What should you be aware of and consider when looking for a preamp pedal? It probably depends on your bass, amp and other pedals, but read on to learn more about bass preamps and you should be equipped to go out and try the preamp pedals that fit for your exact needs the best.
First off, specifying the best of anything is always a risky exercise. As we have stated many times in individual reviews, as well as in the site footer, opinion is a very subjective matter. So please consider this article a highly subjective input to the overall topic of bass preamps and EQ pedals…
Further, this list naturally builds on the reviews we have conducted so far. If you want to learn more in-depth details about these pedals, please check out the full reviews and their sound clips. Also, there are still a ton of preamp pedals out there that we have not yet had a chance to review – or even try – so this is not meant as an ultimate top list of pedals. In fact, this article will not be static, as we will update it whenever we try out a new preamp that we think should be in here as well.
In summary, this could appear to be a Bass Preamp Pedal Buyer’s Guide, but in order to provide a valid Buyer’s Guide, you would need to cover the full scope of an open marketplace – and we simply don’t do that (yet!). So please consider the below our sincere recommendations for you to check out, and also do take a look at what we have on our preamp pedal wish list – you might just find a few future wishes for yourself
What is a Preamp Pedal?
If you are already on top of the concept of preamps, just skip this section as it is basically a quick rundown starting from square one.
Well, in essence, a preamp pedal is all about tone-shaping. It helps you shape and sculpt your tone before it hits the (power) amp – hence the name preamp. In fact, the tone controls on your bass amp (whether a head or a combo) is also a preamp section. And if you have an active bass, there is yet another preamp circuit.
One thing that may confuse – especially if you have been hanging out in the guitar sphere – is that sometimes the term preamp may be used to describe something that alters the gain structure to a degree where it effectively becomes an overdrive circuit. In the world of bass, though, while this may happen as well, the most common perception of ‘preamps’ are clean tone-shaping elements of which you can never get too many!
Having said that, many bass preamp pedals combine a clean preamp circuit with an overdrive circuit, and these pedals may be included in this article on the one condition that they will have to be able to function as a clean preamp pedal.
Active Bass = Preamp
The whole concept of turning regular passive basses (typically Fender Jazz basses) into ‘active’ instruments started in the late 70’s. Two important names in this trend at least in terms of making the concept mainstream are Marcus Miller and Roger Sadowsky. Marcus Miller was not the first bass player to ask luthier, Roger Sadowsky, for a Fender Jazz upgrade, but he did almost become synonymous with the particular tone that is now commonly referred to as ‘Jazz Bass on Steroids’.
The preamp Roger Sadowsky used was co-developed with another significant name in bass – Alex Aguilar – and the design they came up with is still very popular today. Basically, the preamp they designed had a treble and bass boost-only approach, which means you can only boost the upper and/or lower frequencies – not cut them. Now, the bass EQ band is centered at 40 Hz and the treble EQ is sitting at 4 kHz. Both EQ slopes are very wide and they ‘meet’ at around 300 Hz in the lower mids – in other words, there is no overlap.
Today, the 3 most common on-board bass preamp designs are the boost-only design described above plus a 2-band cut and boost design as well as 3-band cut and boost. As an add on, many preamp makers offer the option of a passive tone control that is similar to the tone control you find on any standard Fender Jazz or Precision bass – a passive treble roll-off knob.
Some of the most common – and famous – on-board preamps of today include Sadowsky, Aguilar, Mike Pope, John East and Nordstrand. Particularly the Mike Pope preamp, a 3-band cut/boost design with added ‘vintage tone control’, has become the standard on the high-end, custom-built Fodera basses. And it is indeed a great-sounding preamp circuit.
What is a Parametric EQ?
It is important to understand some of the underlying concepts of EQ-ing when looking at preamps. And one of the key concepts is the parametric aspect. On a typical bass amp, the tone control section will probably have LOW, MID and HIGH controls – or maybe they will be named BASS, MID and TREBLE (same thing, though).
Some may even split out the MID band into HI-MID and LO-MID bands. However, these bands are most likely static in the sense that they have a fixed center frequency – for instance 80 Hz on the low band, somewhere between 500 Hz and 1 kHz on the mid band and between 2 kHz to 6 kHz on the high band. There are no set industry standard, which is one of the reasons why amps sound so differently.
Now, apart from having a fixed center frequency, most amps also have a fixed ‘Q’. The Q defines the slope of the frequency curve when you start tweaking. In general, these slopes are pretty wide, and even though there are exceptions, most amps will cut and boost in a linearly.
On a semi-parametric EQ, however, you get the opportunity to change the center frequency as well as how much you boost or cut. And on a fully parametric EQ, you also gain control over the Q, which is what you need if you want to make very surgical adjustments.
Preamp on Preamp on Preamp?
One of the most commonly asked questions about preamps we get is why you would need a preamp pedal if you have one built in to the amp anyway? And if you have an active bass, why add a third preamp? Does it even make sense to stack so many different preamps in the signal chain?
As is so often the case, there is not a single answer to that, but rather a number of arguments for and against. For example, it could make sense to have different tone-shaping tools in the chain as they are all unique. Say, your on-board preamp in your active bass is of the design discussed above. It boosts only and does so at fixed frequencies and with a very broad Q (the slope so to speak). That is great for that famous jazz on steroids sound, but it doesn’t really shine on flexibility.
Now, as a universal rule of thumb in EQ-ing, you should use wide Q’s (broad slopes) when boosting, but if you want to take out specific, problematic frequencies, you can cut using much more narrow Q factors, really zooming in on the problem and then eliminate it. So consider this scenario:
- You dig the Jazz on Steroids tone and therefore you have an active bass with a classic boost-only preamp.
- You (obviously) have an amp with a tone control section. This may be fine for additional fundamental adjustments such as adapting to a certain room or stage.
- One day, you find yourself in a room with a very boomy sound or a certain mid-range frequency that is just emphasized beyond reason, but the EQ on your amp is not detailed enough to solve the problem. This is when you might wish for a dedicated preamp pedal that is like a swiss army knife for sound.
This scenario would have at least 3 different preamps – and thereby gain stages – in the signal chain. Would it make sense? It certainly could, but as always, you can overdo things – and in this case maybe overuse each component. Say, if you boost the preamp on your bass a lot, only to decide to decrease the bass on your amp, you might consider just not adding so much in the first place. On the other hand, it could make sense if one boosts at 40 Hz, but the other cuts at 80Hz and they have different Q slopes. Always try to learn how your gear interacts once connected.
A Few Things to Consider Before Buying
A few good reasons for adding a preamp pedal to your gear list could be:
- Problem solver. See the above. Sometimes you need to go beyond the tonal capabilities of your amp – getting much more surgical. This would typically call for a semi or fully parametric EQ band – particularly in the mid-frequency area.
- Changing bass. You use several different basses during most gigs. Say, a J-type bass as the main, but once in a while you grab a P bass and use a pick. This may call for a completely different setting of your amp, but you should never break the flow on the stage so just stomping a pedal would be an easy and quick solution.
- Feedback. You have an acoustic bass guitar or a double bass with a notorious feedback frequency. Again, a surgical approach is needed, but this time a permanent one.
A few things to consider:
- Noise. Yes, each additional gain stage may potentially add noise to your signal chain. But that really applies to any pedal you might insert, and we all know you can never have too many pedals!
- Unity gain. Consider whether you plan on using the preamp as an always-on pedal, or if you want to be able to just kick it in for some occasional tonal changes. If you use it as an always-on pedal, you can just use the amp to counter-adjust any gain changes being created. But if you need to use it on and off, make sure you have a way to dial in unity gain, or if you deliberately need it to add a boost.
- It’s all connected. Remember that whenever you change one frequency, you also affect all other frequency areas. For instance, if you boost the low and high frequencies, consequently you decrease the mids. In other words, if that doesn’t give you the exact tone you’re looking for, try to put the lows and highs back to neutral, then decrease the mids and counter-adjust the master volume to bring back your overall level back to unity gain. It’s the same mechanism, but the results is probably quite different. In both cases a ‘scooped’ tone, but with different flavors. Add a preamp pedal and you have even more options at hand to explore.
OK. Now that we have the basics covered, let’s take a look at some of the best preamp pedals we have had on the test bench so far…
1. Empress ParaEq
The Empress ParaEq is the most versatile preamp / EQ pedal we have come across so far. It is not 100% fully parametric, but it gets close.
You can cut or boost three EQ bands, sweep through overlapping frequency ranges, and you can choose between 3 different Q settings for each band – wide, medium or narrow. If you sometimes need a surgical tool in your arsenal, this pedal is one of the best solutions out there.
As an added bonus, it also has a dedicated clean boost circuit with its own footswitch, which also makes it a good solution for a pedal to punch in to change the tone and increase the volume in one go – maybe for those occasional bass solos you may have been granted.
Price: Approx. $249
2. Darkglass Microtubes B7K Ultra
The Microtubes B7K Ultra from Darkglass is a combined preamp and overdrive pedal. In terms of overdrive, the Darkglass pedals are hard to beat, but even that aside, the preamp sounds great on its own – and it has DI functionality as well.
Even though the drive circuit should not be taken into consideration in this context, the blend feature actually allows you to mix in just a touch of drive that is basically inaudible, but still contributing to the overall tone, vibe and feel.
It doesn’t come cheap, though, and it will not carry out super surgical tasks. But fundamentally it sounds great and if you ever use overdrive, chances are that this one could easily replace whatever drive pedal you have installed currently…
Price: Approx. $389
3. Tech 21 VT Bass DI
The VT Bass DI from Tech 21 NYC features a pretty basic 3-band EQ, coverig LOW, MID and HIGH. These knobs are comparable to most amp tone control sections with static center frequencies and boost/cut design.
But there is a reason for that. This pedal builds on the modern classic, the SansAmp Bass Driver DI from the same company, and the whole idea is to offer an alternative to actually bringing a full rig to the gig. These pedals have built-in DI to feed the house, which also means integration of speaker simulation to compensate for the missing bass cabs, as well as an emulated tube sound that will add a bit of drive as well if you push it hard.
Even if you do not plan to replace your rig with a DI solution, this pedal will do a great job as a stand-alone preamp pedal. Not as flexible as the Empress ParaEq, but it definitely has its own unique vibe and character that you might end up being addicted to…
Price: Approx. $200
4. TC Electronic Spark Booster
The Spark Booster from TC Electronic kind of took us by surprise. Obviously, the expectation was to test a clean boost pedal, but the BASS and TREBLE controls along with the VOICE switch actually qualified it to also be part of the preamp / EQ category.
And while limited in terms of flexible frequency control and considering that it was created for guitar, it sounds surprisingly good on bass. In fact, we would go as far as claiming that this is a hidden bass gem.
Further, if you push the GAIN hard slight overdrive will be introduced – and in a quite pleasant way actually. And then of course, the price is considerably lower than the above pedals,which might influence the decision-making process…
Price: Approx. $99
5. Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI (BDDI)
The SansAmp Bass Driver DI – or just BDDI – from Tech 21 is a modern pedal classic. As mentioned in the VT Bass DI section above, the idea behind this pedal is to go direct from the stage to the FOH (front of house) mixer, but it certainly can be used as a stand-alone preamp pedal as well.
It is a little less flexible than the VT Bass DI as it does not offer a MID tone control, but it has a unique tone – also compared to the VT Bass DI from the same family, and if you are looking in this direction, you should probably try to find both and test them against each other first hand…
Price: Approx. $199
The Preamp Pedal Wish List
Since there are so many preamp pedals out there that we have not yet tried, we decided to also add a comprehensive ‘wish list’ of preamp pedals that we would love to review and potentially add to this article in the future. If you spot some that you think we have forgotten (or don’t know), please don’t hesitate to let us know!
MXR – M80 Bass D.I.+ & M81 Bass Preamp
Both of these MXR preamps seems very compelling and we would love to have them under review at some point.
The M80 (left) has a distortion circuit and DI functionality, whereas the M81 (right) is more flexible with a semi-parametric design on the always-critical mid EQ band.
While we cannot recommend anything we haven’t tested properly first hand, there would be nothing wrong in admitting that these would probably also be worth checking out if you are on a bass preamp pedal quest…
Ampeg – SCR DI
The SCR DI from Ampeg is another take on a preamp pedal that combines drive and DI in one box.
Obviously, coming from Ampeg, there is a heavy brand legacy involved, and who would be better to emulate the classic Ampeg SVT tube tone than… Ampeg!?
Well, you never know, but we would love to take a much closer look at this pedal. that’s for sure!
Aguilar – Tone Hammer
Aguilar’s Tone Hammer also resides high on the wish list.
Their amps sound great, and there would be no reason to suspect that the preamp section on this pedal would be any less capable of dialing in some sweet bass tones.
And just like several of the other ‘wishes’ on this list, it incorporates a drive circuit and DI option.
Two Notes – Le Bass
Another dual-channel bass preamp pedal: Le Bass from Two Notes Audio Engineering. This one integrates an actual tube with one channel for clean tone and the other for overdrive.
It has an interesting twist to it, which Two Notes refer to as Cold Fusion and Hot Fusion. If you choose Cold Fusion, the two channels are blended in parallel, but if you pick Hot Fusion, the channels are stacked, which means that you can use the clean channel to push the drive channel even harder.
Further, each channel has its own independent set of tone controls. Would be great to examine this one further!
EBS – MicroBass II
The MicroBass II from EBS is a 2-channel preamp with a ton of additional features such as drive, FX Loop, DI, tube simulation, speaker simulation and headphones out.
This is one of the most popular preamp pedals out there, and it is of course an obvious review target for us.
Xotic – Bass BB Preamp & RC Booster
The Bass BB Preamp and Bass RC Booster pedals from Xotic build on the same basic design, but the RC Booster introduces slight crunch when you crank the Gain fully whereas the Gain range of the BB Preamp i wider and enters the overdrive territory when pushed hard.
Both pedals have a very wide +/- 15 dB boost/cut design on the Bass and Treble EQ bands. The Treble band center frequency is at 8 kHz with no upper limit and a cut off at 800 Hz. The Bass band is centered at 90 Hz with no lower roll-off and an upper cut-off at 500 Hz.
Radial Engineering – Bass Bone 2
Radial’s original Bassbone pedal has always intrigued us, but the new version looks even more interesting.
Yet again, another dual channel preamp with DI, but also a number of baked in filters and independent level controls for each channel.
RMI Lehle – Basswitch IQ DI
In many ways, the Basswitch IQ DI seems like the ultimate preamp pedal, and it certainly has a unique look and feel to it.
Another great review target that we hope to be able to add to the pool sometime soon.
Gallien Krueger – Plex
The ‘Plex’ from Gallien Krueger offers a lot of features. The preamp is just one part of the story, as it also has a compressor, boost circuit, chromatic tuner and some clever voicing features. For instance the contour filter voicing is ported from the classic GK 800RB.
Top that off with DI, headphones output, AUX input and USB connectivity for MIDI control, direct recording or re-amp capability. Again, it looks very interesting and is definitely high on our review wish list.
Sadowsky – bass Preamp / D.I.
As mentioned in the introduction of this article, Roger Sadowsky played a key part in kick starting the whole Jazz Bass on Steroids trend. And the very preamp design that was used has been ported from its original on-board design to a pedal form.
Sadowsky also added DI functionality. It’s a classic design in a classic pedal. Needless to say, we would love to give it a full review.
Demeter Amplification – Bass EQ
Demeter has been making a rack-mount bass preamp, the HBP-1, for what must be decades by now. It is a classic, featuring a tube preamp section as well as a fully parametric EQ on both the low band, covering 40 Hz to 440 Hz and the mid band spanning 440 Hz to 4.4 kHz.
Obviously, this pedal is much more simple, but still it is a review target for sure….
ISP Technologies – Beta Bass
The Beta Bass from ISP technologies is so feature packed that a full review would require a massive amount of sound clips, listening in on the preamp part, the drive section, the exciter, the compressor, etc.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to test it. On the contrary. We love getting into the nitty gritty details of complex pedals, so bring it on!
WR Amplifying – GOLIATH
The GOLIATH from WR Amplifying seems primarily to be a tonal ‘flavoring’ tool. The EQ controls are pretty basic so we would not expect any surgical capabilities coming from this pedal, but the internal tube and sheer look of this compact box instantly makes us want to plug it in.
It is available in two different variants – one version with DI out, and one without.
Suncoast – B1p Bass Preamp
The B1p Bass Preamp from Suncoast Analog is adding boost, overdrive (two different degrees are selectable via internal dip switches) and limiting to a solid state preamp board.
The black thing you can see coming out from the rear panel is in fact a button just like the ones on the top panel, adjusting the Boost level.
The Freq knob sets the center frequency for the Middle EQ band.
Verellen – Meat Smoke
All of the above wishlist pedals are created specifically for bass, but if we look back just a decade or so (maybe a little more), the only place for bass players to look for pedals was on the guitar market.
So, we are never ruling out that pedals made with guitar in mind first can easily be killer on bass as well.
For instance, the Meat Smoke dual-channel preamp pedal from Verellen looks super cool and would be very interesting to get on the test bench someday.
…and of course a big bunch of other preamp pedals! There are so many of them out there, and while a lot of them may appear to have fairly similar feature sets, they are all unique. Partly, as explained in the opening part of this article, BASS and TREBLE knobs are not the same. Behind each knob are a ton of engineering thoughts, philosophies and decisions and that is what makes every preamp pedal around sound unique. And thank God for that!