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Active vs. Passive Tone Examples?

Discussion in 'Pickups & Electronics [BG]' started by +6dB Dan, Dec 29, 2015.

  1. +6dB Dan

    +6dB Dan Gold Supporting Member

    Dec 8, 2015
    Chicago, IL
    I've heard a lot of talk about the differences in tone between active and passive basses. I'd really like to understand what these differences are. Right now I don't know what to listen for, and I've only ever played passive basses. With that in mind, can you suggest audio or video examples that illustrate the differences?

    I'd love A/B comparisons that show the same bass, strings, signal chain, etc. but with the active/passive switch toggled (or two basses compared which ae virtually identical except for being active vs. passive). But even suggestions like "Here's a track with a bass tone that's characteristic of active basses" or "Player X's bass tone is characteristic of active basses" etc. would be useful. I'm looking to learn here, so I'd love to hear anything you've got!

    (BTW, I'm a lefty, so going out and playing an active bass without buying one is virtually impossible... :()
  2. There is no inherent difference. It all comes down to the design specifics.
  3. MVE


    Aug 8, 2010
    There are really two distinct types of "active" basses.

    There are basses with standard pickups with onboard pre-amps. - This is really no different than having any eq pedal or amplifiers pre-amp section inside your instrument. There is no identifiable "sound" any more so than say, your P-Bass plugged into a SABDDI vs your P-Bass plugged into a Aguilar Tone Hammer. Its just a pedal inside your bass.

    There are also basses with pickups that are specifically designed to be connected directly to a pre-amp, typically because their output is too small to drive any significant length of cable, where the pickup and pre-amp are a system. Alembic would be an example. I believe the EMG P BK system, and some Bartolinis and MECs are true "active pickups". Also, almost all Piezo pickups operate in this fashion.

    The primary advantage of true "active pickups" is that they can be designed for wider frequency response.

    It is totally debatable and upto the player to decide if that wider response is more musically useful in their bass playing.

    Edit: As discussed in another now notorious thread that will remain nameless, the practice of adding an internal pre-amp to standard pickups is questionable as it just adds another link into a signal chain that will add harmonic distortion, interference noise, etc...
    Last edited: Dec 29, 2015
  4. fantasticplanet


    Oct 14, 2013
    line6man is right, there are too many other factors to determine what an active bass sounds like vs a passive one. you could look up an active jazz or p bass and compare that to the passive models, that may answer your question.
  5. A transparent active preamp is going to give you two advantages over a passive setup: 1. ability to boost and cut (passive only cuts) 2. buffer to minimize the impact cables and downstream electronics have on your pickups/onboard electronics. Being transparent, there should be no tone difference between active and passive at the same volume levels, no tone suck by other stuff, and all the controls set 'flat'. Tone suck here meaning the loss of high frequencies due to unintended capacitance and resistance because of other elements in the signal path.

    Some preamps impart their own tone to your bass, if you know what you want, then you might choose a preamp with some inherent coloring.

    I prefer transparent active preamps and do the majority of my tone shaping external to my bass.

    To expand on 'passive only cuts' - Passive circuits can only reduce frequencies, active circuits can add power or volume to frequencies because they include amplifying elements like external power sources and opamps/transistors. Note that some passive tone stacks can give the appearance of boosting and cutting frequencies (e.g. the Baxandall tone stack). This appearance occurs because everything is initially cut (usually by 20dB) first, then the highs and lows are adjusted above or below that -20dB reference point. The problem with the initial 20dB cut is that your signal is now 20dB down compared to whatever noise is present in the electronics and signal prior to hitting the next active stage in the signal processing.
  6. Coolhandjjl

    Coolhandjjl Supporting Member

    Oct 13, 2010
    If you don't know what it does, you don't need it.
    Rob22315 likes this.
  7. Michael B

    Michael B Supporting Member

    Dec 16, 2015
    Lowell, MA
    Without debating the nuances and to answer your question, search youtube for comparisons that might be close to your instrument and pickups etc. There are videos of before and after. And even more with just after the mod. Even in that case you can at least get an idea of what the effect is.
  8. Michael B

    Michael B Supporting Member

    Dec 16, 2015
    Lowell, MA



    So I know the replies mean well with their technically correct answers, you can hear comparisons and get an idea if it's something to explore more deeply for yourself.
    +6dB Dan likes this.
  9. dincz


    Sep 25, 2010
    Czech Republic
    I have a bass with active/passive switching. With EQ controls centred, it sounds exactly the same both ways.
    +6dB Dan and wcriley like this.
  10. Excellent answers from everyone above. My 2cents, the recording process would probably further reduce the audible difference between active and passive unless it is one of those preamps designed to not be transparent and add a specific character like the Musicman preamp. My experience with bass preamps is that they must be very high quality. Cheap preamps tend to produce a lot of unpleasant or cheesy artifacts. I am a lefty too and I had a 2000 lefty Jazz Bass Deluxe on which I hated the preamp. Took it off and turned the bass into a regular Jazz Bass.
    All this to say that you can't say active is better or passive is better. It really depends on the instrument and the tone you want to achieve. All my current basses are passive but I used to enjoy my MM Stingray.
  11. +6dB Dan

    +6dB Dan Gold Supporting Member

    Dec 8, 2015
    Chicago, IL
    Thanks Scatabrain, those videos are definitely helpful!
  12. +6dB Dan

    +6dB Dan Gold Supporting Member

    Dec 8, 2015
    Chicago, IL
    Thanks guys for your thoughts. It sounds like from your answers that generalizing about active vs. passive tones overall isn't really possible. It sounds like a lot depends on the specific active bass and its electronics.

    Guess I'll keep reading and listening, and playing my beautiful passive basses for now! :bassist:
    dincz likes this.

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