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Bass electronics: active vs. passive

Active or passive bass: what are the differences, what are the advantages or disadvantages?

Which bass electronics are right for me?

From the inexpensive Far East instrument to the sinfully expensive custom model of exclusive boutique forges, the bass market today has a ridiculously broad spectrum. When purchasing a new bass, questions such as a four- or five-string are usually resolved relatively quickly. The question of the budget is usually decided promptly - when you look at the account! But whether the new bass should be active or passive - this question often leads to great confusion. Terms like 2- or 3-band electronics, boost / cut, boost only, selectable mid-frequency, sweepable mid-frequency, mid boost switch, 9 or 18 volts etc. fly around the ears in the descriptions. You quickly get the feeling that you can't buy a bass without a correspondence course in electrical engineering. This article should shed light on the darkness and help you to find the right electronics for your taste and your personal purposes!

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Active and passive electronics: is there a "better" or "worse"?

One very important point right from the start: Neither of these two "worlds" is better or worse per se! They're just different, and each may be a little better suited to specific musical situations. General statements in the sense of "You can only play this or that style with a passive bass!" are nonsense. Too many other factors play a role - especially the most important building block of your sound: you and your hands!

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The structure of passive electronics

"What is passive bass electronics?"

Passive electronics manage without a power supply. Therefore it can only work in one direction, i.e. lower frequencies. Classic passive electronics consist of volume controls for the pickups and a passive tone control. When fully turned up, this regulator is in its neutral position. If you turn it, the value of the capacitor inside the electronics changes. This dampens the highs.

There are usually no other features with passive electronics. If the instrument has two pickups, a balance control for the mixing ratio of the pickups and a single volume control for the overall volume are often used instead of the two individual volume controls.

Classic: Here you can see the passive electronics of a Precision ...

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The structure of active electronics

"What is active bass electronics?"

Active electronics offer significantly more convenience than passive ones. This convenience is usually expressed in the form of a preamplifier, which - like a stereo system - includes potentiometers for bass, middle and treble. The instrument needs power to operate this preamp, and without it there is usually no sound. (Donkey bridge: the bass has to be "activated" for this!).

The electronics are mostly powered by a 9V battery. Sometimes even two 9V blocks are used to achieve an operating voltage of 18 volts.

No active electronics work without a juice dispenser. Here you can see the battery compartment of a Music Man Stingray.

With the help of active electronics, frequencies can now also be added to the signal from the pickups and not just removed.

The second crucial difference is the so-called impedance conversion. The high-resistance signal of the pickups is converted into a low-resistance one. In practice, this means that the signal arrives at the amplifier with almost no loss, even over longer cable runs. This impedance conversion is also accompanied by a slight change in the sound.

Much more going on than with passive instruments: Here you can see the typical cockpit of active electronics!

If you look at the pure data sheet, the active electronics are clearly ahead of the game thanks to their expanded capabilities. However, the theoretical values ​​do not have to match your taste by a long way! The human ear perceives losses through the cable in the high range as quite pleasant for some styles. For some sound ideal, these inadequacies are actually a good match!

This effect is a bit like that of a tube amp. Bass amplifiers of this type are anything but linear and usually color the sound strongly. This is physically bad, but our ears perceive this coloring as pleasant.

Most active electronics can be switched on or off

Critics of active electronics often note that this bends the actual character of the instrument and with it "the wood is less audible". Fortunately for us, we don't necessarily have to make an "either / or decision". Many active electronics can also be switched to passive mode (for example with the help of a pull-out push / pull potentiometer). In this way you get "Best Of Both Worlds" and you are no longer dependent on a 9V battery. As is well known, it usually gives up its ghost at the most inopportune time.

History of active bass electronics

Alembic, Music Man and the aftermath ...

Every beginning was passive! When Leo Fender built the first Precision Bass in 1951, it was of course still able to get by with an electronic "minimal" equipment consisting of a volume control and a passive tone screen. The Fender Jazz Bass that followed ten years later also had only one additional volume control due to the two pickups.

This remained the standard until the mid-1970s, when the Music Man Stingray was the first high-volume active bass to hit the market - again conceived by Leo Fender and his small team. As a result, sounds from passive basses exclusively shape the musical events up to this point in time. These include styles such as Motown, Soul, Classic Rock, Blues, R&B, Jazz Rock, etc. Well-known bassists of this time are James Jamerson, Carol Kaye, Jerry Jemmott, Duck Dunn, Rocco Prestia, Jaco Pastorius, Chuck Rainey, Geezer Butler, John Paul Jones and many more.

Many a real fan would not trade the passive electronics of their Precision or Jazz Bass for anything in the world!

It is well known that styles do not just disappear, but in principle live forever, develop and, through this type of musical evolution, in turn produce new styles. This is why passive bass continues to enjoy great popularity these days - they are simply part of the tonal ideal of certain types of music!

Incidentally, the first active electronics already existed at the end of the 1960s - the cult brand Alembic is considered to be its inventor. From 1971 onwards, they were installed as standard in the Alembic basses called "Series I". However, these instruments were outrageously expensive, the numbers were relatively small, and accordingly, alembic basses were not widely used. That's why active electronics had to wait a while for their big breakthrough, which was only made possible by the success of the aforementioned Music Man Stingray.

Inspired by the success of the Stingray, many other manufacturers soon started using active electronics. They also supported the slap technique, which was becoming increasingly popular at the time. Bassists who were looking for a present, high-pitched tone and who also liked to play a solo suddenly suddenly got their money's worth.

A few prominent examples known for their active bass sound include Louis Johnson, Stanley Clarke, Mark King, Tony Levin, Victor Wooten - and especially Marcus Miller. The latter had active electronics built into his 77 jazz bass by Roger Sadowsky and has since become a role model for many bass players all over the world with his signature sound!

The retrofitted active sound of his Fender Jazz Bass is a tonal ideal for countless bassists all over the world: Marcus Miller (Image source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Y3dnGzI2l0)

What types of active bass electronics are there?

Active electronics differ from one another in terms of various equipment features. In the following I will list the most important versions for you.

This 2-band tone control on a Music Man Stingray includes controls for volume, treble and bass.

1.) 2-band electronics

In addition to volume and / or panorama controls for the pickups, these electronics each have a control for bass and treble. These can either be raised (boosted) or lowered (cut).

2.) 3-band electronics

In addition to the controls that we know from 2-band electronics, there is also a control for the midrange. The frequency that can be raised or lowered is determined by the manufacturer.

The classic active 3-band tone control, here on a Peavey Cirrus: controls for volume, balance (also: panorama), bass, mids and treble.

3.) 3-band electronics with selectable mid-frequency

Identical to the 3-band electronics, but here you also have the option of determining the frequency of the middle controller. Often this is done using a toggle switch, so that you have two different frequency ranges to choose from. However, some manufacturers also offer the option of choosing the most suitable from several different frequencies in the electronics field.

These active electronics have different presets for the midrange.

4.) 3-band sweepable mid frequency

The luxury version of the previous version. With the help of a controller, you can steplessly choose the frequency of the mids. This feature is also called "parametric mids".

Active electronics with two-tier (also: concentric) potentiometers.

5.) Boost / Cut

The English terms for raising / lowering have already been mentioned. The controls of most active electronics have a position halfway through their control range in which they lock. This marks the neutral position (also called "flat"). From this point the frequencies can then be raised or lowered - depending on which direction you turn the potentiometer.

6.) Boost Only

With active boost-only electronics, the frequencies can only be increased. If you turn the controls all the way back, they are in the neutral position.

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Retrofitting a passive bass with active electronics

If the desire to become "active" grows in you, you don't have to get a new bass right away. It is also entirely possible to retrofit your passive baby with active electronics. Some of the manufacturers just mentioned offer their electronics as a replacement (exchange). Some of them can even be exchanged for the existing passive electronics without extra woodwork on the instrument, which experience has shown is always the greatest concern with such operations!

A good example is EMG's BTC Control. Here the passive tone control is simply replaced by a two-tier potentiometer that contains the bass and treble controls. There is usually enough space in the electronics compartment of the instrument even for the 9-volt battery that is now required. Other manufacturers also offer space-saving solutions, although space often has to be created for the battery - either under the pickguard or in the form of a separate battery compartment.

An invaluable advantage is when the new electronics have the same number of controls as the old ones. However, active electronics often include up to five controllers due to their diverse possibilities. To prevent the instrument from having to drill new holes for the controls, many manufacturers use double-deck potentiometers. Two functions sit on one potentiometer, e.g. bass and treble. In this way, the number of controllers is reduced and there is no need to drill additional holes in the ceiling, which makes any dismantling more difficult.

However, some bass players do not like double-tiered potentiometers, as in the heat of an energetic live gig you can run the risk of accidentally turning a potentiometer ring that you did not want to move.

If you have a jazz bass, the New York manufacturer Sadowsky or the British preamp specialist John East, for example, offer the option of purchasing electronics that are already pre-assembled on the control plate. So you can simply swap the old passive electronics as a whole for the new one without any soldering knowledge - practical!

Fits exactly on the electric compartment of jazz basses: the J-Retro by John East with its numerous options for influencing the sound! (Image: www.east-uk.com)

Active electronics for electric bass - small market overview

Some manufacturers install specially developed electronics in their instruments. But many also fall back on the existing market. Well-known and established names are e.g. Aguilar, EMG, Seymour Duncan, Delano, Glockenklang, Nordstrand, Noll, Bartolini, John East, etc.

These companies offer active electronics with a wide variety of equipment features. You have probably already noticed that the same brands for pickups or electronics often appear in descriptions of instruments from different manufacturers.

Similar to instruments, personal taste in terms of sound, the desired equipment features and of course the price determine which product you ultimately choose!

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Conclusion bass electronics

As already mentioned at the beginning, general statements about passive or active basses do not usually apply. Each variant has its advantages and disadvantages and is predestined for one or the other style. With a little flair for a good bass tone, however, you can make almost any bass work in almost any context. After all, the decisive factor when it comes to sound is whoever is behind the bass: the bassist!

Just don't panic: the most important components for a good sound are still the hands of the player!

However, if you want to reproduce classic sounds in an absolutely authentic way, it certainly makes sense to also use the corresponding basses. A Motown sound is always best achieved with a (passive) Precision Bass with flatwounds. A slap sound in the style of Marcus Miller is easier to achieve with the help of an active jazz bass.

A great advantage of active electronics is certainly its flexibility. For example, if you play in several bands in different rehearsal rooms over different amps or if you often have gigs where you use equipment available on site, you always have "your sound" with you, so to speak. This makes it easier to react to changes in the signal chain. Especially when the electronics can also be operated passively if necessary, you are basically equipped for everything and can continue to play even if the juice dispenser fails.

A character bass that works exclusively passively and can only serve one style well, of course, also has its charm and a special charisma. Ultimately, therefore, it is always your individual taste and your tonal preferences that decide.

All the best and see you soon, Thomas Meinlschmidt