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, 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!
The Anatomy of a Bass Amp
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.
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.
The benefit of a combo is value for money. Generally, you can get your hands on a combo version of any amplifier for sometimes up to 20% less than a head and cab version with the same speakers. The other key advantage is that you will know that this amp is finely tuned to the speakers, as they are part of the same unit.
The downsides to any combo are weight, size and customizability. As the entire thing is in one enclosure, it is going to be a lot bigger and a lot heavier to move around. If you can easily get a lift to your next gig then this is no problem, but if you need to walk this can be a real pain. Customizability is also a major issue, as you are stuck with the speakers in the cabinet unless you want to dive inside and get wiring. With a stack setup, you can change your head or cab at any time.
The main benefits of a stack are what can make owning a combo a right pain in the backside. They are generally lighter and easier to transport, as if there is already a cab at the venue, you just need to take your head and you can fine-tune to the cab when you are there. Even if there isn’t a cabinet, if you have a solid-state class D style head you don’t even need to have a cab there, for reasons we will get to later in the guide.
This mix and match usability does unfortunately come at a price though, in the form of cold, hard cash. Head and cab setups are a bit more expensive, but for those who need a lightweight gigging rig - it is quite often the best option. Combos are better suited for stationary use, where you move it very rarely due to the annoying nature of the size and shape of the amp.
Solid State vs Valve vs Hybrid
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:
|Valve||Valve amplifiers have been used for many years, and until the 70s they were the only type of bass amp available. They produce a very natural, warm and rounded tone, that is considered to be the holy grail of bass tones for a large number of styles. If you go back and listen to a lot of the biggest rock albums, chances are it was recorded with something like an Ampeg SVT valve amp. This stunning sound however does come at the cost of size and weight. While some solid-state amplifiers are small enough to carry in your gigbag, valve amps can sometimes be large and heavy enough to require two people to move it. This is not always the case, but it is worth knowing that they can be a bit of a pain to move around. They also require a lot more maintenance than most other amplifiers. Vintage amps will have seen a lot of heavy use over the years, so they may need a fair amount of work to get the best out of them. At the very least, with valve amps you need to replace the valves around once a year.|
|Solid-state||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. The only real disadvantage of using a solid-state amplifier is that you are not getting that iconic true valve sound. If you can live with that, then maybe solid-state amps are the way to go. Just like valve amp heads, solid-state amps come in a wide range of different sizes and styles, but the most popular in recent years have been small Class D heads. These amps are small and light enough to easily carry in one hand or fit into your gigbag without any trouble, while still having enough power to be heard live. The other main advantage of these amps is that you don’t even need to connect them to a cab. 90% of Class D bass amplifiers can be run without a load (cabinet), meaning you can take your amp and run it straight out of the DI output into a PA system. This way, with your bass, cable and your amp head in your gigbag, you are ready to play!|
|Hybrid||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. They do require a bit more maintenance than a full solid-state amplifier, and generally they are not gigbag small. But apart from that, these are amazing gigging and studio-quality amps. The biggest issue with hybrid amps is that there are not that many to choose from, at least when compared to the range of the solid-state amps available. Manufacturers like Orange and Markbass love hybrid amps, as they are looking to overtake full-on valve heads as an industry standard for pro level musicians that need to play loud. Smaller gigging musicians may benefit from the sound of a hybrid too, but the portability of something like a solid-state amp is a hard thing to beat.|
Who Needs An Amplifier? DI MAN!
Bass guitarists have one really cool advantage that no other instrumentalists really have. Using a bass preamp, 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. 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.
Speakers Of Choice
Your speakers are a huge part of your sound, meaning that your choice of bass cabinets is quite varied. People prefer different speaker sizes for their sounds, but the most common pro setup you will find is a 4×10” cab and a 1×15” cab. This means that you can get all of the punch and detail from the 10” speakers, and all of the low-end rumble from a deep 15” speaker without compromise. That does not mean, however, that different speaker combinations can’t be very useful for different sounds and scenarios. Other popular cabinets come in 1×12", 2×10" and 8×10" formats, but systems using 8” and smaller speakers are also used a lot in smaller practice amps.
Smaller speakers in general will produce less low-end, unless you have many of them set up in the same cabinet. For a lot of different styles, this lack of low-end can be a benefit. In rock and metal bands, a biting mid-range really lets the bass punch through in a mix, helped with the use of 10” speakers. Using smaller speakers can really help you get heard with a full mix too, instead of just sitting only in the lower side of the frequency spectrum.
For others however, using something like a 1×15” cab really lets you get that low-end rumble, pushing some serious air onstage. This is amazing for jazz or acoustic bass players, where the main goal is supporting the lead instruments.