Onboard preamp option paralysis!

Discussion in 'Pickups & Electronics [BG]' started by focusbob, Dec 23, 2020.

  1. focusbob


    Jan 28, 2019
    Hi TB!

    I have played electric guitar for >20 years, but have only been playing bass guitar for a year or so. I would like to better understand the relative tonal options available via onboard preamps for passive pickups, a concept that is all but foreign to an electric guitar player! I understand the options concerning t/b vs. tmb, mid frequency switches, etc. So, my question is:

    How do you navigate the tonal differences between onboard preamp brands? There are so many pickup/electronics companies for bass that are foreign to me, like aguilar, sadowsky, bartolini, nordstrand, and so on... Though I understand there are tonal differences between models within a brand (e.g., vintage style vs. quarter pound vs. split coil SD pickups), I am more interested in the tonal differences, or voicing, between brands (their "signature sounds"). Would someone please point me in the right direction for a good descriptive comparison or comparison video? Oh, and as a bonus question, do those brands typically offer pickups of the same voicing as their preamps (i.e., how homogeneous are voicings by brand)? I've struggled to find one on my own.

    Thanks! And, happy holidays!
    ctmullins likes this.
  2. ctmullins

    ctmullins Dominated Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 18, 2008
    MS Gulf Coast
    I'm highly opinionated and extremely self-assured
    Personally, I don’t want an onboard preamp to impart a tonal signature. The core tone of an instrument should come from the strings, woods, and pickups. An onboard preamp is for subtle adjustments of that core tone.

    I do, however, really like the velvety pillow of low frequencies that I get out of my John East circuits.

    The exception to my rule is filter preamps, like Alembic, or ACG. Those are entirely different animals; essentially tonal chameleons. Fun to experiment with!
    Passinwind and focusbob like this.
  3. ahadl2500

    ahadl2500 Supporting Member

    Nov 28, 2003
    Greenwood, IN
    I do not know that there is a good descriptor for any brand. The main reason... most companies make several different options and you can probably find something that gets you close to what you want with any of them. This is particularly true on pickups which frequently come in multiple winds and magnet configurations for a given size. It is slightly less true on preamps which tend to have fewer options by brand but still tend to have several options. I have navigated it by trying things and finding what I like. I have also found that most companies will provide guidance if you contact them.

    At this point, I have pretty much landed on loving Nordstrand for pickups. They have a ton of options with side by side compare videos that help compare pickup options. Preamps, my guidance would be to find something that has the features you want to help you narrow options (example... if you know you want active pre with passive mode and passive tone control, that limits your option set). Also do not feel like you have to stay with the same brand as your pickups.

    I will also note, you do not need to modify pickups or preamps. I have done it on several basses and not done it on others. If you start modding a bass you are happy with, you might find yourself unhappy really quick.
    focusbob likes this.
  4. Snaxster


    Nov 29, 2008
    Hello. Short answer: You have to play them.

    Longer answer: Each house will tend to have a characteristic voice. Whether any of them intends that or not, I don't know, but that's how it is.

    Probably most houses that have an electronics ecosystem voice their preamps to complement their pickups, not to be the same.

    The general matter of voicing aside, specific to onboard bass preamps is the matter of coupling and its effect on the sound and feel: how the preamp couples with the pickup then with the amp (or whatever) is as important as how it can manipulate the sound of the pickup.

    Related to coupling is the concept of transparency. Beware that term, I say, since I think that it is scarecly achievable in practice. "transparent overdrive", "transparent onboard preamp"... bah, humbug!

    I don't specialize in onboard bass preamps, since in later years I gravitated toward passive electronics. But of the handful of preamp makes I owned since about 2007, I favor Nordstrand preamps overall for naturalness, flavor, and usefulness; and the Audere Classic preamp for massive utility and for cleanness just a few ticks short of clinical.

    Sorry if I say so here too often, but I simply dislike Aguilar onboard electronics. Especially the pickups, but also the preamps, which I find to be harsh on top (like the pickups) and heavy-handed on the bottom.

    Suhr onboard bass preamps are flavorful and useful, similar to Nordstrand (there is a history there), but their control layout is nonsensical in my opinion. At least that is true of the one I own, which is not recent production. No matter, since I think you won't find one outside of a Suhr bass guitar.

    Fodera Custom Shop preamps, designed in collaboration with Michael Pope, are excellent. In my experience, in active mode they sound beautiful in themselves, but cannot be matched for volume or timbre with passive mode, which sounds truly passive. Like the Suhr preamp, however, you won't find one outside of a Fodera bass guitar.

    Any proprietary in-house preamp from a bass guitar maker is worth playing, though, for your reference, for comparison to third party preamps.
    focusbob likes this.