One of the most sought-after and legendary bass tones is probably Marcus Miller’s characteristic slap sound: punchy, beefy and scooped yet very distinct. And yes, the headline is bold – to really nail Marcus Miller’s sound, you’d have to be him. There’s just so much tone hidden in the fingers… Anyway, no harm in trying to imitate just for the fun of it!
FIRST THINGS FIRST
As a starting point, you’ll need a J-type bass. Maybe not necessarily a Fender Jazz bass, but definitely a bass with two pickups – preferably single coils.
There is a lot of debate about the significance in difference between the 60’s and 70’s spacing of the pickups on Fender Jazz basses. In the 70’s Fender decided to move the bridge pickup about half an inch closer to the bridge – or in other words, increasing the space between the two pickups slightly. Reportedly, this was not done as part of a sound-improving effort, but simply because it was more cost-efficient as the CNC machines could work a little faster this way.
It may be something I imagine, but I do think I can hear a very subtle difference between 60’s and 70’s pickup spacing. Moving the bridge pickup not only gives a little tighter sound as a result of picking up the sound further towards the end of the string, but it also affects the frequency range that is cancelled out when the two pickups are working together.
But then again, it may as well be the difference between the ash body with maple fretboard (70s) versus the alder body with rosewood fretboard (60’s) or the combination that (I think) is audible.
At the end of the day, Marcus Miller used to play a late 70’s Fender Jazz Bass that he equipped with an internal preamp (bass and treble boost-only) and a new high-mass bridge (Badass bridge). Today, I think he’s playing his own signature series by Fender – possibly the Custom Shop edition.
THE INSTRUMENT & STRINGS
The closest I could get was a ‘73 Fender Jazz (ash body and maple fretboard). It’s truly a great-sounding and playing bass that has never let me down. It was recorded with both pickups turned all the way up and without engaging the tone control (treble roll-off).
A key element to a fresh ‘zinging’ slap sound is new strings. Marcus Miller has been using DR strings for years, but has recently swapped to Dunlop Super Brights, so that was what I put on the Fender Jazz for this experiment.
SOUND EX. 1: PASSIVE
The first sound example is just the above setup – the bass with fresh strings but no pedals yet. For some this may be enough just a pure, passive Fender Jazz.
EX. 2: PREAMP
In this second example, I added a Morch preamp pedal. It is not totally similar to the classic Sadowsky preamp that reportedly should be the one Marcus Miller installed in his Jazz bass.
The center frequency for the treble sounds like it’s a bit lower, or the ‘Q’ (range) of the EQ slope seems to be a bit wider.
Nonetheless, it gives that nice Jazz bass on steroids flavor, yet in a unique way that I actually like a lot.
Please note that the knobs on this pedal are in the 1 o’clock position when turned all the way down, so I set it at around a 25% boost on both the bass and treble EQ bands – quite subtle, yet significant.
EX. 3: PRE & COMP
Next up, added compression. The Wampler Ego compressor is a great choice as it has two features that I think works well for this task.
First, the ‘blend’ option is great as it allows to blend the compressed tone with the original tone. This way, you can for instance set the attack and sustain (or compression) parameters more aggressively and still preserve the original attack and basic tonal character.
Secondly, I like the tone control option that compensates for lost highs and in this case, those are essential.
EX. 4: PRE, COMP & SONIC MAX
As the final step, I added the BBE Sonic Stomp pedal. So what is that? Well, it is based on a frequency-dependent time alignment technology with integrated amplitude compensation.
Snake oil? Maybe, but really, it has been a studio tool as a rack unit for ages and it definitely does something to your sound – most of the time something pleasant.
I used it rather extensively processing both the bottom and in general at around 60% to beef up the bottom and add some crispiness to the sound. It scoops the sound, but differently than an EQ would have.
Not surprisingly, I didn’t nail it completely. And which version that comes closest to the goal is probably a matter of subjective opinion. Also, you could of course use other combinations of preamps, compressors and/or tone-shaping tools. I also tried with combinations involving the Aguilar DB 924 preamp, the BBE Opti Comp compressor and the Aphex Bass Xciter with good results as well.
But given that the goal is a known reference tone, your playback signal chain is also a factor. For instance, listening to the original files (pre Soundcloud) on either studio monitors or a pair of Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro headphones, the fourth version gets closets, but listening with Apple earbuds on a MacBook Pro via Soundcloud, it’s the third version that ‘wins’. And finally, listening on an iPad 2 with Sennheiser earplugs, it’s actually the second version… D/A converters, digital compression and playback devices really make a huge difference.
Nonetheless, it has been fun trying to reproduce the legendary sound of Marcus Miller, even though it proved to be mission impossible. But that’s no reason to give up – I’ll be back with a part 2 in this tone quest, trying to achieve the same reference tone using plug-ins in a DAW… So stay tuned!
UPDATE! Part 2 is now ready: