Getting good bass tone is a life-long, science experiment.
There is a sound in every musician’s head. It’s the sound of the perfect tone of the instrument that they play (bass, guitar, drums, piano, etc.). So whenever somebody asks you, “How do you get your sound?” now you’ll have the perfect answer, which is: “It’s what I hear inside my head.” Usually that sound is really not attainable, but still we try, try, and try! Getting good bass tone is a life-long, science experiment. Chasing that perfect tone is a never-ending journey.
Sadly, some guys just don’t know what sounds good or what sounds bad. As a result, they might not know that the tone they are hearing within is not very good! Then, they can’t help but recreate that not-so-great tone! They may even have the latest, greatest, state-of-the-art gear, but if they don’t hear it, it’s probably going to be a lost cause.
If you are having trouble getting a great sound, you are probably not listening to other bassists enough. The only way to acquire good taste in bass tone is to listen to those who have great tone. Then it’s your job to figure out how to accurately imitate it. Ask people who “know” to be genuinely honest with you and help you with your tone. For instance, if you go to a concert and the bass player’s tone is amazing, make your way over to the console and ask the engineer! Ask him if he will be in town long enough to help you. Take him out to lunch. Ask lots of questions!
Also, you might ask other bassists directly about their tone. Ask them who their favorite bass player is, or what groups they like. Then go home, listen, practice, and try your hardest to imitate them with your own gear.
But please be mindful that the more great players (with great tone) that you listen to, the better you’ll be able to hear great tone for yourself. Persistence will “drill” it into your head!
I certainly have not heard every preamp, stomp box, or bass amp, but I am always looking. For me, I am always in search of the fattest tone, the cleanest attack, the quietest frets, the smoothest sustain, the silkiest distortion, the best tracking sub-octave pedal, an affordable midi trigger that tracks, a compressor that reads my mind… aaahhh! There’s a lot more where that came from. The good and bad part about that is that it will never end!
In my own personal quest I have purchased a few interesting pedals that have added some variety and inspiration to my repertoire.
The Diamond Bass Compressor is a little yellow box of “laugh-out-loud”, bass smoothness. It is an optical compressor that acts like an analog compressor. It has no negative “heartbeats” or “thumps” in its effect (that I can hear), yet it punches up my sound in a variable “Dynacomp” fashion without any noise. It’s the happiest $200 I have spent in a long time!
In the distortion department, I recently heard a guy play at a live event with some of the smoothest, synth-bass sounding bass distortion I have heard in a while. I asked him how he was achieving this phenomenon and he sent me a picture of his Cat King Fuzz Pedal. It’s an “in-yo-face”, buzzy, diode-tweakable distortion. Mine is the two-channel model that allows you to set two volume/distortion levels and bounce between them from section to section. It also has a feedback switch (available in momentary or latching version) that goes from crazy to insane!
The only negative that I found with the Cat King was that when engaged, it removed a little of the fundamental low end from my overall sound. My work around for this was to wire the Cat King into a blender pedal made by my friend Josh Scott at JHS Pedals. This permits me to get the buzziest distortion I feel like dialing up, and then blend it in with the dry bass tone…as much or little as needed (I told you it was a science)! Unfortunately, this pedal has been discontinued, but there are several other companies that make blender pedals. They can be quite handy for a multitude of uses (parallel compression, etc.). But Josh makes a lot of great pedals for bass. Check them out!
To help you identify your “better” sound, another good thing to do is find a pair of ear monitors that you like, making sure that their reviews are good (do your research!). Decent ear monitors are a worthy investment! Having a consistent point of reference is key when you are figuring out your own sound discernment. For example, every audio engineer I know listens to their mixes in their own car during the mix process. Why? Because it is their “real world” reference. Everyone must have their own consistent point of reference.
As I have stated before, no two bass players sound exactly alike, no matter what bass they are playing, or what “box” they are playing through. This is simply because no two people have the same finger shapes, nerves, or muscles that pluck a string or fret a note in an identical fashion. We all have to individually work out our tone for ourselves. Be continually blessed in your search.