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Passive vs. Active Jazz Pickups

Discussion in 'Pickups & Electronics [BG]' started by mdsmith, Oct 13, 2010.

  1. mdsmith


    Jan 31, 2008
    Hey guys, I have a MIM Fender deluxe active jazz. I've been reading about people loving the old school passive sound (especially from a P bass), and was wondering what exactly is the difference between a passive jazz and an active jazz. Does the active just have more tone control, or is there really a sound you get from a passive that you just can't get from an active? I do like the simplicity of the passive set up. I feel like I have too many options with my current bass, and just can't ever stop fooling around with it. Lastly, could an active jazz be turned into a passive one ? Thanks for your time guys.
  2. Hello. Well, first, since most preamps have a 'bypass' switch, the issue is a bit of a moot point. These days, you can have both a passive tone and an active tone (preamp) in the same bass. In the vast majority of cases, basses all have passive pickups.. the 'active' is based on the preamp. There are 'active pickups' (like used in the MTD basses, and some of the EMG models, but that is relatively rare, and is basically just a preamp that is non-bypassable... if that is even a word... you know what I mean!).

    Not sure if your bass has a bypass switch or not (usually a push/pull on the tone or one of the volume knobs).

    To specifically answer your question, yes, there is a difference, even with the tone controls of the preamp set flat. First, the buffering of a preamp (i.e., just passing the signal through an active circuit) changes all kinds of things regarding the behavior of the pickups, the impact of cable capacitance, and the impact of different input impedance of an amp/preamp. In general, having a preamp will widen the low end, smooth/purify the upper mids, and extend the treble response... what most people describe as a more modern tone.

    In passive mode, you get a bit more growl and grind and mid presence, which can sound very nice.

    Also, many preamps have a bit of voicing built into them, even when the tone controls are not engaged, resulting in different output and a slightly different frequency profile between active and passive mode.

    Here is a Youtube clip I did describing the Sadowsky preamp, and also comparing 'active' versus 'passive' preamp bypassed mode. You can hear the buffering and built in EQ, along with the impact of the tone controls versus passive operation. You might find it interesting (or not!).

    navijaz likes this.
  3. mdsmith


    Jan 31, 2008
    Awesome man, thanks for the response. I'm pretty sure my bass doesn't have a bypass. I just have the volume knob, pickup knob, a stacked bass/treble knob, and a mid knob. I'm just curious what it would sound like passive with the Labella DTBs that I have on it.
  4. I looked up your bass on the Fender site, and you are correct... no bypass.

    However, with the more 'modern sounding' humcancelling pickups you have in that bass (versus old school J single coils), my guess is, that bass is best when played with the preamp (which is why I assume Fender made the decision to not provide a bypass).

    Not sure if taking the battery out would result in passive operation in your particular bass. That is not a true bypass, but you can probably try that just to hear what it sounds like. You might not get any sound at all though... depending on how the preamp is wired into the circuit.

    Many 'active' J basses (like Sadowsky, Nordstrand, Alleva-Coppolo, etc.) have kind of 'the best of both worlds'.... the classic 'passive' volume and passive tone control that works in active or passive mode, and then bass and treble active EQ for use in active mode.
  5. topcat2069


    Dec 2, 2007
    Palm Springs
    The Bass has no "bypass" per say.... but it has center detentes for each tone control... so theoretically, with each tone control "centered" it would "as bypassed" (which may or may not sound "flat") so you already know what the bass would sound like (or very much like) if you removed the preamp. I believe the pickups are of the "stacked humbucker" style so they don't sound like ....say... a Fender American Standard Jazz Bass with VVT would sound

    I had one of the Bass like yours and I loved it and.... well.... I still wish I had it... 'nuff said :D
  6. mdsmith


    Jan 31, 2008
    I've been listening on youtube, and the sound I like is.... I guess you would call it drier or woodier than what I'm getting out of mine. Would going passive help achieve this?
  7. Read my first post... this is not true at all.
  8. From playing the bass you have, my guess is, part of the issue is the more modern sounding HC pickups, which when combined with the preamp result in a bit of a scooped, modern tone (deep bass, very sizzly top end). What you are most likely hearing is the sound of more traditionally voiced single coil pickups, which sound a bit more mid present, tighter, and have more 'character/grind' up top, which I believe is the 'woody' type sound you are describing.

    The bass you have sounds great to me, but it 'sounds like it sounds'... active, modern, etc. For some reason, Fender (for a long time anyway) assumed that those who wanted an active 5 string wanted a kind of more modern tone, versus just a Jazz Bass with 5 strings with a bit of tone control on the bass.

    Again, your bass sounds great for what it is, but if you really want a more traditional J Bass tone, you might need to look elsewhere. Not sure if it would really be worth the hundreds of dollars to change pickups and preamp and add bypass and a passive tone control though. I would play it and be happy, mess with the tone controls a bit (both boosting and cutting), and then over time, play a bunch of different J's if you can to start identifying that 'sound in your head' so that you can eventually match up an instrument more exactly to your tone goals.
  9. All I can add is this, the "au naturiel" single coil configuration truly lets the voice of the instrument speak. I have two, nearly identicaly equipped J's; with high end pups. The difference in the two is mainly the body and board wood. Acoustically and amp'd.

    So, when folks speak of the elusive "mojo", please note that only raw magnetics carry it; electronics can only screw with it. This is THE secret to the old skool passive sound you speak of, old fashioned mojo.

    IMHO reality can only be approximated by binary solutions.

    Single coils allow a further unadulterated, yet imperfect, magnetic field. That true, yet somewhat noisy VERY CLOSE approximation of reality, a more real reality, closer to the nature of our consciousness, lets ambient reality creep in. Wood, Fingers, Soul.

    hey, you asked man. thats the deal.
  10. mdsmith


    Jan 31, 2008
    LOL. Thanks..... I think? :confused:

    I know that this bass is what it is(which isn't a bad thing) , and is always going to sound like a jazz. I got it before I started playing and knew what I liked sound wise, it was a gift. There is a particular guy on youtube that has a series of videos playing different basses to give you an idea of what they sound like, and the sound he gets out of his P bass with flats on it is EXACTLY what I'm looking for. I realize I can't get that sound from this bass, but I would like to get as close as possible.
  11. Well, the good news is, putting some flatwounds on your bass, cutting the active treble a bit, and slightly favoring the neck pickup should get you 75% of the way there without spending much money at all. Will it sound like a passive P... no. Will it be in that same tone universe and possibly make you happy.... maybe!
  12. mdsmith


    Jan 31, 2008
    Thanks again for the response. I know it's a little off topic, but I'll ask anyway. How would you go about setting the eq between the bass and amp? Should I just put everything flat on the apm eq, and dial in the tone on the bass, or set the bass flat and mess with the amp eq? There seems to be just too many options for my to really find a sound I like. Sorry if this is a dumb question.
  13. rx jr.

    rx jr.

    May 10, 2004
    passive pickups, active electronics.
  14. brettson


    Feb 25, 2009
    passive single coil pickups, no electronics
  15. busta_bird


    Mar 11, 2010
    Lexington, KY
    Very informative. Thanks.
  16. Chasarms

    Chasarms Casual Observer

    May 24, 2001
    Saint Louis, MO USA
    In addition to the buffering nature of an active preamp, the active design also allows you boost certain frequencies as the preamp design allows. In your case, you have the ability to not only cut, but also boost bass, mid and treble. A traditional passive allows only for a cut of the treble. It has been my experience that a little bass bump here and cut there is invaluable to the live performance. I'm not a tweaker, but I prefer to perform with active instruments for this reason.

    Ideally, the an active/passive design is ideal, IMO, especially with a jazz. The benefits of having on-board tone shaping is broad, but of course, there is no way to get the passive sound short of a passive system.

    Designs like Sadowsky and Nordstrand are ideal in that they give you both. There are others, of course.
  17. Hey, there is no off topic if it is your thread:D

    Your question is not a dumb one at all, and the interaction of all this stuff can be very complex. I don't know what amp you're are using, but most amps are not 'flat' when set 'neutral' (i.e., the tone controls in the 'flat position). And, once you attach an amp to speaker, all conception of 'flat' pretty much goes out the door.

    My 'general' rule is that since the preamps of the vast majority of amps are higher quality and more powerful than the little 9 or 18 volt on-board preamps, I like to use the EQ of the amp to 'set my tone' and match the amp/bass and cab voicing, while leaving the on-board preamp controls neutral (in your case, centered for no cut or boost).

    That tends to result in the best signal to noise ratio (i.e., minimum hiss), and then allows you to use those handy 'on-board' controls during the gig to tweak your tone as you go, or apply that final little 'sweetening' to your tone. For example, while I rarely touch a knob once the gig starts, in all but the boomiest rooms, I dial in just a smidge of bass boost on my on-board Sadowsky or Alleva-Coppolo's preamps (maybe 10%). It just fattens up the tone a touch and sounds good to my ear, since I typically play a bit close to the bridge for articulation, and a little fattening of the low end helps.

    That's just my approach, but I think it is a good template... set everything neutral... dial in a tone that sounds pretty good to you at the amp, and then just tweak a bit on-board, typically never more than 10 or 20% either way on the cut-boost tone controls.

    Edit: As you can tell, I like this topic!
    bftbassman likes this.
  18. Thanks! One of the reasons I put that clip up was to show that, even with single coil pickups that will hum a bit in some situations (OK, most situations) when solo'd, you can slightly blend to one pickup or the other and get 85% of the solo tone with virtually no single coil hum, since the pickups will still partially humbuck. Pretty cool.

    Very little downside to single coils if you kind of know what you are doing with them.
  19. mdsmith


    Jan 31, 2008
    Good, I'm glad. As for my amp, it's nothing special. Just a Acoustics combo. I'm not to the point of playing out yet (well, I have twice), it's mainly just me and my dad jamming, so this amp will do for now. It only has a few controls. Volume, low, mid low, mid high and high. Between those, and the low, mid and high controls on the bass itself, I spend the better part of my time tinkering with the knobs, trying to get the sound I'm looking for. I'l definitely try your suggestion. It would surely simplify things for me. Thanks for all of the advice.
  20. Those Acoustic combo's sound VERY nice. No reason you can't make that rig sound great. Just remember a little bit of EQ goes a long way... you would rarely want to turn any given knob more than between a 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock range.

    And, since it sounds like you are kind of just starting out... having a clean, accurate right hand technique (assuming you are right handed) can have more impact on tone (tight, articulate, punchy) than virtually anything else. When you are just starting out, things can sound 'clicky and boomy' a lot, not matter what you do with the knobs. That's just the nature of the beast.

    Good luck... your rig and bass have the potential to sound very good!
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