For the second to last installment in this “Factors in Tone” series, the focus is on hardware, electronics and your signal chain. Hardware refers to things like the bridge and tuners on your bass, but also the strings. For the sake of this piece, electronics will include both onboard preamps and/or a passive setup. Your signal chain is everything between the bass and the sound coming from your speaker or speakers.
As I mentioned at the start of the very first article, everything from your brain all the way to the amp has an impact on your sound, even if that impact may be very subtle. While I encourage you not to obsess about the smaller elements in this equation, remember that each small component adds into the overall sound. In terms of your hardware, this means that the specific metals of the tuners and bridge color your sound in very subtle ways. If you’ve ever wondered why some players will go on and on about what kind of bridge they favor, this is why. Your hardware affects the sustain and harmonic content of your instrument, but its weight also comes into play. If you think about the woods used in your bass or guitar, not only about the various species but also about their weight and density, you start to see why builders may offer ultra light tuners or give you options as to the materials in the bridges they offer. Many of the components which deliver the most desirable tonal qualities are heavy, so there may be a discussion between player and builder about where (if anywhere) to save weight as most of us who perform know what it means to play something heavy for one or more sets.
The choice to keep your instrument passive, active or have the option to do both is a very personal thing. There are advantages to each. The simplicity and wide dynamic range of a passive instrument is the way for many players. The ability to adjust one’s sound on the fly to accommodate the acoustics of a new room without having to change one’s amp settings certainly is a benefit. And some of us like the freedom to do both. While people will argue that a passive setup is more transparent, this is actually an odd statement as everything from your first thought about what you’re going to play until the note is released into the air colors the sound. It’s really more a matter of thinking about how each factor in the equation colors the sound and to what degree. The entire point of this series is not to give you pat answer so much as to broaden the way you think about what plays into your overall sound.
There are numerous discussions online in various forums about strings and just how much they affect tone. I can’t overstate just what strings do to your sound. But know that there are so many variables whether you go with flats, tape wound, pressure wound, groundwound or roundwound strings. It’s more than a matter or brightness or tension, as strings may also be conductive and contribute to noise in an instrument. Simply changing string type or brand can bring out or conceal elements of sound, so DEFINITELY consider this well!
While it’s obvious that your amp rig is key to your sound, don’t forget things like the cables. As you use longer and longer cables, you lose treble response. Anyone who makes a serious living in studios can tell you that the quality of cables plays a part in the quality of your recorded sound, but few live players really need to buy oxygen free cables or the wildly expensive boutique cables that may cost hundreds of dollars a foot, but these things to have their additive quality. And if you play through a pedalboard, you need to be aware that the more patch cables you use, the greater your chance of noise and the less treble response you’ll have.
The final article will address the single element in your sound: you.