Or, TheCrowFromBelow rants at length about bass overdrives before finally telling you about his new TS9B.
Overdrive and/or distortion effects are just one of those things that the modern lead guitarist is never without. Very few rock or blues guitarists would leave the house without one in their guitar case – well, except Angus Young, perhaps – and a lot of soloists will have two or three that they use in tandem to add colour and richness to their palette. Since its introduction in the late ’70s, the Ibanez Tube Screamer series have been particularly popular additions to such a pedalboard, particularly among blues players such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Joanne Shaw Taylor. It attempts to emulate the sound of a vintage tube amplifier being pushed to the point of overdrive – hence the name – and provides a distinctive midrange boost, which makes it ideal for soloing.
Driven by its popularity, other effects manufacturers have tried to develop their own overdrive pedals to produce a similar sound. A lot of R&D has gone into developing and refining this particularly sweet, overdriven guitar tone. A lot less R&D, it seems, went into developing something similar for the bass guitarists.
There are several possible reasons for this, not least of all the much lesser demand for overdrive among bassists. Many modern bass amps are equipped with limiters to prevent distortion at higher volumes. Many modern players like their sound clean all the way up. Many of them want tight, funky sounds for tighter, funkier basslines. And many modern guitarists really wish their bassist would stop attempting to take a solo.
It’s not as if there weren’t any options for the bassist. One of the reasons I’ve always favoured Laney amps is that they came with an option to disable the limiter, and distort the amp at higher gains. And if all else failed, you could get a bass fuzz pedal. For a number of years I had one myself: a Behringer Bass OD, given to me by White Elephant’s guitarist after he grew tired of me complaining about being unable to overdrive the amp in a rehearsal studio. It did the trick, and provided a bit of a boost and a more stinging tone for the times when I needed to solo and be heard above the rest of the band.
The trouble, I found, was that this Behringer had the same problem as all the other bass overdrives I tried. They all distorted the sound, and provided improved sustain. They all boosted the signal. Some of them had fairly smooth sounds. Some of them were complex enough to double up as a useful preamp if one was caught short without an amp. But very few of them had a sound which I felt would really cut through a mix.
I don’t know whether the problem was their intended purpose: were they designed for bassists to solo with? Or were they designed so that I could distort the bass without making my sound too intrusive? If the latter, then they worked very well. If the former…well, they didn’t. All of the distortion seemed to focus on the bass frequencies, and in some cases, the higher frequencies. None of them seemed to do anything to push the mids. I could provide a slightly muddy, fuzzy bass at the bottom of a mix, but if I attempted to solo, my sound would still be left buried under the rest of the band. If I boosted the treble to cut through the mix, the bass would be audible, but sound pretty horrible.
So when Ibanez released a bass edition of their famous Tube Screamer series, I became very excited. In the UK, they also proved to be an absolute bugger to track down, but when I did finally get to plug into one, I knew it was exactly what I wanted. This was a sound for soloing: the overdrive was prominent, but smooth and rich, like one might expect from a tube amp. The midrange boost made the sound bright and clear without being too harsh and trebly.
The pedal has five controls: drive, mix, level, bass and treble. With drive and level, you can decide how much to distort your sound, and how much to boost it. The bass and treble allow you to tinker with the tone, while mix allows you to change the ratio of your raw sound and your effected sound that makes it to the amp. I think it’s fair to say the first two controls basically give you a Tube Screamer, whilst the latter three give you the versatility to morph the sound to your needs – from simulating the tube bass amp you can’t afford, via thunderous, Mötörhead-esque distorted bass riffs to roaring solos fit to wipe the sneer off your guitarist’s face.
It responds beautifully to dynamics as well. This may not be the most obvious thing to look for – after all, you’re buying an overdrive pedal for the effect on your tone, right? – but just try it. Set the drive control so that it starts to really buzz when you play loudly. Now back down and play pianissimo, and hear how the tone changes.
The TS9B is exactly what I wanted from a bass overdrive. It’s well-voiced, responsive and versatile. Best of all, it means I can finally go to head-to-head with a guitarist when it comes to raunchy, self-indulgent solos. If I get a chance, I’ll try and upload some recordings. In the meantime, you’ll have to take my word for it. Or try youtube.