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July 17, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Variax 700 Bass: Final Thoughts

This is a hard instrument to describe. "Conservative" may be the most accurate word--not in the political sense, but in the way that it really takes no chances with either its styling or the modeling technology. I tend to think that's a disappointment, but the Variax does make it a phenomenal recording instrument. After five months with it, I'm not sure I'd take it live, but it's a real asset to the home studio, especially at the current, reduced price.

Physically, the Variax is kind of a Super Stingray. The body style, neck width, and the sheer heft of the thing are all very similar to the revered Music Man basses. It's a heavy, chunky bass with a solid feel. Clearly, the Stingray has been a broad success, and Line 6 probably made a wise choice to ape its look and feel. But the imitation is also a little stifling. For one thing, what I tend to notice first is the wide string spacing. Ever since replacing the bridge on the All-Star with an adjustable Gotoh model, I've stuck with a very narrow distance from string to string, which feels faster to me. The Variax's wide neck and bridge put a lot more space between each string, and aren't adjustable. That's understandable, since I'm sure creating a fully-adjustable piezo bridge is very difficult, and it's great for slap-happy Stingray fans, but it's frustrating that a modeling bass (with several small-scale or narrow-necked instruments on tap) locks players into a single bridge configuration.

Of course I'm going to complain about the fret access on the Variax as well. But it's not so much that the frets are limited--21 still seems a little cramped after learning on 24, but it's honestly only 3 fewer semitones, and that's why I own a Whammy. I'm more frustrated by how hard the body style makes it to reach those last few notes. Like many Fender-style instruments, the Variax has a lower cutaway but it's not contoured into the body to accommodate the fretted hand. It's painful trying to reach up past the 19th fret or so. Players who tend to stick to the bottom octave of each string aren't going to find this objectionable--but again, why make a modeling bass so stingy and unforgiving, especially since several of the models (particularly the Thumb and the Alembic) prominently featured the high frets?

Let's talk about the models, while we're on the topic. With more experience using each of them, I've definitely found some favorites. The usual suspects (Fenders, Stingrays, and Rickenbackers) are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from their inspirations in the mix. The Hofner Beatle Bass and Gibson EB-2D models offer a very cool glimpse into instruments where their flaws have become strengths--the Hofner's lack of sustain and the Gibson's woofy, indistinct bassiness are both modeled well. The acoustics are wonderful, especially since real acoustic basses (either acoustic-electric or upright) can be so finicky. With that said, the flatwound models are still not terribly convincing, and the eight-string bass is still awful, with pitch-shifting artifacts all over the place. I'm not sure why the twelve is better-behaved, but it's much more convincing, as long as you don't let notes sustain too long. There's one caveat on that, however: I've noticed that sometimes the EQ for the 12-string goes out of whack, and notes become unbearably tinny. It's not something I can reproduce reliably, but it does seem to happen more often when playing chords. I'd hate to imagine it going haywire live.

Even setting aside the useless flatwound settings, there are still several models on here that just seem to have been included for trivia purposes and not for any distinct sonic character. It seems silly, for example, to imitate a Steinberger on a bass that's so physically its opposite. I also can't imagine that anyone actually needed four jazz basses just for the fretless and active preamp options, especially since the Variax effectively adds active EQ to all its passive models. I'd have easily traded several of these models for the ability to create custom presets like on some of the guitar Variaxes--considering that I'll never use the eight-string bass, it's kind of a pain that I always have to hit an additional selector knob to skip it and go to the 12-string. The fusion with the PodXT Live (which also powers the bass, eliminating the intrusive power adapter) no doubt addresses these picked nits, but it's another $400.

All of these little frustrations make the "user interface" for the Variax a slightly mixed experience, one that doesn't make for a lot of customization in either software or hardware. And the sounds themselves, while excellent in quality, are also fairly conservative. There's nothing really off-the-wall here. The bass even feels a little stiff and unresponsive--although it has no problems with dynamics and it never feels "computerized," what it doesn't do is respond to playing on different parts of the string. I suspect this has to do with the piezo inputs, which only see the string at its very end, compared to the wider central viewpoint of a traditional pickup. It's disconcerting, after learning to manipulate tone manually on a passive bass, to move from plucking at the bridge up to the neck and not hear much of a difference.

Yet that same control is part of what makes the Variax a great recording tool. You can be pretty sure that you can get any classic tone you want out of it, without too many variables to mess it up (the noiseless piezo is very nice in an unshielded electrical environment, I must admit). And although the generic feel of the instrument is inferior to your favorite, customized bass, that's not the point. Once you get used to it, the Variax provides basically the same thing for instruments as the Pod did for amps: it's a good sound in a very small space, accessed in a way that isn't going to thrill anyone, but also isn't likely to send them screaming for the hills either. You need some small amount of engineering skill to get the best out of the Variax. You shouldn't expect it to replace a primary axe, especially for live use. You absolutely should not learn to play on a Variax. But I'm rather fond of it as a utilitarian tool for doing fast, effective recording. If you go in with that as a goal, I think you won't be disappointed.

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