It’s a sign of the times that simply bringing an electric and upright bass to a gig just isn’t enough for some musical situations, with the jobbing bassist expected to provide the complete range of contemporary low-frequencies. Thus there’s a third aspect to today’s bass arsenal in the form of a dedicated bass synth – or certainly a synth that specialises in generating the full gamut of sounds and textures associated with fat synth bass frequencies. Novation’s original Bass Station first emerged in 1994 and was a runaway success for packing in full analogue synth functionality into a small, highly portable package, and, while the updated incarnation is certainly bigger, it’s sturdily built yet light in weight. Yet don’t be fooled, this little monster is packed with features giving plenty of bang for its £350-£399 price point, which is less than half of its slightly more glamorous rival, Moog’s Little Phatty II.

Thanks to the digital nature of the interface you’d also be forgiven for thinking the unit itself is digital, but it’s a fully analogue synth with digital control. This doesn’t mean it can’t interact seamlessly with a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) such as Logic or Ableton, via its MIDI in and out sockets, but this is also a standalone mono-synth that’s ready to plug and play straight out of the box. Other features on the rear panel include headphone jack input, audio extension for running sounds into the unit for some cool effects processing, sustain pedal input, USB input and the power supply socket. The BS2’s simple layout hides real sonic depths – with Oscillators, Mixer, Filters, Arpeggiator, LFOs, Envelopes and Effects – all neatly grouped and sensibly arranged. The simple three-character display is about as sophisticated as the digital side of thing gets here, as the Bass Station II is all about hands on experimentation, and while the 64 factory presets give you a good starting point, the joy of tweaking and modifying your own sounds is all too easy.

Offering a huge range of possibilities by switching between sine, square or pulse waveforms and mashing them with distortion and overdrive, and sweetening them via the resonance control, one can generate no end of smooth and downright nasty bass, and sub bass, sounds. Add to this the four-octave arpeggiator and 32-step sequencer – that can be programmed with up to four of your own note sequences – as well as the discretely displayed additional ‘functions’, such as Mod Width, Aftertouch, LFO, Oscillator, Velocity, and VCA, plus the backlit Mod and Pitch Bend wheels, and the BS2 shakes an enormous amount of bass booty. Channeling audio in and out of the unit from the headphone socket of an external sound source (one of the aforementioned DAWs that can be seamlessly connected and controlled via the BS II’s MIDI in-and-out socket) and a whole world of sound-processing fun opens up. The Bass Station II is the perfect entry point into a wider, and deeper, universe of bass frequencies and importantly brings analogue warmth and hands-on control in a compact, practical and fun form.

Mike Flynn

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D’Addario take string manufacturing to exceptionally high levels, computer-controlling the smallest details for incredible consistency across a full range of sets that include flat-wounds, round-wounds and half-rounds. Yet for almost every bass guitarist there’s a fundamental choice between steel or nickel strings – the former offering more of a brute attack for rock or heavy low-end sounds, or the latter offering a smoother feeling under the fingers and a brighter tone – which for some make be manna from heaven but for others is a clickety-clack step too far in terms of a brighter bass sounds.

For many years my personal preference was for stainless steel round wounds, but as my playing changed so did my needs, hence I have favoured nickel plated strings for several years now, with their malleable feel under the fingers and smoother surface adding to the comfort factor. However D’Addario, being the forward thinking company that they are, have come up with Flex Steels that combine the best of both of steel and nickel but with the added bonus of a more flexible core to the string – which is noticeable even before you put them on your bass as the strings immediately feel looser in your hands.

More importantly once strung to the instrument this looser tension can be felt particularly well on the lower portions of the neck, which if anything is the business end of the bass; as any pro knows “there’s no money above the fifth fret!” The Flex Steels deliver on many fronts, which aside from being kinder on the fingers, means they kick out a fantastic mix of wide, rich lower mid tones characteristic of stainless steel stings, with an added clarity and articulation similar to that of nickel wounds.

Utilising a ‘hex core’, i.e. a hexagonal as opposed to cylindrical wire core, with ‘fine grain, high temper, high carbon steel wire’ on the outside these technologically advanced strings are perfect for the whole spectrum of desired tones from old-school thumb muting, nimble Jacoesque jazz or full-bodied Marcus Miller style slap, Flex Steels are another winning combination from D’Addario.

– Mike Flynn

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Looks can often be deceiving; as is the case with initial impressions of this snazzy number from trusty UK guitar makers FretKing, which appears more metal-throwing rock beast than subtle and sophisticated jazz-inclined instrument.

Happily it’s a bit of both, the Espirit 1 bass being something of a sneaky amalgam of Gibson’s lightning bolt-styled classic Explorer or Firebird – with a hint of Gibson Jaguar on the upper boy horn too – and a smidge of Musicman under the hood. But this is also a bass with a character, and look, all of its own – matching retro chic with modern upgrades. Our review model was something of an exclusive, literally the very first playable prototype instrument of its kind, constructed – according to Fret-King design guru Trev Wilkinson, who we spoke to about the bass – in their Korean factory in time for its first public appearance at the US winter NAMM show in January. So the fact that it played wonderfully straight out of its custom-fitted FretKing luxury padded gig bag, with the same set of 45-105 gauge D’Addario strings on, is testimony to just how ‘right’ Wilkinson and the factory boys have got this bass from the get-go. Lightweight and comfortable to play the bolt-on maple neck is fast and superbly crafted, the subtle satin finish on its C-shape rear offering a smooth resting place for one’s thumb. The rosewood board produces warmth and punch while the medium jumbo frets make for easy playability from the first to its 22nd fret. Its secret weapon though is Wilkinson’s unique Platinum Series WJM pickup, which benefits from his clever vari-coli control. Combining a Musicman-style pickup and a traditional Jazz pickup in the same housing, the knob closest to the custom Wilkinson bridge allows the Musicman-style coils to be dialed-in to the sound mix – which, while not increasing the volume level, adds in a shed-load more heft in the tone department. This is all the more impressive from a passive instrument, the Espirit’s only other controls being tone and volume – hence we easily achieved a thumping great P-Bass thud, spiky Jaco-esque jazz punchiness and some mighty Marcus Miller slap sounds. If there could be one minor improvement we’d like some ergonomic contouring on the back of the body for extra comfort. Yet with an RRP of £699 the Espirit should be a serious consideration for jazzers, jazz-rockers, and prog bassists everywhere.

They may be the most instantly recognisable bass guitar designs on the planet but Fender’s tireless efforts to maintain interest and indeed innovation in their instruments has once again produced another highly playable pair of basses. The ‘Blacktop’ moniker is essentially a little marketing spin for a new line of guitars and basses that fire double the amount of volume through their pickups – by simply doubling the number of pickups (who’d have thought that would work?) – with the intention of rocking harder and louder for half the money.

This may sound a little crass on paper but in practice the sometimes-meek sounding passive (as opposed to battery powered ‘active’) instruments get a serious kick in the volume department. Confusingly the ‘Precision’ Blacktop bass comes with two pairs, i.e. four, ‘Jazz’ style pickups, while the Jazz design bass comes with two pairs of ‘Precision’ ones. A double take and double check were duly performed on receiving our review basses but this role reversal is indeed the way they are meant to be. As such the traditionally simpler sounding Precision bass gets a broader tonal range thanks to the two pairs of stacked humbucking pickups, which in practice means by switching to just the bridge pickup the nasal Jaco-ish tone is full and rich, and with double the signal being pumped through to your amp the added headroom in the sound is staggering. The sound with both sets of pickups on and with just the bridge pair selected was also mightily impressive. Couple that to a sleek neck radius, neatly finished frets, a pleasingly subtle sparkle of the “white chrome pearl” finish and overall lightweight feel of the instrument, and this bass really does tick all the right boxes. Certainly a workhorse instrument but one with no shortage of finesse, it’s a good investment at around £500 for those needing a step up to a better instrument or for pros looking for a reliable standby bass. The only downside of this pair is the Jazz style Blacktop’s double split-P pickup configuration couldn’t match tonal variety or quality, so our advice is check out the Precision, it’s a jazzy delight.

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Achieving a ‘true’ sonic response has always been a challenge for bassists. Various pickup/mic configurations have been used either working in tandem or as a single source, but all require some form of adaptive surgery to the instrument and are more often than not in practice awkward to use.

Headway themselves do have other bass pickup systems, most notably their highly successful model with contact points that sit under the feet of the bridge, though this of course requires expert fitting and possibly a new bridge and crucially (like similar systems) relies on battery power. The flexible nylon ‘band’ however has no need of a battery and doesn’t require any adaptive procedures, as it simply fits around the waist of the instrument attached with a quality velcro strip. A quarter-inch jack socket is set into the end of the band so that the lead runs out from the rear of the bass, while the enclosed pickup sits centrally under the four strings.

The Band proved to be a lively pickup with a very clean sound that seemed to have a heightened sensitivity to the mid range. There were no blank spots, no feedback and there was no finger noise. With our amp set flat the Band gave an exceptionally realistic string bass sound – there was no need to tweek the EQ and in a small combo environment it was more than able to cut through the mix. And all this for a piece of equipment that you can stick in your top pocket! This is clearly a major move forward in bass amplification and we reckon that it is likely to become the chosen pickup for many a gigging bassist.

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