Shaping the Bass
Bass synthesizer examined
Robbie Burns has backed Pete Townshend, Cliff Richard, and Eric Burdon. But recently he's been playing the new Roland Bass Synthesizer, a revolutionary instrument which means the bass player becomes more than a backing musician.
Like a great many bass players, Robbie has tended to be a background figure in many of the bands he's played with. It's the nature of the instrument: the only way you can radically change things is to learn to sing or be Stanley Clarke. Or use a Roland GR-77B.
The effect of taking up this newest bass synthesizer is, according to Robbie Burns; 'Phenomenal. Outrageous. It completely re-defines what you can do'.
Accustomed to a style based on the solidity associated with American bass playing plus a certain amount of slap, Robbie suddenly found himself able to generate an incredible range of keyboard-type sounds in unison with standard bass lines. Taking a solo acquired an entirely new meaning. From being (arguably) the most limited instrument in the band, the bass had become as expressive as any keyboard rig.
Before going any further, it is worth pausing to explain just what is special about Roland's new bass synthesizer and why it will have so significant an effect on the bass player's role. Like the GR-700 guitar synthesizer, it consists of a specially made guitar controller unit, the G77, which will also perform as a 'straight' bass guitar, and a MIDI equipped synthesizer module. The synthesizer module is based on the JX-8P and therefore any sound the JX-8P can make, the Bass synthesizer can also produce. Effectively, the system therefore has three outputs, two from the stereo synthesizer and one from the straight bass guitar. Using these simultaneously, the effect is awesome.
Programme change and editing can be carried out from the guitar controller and/or foot pedals, and making new sounds is possible either by using incremental control or by using an accessory programmer, the PG-800. A unique feature of the GR-77B is its use of a separate microprocessor for each individual string, which allows extremely fast and precise tracking so that the unit can keep pace even with the most elaborate bass technique.
Adapting to the bass synthesizer can be rapid. Robbie Burns, the first player in England to have access to the instrument, received his sample two days before he was due to play in the Roland showpiece for the BMF.
'My first impressions were of the feel of the guitar. Normally I play a WAL so the shape was unfamiliar — there's no curve to hang your arm over as there is on the conventional shape. But when you put it on it's really comfortable — your arm is at the right angle and you get a very natural playing position — rather like a Steinberger. The bass, when used without the synthesizer has a very good sound; perhaps a little like a Jazz Bass — a throaty resonance without the muddiness of a Precision.'
Using the synthesizer mode, the possibilities broadened out a little. 'Everyone expects a bass player just to plod along. With this instrument the only barriers are the limits of your own imagination. I spent a long time simply going through the factory presets and doing experiments. Some of the most interesting effects I discovered quite early on were based on a simple bass line from the 'straight' bass output combined with rich chordal back-drops supplied by the synthesizer set on very slow attack. That can be done with strings but strings can be a bit of a cliche — I've got good results using a slowly oscillating 'string meets organ' sound for that. Of course you can wind back the synthesizer so that the layering effect is right in the background, or set whatever balance you want between the bass riff and the backdrop sound. Another interesting one is to use a unison effect like the sound of a batch of trombones playing behind the bass on, say, a slow funk riff. There's also a way of playing solos with an endless cycle of fifths all on one note — and there's what I call the 2001 sound where you end a piece with the effect of hundreds of gongs all struck at once. The point is, the bass player now has to learn to use new sounds!'
As a bass player who also writes his own compositions, Robbie Burns has another reason to appreciate an instrument which plays like a bass but sounds like anything you like. 'It's valuable for writing because I always write with chords. If I think like a bass player I can't write. I have to think like a keyboard player to write, and the GR-77B will give the right sound structures for that.'
In all, Robbie used the bass synthesizer for about a week just before and during the British Music Fair. Needless to say, he would regard that as merely the beginning and proposes to do a great deal more with it as soon as they come on sale in the shops.
'I'd like to tour with one, spend a lot of time on stage with it. The bass synthesizer would give a radical new sound and image to a live band. In fact there's going to have to be a lot of rethinking done — because bass players will never again have to be just bass players — they can make a far bigger contribution. The synthesizer module is equipped with MIDI so you can include delay programmes in a patch using the SDE-2500, stack up several MIDI synths or modules or drum units and play them from the bass; even play the whole of a keyboard player's MIDI set-up, for example.'
Power, in the immortal words of Jaco Pastorius, corrupts, and bass players have never had so much of it at their fingertips. Robbie recommends a quiet saunter through the factory presets, getting to know each one and what it can contribute to your sound. The instrument is touch-sensitive so even with one sound there are many different colours and different ways of playing it. An hour or so with headphones at your local Roland dealer should give an inkling of what the GR-77B can do for your sound, and after that you should be ready to go back to the band and explain to them that there are going to be some changes around here...
Roland Newslink Autumn 85
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Feature by Mike Hilton