Wal MIDI Bass
While the keyboard player, horn player and guitarist have enjoyed the benefits of the MIDI revolution, the humble bassist has been sadly neglected. Ollie Crooke gets down to (MIDI) basics.
As MIDI controllers grow in type and complexity, one instrument seems to have been overlooked - the bass guitar has always been the guitar's poor relation...
AS A BASS player who works a great deal in a MIDI pre-production studio, I have spent the last few years gnashing my teeth in jealousy as controllers for drummers, guitarists, saxophonists and trumpeters have come on to the market; there just didn't seem to be much commercial interest in making MIDI accessible in any acceptable form to bass players.
I contacted Yamaha, who make guitar and saxophone controllers (both of which I have bought in frustration) to ask if they had any plans to develop something to help me, and was told that although the technology was of course available, such a development was highly unlikely, as there was not a sufficient market to make it worth their while. Well, all I can say to that now is that I hope this instrument proves them wrong.
I am hardly unbiased, but I believe that the potential of a MIDI bass controller is immense - even more so when coupled with a machine like the Simmons SDX and a good drummer. Whole rhythm sections can be recorded into a sequencer, edited, looped, tightened up and generally manipulated, giving whatever balance of human feel and computer precision you require. Exciting, eh? Like drums, although great bass parts can and have been programmed from a keyboard, most of them don't sound the same as they would if they were played by a real bassist or drummer. Neither is there any of the spontaneity or interaction generated by a good rhythm section playing together. And as there just happens to be a Simmons SDX lying around in my studio, perhaps you can understand my desperation for a decent MIDI bass controller...
Enough of this, onto the review proper, or at least a brief history of the instrument. It came about as the result of a collaboration between Steve Chick of Bass Technology and Pete Stevens of Electric Wood. Steve is the Australian-based designer of the MB4 system, while Pete, together with the late Ian Waller (hence the name of the guitars) has been responsible for the highly professional and popular range of Wal bass guitars since 1978. A mutual respect for each others' work led to the collaboration which spawned this instrument. In essence, it amounts to an Australian MIDI system fitted, with some improvements, into a heavily customised Wal Custom bass.
The Wal/MB4 comes in three separate units: the bass itself, a 1U-high 19" MIDI interface and a fairly small pedalboard. The bass in question is a four-string model, but built into the body of a Wal five-string, with a two-octave rather than the standard 22-fret neck. At first glance it looks like a particularly fine example of a normal Wal Custom bass. It certainly doesn't scream out "MIDI" at you. The craftsmanship on the guitar itself really is outstanding, with the kind of exotic woods and laminations which are only seen on hand-made instruments. As these basses are made to order, you can choose between Paduk, Shedua, American Walnut and Wenge as facia woods. One of these sandwiches a central core of Brazilian mahogany.
FOR THOSE WHO are unfamiliar with the tone control system on Wal basses, here goes: there are four controls, the first being a master volume pot. This has a click-up position, more of which later. The second is a panpot between the pickups, the centre detent representing both pickups being full on. Being a panpot rather than a switch, it can mix any combination of the pickups, though the overall output level of the guitar will always remain at the level set by the master volume control. Underneath are two quasi-parametric controls, one for each pickup; clicking up the knob produces a boost of around 1OdB to the harmonics at or near to the roll-off frequency set by the rotary position. Lastly, when the master volume control is clicked upwards, "Pik-Attack" is introduced - a narrow band of high frequency is added to the overall tone setting to provide extra attack. Both the overall output level and the level of Pik-Attack are trimmable from inside the battery compartment of the bass.
The only external signs that this is not just a normal bass, are (a) the MIDI Bass logo on the headstock, (b) a small extra pickup next to the bridge which is wired though the body to (c) a computer port socket on the back of the guitar. All very neat, and by far the most discreet MIDI system I've seen on any guitar. The obvious advantage of all this is that you are still playing a real instrument (and a very fine one at that,) and it is still entirely possible to go out without the MIDI interface and play a gig as though you'd never heard of MIDI.
"In the short time I've been in possession of the bass, it has got me practising something I swore I would never do two-handed tapping."
The computer port on the guitar is attached via a special multicore connector to a similar port on the interface. This is a slightly fiddly process, as there are four screw-like attachments which fasten from the ends of the lead into the receiving sockets. However, once fastened, they hold the connections extremely firmly, and eliminate any chance of the sockets being damaged whilst in use.
On the front of the interface itself, there are two rotary control knobs, and five slider switches, with a standard quarter-inch high-impedance audio output socket. The first knob controls the sensitivity of the unit to different playing strengths. Next to it, the Velocity control has two functions: its setting represents the maximum velocity that can be generated by the system (0-127), and for the 'scanning" of a sound - pluck a string, twiddle the knob, and you can hear it scroll through the different velocities as you play.
The Style switch has three positions: A for finger style and slap playing, B for plectrum playing, and C for two-handed tapping. It has also taken on some software-related functions (more of which later on). Next, there is a three position Octave switch - 0 being the centre position, with octave up and down positions to the right and left respectively. The next control is Dynamics Off/On, which in effect switches on velocity sensitivity to the synthesiser, or in the Off position, transmits constant velocities at the level set by the Velocity control. Then there is a fairly self-explanatory Mono/Poly switch; if you're playing only single lines, then the Mono setting is for you, but if you're trying to play guitar power chords, then perhaps it's not so appropriate. Just before the Power switch, there are two LEDs - a MIDI active, and Power On indicator. The Audio Out from the interface sends a high-impedance signal, which is not suitable for studio use - for that you plug an XLR into the socket for the DI box which is built into the guitar itself. On the back of the interface there is a multi-pin connector for the pedalboard and a MIDI Out socket. The pedalboard is rather pleasingly mounted on a nicely polished piece of wood, and contains three DX7-type pedals - the first for patch changes, the second for modulation, and the third a Hold pedal.
Does the system actually work? Does it track well enough? The answer to these is a resounding yes. I must say that I've never felt so comfortable with a guitar controller of any kind. This is because you're playing a conventional instrument of the highest quality which just happens to have very accurate MIDI triggering. The adjustments in playing technique are, for a player with a reasonable basic facility, about as minimal as MIDI will allow them to be, especially when you consider some of the crazy guitar controllers that have come out. Of course, your fretting needs to be cleaner and more precise, and good left and right hand co-ordination is necessary to avoid double triggering. It is also best, as usual, to pluck as near to the bridge as possible. I found that practising these things sharpened up my own technique quite substantially.
I have been told that the tracking time is under two milliseconds, and I never had any reason to believe otherwise. It is a fret contact system, working in two stages - underneath the fingerboard and in the MIDI pickup itself. All note information is derived from electronic sensors beneath each fret, thus bypassing the delays associated with string vibration/pitch sensing systems. The pickup senses only the dynamics of a note, and translates them into velocity information. Hammer-ons are interpreted using pitchbend information, a system which works very well for most uses, except that the interface will not respond to string-bending - a sacrifice perhaps, but one which is worthwhile when you consider that most bassists use hammering and sliding techniques far more often than string-bending.
The system is a very simple one, but the important thing is that it actually works, and has the advantage of being mounted on a real instrument, allowing you to mix the synth signal with the audio signal, a huge advantage, especially for live work.
"You are still playing a real instrument and it's possible to go out without the MIDI interface and play a gig as though you'd never heard of MIDI."
IN THE SHORT time I have been In possession of the bass, it has got me practising something I swore I would never do - two-handed tapping. In Style position C, which reads data from the fingerboard only (at a fixed velocity determined by the setting of the Velocity control) some highly spectacular results can be achieved. Using a good lead guitar patch, it's easy to program some of those over-the-top Van Halen imitations that we all know and (some of us) love. On a more subtle front, it is possible to orchestrate huge, widely spread chords - a lush string sound on a couple of strings, and a brass sample on the others. In position A, where it will most commonly be used, a slapped audio bass line mixed in with a little tracked synth bass can sound truly thunderous; if you've got a good fretless bass sample, then you're playing a programmable fretless bass on which it's impossible to go out of tune. Find a good Moog bass, and you're really in business: get a good groove or two on a drum machine, rent yourself a warehouse for the night and party!
Another nice touch is the patch-changing system. The first 16 frets on each string represent 16 patches, giving a total of 64 sounds instantly accessible from the bass itself. All you do is press the fret of your choice whilst tapping your foot on the Patch pedal, and you've changed sounds. The other two pedal functions are useful, only the Modulation seeming a little limited, in that being an On/Off switch, it sends a fixed rather than variable amount of modulation (controller 1) information to the synth. The Hold function is fairly self-explanatory, and useful too, especially for slow, graceful passages.
In order to get the most realistic feel from the instrument, it's necessary to use the Poly mode to trigger a multitimbral module, receiving on MIDI channels 1-4 in Mono mode (the G string transmits on channel 1, the low E on channel 4.) Slides come out very well in this mode, though good results can be obtained using the Mono position on the interface, the catch being that you are effectively playing a monophonic synth.
ANY CRITICISMS I have of the system are minor, and must be tempered with the fact that it seems to be the only one around that actually works. It would have been nice to have had the possibility of different tunings (a good feature of the Yamaha G10 guitar controller,) and while the fixed channel MIDI transmission is fine for live work, it can seem a bit limited in a studio setup - some flexibility would be useful. The manual, Is on the whole, extremely good, but the order of some of the material has become somewhat misleading, due to the fact that software improvements have taken place (which depend on the setting of the Style switch prior to powering up the unit,) and are relegated to the back pages.
All in all, I really can put my hand on my heart and say that in 24 years of music-making on a variety of instruments, I have never been as excited about an instrument as this. I can't stop playing it, and when I'm not playing it I'm staring at it because it's so lovely. Divorce proceedings are imminent! I also find it refreshing that two small companies have got together and between them created something which other, much larger companies seemed to have decided was not commercially viable. I also admire the success with which they have achieved it.
And now, the final question: should every forward-thinking bass player now rush out and order themselves a Wal MIDI Bass, or should they have the MB4 system installed in a bass of their own choice (perhaps even their vintage, unique, totally original 50's Precision?) If you opt for an MB4 retrofit on your own bass, you send it to Australia with a cheque for $2000 (Australian) plus freight costs, and eagerly await the arrival of your souped-up, MB4-ified bass. At this poInt it must be mentioned that Electric Wood have extensively repackaged the MB4 system for use with their Wal basses. On a retrofitted system, you will receive a rather flimsy and insubstantial plastic box housing the interface, with the dreaded external psu to plug into the mains. The three pedals would have to be bought over here, as they are not actually supplied as standard with the MB4, and each pedal has a separate lead going to the back of the unit, thus creating a spaghetti-like state of affairs. Add to this the fact that an old neck might not appreciate the drastic surgery, refrets and so on, which are necessary to install the sensing system, and that such a system might not work too well with a dodgy neck. Any problems which might occur would have to be referred to Steve Chick at Bass Technology in Australia, who, I'm told, is experiencing exactly these problems; while the folks at Electric Wood are extremely helpful, they can hardly be expected to take any responsibility for other people's work.
I'd think very carefully about subjecting an instrument that was dear to me (especially a neck-through-body type) to such a process. I would install the system on a cheaper instrument such as a Tokai. For roughly the same price, however, you can get around £1000 worth of very fine bass guitar, the interface housed into a 19" rack unit which plugs straight into the mains, one single multipin-connected pedalboard, endless cups of tea, advice and backup service from Electric Wood in High Wycombe. Suffice it to say that I'm already selling a piano, a fretted, a fretless and double bass, two amplifiers and two speakers to buy the Wal MIDI Bass, and I've never been happier to buy anything.
Price £1700 plus VAT
Review by Ollie Crooke
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