One, I have been a supporter and an endorser of nearly everything that Carey Nordstrand has made. I was one of his first customers when he began making basses, while he was still working for John Suhr. The bass that Carey made for me had one of the very first sets of pickups that he had ever made. I’ve specifically been endorsing Nordstrand Pickups for maybe ten years or more. I’m a big fan for sure.
Two, when the Starlifter first came out a good friend loaned me his to try, and I hated it….yup, that’s right….I hated it. I believe I was playing a production of Smokey Joe’s Café with members of the original Coasters, and I brought the Starlifter to a rehearsal at the theater before we opened the show. I played through it for maybe ten minutes before I switched to a different preamp. Maybe it was the bass that I was playing, or the amp or the cab that I was using, but I immediately knew that I wasn’t going to get what I had hoped for from the Starlifter preamp.
Fast forward many years ahead and here I am writing a review for that very same preamp.
So why would I take the time to be doing such a thing? Why would I review something that I didn’t enjoy the first time around? I swore to my friends at Fat Bass Tone that I would only review this preamp if it was something that I was convinced would be a positive consideration for bass players, especially with a plethora of great preamps on the market today. And that leads me to this review, so let’s get right into it.
~ Andrew Dow - Author of this review
So what is the Starlifter?
The Starlifter is a dedicated bass preamp and DI.
The voice of the preamp is very clean and very similar to the sound of your bass. If you already enjoy the direct, unaffected sound of your bass or basses, then this should be a consideration for live and studio use. This isn’t a preamp with a strong voice of its own. It was designed to be a gentle sculptor of your sound, and it excels at being exactly that. Even at more extreme settings, you’ll be able to retain what you love about your bass. Think of this as a “makes it better” preamp, whether using more subtle settings or pushing into the edges of something further from your unaffected sound. As someone who has put in many long hours getting a great sound from my basses acoustically, this is exactly the kind of preamp that I’m interested in.
I was worried there wouldn’t be much to say about such a simple device, and to that I may be right. If you want a high-quality bass preamp with a high-quality DI then you can stop right here, click on the page for the Starlifter on this site, and purchase one for yourself. You’ll immediately be rewarded with lots of control of your clean bass sound while playing live through an amp or in-ears, or for recording at home or in a big, expensive studio.
What compelled me to write this article was a very recent personal experience while recording video demos for FBT. Before we record the videos, we do a signal check through an old combo bass amplifier with a 115 speaker. I immediately noticed the bloated and lackluster sound while we played through the combo amp. A Starlifter happened to be nearby and I plugged it into the effects return of the amp (this bypasses the preamp section of many bass amplifiers, as was the case here).
I was shocked by the drastic change that I heard from the first note. The sound was now both clear and defined while also retaining warmth, evenness, and just an overall pleasing sound from top to bottom. Nothing was overly emphasized or out of place. It sounded like I had hoped and expected the bass in my hand to sound from the get-go. This of course piqued my interest and I knew that I had to spend some time with the beautiful blue box.
Digging Into The Controls
The top of the Starlifter is where the main controls are situated.
The on/off foot switch labeled “engage” is on the bottom right of the pedal. When you turn the pedal on a glorious thin line of green light from the back to the front on each side indicates that you’re in go mode. There’s no way that you’ll question whether the pedal is on or not on a dark stage. What a great idea, and it’s not so bright that it’ll overwhelm you with its goblin glow.
The foot switch to the left is a mute switch. When you press to activate the mute function the green lights turn to red. I love how obvious these functions were designed to be, avoiding any confusion when using the preamp in any situation. The foot switches themselves are not silent switches, something that’s showing up more and more on new pedals, but they are super smooth and easy to press on and off. They feel like high-quality foot switches. I was a bit concerned that they look to be a bit close to the knobs, but the switches are ever so slightly higher than the knobs, allowing worry-free stomping.
Our first stop on the top of the pedal is the three-way voicing switch labeled “contour”.
This is your starting point before you even dig into the three-band EQ. The center position is “off”, and is as close to flat as the three positions will give you. I repeatedly tested the difference between the pedal being off and it being on with the three-way switch in the “off” position, both through an amp and with headphones. There is definitely a small change that happens to your sound and could be possibly attributed to my using a passive bass. I didn’t have an active bass to prove my hunch, but the change in sound was slight but noticeable. Most noticeable was a minimum notch out of the midrange, and is something that can be easily added back in with the semi-parametric EQ (more on that later).
The top position of the contour switch is “vintage”. This is most certainly my favorite setting, and I could live with the EQ flat with the vintage contour engaged as my always-on sound. Nordstrand says “The “vintage” setting is a "frowny-face" EQ curve, designed to provide a darker tone with a low- mid bump emulating a classic heavy tube amp setup with an 8x10 cabinet.” While that may be a bit hyperbolic considering a tube amp is a completely different animal, I do hear what they’re going for, and it’s a sound that simply WORKS. This sound will settle you into any mix in the best way; big, supportive, and warm. Adding just a touch of bass boost with the vintage contour is my go-to setting with this pedal. It may be a built-in frowny face EQ, but it sure does bring a great big smile to my face.
The lower position of the contour switch is “modern”. Nordstrand says “The “modern” setting engages a carefully chosen mid scoop with treble and bass boost, providing quick access to great slap, R&B, and Gospel tones.” I have to say that this seems like a good starting point for their intended sound, but to me it’s too bass heavy and loses too much in the upper midrange, at least with a passive bass with nickel wound strings. I ended up using this setting while cutting some of the bass EQ and adding back in some high midrange with the semi-parametric EQ. That gave me a great modern slap and R&B sound indeed, and I’m sure it was easier for me to find as opposed to using the flat ("Off")setting as a starting point and then EQ-ing from there. All of that is to say that I think the modern setting is a great starting point for a mid-scooped sound with greater weight in the highs and lows. It’s capable of filling a room with giant low-end and bright highs if that’s what you’re looking for.
EQ on The Starlifter
Once you’ve chosen your desired starting point with the contour switch then it’s on to the wonderful three-band equalizer. Let’s begin by showing what Nordstrand has written about the details of the EQ section:
- TREBLE — provides +/– 15dB shelving boost and cut with a 6kHz corner frequency.
- MID — provides +/- 15dB boost and cut at the frequency selected by the mid freq knob.
- MID FREQ — selects a center frequency between 150Hz–2.8KHz for the midrange bell filter.
- BASS — provides +/- 15dB boost and cut with a corner frequency of 70Hz.
With Nordstrand's choice of setting the treble frequency at 6KHz, it sits somewhere between the more typically used frequency of 4KHz and the higher, more airy frequency of 8KHz. I have to say that I love this choice, as it gives you some nice sparkle without getting too bright when you boost the treble, and when you back off of the treble control it acts almost like the top end of a passive tone control. I feel that it’s a great middle-ground decision that’s usable in many different ways, and most importantly always sounds natural and not overly hyped; something that feels consistently like the overall design goal of the Starlifter.
I was so happy to see the addition of a semi-parametric midrange control on the Starlifter, and it’s something that I wish more companies would include with their preamp designs. This allows you to choose which mid-frequency to boost or cut, as opposed to being bound to a single mid-frequency chosen by the designer. While that can certainly work for some situations, I do believe that allowing players to choose the frequency makes the Starlifter more usable for bass players in a greater variety of musical situations and styles. Having control of sculpting the midrange of an electric bass guitar, acoustic bass guitar, or upright bass is crucial, and the Starlifter has you covered. My only gripe is that I wish that some range of the midrange frequencies were written visibly around the Mid Freq knob. It would make it much easier to consistently dial in the specific frequency that you want to cut or boost each time you’re playing. I’m assuming the designer’s intention was for the player to use their ears to find what works best. I’d personally love to have the option for either.
The bass EQ is set higher than many onboard EQs of today, and I believe this is where I struggled with the Starlifter when I initially tried it many years ago. When I use bass boost I tend to want a big, blooming bass sound to fill the room. I don’t want something that takes up all of the space in the band, but I do want a full low-end. When I tried the Starlifter years ago, I was using a small single bass cabinet,and I was also using a small power amp for convenience that was lacking low end on its own. In short, I needed a preamp to make up for the deficiencies of the rest of my bass rig. This is not that preamp. The bass EQ in this preamp was designed to gently fill in your low end, without overwhelming the natural sound of your bass. Once again, if you already like the sound of your bass through your amp or while recording, but you need some tone-shaping capabilities beyond what your bass already gives you, then this is a great choice. The bass EQ of the Starlifter is perfect with just a touch of boost to fill in your sound...and remember if you want much bigger lows then switch the contour to the modern setting and EQ from there. That will give you a more dramatic and room-filling low end.
Although not something worth normally noting, I’d like to quickly take a moment to mention the volume knob. While testing the Starlifter I noticed that something was happening with the volume knob that I hadn’t expected, so I had a look at the user manual for some answers. In the manual, it says “When the pedal is disengaged, signal still passes through the gain circuitry and the volume knob remains functional.” I have to admit that this isn’t something that I would prefer, and a further reason isn’t stated for this design choice. Perhaps it’s intended to act as a buffer, helping with the loading that longer cable lengths can create with a passive bass. Maybe the design of the gain structure of the preamp was overbuilt and they felt it was beneficial to keep it inline regardless of the preamp being on or off. I don’t have the answer, but it’s good to know that this is the case as it means that the volume knob is always active. The downside for me is that you can’t adjust the volume between the Starlifter being off and on. For the most part, the volume will be similar when you turn it on, but if you decide to use the EQ for more drastic settings (ie; turning the bass and treble up high) then your EQed signal may be louder than with the Starlifter disengaged. It won’t be drastic but do be aware that it’s possible.
The Manual, Build Quality, & Weight
The Starlifter manual does a great job of explaining the controls and options on the back panel, but let me just add a quick overview and some thoughts. I love that this has a tuner out, as most floor tuners will be more accurate than any available headstock tuner. I also love that this output can be used instead as a parallel output. That’s a great feature to have. I very much wish that the ¼” input and outputs were on opposite sides. This seems completely counterintuitive to me considering it’s built as a pedal, and every other pedal ever made has the input on the right and the output on the left. Not a huge deal, but most certainly has me scratching my head considering how many pedalboards I’ve seen this on. Having a pad to decrease gain on both the input and the XLR output is a great idea, and proved incredibly helpful for recording. Can you use the Starlifter with a piezo pickup? Yes, you can! Just flip the impedance switch from 1MΩ to 10MΩ and you can use an upright pickup or any other pickup with a piezo. Considering the overall natural sound of the Starlifter I feel that this is a great option for upright bass, especially with that wonderful semi-parametric midrange EQ control.
A quick mention of how the Starlifter is heavier than most bass-specific preamps. It’s a very solid 2.5lbs, and I remember when Carey Nordstrand had mentioned after the release of the Starlifter that only the best available parts were used in the design. Whatever is under the hood, it not only adds up to a very solid feeling piece of equipment, but it more importantly gives you studio quality sound quality at a very affordable price. This is a high-end preamp that’s rugged enough to withstand any road gig.
Consider this my full public admittance that I was wrong. It turns out that in a more controlled environment with more time, I actually fell in love with the Starlifter Bass Preamp. Aside from a couple of curious design choices, it’s the sound that has captured my attention. It took fairly small EQ adjustments for me to love everything that I was hearing, and I can assure you that I’m a tough critic of sound (there isn’t enough space or time for me to write about my long period of being gear-obsessive). I couldn’t be more grateful to have had another opportunity to try this wonderful addition to the Nordstrand line, and I can wholeheartedly suggest the Nordstrand Bass Preamp to anyone looking for a high-quality preamp that will stay true to the sound of your bass. Your bass, only better.
***Side Note from FBT Co-Owner Brian: I hadn't had an extended time period to play the Starlifter until Andy came to my place to record sessions for our pickup demos. Over the 3 weeks that we were recording, I really came to enjoy this unit a lot - Enough that I have kept the preamp for myself. It has made an OK amp sound excellent.