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February 25, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Controlling for Variax

On the left, my new bass. On the right, what was almost my new bass. Not to scale.

The winner is a Line 6 Variax, which is one of their digital modeling basses. Line 6 has made a name for themselves by creating very good simulations of amplifiers (the Pod) and effects (my looper, the DL-4, is actually their emulation of a dozen delay pedals). The Variax is supposed to do the same thing for guitars, by picking up the sound from a piezoelectric pickup built into the bridge and processing it until it sounds like one of many vintage or inconvenient (upright or acoustic bass) instruments.

The loser is a Malden Motorbass, an exercise in stripped-down bass minimalism, which appeals to me. It's got just one single-coil pickup, which is all I ever use anyway, and one volume knob, because I leave the tone on the All-Star all the way up. I like the look of the Motorbass, too. What tipped the decision away from it was that first, it doesn't actually give me anything I don't already have, and second, it's built like a Precision bass, which means it's meant more for solid, simple rock basslines. I think I'd regret buying it after a week, because it doesn't really fit with where I want to go musically except in the minimalism.

The Variax is interesting, though, from a kind of cultural standpoint. After all, there's no more superstitious market than guitar players. By nature, most of them are wary of digital technology to begin with, so it was probably due to go down like a ton of bricks anyway. But even still, this is a piece of hardware that incorporates some extremely sophisticated electronics. Guitar players can even use software to completely customize the models, and on the Variax bass you can move the virtual pickup on single-pickup basses (like the Stingray or a P-Bass) back and forward on the model, which is pretty sophisticated. And yet, with all this technology, it's still being used to imitate a bunch of instruments averaging about thirty years old.

You can argue that there are both positive and negative aspects to this fact. The best part of modelling, either through Line 6 or through companies like Digitech, is that it gives players on a budget access to a wide variety of tones (with greater or lesser levels of realism). Most people don't have the money for a '71 Rickenbacker or a '69 Fender, so it's nice if they can sound that way for not a lot of cash. But on the other hand, this fetishization of the past can be one of the great blind spots of popular music. After all, when digital audio recording first showed up, engineers used it as nothing more than a limited version of tape. It was only when people left the restraints of that paradigm behind that digital audio really became more interesting, and more sophisticated production began to take off.

Either way, I'm looking forward to using the Line 6 as a recording bass, since its power requirements may make it a bit cumbersome live. In those situations, I'll still have the All-Star. It's a bit more photogenic anyway. But if I were really going for looks, check out this modification that takes the Variax guts and puts them in a custom-made exotic wood body. If only I owned more machine tools, and a work room to put them in...

Future - Present - Past