5 Best Bass Preamps
By Mason Hoberg
Just like any other instrument, the bass guitar has a world of options when it comes to tone shaping. The instrument is so widespread that it’s a fixture in the majority of Western music, the electric bass guitar especially. Because of this, bass guitarists need to have a variety of tonal shaping abilities in order to create a tone that works well for whatever genre they’re playing at the time.
With that being said, many beginning bass guitarists are ignorant of one of the most useful pedals that they can add into their arsenal: the bass preamp. So if you don’t know what a bass preamp is or when you’ll need one, or you do already know but you’re just looking for a few tips on what to look for, you’ve come to the right place. This article will give you all the information that you need to figure out how to select the best bass preamp for your needs. Even better, at the end of the article we’ll give you a few great recommendations to help aid you in your search.
- Bass Preamp Primer
- Top 5 Bass Preamps
Bass Preamp Primer
The basic function of a preamp is to take a signal and influence its tone before its amplified. So, if you have a bass amp you already have a preamp. You also already have a preamp if you have a bass with active pickups, because active pickups allow you to boost certain frequencies before they hit your amplifier.
Even though you most likely already have at least one preamp, and a lot of you have two, a pedal preamp can still go a long way in helping you create a tone you’re happy with. Think of it like mixing paint to get a particular shade of color. Your amplifier would be your starting color, active pickups would be either black or white paint, and a preamp pedal would be a second color.
A bass preamp allows you to have more options when you go to sculpt your tone. So if you’re already happy with the sound you’re getting you’re really not going to get much out of a bass preamp, but if there’s an element of your tone that you’re not completely satisfied with odds are you can at least improve it through the use of a preamp pedal.
A second function of a pedal preamp is that it allows you to quickly and dramatically change between two or more different tones. So say you have two songs back to back. One’s a restrained and tasteful acoustic number and the second is a quintessential rock song. A preamp would allow you to set up a tone that would work for each without having to go back to your amp to adjust the setting. This is a godsend when you’re performing because trying to quickly change your tone from your amp can be pretty difficult mid-show.
As a general rule with most pedals you’re going to run into diminishing returns somewhere between the $120 and $200 range. This price range allows you to get a pedal that is solidly built with quality components. Beyond that it’s more of an issue of personal preference, so don’t think that a more expensive preamp is going to give you an objectively better tone. The main benefit of more expensive preamps is that they generally give you more options.
Top 5 Bass Preamps
Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI
Founded in 1989 by Andrew Barta, Tech 21 is an influential manufacturer of preamps, guitar and bass effects, MIDI technology, guitar amps, bass amps, and powered extension cabinets. The company is commonly regarded as one of the best in its field, with some really notable musicians being known to use products they’ve manufactured. Some of the notable examples of musicians who use Tech 21 products include, but are not limited to: Kenny Aaronson of Foghat, Will Adler of Lamb of God, Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam, and Owen Biddle of Roots.
Andrew Barta, the aforementioned founder of Tech 21, actually had a background in musical equipment before he ever launched the company. He was a performing musician who also worked in a music store repairing, modifying, and customizing amplifiers. It was with this experience that the first created the Tech 21 SansAmp, the company’s first major product. However, he never intended to turn it into a business. He unsuccessfully tried to sell the technology to a variety of companies. However, rather than abandoning his idea he eventually decided to set out on his own. It proved to be a wise decision, as Tech21 has gone on to be a very successful company.
The most important thing to note about this pedal is that it features a blend control, which is a feature that can make or break a bass preamp depending on your needs. Essentially, the blend control dictates how much of the preamp’s tone is going to be in the end signal. So with the knob you can control how much of your original tone shines through and the degree to which the preamp is represented in your sound.
The pedal also features bass, treble, presence, and gain controls. The bass and treble components are an active EQ that can either boost or cut their respective frequencies by 12dB. The presence control dictates the definition of the upper harmonics. The gain control works more like your standard overdrive circuit and is independent from the volume control.
The SansAmp BSDR also features tube emulation circuitry. The intent of this is to emulate the organic response you get from tube amplifiers. This feature does a pretty respectable job of imitating the dynamics of a tube amp, though it should be noted that it’s not going to completely replace a solid tube amplifier. The BSDR can be powered by either an included power supply or a 9V battery.
It has a great tone that can easily be used to replace an amplifier when the unit is hooked up to a P.A. The only thing that a reasonable person could ask for from the unit is the inclusion of an effects loop. However, even that shouldn’t really be counted against the unit considering the lack of an effects loop is clearly advertised.
The Tech 21 BSDR SansAmp Driver DI is an industry standard for a good reason. It’s both great sounding and a durable unit.
MXR M81 Bass Preamp
Founded in 1972 by Keith Barr and Terry Sherwood, MXR is one of the most notable manufacturers of pedals in modern music. The company has produced pedals that have been used by some of the most famous musicians in history, including both David Gilmour and Eddie Van Halen.
Something that many may not know about the company is that the founders actually originally launched the company as an audio repair business. The pair repaired stereos and other musical equipment in a bedroom apartment. The experience they gained working as repairmen gave them the knowledge and the drive to launch a company that focused on producing original products. Some of the first pedals produced by the team were the Phase 90, the MXR Distortion Plus, the Dynacomp, and the Blue Box.
The key thing to note about this unit is that it emphasizes simplicity. It’s designed to be a plug and play unit, not a piece of gear that you have to spend hours fiddling with in order to dial in the tone you want. This makes it a good fit for those of you who are just looking to boost an element of your tone, but it may make the pedal less useful to those of you who want high levels of control.
The M81 features bass, mid, and treble controls in addition to a mid-sweep. The mid-sweep in particular is a must have feature for this type of pedal, because it gives you a lot of control about how the EQ settings of the unit are going to interact with both your rig and your place in the mix. The unit also has a ground lift switch, which will be a lifesaver if you end up encountering any ground loop hum. It’s also direct bypass, so when it’s not engaged the pedal isn’t going to have any noticeable impact on your tone.
It really is a great sounding pedal, with a good capacity for clarity and warmth. MXR pedals also come with a warranty that, so long as you register the product within 14 days after purchase, will replace it. The usual rules with this warranty apply, so it is protected against flaws in materials or workmanship but should you happen to modify it you’re out of luck. The warranty covers the product for one year following the original purchase date.
The MXR81 Bass Preamp is a great fir for any musician who is looking for a no-frills base preamp.
Behringer V-Tone Bass BDI21
Founded in 1989, Behringer has gained a reputation for producing some of the most affordable instrument accessories ever. As of 2007, Behringer is listed as the 14th largest manufacturer of miscal products in the world. The company has actually grown to become a multi-national operation, with marketing presence in 10 countries as well as a sales network that extends over 130 countries.
Something a lot of people don’t know about Behringer is that though the company has gone on to become a giant in its field it actually has pretty humble roots. Uli Behringer, the founder of Behringer, was a student at the Robert Schumann Conservatory studying sound design and classical piano. However, Uli found that the equipment available to students of the conservatory was very limiting. Because of this, he set out to design equipment of his own.
After designing his own musical accessories, Uli’s fellow students eventually started requesting that he build them gear also. Demand went on to become so great that Uli got to the point where he couldn’t manufacture all the products that were requested of him, leading to the formation of Behringer. Like many Behringer products, the Behringer V-Tone Bdi21 Bass Amp Modeler/ Direct Recording Preamp/ DI Box offers a great value to musicians who are looking for an affordable bass preamp. To learn more about the product, as well as how it stacks up to the competition, check out the specifications below.
The first thing to note about this product is that it’s intended to function as both a preamp and an amp modeler. The preamp is capable of emulating funky slap sounds, crunchy distortion, and vintage inspired tube amp tones. These features are going to be especially useful to those of you who intend on using the preamp to replace a bass amp.
The unit is powered with either a 9-volt battery or a power supply (not included). It also features ¼ standard outputs as well as XLR connectors. The unit features a 2-band EQ, allowing you to sculpt the bass and treble response to your preferences. It also includes a presence control, which helps to change the representation of the high-end frequencies and how they interact with the overall tone. The unit also comes with a gain and level control in addition to a ground lift.
For the price it offers a lot of utility. It’s not going to compare to bass preamps costing hundreds of dollars, but at the same time it’s a pretty useful addition to your rig if you’re a hobbyist musician or someone who rarely gigs. The casing for the unit is also made from metal, which does a lot to increase its overall durability.
The Behringer V-Tone Bass Amp Modeler/Direct Recording Preamp is a valuable addition to the rig of any musician looking for an affordable preamp. It probably isn’t going to be the best choice for those of you who consistently gig or make a living playing music, but if you’re simply looking for a solid EQ you definitely can’t go wrong with the Behringer.
Ampeg SCRDI Bass DI Preamp with Scrambler Overdrive
Founded in 1946 by Everett Hull and Stanley Michaels, Ampeg is one of the top names in the bass playing sphere. The brand is to the bass guitar amp what Fender is to the guitar amp, and since the company’s inception they’ve been a giant in the industry.
Something many don’t know about the company is that their first product was actually a pickup for the upright basses, prized by jazz musicians for its minimal output distortion (essentially they liked it because it kept the signal clean). This product was launched as the “Amplified Peg,” which went on to become known as the “Ampeg.” The company then rebranded as the Ampeg Bassamp Company.
Ironically given the brand’s modern day usage, early Ampeg amps were actually intended to remain clean and not break up (distort). The co-founder of the company, Everett Hull, actually really did not like rock and roll. Hull refused to acknowledge rock and roll until 1959, and never sought out endorsements from rock and roll musicians.
Though it may not be the product the company is best known for, the Ampeg SCRDI Bass Di Preamp with Scrambler Overdrive is a great representation of the quality the Ampeg brand has become associated with. To learn more about this product, as well as how it stacks up against the competition, check out the specifications below.
The most notable feature of this preamp is the inclusion of the ultra-hi and ultra-low circuits. Essentially, these circuits are an added boost (high and low-end respectively) that helps to adjust the overall frequency curve of the unit. It does a great job of giving the player’s more control over their tone.
Another interesting feature of the Ampeg SCRDI is that it also allows musicians to silently practice. The unit features a headphone out jack (standard 3.55mm) as well as an aux-in jack so that you can play along to practice tracks.
The best part of this preamp is that it the gain circuit is independent from the main preamp unit, so you can use the device both as a preamp and as an overdrive pedal. The box also allows you to blend in the gain to the end tone (increasing the ratio of distorted to clean signal).This pedal is built like a tank. This alone makes it worth serious consideration for gigging musicians, because it doesn’t matter how good a piece of gear sounds if you’re worried it’s going to let you down mid-gig. The pedal has a level of durability that far exceeds the majority of its competition.
However, the pre-amp input is finicky. The unit does have a way to lower the input volume. There’s a button on the inside of the unit on the main circuit board which features a -15 dB switch. Some think engaging this switch robs the unit of some tonal color, though this is a subjective matter.
The Ampeg SCRDI Bass DI Preamp with Scrambler Overdrive is a great preamp that is used the world over from a company focused on bass products.
Aguilar Tone Hammer
The Aguilar story is one that echoes the history of dozens of other companies who manufacture instruments and instrument accessories. Aguilar president Dave Boonshot was a seasoned studio musician who moved to New York City in search of more career opportunities. Unfortunately, during the 80s work started to dry up. Because he couldn’t find employment he decided to start a studio of his own, Naked Music. However, like many musicians once Boonshot became more aware of what goes into to creating an instrument’s tone he began to become dissatisfied with the equipment he had available. Initially, Boonshot was looking for someone to design him a preamp that would feature the sound quality exclusive to more expensive models intended for studio applications while still being designed especially for the bass guitar.
Through a mutual friend Boonshot met Alex Aguilar, an amp repairman and designer. It was with Boonshot’s vision and Aguilar’s expertise that the two designed on what would go on to become the Aguilar DB 680, the company’s first product.
Agular is has gained the reputation they have through a commitment to producing great sounding pieces of equipment that can keep up with the demands of any musician. To learn more about the Tone Hammer, as well as how it stacks up against the competition, check out the specifications below.
The key thing to note about this pedal is that it’s both an overdrive and an active EQ, as well as having the ability to function as a preamp. The unit has a three-band active EQ that allows you to boost or cut treble, bass, and mid frequencies up to 18/dB. This is variance is enough that you’ll have access to a wide enough array of tones that should you choose to use this pedal as a preamp odds are you’ll be able to dial in a tone you’re pleased with.
A possible concern is that there isn’t a separate switch for the pedal’s gain. So you can’t use the pedal to switch between clean and distorted sounds while still using the active EQ. The impact this has on you is going to depend on your situation, but it’s definitely something to consider if you’re planning on using this pedal as an amp replacement. The Tone Hammer can be powered with either two 9-volt batteries, phantom power from a P.A. system, or a power adapter.
A really good sounding unit, an increase in depth and clarity is noticeable and the unit itself is very solidly built. The only potential flaw is that it can be a bit challenging to install the batteries. However, this is kind of a petty concern so long as the unit itself is well built. It may cause some problems if you need to change batteries mid-gig, but that’s a pretty rare occurrence.
The Aguilar Tone Hammer is widely considered to be on par with the SansAmp. It’d be a great fit for any performing musician given its powerful tone shaping capabilities as well as its integrated gain circuit. The only thing that may be a potential concern is that the gain can’t be kicked on and off independently of the rest of the EQ.