Your amplifier is a core part of your sound as a bass guitarist. But what do you go for? Combo or stack? Valve or solid-state? There are so many different types of bass amplifiers out there from brands like Orange, Markbass, Ashdown, Gallien-Krueger, and Fender. So how do you find the right one for you? Throughout this guide, we'll look at all the different types of amplifiers that are available today, and discern which ones will suit you best!
Combo vs Stack
There are two different styles of bass amp. You can either buy a combo, or a head and cab setup (often known as a ‘stack'). A combo has all of the parts of the amplifier in one unit, so that you only ever have to move one thing. With a head and cab setup, your amplifier ('head’) and speakers (‘cab’) are separate so that you can move them independently, which can be a real advantage if you need to travel a lot.
Pros of a Combo Amp
- Value For Money: The main benefit of a combo is the value for money. You get an amplifier and speaker at generally a lower cost than an equivalent head and cab.
- Little Setup Needed: It's also slightly more convenient as far as set up goes - you don't need to worry about finding a speaker that matches your amp's tone and impedance. Just plug it into the wall, plug your bass in and you're ready to go!
- Best For: Combos are generally ideal for stationary use such as at home or in the studio but they're also a good gigging option if you don't mind the weight and would prefer to just carry a single unit.
Cons of a Combo Amp
- Bulky: Combos, however, are generally less convenient. The convenience of carrying one unit is outweighed (literally) by the size and weight combos can reach.
- Lack of versatility: If you buy a large 2x12 combo for bigger gigs, it's going to be too large and loud for smaller gigs. You can always add an extension cab to a smaller combo but at that point, a stack is probably preferable.
- Difficult to customise: Not a fan of the speaker sound? Well unless you're willing to do some wiring there's not much you can really do.
Pros of a Bass Stack
- Convenience: Stacks are generally more convenient as they're usually a smaller and lighter profile than a combo. Even though you have to carry your head and cab separately, you'll be doing your back a favour.
- Flexibility: With a head and cab you can switch out either whenever you need to. You can swap out cabs depending on the size of gig or the tone you want to achieve.
- Best For: A stack is usually the best option if you're doing regular gigs or touring.
Cons of a Bass Stack
- More Setup Needed: A little more thought is required when setting up a stack. Not only do you have to find a cab that offers you the tone you want, but you also have to make sure it has the right impedance.
- Cost: As previously mentioned, a stack is going to set you back a bit more so you'll have to judge whether the convenience and flexibility are worth paying a little extra for.
Solid State vs Valve
Unlike guitar amps, even on the pro stage you will still find a lot of solid-state bass amplifiers. Because of the lack of high-gain amp distortion and the incredibly high power of bass speakers, valve-driven bass amps do not make as much of a difference as they do on a regular electric guitar.
Saying that however, there is still a constant debate on how much of an improvement in tone you get with a valve amplifier. So let’s look at all the little pros and cons of each type of amp:
Solid State Bass Amps
Solid-state amplifiers have been around since the 70s, and have improved tremendously year-after-year to get closer to the traditional valve amp sound without any of the drawbacks. Solid-state amps make up a large portion of the bass amp market at the moment, thanks to their small, lightweight nature and reliability.
- Pros: Solid-state amps are a lot of small and lighter than their valve counterparts and pump out a lot of volume for their size too. This is particularly noticeable with amp heads which can get really small and portable. Solid-state amps are also more reliable thanks to their use of transistors over delicate valves.
- Cons: From a practical standpoint there aren't many downsides to a solid-state amp. As far as tone goes, solid-state amps lack the warmth and natural overdrive capability of valve amps.
- Best For: As they're easy to transport, reliable and capable of producing high volume, solid-state amps are a great option for the gigging bassist.
Valve Bass Amps
Valve amplifiers have been around about as long as the electric bass has and were the only option until the introduction of solid-state amps in the 70s. Valve amps produce their sound through vacuum tubes which gives them that tonal quality that makes them so beloved.
- Pros: Valve amps have a very distinctive character that many players hold-up as the holy grail of bass tone. Warm, organic, and capable of producing a smooth and natural-sounding overdrive, many solid-state amps model their sound on valve-amps but it's never the same as the real deal.
- Cons: That vintage tone comes at a cost, and not just financially. Not only are valve amps bigger and heavier, they generally cost more. Couple that with the delicate nature of vacuum tubes that need maintaining and you understand why many opt for the reliability of a solid-state amp.
- Best For: An all-valve amp is best for getting that true vintage-style tone and are also great if you like some drive in your bass tone. Valve amps are also the ultimate studio amp as all the tonal detail will really shine through on a recording.
Hybrid Bass Amps
Hybrid amps attempt to give you the best of both worlds, with a part valve and part solid-state circuit. Normally, they do this with a valve preamp and a solid-state power amp, which gives you a perfect in-between of size, weight and quality of sound.
- Pros: Hybrid amps occupy a happy middle-ground in the bass amp space. A valve preamp will colour the tone, giving you something warmer and more organic than a solid-state amp. Having a solid-state power section gives you the powerful volume production and makes less weighty than an all-valve amp. These amps are therefore super versatile as they'll perform well on stage or in the studio.
- Cons: Hybrid amps are not as small as their solid-state counterparts and, as they use valves, will still require maintenance. With a hybrid amp, you neither get the full convenience of solid-state nor the full vintage warmth of valve so it may not fully satisfy your needs.
- Best For: Hybrids are generally very versatile, able to be used in a wide array of genres and sound great in the studio and on the stage. A real jack-of-all-trades.
What Size Speakers Should I Use?
Cabs come in many configurations with varying sizes and number of speakers. A general rule of thumb for speaker sizes is that larger speakers have a fatter tone with more bass emphasis and smaller speaker have a more immediate response with greater midrange emphasis. This is why a common pro setup is a 4×10” cab with a 1×15” cab. You get the punchy sound and note definition from the 10" speakers with the benefit of the deep bass response from 15" speaker. You get the best of both worlds.
This isn't practical for many players (that's a lot of heavy equipment to move!) so you need to decide what cab will best suit your style. Playing jazz and blues styles of music? The robust low-end of a 15" speaker will provide a great foundation for the band. In a rock or metal band and want to cut through a bit more? The midrange emphasis of a 10" speaker will help you sound stand out in the mix. Other popular cabinets come in 1×12", 2×10", 2x12", and 8×10" formats, but systems using 8” and smaller speakers are also used a lot in smaller practice amps.
Bass Amp Controls and Outputs
While different bass amps will all have slightly contrasting controls, there are often similarities between them. For example, you will nearly always have at least 1 input jack, a gain control, a volume control and at least a 3-band EQ. These basic controls are what create your basic sound, and everything else is just icing on the cake.
Some examples of extra controls are drive, compression, sub and enhance. All of these effect how the rest of the controls respond, and help to give your sound a bit of extra flavour depending on the style you are playing. For example, if you are in a metal band you may want an amp with built-in drive to avoid having to use extra pedals, while funkier slap players may want compression.
Generally speaking, you will quite often have multiple different outputs on any head or combo so that you can connect it as you see fit. DI out and speaker outputs will appear on nearly every amp you will come across. You can use these to connect up to your computer or a PA system, and external speaker cabinets respectively.
Direct Input Bass Rigs
Bass guitarists have one really cool advantage that no other instrumentalists really have, direct input. Using a bass preamp or a DI box, you can take the DI out and go straight into a PA system. This is most commonly done from an amp head, but if that is still too much to carry, brands like Darkglass make amazing preamp pedals that are made to be connected directly to a mixer.
For a lot of small gigs, one of these pedals is all you need to fill out the mix, and in the studio they are generally good enough quality to record with. If you want a more substantial sound then you could look at a multi-fx unit that has amp modelling onboard. Some multi-fx units, such as the Line 6 Helix range, can model the sound of a variety of amps and cabs, as well as effects. This means you can get amp-like tone while enjoying the convenience of DI.
The only issue is that if there is not sufficient monitoring on stage, then you won’t be able to hear yourself very well. This is a serious downfall of not having a speaker on stage, and unless you know the venue and promoter well, going with a DI alone can be unpredictable.