One of the biggest obstacles bassists face when trying to make a dirty or overdriven bass tone sit in a full band mix is preventing the loss of low end in their sound. Sure, a dirty bass tone can really liven up your band’s mix and fatten up the overall sound, especially in a power trio setting or for heavier styles of music, but the last thing you want to do as a bassist is compromise on holding down the low end. Many overdrive pedals, even those intended for bass, have varying degrees of low end loss which may serve as a deterrent to many players considering an overdriven bass sound. Fortunately, there are ways to beef up your bass tone with overdrive while still keeping the low-end fundamental intact.
Why Does Overdrive Cause Low End Loss?
When you run your bass through an overdrive pedal, you are compressing and clipping the signal- such is the nature of any overdrive or distortion. The resulting compression may cause an apparent drop in volume or low end response compared to a clean bass signal. The clipping depending on how it is achieved and how it is filtered creates harmonics. Except for some circuits that use tubes or JFETs, the harmonics are all higher frequencies (or octaves) than the original bass tone. This will drown the lower tones out, leaving you with a bright or mid range heavy tone.
This is especially pronounced if you are using an overdrive pedal intended for guitar, many of which have trouble retaining the low end or they are filtered for guitar.
Also the clipping squares off the low notes, so they don’t ring out as they would without the added overdrive.
With tubes and JFET transistors, the square law effect is in play, so if the circuit is done correctly you get a lower note harmonic from the math. This is why Carvin Audio bass amps all have a JFET discrete front end, and most models except the BX250 and MB Series have a tube driving the amplifier to warm up the tone.
Tips and Tricks for Making Overdrive Work
Adjust Your Amp Settings: Low end loss is definitely an issue if you are switching your overdrive on and off during a song. Any EQ tweaks you make to your amplifier to compensate for reduced low end from your pedal will affect your clean tone once the pedal is switched off, and possibly your DI signal as well if your bass amp is DI’ed. However, if you are using an overdrive pedal as an always-on component of your tone, feel free to use your amplifier’s EQ controls to further tweak the sound to your liking. The Carvin Audio B1000’s sub bass control is especially useful in this scenario, as you can bring back in any of the sub-lows that you have lost by using an overdrive pedal.
Make Sure You Have the Pedal Set at Unity: As mentioned before, applying overdrive, distortion, or fuzz on bass will make you perceive the mids and highs more prominently. This in turn may cause you to think the pedal is louder than it actually is, since these frequencies are more easily audible by the human ear. In most cases, unity gain on your overdrive pedal will be much louder than your clean signal, so if your low end isn’t cutting through, or your sound is dropping out when you engage the pedal, try raising the volume on your overdrive pedal. It may provide you a quick and easy fix!
Use a Clean Blend: A clean blend allows you to mix your clean tone with the distortion pedal of your choice, keeping the punch and low end intact while adding dirt. This design is used on many bass overdrive pedals and is extremely effective. An independent clean blend pedal can really extend the usability of any dirt pedal. If you have a guitar distortion that you like that loses low end, try running it through a clean blend pedal.
For some players, a clean blend creates too much separation between the clean signal and the distortion, creating a sound that’s somewhat disjointed. This is much more common with fuzzes and heavier distortions. However, in most cases, a clean blend is a great solution for an overdrive sound. In the case with heavy distortion, turn the clean high end and mid down if you can. Then you can just blend a clean low end. This may lessen or even solve the disjointed sound.
Try Using Less Drive: A little goes a long way when it comes to bass dirt. If the low end punch of your signal is dropping out, try using as little gain as possible for a slightly overdriven sound. This will keep most of your clean signal intact and add only a little bit of grit, which may work way better in a dense mix. On many popular bass recordings, the bass is slightly overdriven rather than a full-blown distortion, and it really helps the bass to stand out. To see proof of this concept in action, check out the isolated bass track to Rush’s “YYZ” performed by Geddy Lee here.
Have you ever tried distortion on bass, and if so, what results did you get? Let us know in the comments!
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