand behind them.
    The placement of your speakers is very crucial for your sound. Just try different placements.
    You can also try to close the hole in the back of your speaker cabinet to manipulate your sound.

  6. A part of it is the drummer’s energy. I play with a rock band that rehearses in the same space every week. Same gear, located in the same positions week after week. Yes, a chair might move a couple of feet one way or another or stuff may be stacked differently in the corners from week to week, but it seems to me that the way the drummer is feeling on any given night affects everyone’s volumes and THAT affects tone more than the rest. If he’s up and hitting them hard, the rest of us will obviously turn up or just play harder. Either will change the way the bass sits in the mix. That said, I don’t really notice a *huge* difference at any given practice. Gigs, however, really are all about the room. The smaller and tighter it is, the fewer lows and the more mids you need.

  7. 10) Gremlins are indeed messing with your gear after practice

  8. William Voight.

    I have found that the amount of humidity in the air can have a marked influence on the sound of the bass. Even air temperature does make a difference. On a cooler day the sound can be much clearer than on a hot sticky day.I have come to this realization after having lived an played in different areas in NewZealand where the top of the country can be hot and humid and the bottom of the country can be cool and dry.

    • Yann

      That’s the best answer to me ! Obviously Damian is aware of that, so I wih he had metionned it ! I mean, the guy says it’s a permanent problem, so it’s not only once in a while when he changes the position of the amp. So this leaves to the 2 things that really change the sound and touch of a bass : temperature and humidity.

    • Mark Peach

      I think it is true that air temperature and humidity affect the perceived sound of your instrument, especially the big fat low end frequencies. Having worked in mediterranean for many years, I have really noticed a lack of clarity and projection at higher stage volumes on muggy high humidity evenings.

      • Yann

        For me it’s not only a question of how you perceive sound, although I totally agree with you on that … But even more important, temperature and humidity both affect the curve of your neck, with huge repercussions on your sound. I mean, for me you can’t speak about sound and start with the eq, then the amp, the room … The sound begins with your fingers, the strings, and the bass basics : action, tension … So every parameter wich can modulate that has to be mentionned first. And sadly, if we spoke about upright it would be obvious for everybody, but when it comes to electric bass, people think tone, amp …

    • Rich Haddad

      Excellent points! The same gear in the same room can sound drastically different solely due to temperature and humidity changes, as the very nature of the physics of sound waves moving through air is different at different atmospheric conditions.

      One other point to mention: a given rig with given settings in a given room can sound drastically different *depending on how many people there are in the room*. Dialed in your settings during soundcheck in a sparsely-populated room? Do another quick check once the room is packed with people, as their mere presence is now changing the volume/shape of the available air in the room. A variety of sonic differences are possible; even if the only noticeable change of sound in the room is a duller treble response, you will want to double-check your settings to accommodate both the new “response curve” of the room, as well as any changes others in the band might make to their own rigs (which could affect basic balances across the frequency spectrum).

  9. 110 HZ , ( the middle of the road for Bass) has a wavelength of almost 10′ long. this means where you stand, or where a set of ears are.. DRASTICALLY changes how the bass sounds. moving just 2-3′ side to side can be so dramatic an effect that you want to change settings. An etra poerson to move about the room while you’re playing is invaluable, as they can get an unbiased opinion of your sound. !!!!! why does it take a 150 watt bass amp to compete with a 30 watt guitar amp ?!?! wavelengths !!!!!!

  10. Like a couple the comments below, I often have trouble hearing myself (or getting a good sound) when our guitarist goes into ‘distort’ mode. It covers such a range of noise it can pretty much cancel the bass out.

    • I agree with this. I can dial in an excellent bass tone and as soon as the guitar player(s) starts playing with distortion that bass tone and clarity is ‘lost’.

  11. Excellent points. But even if nothing changes, the sound may change because YOU change. Arriving at the space from relative silence, you and your ears are rested and attentive. Throughout a session of relatively loud music, your hearing changes, both physically and psychologically.Though the session the hearing of everyone changes, and the sound is adjusted accordingly for the most satisfactory result. Then you leave with weary ears. And when you come back, rested and ready, you think everything changed, while it may actually be you.

    • Holger Ernst

      Yes, I agree to you. It is very much a question of how you feel. If you are tired, your mind is struggling with something else or you generally feel bad your sound will not satisfy you whatever you do. And fiddling with knobs will make it worse because you allready had the best setting. If it is possible do something else that day. Tomorrow everything will be fine again.