A Basic Guide To Bass Effects Pedals
There’s nothing wrong with a signal chain that’s made up of Bass > Cable > Amp/Di.
That’s the way countless legendary albums have been recorded.
That’s the way thousands of live shows have been played by bassists.
You can certainly sound great that way.
But, what happens if you want access to tones that are not simply possible to achieve with your bass >cable>amp setup?
Then what you need are bass effects pedals.
While similar in concept to their six-string counterparts, bass pedals are engineered to handle the lower frequency range and dynamics of the bass guitar.
Yes, some pedals can sound great on both guitar and bass, but here at Fat Bass Tone we only carry bass effects pedals that we KNOW sound great on bass.
The Different Types of Bass Effects Pedals
Effects pedals for bass come in various forms, each designed to add a unique texture or color to the sound.
Generally, these effects fall into five broad categories: dynamics, distortion, modulation, and time-based effects.
- Dynamics and EQ: Compressors, limiters, and EQs are the unsung heroes of punchy, clear, and consistent bass tone. Compressors help keep the output volume of your bass consistent by making the lower-volume sounds louder and by reducing the volume of loud sounds. EQs help you boost or cut specific frequencies to shape your tone or get rid of problematic frequencies.
- Distortion: This category includes overdrive, fuzz, and distortion pedals. They can add warmth, grit, and sustain to the bass. They are pivotal in genres like rock and metal but you can surely find some amount of distortion used in every style of music.
- Modulation: These effects include chorus, flangers, phasers, and envelope filters. Modulation effects can imbue your sound with a sweeping, swirling, warbling, or throbbing character. These can be used to add subtle texture to your tone or make your bass sound like an entirely different instrument.
- Time-based: Delay and reverb, allow bassists to create a sense of space and depth in their tone. These effects can make a bass line more atmospheric if that’s what you’re looking for.
- Preamp and DI: These pedals are usually designed in a way similar to a studio preamp. They’re designed to transform your signal to a balanced low-impedance signal. They usually include some kind of gain, level, and eq functionality so that you can give your signal the final bit of polish before it goes to front of house or a recording interface.
Dynamics and EQ Pedals
Dynamics and EQ pedals may not produce the most dramatic effects, but they are foundational to crafting a stellar bass tone.
Dynamics processors, like compressors and limiters, provide the control necessary to ensure your bass sits perfectly in the mix.
A compressor works by boosting the quieter notes and attenuating the louder ones, which results in a consistent and punchy sound. This can be particularly useful in live settings where playing dynamics can vary, and in-studio sessions where control is critical.
Compressors also change how your bass feels when you’re playing it.
Depending on how you set it up, it can help you lighten your touch and give an additional sense of bounce to your strings. It can be similar to the feel of playing through a tube amp (tubes add varying degrees of compression).
Additionally, compressor designs vary from transparent all the way to heavily colored. What this means is that some compressors will have a minimal impact on the frequency response and gain characteristics of your amp.
A limiter is a type of compressor that is used to prevent the signal from clipping when it gets too loud. Think of it as a very aggressive compressor when the signal gets above a certain threshold.
Limiters can help protect your amp’s speakers. Since they limit the amount of signal above a certain threshold, they can keep your speakers from overloading. This is very useful when going through a very loud amp or when being amplified by a PA.
EQ pedals are another staple on a bassist’s pedalboard. While your bass amp likely has a basic equalizer, dedicated EQ pedals offer more precise control over which frequencies you can boost or cut. This additional control can help you be more precise when shaping your tone.
For example, boosting at 60 Hz can give your tone a thicker sound, while cutting the midrange between 800 Hz to 2000 Hz can help your bass sound clearer.
Understanding how to use these tools effectively can be a game-changer.
For instance, adding compression can make your slaps and pops sound more consistent or give your picked bass lines in a rock song a more aggressive edge.
An EQ can help you cut through a dense mix without necessarily having to turn up your volume and annoy the whole band. Also, it can help you get rid of troublesome frequencies that you don’t like.
Modulation effects add texture and color to your natural bass tone. These effects provide a way to stand out, or stand back, in a mix and inject some ear candy into your music.
Chorus pedals thicken your bass line by duplicating your signal, slightly altering the pitch of the copy, and mixing it back with the original. It’s akin to the natural variance in pitch when two basses play the same part in unison.
The iconic intro of "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns’n Roses, “Just like heaven” by the Cure, and countless other hits demonstrate how a chorus can be used effectively in a bass line.
Flangers and phasers create a swooshing effect that can range from subtle motion to an intense jet plane whoosh.
A flanger achieves this by mixing the signal with a delayed copy that’s continuously modulated.
A phaser shifts the phase of the signal, creating peaks and troughs in the waveform. These effects can be synced to the rhythm of the song to give additional movement to the bass line.
Envelope filters respond to your playing dynamics, filtering the frequency range of the bass signal based on how hard you pluck the strings. They produce a funky, vocal-like tone, reminiscent of the classic "wah" effect heard in many funk and rock songs by bass players like Bootsy Collins, Thundercat, and Justin Chancellor from Tool.
The Aguilar Chorusaurus is a great example of a classic chorus that’s been tuned to keep your bass’s low end. Jam Pedal’s Ripple is an awesome-sounding single-knob phaser that’s also been designed to keep your low end intact.
A couple of great options in the envelope filter category are the EBS BassIQ and the Aguilar FilterTwin. Although both of these pedals fall into the envelope filter category, they have different features and have their own approach to bass filters.
Distortion, Overdrive, and Fuzz
Distortion, overdrive, and fuzz have been a big part of bass tone ever since the electric bass came around.
The difference is that in the early days, distortion was a byproduct of tube amps being pushed to their limit to keep up with the volume of the rest of the band.
It was a sort of happy accident since early amplifiers weren’t designed to distort the signal. But bass players soon discovered that by pushing their amps into distortion they were able to stand out in the mix without necessarily being louder.
Also, it sounded very cool in certain musical contexts.
The problem is that to push a tube amp into distortion it usually gets very loud, and as you might expect, you need a tube amp, which doesn’t make a lot of sense for a lot of bass players from a practicality standpoint.
Have you ever tried picking up an SVT? Try it and then you’ll know what we’re talking about.
That’s why overdrive pedals were created. To help bass players get the tone of a pushed tube amp.
But creative pedal designers used that concept as a starting point and took it to wherever they felt inspired. And now you can find bass pedals that can give you the sizzle of pushed tubes to fuzz that can take your bass into synth territory.
Technically, overdrives and fuzzes are all distortion pedals. But in the pedal industry, these terms are used to help the customer have a better idea of how much distortion these pedals are designed to produce.
- Overdrive: these pedals subtly push your bass amp to produce a warm, natural-sounding break-up that's reminiscent of vintage tube amplifiers. This effect adds richness to your tone by bringing up the harmonics of your bass.
- Distortion: takes overdrive's harmonic enrichment and intensifies it, creating a more pronounced, harder-edged sound. It adds sustain and a raw texture to the bass, allowing it to cut through a dense mix.
- Fuzz: as you might have expected, fuzz is the most extreme form of distortion. It can dramatically increase the amount of sustain and, in some cases, even make your bass sound like a synth.
We’ve got a larged selection of bass-specific overdrive/distortion/fuzz.
The LusithandGround and Pound, the Aguilar Agro, Darkglass Microtubes b3k, and the TECH 21 Geddy Lee YYZ Sansamp are some great options for overdrive/distortion. These 4 pedals have a wide range of usable tones and can add a little bit of grit to your tone, or blast a fully distorted signal.
Time-Based Effects: Reverb and Delay
Even though reverb and delay are staples for guitarists, for the most part, bass players tend to shy away from them.
And there are a couple of reasons for that.
Reverb can make bass frequencies overwhelming and muddy everything up. Also, it can pull the bass back in the mix, which you may or may not want.
Delay on the other hand can be very challenging to use. It takes practice to sync your delay repeats and keep them grooving with the drums.
Time-based effects force you to play bass in a way you might not be used to. Said differently, these effects on bass tend to become a part of your instrument. So you play your delay and/or reverb.
Once you make this mental adjustment, you’ll discover that time-based effects can open a world of possibilities and sounds that aren’t possible to get with any other pedal.
- Delay: pedals repeat the notes you play, creating an echo effect that can be manipulated in myriad ways. With a short, single repeat, a delay can add a subtle echo that thickens the sound. Longer, multiple repeats can create complex, rhythmic patterns that add texture and movement to a bass line and create massive ambient soundscapes.
- Reverb: simulates the natural acoustics of different environments, from small rooms to vast halls. A touch of reverb can make the bass sound more organic and alive, while more generous settings can transport the listener to a cavernous space, giving the bass a grand, ethereal quality.
The JamPedals Delay LLama is a great sounding delay for bass. It’s simple to use and can give you a wide range of delay textures. It can go from atmospheric repeats that will make your bass sound huge to clear repeats that you can play with to build massive rhythmic structures.
Synth and Octave Pedals
These effects can make the bass sound like an entirely different instrument, offering up new textures and colors that can be both inspiring and ear-catching. They can also come in very handy when you want to mimic the sound texture of a synth and you don’t have/want a keyboard player.
- Synth pedals: as you would expect, these pedals convert the bass guitar’s signal into one that resembles a synthesizer. With a synth pedal, the bass can emulate the thick, resonant sounds of analog synths, making your bass sound like an entirely different instrument.
- Octave pedals: octave effects add harmonies above or below the original note, creating a sound that can simulate the effect of multiple basses played simultaneously. When used subtly, an octave pedal can add a subtle richness to the low end, but when used more prominently, it can propel the bass into the forefront of a mix. The ability to drop an octave can also lend a powerful sub-bass presence that's felt as much as it's heard.
The EBSOctaBass and the AguilarOctamizer are two great octave pedal options. They both track well, which can be a challenge with octave pedals, and they have simple controls. These are great options if you want an octave pedal that will get you great tones without menu diving or spending a lot of time tweaking.
Preamp and DI Bass Pedals
At first glance, these are probably the most unexciting pedals.
After all, aren’t they just a way to get your signal to your front of house or to your recording interface?
Yes, but how they go about it makes a big difference.
Many bass players have discovered that a really good preamp and/or DI pedal can absolutely transform how their bass sounds.
If you’re not sure what a preamp/DI does, think of it as the front panel of your bass amp. This is in fact a preamp, and what it does is make your bass’s signal suitable to be amplified. A bass preamp/DI does the same thing, but instead of going to your amp’s amplifier stage and your cab, it’s designed to send that signal to PA, a recording interface, or your amplifier.
Some preamp/DIs have the design goal of being as transparent as possible and taking your bass signal with the least amount of coloration so it can then be amplified by your PA system.
Others have the goal of giving you additional tonal flexibility through EQ or by adding some color to your signal.
Here are some examples from our lineup to give you a better idea of how a preamp/DI can work for you.
The TrickfishMinnow is designed to be as transparent as possible and give you EQ options that will keep your bass sounding exactly like your bass. This is perfect if you want the cleanest sound possible and have some EQ handy in case you need it.
On the other side of the spectrum, you have the TECH 21 Steve Harris SH1 Signature SANSAMP Bass Preamp Pedal. This preamp/DI is designed to heavily color your tone to resemble the signal chain that Steve Harris uses with Iron Maiden.
And then you have preamp/DIs like the Caveman Audio BP1 that adapts the circuitry of famous studio gear, in this case, the Neve 1073preamp, and fits it to a pedal format with some added conveniences for bass players.
This is very cool, because a Neve console is what hundreds of legendary bass lines have been recorded through, and it’s quite inconvenient to take a massive console with you on a gig to get the same sound.
Another big reason why preamps/DIs are loved by bass players is that there’s an ever-increasing trend of having ampless stages. The typical scenario is that the entire band sends their signal to the mixing board and then they get back a monitor mix that they can then listen back to on their floor wedges or in-ear monitors.
Not having to deal with setting up a microphone amp can make the job of the sound engineer easier as well as give you a consistent tone going from one gig to the next.
Signal Path and Pedal Order
When used individually, each pedal you use in your signal chain will impact your signal somehow.
But what happens when you have a couple of pedals in your collection and you turn on 2 or more?
You’ll have to try it to find out.
There are way too many variables to be able to tell you what’s right or wrong.
Because when you start combining pedals, it’s all up to experimentation and what sounds good to you and your musical context.
In our opinion, this is what makes adding pedals to your rig such a personal aspect of your bass tone.
In other words, there is no right or wrong signal path or pedal order.
Having said that, here’s a good starting point:
Compressor > EQ > Envelope Filters > Fuzz > Overdrive > Distortion > Modulation > Delay > Reverb
This is the template that many bass players start off with but here are some additional considerations:
- Some pedals may respond and sound differently depending on where they are in your signal chain. Fuzzes tend to be sensitive to what comes before them.
- You may find that simply having the pedals in your signal chain can impact your tone. For example, some pedals feature a buffer that will impact your signal whether it’s on or off.
- Some pedal pairs may sound uninspiring on their own, but when combined, sound perfect for you. For example, many players love the sound of a compressor into an overdrive pedal and keep these two always on.
Tips and Tricks for Optimizing Your Pedalboard
Building a bass pedalboard is an art form.
You need to understand not just how each pedal colors your sound but also practical knowledge to optimize your setup for live performance and/or recording.
Here are some essential tips and tricks to ensure your pedalboard enhances your bass playing rather than massively complicating it.
- Power Supply: A dedicated power supply is a fundamental part of every pedalboard. Pedals can be highly sensitive to the current and voltage that is fed to them. In other words, if not powered correctly, a pedal can sound terrible. Isolated power supplies are the industry standard as they prevent ground loops, keep external noise away, and ensure that each pedal operates at its best.
- Cable Management: There’s nothing worse than having to find a dodgy cable right before your gig starts. This is why investing in high-quality cables and proper cable routing are crucial for signal integrity and reliability.
- Pedal Placement On Your Pedalboard: Remember to position your pedals in a way that makes them accessible. “Tap dancing” to press multiple pedals can be a challenge in the heat of a performance, so keep it in mind when you’re designing your pedalboard. A useful tip is to keep the ones you use the most close to you and to give yourself enough space to stomp on them without pressing anything else.
- Buffer pedals and onboard preamps: Long cable runs and multiple patch cables can degrade your signal. A buffer pedal placed at the beginning or end of your signal path can restore high frequencies and dynamics lost to cable capacitance. Also, active onboard electronics can help your signal go through your entire signal chain with minimal degradation.
- Pedalboard Real Estate: Do you really need every pedal in your collection for your current gig? Remember that space is often limited on stage and on your pedalboard. Remember to keep this aspect in mind when choosing which pedals will have a permanent place on your board.
- Maintenance: Regularly check your pedals, cables, and power supply for wear and tear and any unusual noises. You’ll literally be stepping on your pedals with your feet, and in some cases, you might not manage to be as gentle as you would’ve liked. Always check your board for any cutouts or weird noises before you have a gig or recording date.
Remember, a pedalboard should be a means to achieve your individual bass tone and express your musical ideas. As much as we’d all love to carry our spaceship of a pedalboard, this might not be the best solution, sometimes a smaller, more streamlined, pedalboard is the way to go.
If It Sounds Good, Then It IS Good.
Building a pedal board can be a lot of fun. You’ll be experimenting with sounds and it will get you approaching your bass playing in entirely new ways.
Admittedly, it can add a layer of complexity when compared to going straight to your bass amp. But if you plan a little, you’ll find that you can indeed have your cake and eat it too when it comes to bass pedals.
The most important part of building your perfect bass pedalboard is remembering that if it sounds good, then it IS good.
Play a bit, turn knobs, plug and unplug, play some more, and when something makes you smile, then you’ll know that it’s working.
As always, if you have any questions on a particular pedal or problem you may be having, feel free to reach out to us via email or give us a call and talk to a real human.