Join Billy Sheehan for an in-depth discussion in this video Compression, part of Electric Bass Lessons: Advanced.
- Something I'd like to cover is the relationship between the bass, my hands, the electronics, and the amp, and how that loop works. I noticed when I was very young and beginning, if I play something in my bass, and it would make sense to me, and I would be able to do it, I would go up, plug into an amplifier and play loud and I couldn't do it. For some reason there was a difference between plugging into the amp and playing and me sitting at home playing. I could do all these little nuisanced things and harmonics and bends, and adhere all this character into the playing.
I'd plug it into the amp and a lot of it would be gone. I wasn't sure why that was, and over the years and thousands of gigs, literally, I came to the conclusion that the dynamic range of the instrument without being plugged in at all is so much, the loudest note it can make and the quietest note it can make that you'll hear are only so much, dynamic range as we call it. When you plug the bass in, the electronics into an amplifier, suddenly you expand the dynamic range artificially to a very much broader range.
Some people prefer that. Some people like that. The effect of that really broad dynamic range is what they like, what they go for, and what they dig, and what feels right to their playing, that's fine. But for me, I had a hard time with it, because it made the bass feel different to me than it felt to me sitting here right now if I had the volume controls down. (bass playing) There's certain things that I hear, that I feel, that I respond to that when I plug it into an amp without compression I don't feel, so that's why compression became a very important component to me.
Here's a little demonstration. With compression, this is a low pick up, low frequency pick up from the low output into one amplifier. There's two pick ups into two amps here. (bass playing) I can play without any problem. (bass playing) Okay, that's working for me. Now, without compression. (bass playing) The loudest note is way louder than the quietest note, so it starts to throw me and makes my hands feel different on the bass.
The point of explaining this is to explain the path I took to get up to a point of being able to play some fancy shmancy licks and how that came about in relationship to the amp, because a lot of the times people can do them but they can't ever execute them or perform them live or make them work in the context of a band or a song, because their is a couple blocks here. One of them is this situation with the compression and the amp. So, when I put the compression on it makes it feel more like the bass feels sitting in my lap in a quiet room not plugged in.
So that enables me to be able to... (bass playing) All those harmonics are in there, all the character is there. You can go a little bit too far with compression sometimes, too, and lose all your dynamic range. You don't want to do that. I'll explain the settings to you in a minute, but basically, a little bit of compression goes a long way in bringing that dynamic range down to more of how the bass actually is when you've got just strings, steel strings on wood, rather than putting the component part of the electronics in there.
It makes it a little bit easier. You'll notice on guitar amps, if you're going to have any one effect or a little button on an amp, it would be distortion. You'll notice on bass amps if their going to include any one effect, it'll usually be compression. Compression to a bass is analogous to distortion on a guitar, because distortion basically is a form of compression. A sine wave, that wave you see on an oscilloscope, or if you've ever seen a frequency on an oscilloscope, has a...
It's a wave form. When you increase it's amplitude so much that it can no longer be accommodated by the components electronically, it will crush itself down into a square wave, because the tops of those waves can't be reproduced, so it will square them off at the top and at the bottom, and you'll see what's an actual square wave. So that is in effect what distortion is, so therefore distortion is a form of compression. That's why a guitar player, when they hold a note you'll hear great like singing... (bass playing with distortion) Distortion coming out, because it's basically...
I slipped the distortion on for a little bit more of an explanation, though it will do it... (bass playing) Without it pretty much, just to enhance it a little bit. But basically guitar players have been using that for a long, long time. You'll notice how compression is kind of the natural effect for bass players, whereas distortion is for guitar players. There's a connection there, there's a reason why. For a guitar player to play through an amplifier, like a home stereo, like if he plugged his guitar into the input in the back of his home stereo with a real high fidelity sound and a huge amount of dynamic range, it's horrible.
It sounds too clean, too clinical, too steril, there's no harmonics, it's just a clicking clacking and some semblance of a note. It's a terrible thing. Try it sometime. You'll see my point. So a lot of bass players get into a very clean, broad dynamic range amps and they're having the same problem but not really even realizing it. I see sometimes a bass player on stage trying to execute the things he knows he can and he can't pull it off, and the natural thing to gravitate towards is turn the amp up, turn the amp up louder, "I can't quite feel the way...
"I can't feel the way I need to feel." So, they turn it up louder, louder, louder. In a way they're kind of almost subconsciously trying to get some compression by turning the amp up so loud it will no longer reproduce things accurately and will start to square those waves off like I mentioned in distortion. So he'll basically... He's basically, whether he knows it or not, he's kind of longing for that compression just to bring that dynamic range down and make the bass feel more like it's supposed to feel in his hands. So that's one of the very, very important components of my playing to be able to play a lot of fancy shmancy stuff loud, live, and also be able to make it fit in context with the band and not stick out, and make me feel comfortable as a player, so when I'm on the stage, it helps me to interact, get my bass to fit in with the sound and everything else.
(bass playing) There's a lot of compression on that right now. (bass playing) Still a dynamic range, as well, so it's a happy medium. I have... I'm not sure what the ratio is, I'll go over that in a minute, but you have to experiment with it for yourself, 'cause it is a feel thing how much compression you need, what type of compression you need if you want to do it, and it is an advanced thing. So be prepared sometime to just sit down with a compressor plugged in with your bass plugged into it, fiddle around with the knobs and find out what each one does and how it effects what you're playing, or start with a small one like an MXR Dyna Comp, or a little compressor, just basically get the idea what compression is and how it works.
Use it sparingly at first, and eventually you'll find a point where you can, a happy medium, where you can get the kind of compression that gives you the dynamic range that you need as a bass player sonically in the band, but still squashes things down enough so you can start to have the thing feel the way it should feel in your hands. A phenomenon that I noticed is without compression, the strings actually feel farther and farther and farther, oddly, from the neck, and it actually feels to me sometimes like I'd have to step on the bass and hit it with a hammer to get the note even to sound, where in fact the action hasn't changed at all, just plugging it into an amp with a huge amount of dynamic range that's made it feel like that.
So, take that, and hopefully that'll be some help. So here's some examples of some settings and what I do, and why I do it. Compressors can have different amounts of controls. Some are just one knob, compression, yes, no, on, off, and sometimes that's good. That means all the other parameters are preset into a character that they felt would be the right compression setting, and many times it is. On the Ampeg SVT amps they have a compressor knob, compression on the, the on board compression is great.
Basically, you turn it on and it sounds pretty good. If you want to get into tweaking it in a more elaborate way, there are other controls and some of them have unusual names, gain, threshold, ratio, attack, release, you know, slope, I've seen slope on compressors before. There's a lot of ways... What they're talking about is all the ways that the compressor affects your sound, and you can get a compression with one knob or get one with five. Actually, there's six knobs on mine, there's an input and output knob, as well, but just for an example, on my clean...
(bass playing) I have my... Inputs and outputs is something you're just going to have to balance between what you have it plugged into and what you have plugged into it, so you get decent meters moving, in the input and output, you get some. (bass playing) See, output meter is being monitored now. So basically, if I put it in, (bass note) it got a little quieter there.
You'll notice sometimes when you add compression, you're going to have to make adjustment on the output. (bass playing) There's a lot of compression on that. You see all the way, it's the... This meter is how much gain is being reduced, and this is what the actual output is. My settings, I have a ratio here of a little bit over 10, 10 to one ratio, compression ratio. My attack is almost off, and my release is almost off. So what happens is the...
(bass playing) Compression occurs right away, and it releases right away. If the release is very long, it takes it a long time to go back to normal volume there. You see that knob takes a long, those lights take a long time to go down. If the attack is very high, you get that first click. (bass playing) You get the first note of the string at full dynamic range, and then the compression comes in later. So I want the compression to begin right away at the beginning of, (bass string vibrates) the beginning of the note, so my attack is down low. So that's the basis.
I get a lot of emails of people asking about what the settings are for compression. Usually I use release and attack all the way down, a ratio of between 10 and 20 to one, and this one particularly, this is an Ashly Audio Compressor, the model CLX-52 in case you're wondering, but there's a zillion compressors out there and many of them, but this is a good example of a compressor that has some of the extra knobs that you might need. Now, down to the compressor on the Ampeg, it's just basically it's just compression and there's one knob, so you can have it on or off.
So it's a good idea sometimes to get a one knob compressor, try it without, fool around with it with no compression, gradually bring the compression, and see, "Ah ha, that's what it does." And you'll find (bass playing) you'll feel a little pump there. When you hit the note, the volume kind of sucks back and then pushes back out again. Better compressors pump less, cheaper ones pump more. Some people like the pumping sound, or the action of that, some people don't. It's all a matter of taste. So use those things in your criteria for judging what you might want as a compressor.
And again, I would suggest starting out with a single knob compressor, or a two knob compressor, and figuring out what those knobs do, and then eventually you could sit down, or even borrow one from a sound man or sound company or go to a studio sometime, and have them run you through the knobs and functions of what a little bit more advanced compressor will do.
- Working with a dual pickup system
- Strap length
- The D-tuner
- Practice techniques
- Bending with the neck
- Moving around the neck