A Big Argument for Small Bass Amplifiers

Here’s an actual conversation I had with a friend (and fellow bassist):
Him: I just got a 1,200 watt head and 4×12 cabinet for my band.
Me: Don’t you have PA support? That seems like overkill.
Him: No way, it’ll be awesome.
Two months later:
Me: How’s that new amp?
Him: I can’t turn it up past 7 o’clock without the soundman yelling at me. It’s complete overkill for my situation.
In this day and age when talking about bass amplifiers, bigger isn’t necessarily better, especially for a working/freelance bassist. Today we’re going to talk about some situations where having a more modestly sized rig may be ideal for you.
Back in my younger days, I dreamed of having a 4×10 and 1×15 cab setup with a 1,000 watt head on top of it, so I would have “headroom for days.” After getting half that setup (a 500 watt head with a 4×10), I realized that it was overkill for days. Sure, there was plenty of headroom. But when you only have the amp up a little and the -12dB pad on the amp engaged, you know there is something amiss.
Situations Where a Large Amp was Too Much:
Bar Band: I know what you’re thinking; this shouldn’t be on the list, let alone the top. Most of these gigs are going to have PA support, and will more than likely run a DI from your amp. At that point, your amp is merely a personal monitor and while hearing yourself is important to you and the drummer, overall volume is not. I know many guys that opt to run ampless at their bar gig for this very reason, and say it’s fantastic.
Studio Recording: Sure, put the amp in an iso-booth with a mic and you can open that baby up for “teh toanz!!!” Most studio guys now are going to run you direct, and then maybe put a mic in front of that amp. Maybe. In this particular situation, I have found that a small but excellent sounding amp really shines. My personal favorite for the studio is the Double Four, from Phil Jones Bass. It’s a tiny amp that you can open up a little and get a great sound that engineers have no problem grabbing a nice mic’d sound off of. The couple of times I’ve brought this into the studio, we’ve opted for just the mic’d sound over the DI. That wouldn’t have happened with a 4×10.
But don’t take my word for it. I talked to Ian Gorman of La Luna Recording & Sound where I have recorded, to get his thoughts on using a smaller rig.
“A lot of people are surprised to hear that often their favorite bass tones on records were accomplished with smaller amps. In the studio, you don’t always need to shake the house down to get a great tone. Sometimes a smaller amp, turned up in the mix, can give you a bigger sound than a cranked amp. Heck, it’s not uncommon for bass players just go direct and don’t even use an amp in the studio.
It’s a misconception that size = power. This is due to not just the “cool factor”, but because to our ears louder sounds bigger. Live, that may very well be the case, but the studio is a different beast. Some of the biggest, fattest bass sounds I’ve ever gotten have been with small amps played at a moderate volume.”
Small Gigs: I do a lot of trio and quartet gigs. A lot. These are those little coffee house gigs, where you’re playing to an intimate crowd and may not have PA support. Here’s where having a little more than just a practice amp is needed, but don’t overdo it; you don’t want to have everything pulled back and still be too loud. A class D amp like the Aguilar Tone Hammer 350 with a DB 112 would fit the bill with it’s tonal quality but appropriate volume.

Musical Theatre: This is a big one, because the volume levels in the pit have to remain as controlled as possible. I have found that in certain places, anything over a 1×12 combo will resonate to the point of having to be run direct (and many times, that’s what happens). Having something small that can be dialed back for volume is a must, to stay on the soundperson’s – and Music Director’s – good side.

At this point, you’re wondering if there is a need for a gigantic rig, and to be honest, they do have their place. You need to assess your situation and your gigging wants/needs, and find out what amp will suit those needs the best, without pushing a small amp too much (much like you wouldn’t want to take a Kia on the autobahn, you’re not going to take the Ferrari on a grocery run). The biggest advice I can offer is to go modular. There is no legitimate need for a 4×12 cabinet, unless you absolutely want one for “manly” reasons. Grabbing two 2×12 cabinets (or two 4×10 cabs in lieu of the “fridge”) can get you the same volume from your amp, the same tone but more importantly, the option to only bring one if you have a smaller gig. Something that will work with your various gigging situations is your best bet, and will ensure that it actually gets used, instead of just hanging out in the basement or rehearsal space.

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  1. I agree, I’ve down-sized to the Ampeg Micro VR from and SVT-3pro with 2×10 + 1×15 cabs and in most cases it’s a great fit. I would, however, like a little more headroom because that amp is only 150 watts into the micro vr 2×10 cab. Playing a gig with a heavy handed and somewhat insensitive drummer left me struggling to hear myself but for the most part it’s plenty.

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