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Sound Ideas: Seasoning Your Sauce

Let’s see, a healthy dash of salt — well maybe a little more. Next some fresh ground pepper and a couple of cloves of garlic, then a sprig of basil and a little rosemary. That should just about do it; now for a taste.

Wow, what the heck just happened? That was horrible and those were my favorite ingredients. What happened?

Chances are if you start adding extra herbs and spices to the spaghetti sauce you just poured from the jar without tasting it first, you’re headed for trouble. Why? You could be adding unnecessary seasoning to something that is already perfectly balanced or at least has enough already.

It seems so obvious to taste first, yet we are all prone to do it. For some of us it’s as often as every time we plug in to play bass. How? By going into autopilot mode and adjusting the EQ on our bass, preamp, amp, active DI or integrated head without listening to it first to see if it actually needs any.

We are all creatures of habit to be sure. For some that may mean we dial in the familiar smiley face EQ of boosted highs and lows. For others, it’s cranking the heck out of the midrange to cut through the mix in a loud setting.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this, after all that’s what the EQ controls are for. The problem isn’t that we use these seasonings, as it were, to flavor our sound. The problem is that we do it on autopilot without listening first to see if they are really needed.

A very famous world class bass player called me for help stating that he did not like his tone. I asked him about how he has his EQ set up. He told me that no matter where he plays or what he’s using, he always drastically boosts his mids before he plugs in. I suggested that he set everything flat, play for a couple of minutes and then EQ as needed to taste. (Like spaghetti sauce)

He would not even consider exploring my suggestion. “I have always run my EQ this way; it’s my thing.” He said.

This past week I saw another famous player in a club walk up to an amp and a cabinet he had never used or heard. Before plugging in, I watched as he boosted the lows, low mids and mids, without ever even listening.

Why? “I have always run my EQ this way; it’s my thing.” He said.

Just like spaghetti sauce, what we end up with could be inedible. To find out why, let’s take a closer look at our signal chain.

A large percentage of basses today have active preamps that run on either 9 or 18-volt batteries. The built in preamps boost the bass guitar’s signal so that it’s louder at your amp/preamp/DI. Along with increasing the signal, most active preamps will also have added EQ boosting as well. The most common are two-band EQ, where you can adjust the highs and lows and the 3-band EQ, which adds a midrange control. There are even more elaborate preamps that can enhance many other areas and fine tune things you never knew existed.

Is the added flexibility in volume and tone a good thing? Personally, I love active preamps on my basses because it gives me the opportunity to adapt better to any room or style of playing if needed. However, like most things in life; its best served in moderation. Just because a little is good, more is not necessarily better. As a matter of fact, too much tweaking can quickly ruin a gig.

Next in line is the preamp section in your integrated amp (head) or the preamp in your rack (where you have a separate power amp). In simple terms, it’s a larger, more advanced active preamp like the one in your active bass. They amplify the signal from your instrument as well as allowing you to increase and adjust your EQ. Most give you a greater capacity to adjust your tone than the preamps in your instrument.

Again, is this a good thing? Absolutely! If used carefully.

Here’s where things get really interesting, although many players are oblivious to it. You have an active bass with boosted and modified EQ. That in turn is plugged into a more powerful preamp that boosts your signal and EQ yet again. Do you see what’s coming? You haven’t even tasted the sauce that may already be great and yet you start adding salt (the preamp on the bass) and then even more salt (the preamp with your amplifier).

You have just multiplied what you have already multiplied!

Last night, I watched a Three Stooges episode where they were making beer at home. Each one individually added a cake of yeast to the mix, not knowing that the other two had done the same. What happened next was comedy through disaster with beer bubbling all over the kitchen and them scrambling for more jars. Unless you’re trying to create comedy through disaster on the gig, you need to pay better attention to your multiple active EQs.

There are more potential consequences than just bad tone at stake.

Bob Lee at QSC is not only a good friend and amplifier expert; he’s also a wonderful bass player. In picking his brain on amps and EQ, he said that one of the non-warranty problems they see all too often is where people have added so much bass to their signal that it causes the speakers to have over excursion issues. The driver is driven so hard that its movement is greater than it’s designed. This can result in damage from the voice coil popping out of the core and not going back in the tube. In addition, you can burn up the voice coil from overheating or you can put a crease in the cone. Any of these is the end of your driver’s life.

Many experts advocate that if you want more of a certain frequency; let’s say more bass, that instead of boosting the bass you turn down the highs and mids. You get the same results, but in a safer manner that’s less likely to cause speaker damage.

Another area to be aware of is effects pedals. In watching a player recently, the gain on his amp/preamp was close to its limits and sounded great. However, when he kicked in his wah-wah pedal, you could see the clip light on his amp going off like crazy. Why? His effects pedals boosted the already boosted signal yet again.

Every venue, every room, every environment will have a different impact on your tone as well. We’ve all played in a club or theater with an old wooden stage that made everything boomy. Then there’s playing outdoors where you wonder what just happened to my entire low end.

That’s why I believe the best thing you can do for good tone and peace of mind is to always set your EQ flat on your amp in the beginning.
Plug in and play for a minute listening carefully and then EQ to your taste and as important, to the room. EQ is not a sin, but it can be if you don’t listen first and get out of autopilot mode.

Being aware of how your signal chain works is the beginning of making wiser choices. Wiser choices can lead to fewer component failures and much better tone. Who knows? It might even lead to more gigs.

Let’s recap:

1. Listen carefully before adding any EQ.
2. It’s fine to EQ if needed, but not just out of habit.
3. If in doubt, it may be safer to cut the areas you want less of, than it is to boost areas you want more of.
4. Be aware of multiplying EQ that had already been multiplied.
5. Modifying EQ does not automatically lead to great tone, so don’t go into autopilot mode.
6. Start with your EQ set flat and after listening, EQ to your taste and to the room.

Do you think there’s too much seasoning in your sauce? If so, it’s an
easy fix.

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