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Curse of the Clicky

The quest for the perfect pre

K&K Bass Master Preamp

I replaced the knobs on my Bass Master preamp. The original knobs broke.

I have been on a quest for the perfect double bass preamp for years. There are a lot of options, but almost nothing properly suited for a slap player who wants a clicky but doesn’t want to strap a giant metal box to their tailpiece or their waist. 

I’ve been using a K&K Bass Master Rockabilly PLUS for nearly 10 years now. The pickup is great, and the whole system sounds fantastic. I’ve received countless compliments and inquiries about my sound over the years, and have even recommended it to other players. Sound wise, this K&K system is great and I am reluctant to change; however, the preamp/mixer is poorly constructed, and has a few annoying quirks that I’m tired of living with. The most annoying of which is that it is designed to be worn on your belt.

Personally, the last place I want to put a preamp is on me. Think about how this is supposed to work in practice: A ¼ inch TRS cable runs from the pickup output on your tailpiece to the metal box on your belt, then either one or two ¼ inch TS cables run out of that metal box to your amp(s). Not only is that a lot of spaghetti hanging off of your waist to avoid tripping on, but all of those inputs on that box point directly to the ground and can easily be pulled out with one misplaced step.

The strange thing about this is that the belt clip preamp design is an incredibly common format, despite the fact that pretty much every bass player that uses one straps it to their tailpiece. In fact, this placement is so popular that Blast Cult makes a tailpiece with their preamp inside of it. This is actually quite an elegant solution compared to the usual jumble of wires and metal box banging around on your bass, but for those of us who also use their bass accoustically, the added mass to the tailpiece is not ideal.

Another gripe I have with the preamp are the control knobs. The knobs are on the top of the unit, while the input jacks are on the bottom. The orientation of the cheap, screen-printed label is such that when it is lying on a flat surface so that you can read it, the knobs are pointed away from you. This actually makes it difficult to tell which direction you are supposed to turn the knobs for the desired result. Granted, if you had the preamp strapped to your tailpiece or your waist, this would not be an issue. In this orientation, however, the text of the label would be upside down.

You might ask yourself why upside down text would be a problem. I mean, why would anyone need to actually read the label more than a handful of times, especially after using the thing for more than 10 years? I have asked myself that very question, yet the number of times I have wired the damn thing backwards or left a cable in the main output (the main mix out is the battery on/off jack) and drained the battery are too numorous to count. The three jacks are right next to each other, labeled with six lines of small point text. To avoid any more embarrasing sound problems at important shows related to plugging in backwards, I have made a hard and fast rule to read the text next to the inputs every time I set up.

Besides those issues, the overall construction of the preamp is just janky. The knobs are cheap, the inputs don’t line up, the label was printed on an inkjet… For something I use almost everyday, it’s just not that well put together. So I’ve been shopping around.

My wish list

My main objective is to minimize the gear hanging off of my instrument, so the ability to send both pickup signals to the amp with a single cable is a must. A second objective is to not introduce too much complexity into the signal chain. I don’t want to lug around a lot of gear, and I especially don’t want to have a mess of cables and boxes to troubleshoot when something goes wrong. I put together a list of must-haves:

  • 2 channel mixer with a single TRS/stereo input for both channels
  • A blend or volume control for at least the ring channel (the clicky)
  • A foot switchable mute
  • Passive electronics or ability to use fantom-power (I’m done with batteries)

And a list of nice-to-haves:

  • Foot switchable boost
  • Phase inverter
  • Notch filter

As it turns out, two-channel mixers that accept a single stereo/TRS cable are pretty rare, and given my need for foot switch capability, that pretty much leaves me with the Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre, or the Grace Design Felix Instrument Preamp/Blender.

Both units offer nearly everything from my must-have and nice-to-have lists, and are very well reviewed. The one exception is fantom power. I suppose this is an acceptible trade-off. I rarely encounter a situation where power isn’t available at the front of the stage. In any case, it will be available in the back in a pinch. The Tonebone uses a short, flimsy AC/DC power supply (wall wart). I absolutely insist on no batteries, but this is not an ideal alternative. The Felix uses a universal power cord. Great for versatility, but also great for accidentally kicking out of the back—which is not so great. Still, it’s much better than a wall wart.

The Felix is $1,000. I’m certainly not opposed to throwing down some serious dough for quality equipment that I will use day in and day out for years to come. I am a bit leary about leaving a small $1,000 piece of equipment at the front of the stage; Under my beer; Within reach of enthusiastic children at a festival or ne’re-do-wells at a dive bar. There is also the matter of overkill.

The Felix is a full-featured acoustic instrument preamp. It’s made to go directly from your instrument, into a power amp. It has all the EQ I could ever need—which is to say, I don’t actually need. In addition to the normal high, mid and low shelving EQ, my bass amp has a 3 band parametric EQ that provides plenty of feedback and tone shaping control. Do I really need to drop a grand on a high end pre if I don’t need most of its utility. The Tonebone has a feature set much closer to my needs, and it’s a quite reasonable $300.

Tonebone. TONEBONE. ಠ_ಠ 

Feminist Digression

The idea of having the words Tonebone looking up at me for the next 10 years does not appeal to me. The phalic language used to describe bass frequencies has always irritated me. I don’t know if this was the intent of the name by the manufacturer, but I am proud to play an instrument with such a huge diversity of women players—both legends and beginners. I don’t want my women bass player cronies to look down and see my Tonebone. Not when so many Tonevaginas sing just as sweetly.

If we’re going to name our music gear after our genitals, we need equal representation. Bass is not ballsy or manly. Bass is just as much mom groups and moo moos as it is belching, bearded, beer-swilling gentlebros. And most of those moo moo moms are a fucking blast drink beer with.

How bad do you want it?

Clicky is a very specialized thing. Rockabilly and honkytonk players tend to be a very, shall we say, “DIY crowd.” When the trend goes in a direction you aren’t pointed in, there aren’t many elegant solutions.

If our instrument’s voice is to come through at all, how do we balance it with the other instruments in a large setting without turning the instrument into something it’s not with duct tape, foam, Velcro, wires, and dangly metal boxes? In my opinion, the better starting point is to keep as much of the electronics off of the instrument as possible.

There seems to be some room in this space for innovation. I’m weighing my options.