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March 25, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Variax Practice Impressions

The problem with judging the Variax bass is that it really needs to be put into a live or recording context for a real evaluation. For one thing, the differences between the modeled instruments are often not entirely apparent at low volumes, so you need to be able to turn up the volume. Also, like all instruments, it sounds different in a band context, and that's really where the models come into their own. When solo'd, they tend to sound very similar, because at heart all basses are still just vibrating metal strings bolted to wood. But with other instruments, the individual attributes of the modeled basses start to come through--the bounce and snap of the Stingray's preamp, for example, or the thick boom of the T-Bird's humbuckers. At the very least, you need to hear these basses with drums. So to get a bit more of that perspective, I took the Variax to one of my band auditions this weekend. I don't think the band is likely to work out, but I'm happy with how the bass sounded.

The space itself was a small practice room, which tended to accentuate the treble a bit. On most active basses, you'd want to turn down the highs, and you can do that with the Variax on both passive and active models. Unfortunately, when you change models, the knobs reset to their saved positions. So the first performance lesson is that room-tuning has to be done from the amplifier--probably the best place to do it anyway.

The band concept this audition was a kind of funk/hip-hop/rock fusion, and the tracks I played with had lots of synth pads and samples already worked into them. The bandleader said he was interested in the kinds of extended-range bass that I do, but that kind of music (Tupac meets Prince, in his words) really calls for an old-school thump from the bass. I used the Thunderbird and the P-bass models for the most part, and was pleasantly surprised by them. I'm not entirely sure if they're accurate models, but they're both good bass sounds. They've got plenty of impact, and they cut through the mix to support it without really stepping out in front.

In fact, that tends to be what I find most interesting about the Variax so far, and also what I find disturbing. When my main axe was the All Star, which is a J-bass clone, I learned a set of techniques for getting different sounds on it: variations on where to pluck the strings, the interactions between the pickups, and the tone knob. I had to learn those, because a passive instrument doesn't really have much in the way of tone-shaping. On an active instrument, you have an EQ built in, which adds a new layer of versatility. The Variax actually models both the passive and active tone circuits of its basses, but I found myself using the models themselves as tone presets instead of spending much time with the treble and bass controls. Until I get to know them all better, that's probably how it's going to go: I've basically got about 10 new basses to learn, after it took me three years to really feel like I was wringing good stuff out of a single instrument.

We also played some of my own stuff, which is... interesting... when adding a drummer and guitarist. The Rickenbacker has rapidly become one of my favorite sounds on the Variax, and it sounded the way I thought it should. There's definitely some of that piano-ringing clarity to the sound that I would expect from a Rick. I also flipped back to my J preset, which solos the neck pickup, and got pretty much exactly what I'm used to, although it seems a little stiffer than the All-Star. It's so hard to do precise comparisons of these things, especially since they're not modeling my instruments (although that would be a nice touch), but a set of vintage basses that I've never touched.

Overall, it was a pleasant experience. The Variax never felt digital or artificial, although I didn't expect it to. I did find that the synth sounds, using my presets, came across as thin and weak, although with a little tweaking they started to stand out a bit more. But the bass sounds are solid, and they really do start to distinguish themselves a bit more in context. I don't think it's a good first instrument, because I think musicians need to learn (as I did) on something that makes them work a little harder and develop their technique to compensate for any limitations of the hardware. The Variax doesn't replace a great instrument, either--now that I've heard the model, I'm even more interested in a real Rickenbacker. But it does replace the instruments that players can't afford, or wouldn't play enough to justify buying. And it's definitely got value as a workhorse for people who only want to carry one bass, or who want to experiment with different tones.

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