The chain is only as strong as its weakest link……..
It’s that simple my friends; this is exactly what happens with our sound path. So we have to take care of it at any of its stages.
The final sound will depend on a vast list of very different factors, and those factors are interrelated the same way as a chain is. We have to assimilate each factor of a chain link, but with a slight difference, which is that these links must be considered as being in a linear sequence, which means that we have to take care of every link starting by solving the first one and then going into the second one and so on. It would be nonsense to take care of this links trying to solve them in a random manner.
What factors I’m talking about? I’ve chosen to numerate them in a progressive list so it will be much easier for any of you to individualize any of them and also to identify the exact position that it has in the Sound Path.
1. Abstract Sound
First of all you must be absolutely clear at a “mental level” what bass sound you are looking for. It would be worthless to try to take care of the next links if you don’t know clearly what you want.
2. Surface that will make contact with the “Sound Element”
You must consider that using a pick, or your fingertips, or your nails, or any other material will strongly affect the remaining chain links. Also, you have to consider that there are many different types of picks depending on the material and the thickness. The same happens with the fingertips, because they will vary depending on the biotype of the bass player, which means that you have to analyze if your fingertips are soft, hard, big, small, wet, dry, smooth, rough, etc…
3. The “Touch”
A big percentage of the sound texture rests on this link. As with the previous link, a soft or a hard touch will affect every following link. It’s very important to add that we don’t really pluck the strings on a bass, and we don’t pinch them either. I mention that because the word “Pizzicato” comes from the Italian language and means “pinching”. What we really do on a bass string is to “press” it in on a 45 degree angle approximately and then release it. All this happens in a fraction of a second, but that is what we really do when we play the conventional bass pizzicato technique. Obviously there are variations on the attack angle of the finger, so is good to clarify that I’m referring to the standard technique.
4. The Strings
Many characteristics of the strings can affect the sound. Those are the diameter, the length, if it’s a round wound, half wound or flat wound string. The construction material also affects the sound, so you have to consider the material of the strings you are using (Steel, Nickel, Bronze, Aluminum-Nickel, Nylon-Metal, etc.) Finally, the installation of the strings is crucial. The winding around the tuners (more turns, less turns) and mostly the string height must also be considered.
5. The Instrument
This is one of the most complex elements to consider. We’ll analyze each factor in order not to miss any detail.
1. Construction Material: Wood, Graphite, Aluminum, Acrylic resin, etc. Regarding the wood, we have to take into account if the wood is hard, soft, dark, clear, heavy, light, etc.
2. Construction Type: Neck-Trough-Body, Set neck, Bolt on, Hollow body, Semi hollow body.
3. Instrument Scale: Standard Scale, Short Scale, Long Scale.
4. Body Size: As an example, please compare a Steinberger bass with a Ken Smith bass.
5. Hardware Material: I’m referring to the hardware that makes direct contact with the strings, like the tuners, the bridge, the nut, etc. This can be made of stainless steel, bronze, ebony, many different alloys.
6. The Frets: Frets can be made of stainless steel, nickel, nickel silver (Alpaca), and even ebony. Also frets come in different heights and widths. Regarding the fret width, you can find thin, standard, and jumbo frets. So the amount of fret material that makes contact with the string will affect the sound in different ways. Regarding the fret height, a taller fret will imply that the strings will be far from the fingerboard wood, and on a lower fret the string will be closer. That affects the bass sound a lot.
7. Tuner Tilt Angle: A higher angle will constitute a higher pressure of the strings over the nut. A lower angle will constitute a lower pressure of the strings over the nut. Each circumstance will affect the sound in a different manner.
8. Paint finish: Sound will be significantly modified by paint, varnish, lacquer, nitrocellulose, polyurethane-polyester, oil, etc.
6. Instrument Electronics
You always have to separate the instrument itself from its electronics due to the fact that they are very different fields. The variables of the electronic system start on the passive transducer, or the device who “receives the sound” which is normally called “The Pickup”. It’s important to consider the placing, distance from the bridge, the distance from the strings, height regulation, the winding, series, single, parallel, the model, soap bar, jazz bass, precision, the material, alnico, ceramic, samarium cobalt, iron, and the brand (two similar pickups from a different manufacturer almost never sound the same). The preamplifier is crucial, and it will color the sound we are offering to it. The most important feature of a standard bass preamp is the semi parametric equalization and you want to know how to use it.
Finally, the potentiometers are very important as well, and I would suggest not trying to save dollars when replacing them, and try to keep them dust free.
7. Cables and Connectors
Regarding the cables, we must consider the wiring quality, and the shielding and the isolating capabilities. The length of the cable is very important, so if we want to drive the maximum sound quality into the amplifier, you should consider using the shortest cable you can.
Regarding the connectors, whether they are male or female, never skimp on them. The connectors are the only link of the chain that transmits the sound by contact pressure and not by “structural conducting”. So try to use the same brand of male and female connectors because they were made for each other, and that means that there will not be any chance of a loose contact on the surfaces because of slight “untested” difference between brands. I’ve seen cases when two different brands get stuck and are very hard to unplug, and in some cases they are so loose that the male connector almost falls out.
That’s all for now my friends. Don’t miss the next issue where we’ll finish this story talking about links 8 to 14.