British Bass Amps – Oh The Majesty!

Jan16

Editor’s Note: I asked Steve to write this in response to the increased presence of readers from Europe and the UK. Many of you have asked about products not commonly found in the USA. In addition to Steve’s vast experience, he plays lefty, which endears him to our Senior Editor. -Dan

Introduction

Although the brands that are available to our American brethren do exist here in England, they are often prohibitively expensive, and can often suffer from dubious service and supply. Anyway, as it says on beef, Buy British. I couldn’t agree more.

Here, I shall discuss the relative merits of some of the more famous British amplifier manufacturers. I will not bore you with the technical details of everything, as I believe that Dan has done a sterling job in his article How to Buy a Bass Amp. For each amp, I will try to supply a few users of the equipment as a guide to listening for the tone of the given brand.

Trace Elliot (http://www.traceelliot.com/)

For many years, Trace Elliot was THE bass amplification manufacturer, heard on many recordings of every genre. The typical Trace tone is a rather nasal, clipped sound, slightly light on the bass, but full of good cutting tone to ensure that you are always heard in the mix. The TE sound is definitely love-hate, but also one of the cornerstones of British bass tone, just like Ampeg to the Americans.

The trace Elliot range spans from £90, 15W practice combos right up to kilowatt 12 band equalised heads, and even the V-type, a full valve amplified system, a rare beast in the modern market. The staple Trace Elliot equipment seen generally consists of 200-300W combos, often fitted with 1 x 15″ driver, and also the very cost effective and competitive AH150-7 and AH300-7 heads

The current limiting factor in the viability of Trace Elliot products is the financial state of the company. Having been recently bought by Gibson USA, the company is now in a somewhat vague state of being. Of course, this is a double edged sword for you, the customer. Shops will be wanting to move these amps quickly, but what if it goes wrong? Can you fix it yourself? If so, these amps could be the steal of the century right now. If not, you have a very big, green doorstop…

Notable Users

  • Asian Dub Foundation
  • Nicky Wire- Manic Street Preachers
  • Steve Harris- Iron Maiden
  • Tony Levin

Ashdown (http://ashdownmusic.com/)

Formed as a break away project from Trace Elliot by former Production Director, Mark Gooday, Ashdown are rapidly developing a name for themselves in both the British and International markets. The amplifier feature a very distinctive look, the centre piece of which is the backlit VU input level meter used on the more expensive models. Many think the look to be kitsch and somewhat 50′s inspired, others believe them to be works of art.

The specification behind the Ashdown range is ‘True Bass Amplification’, exhibited most strongly in use of Sub Harmonisers in the higher end equipment. The effect is the same as that seen in an effects pedal- the signal is halved and blended back with the dry bass signal in whatever proportion is required. This adds grunt to low end work, and a full, rich tone to pieces played higher up the neck.

This all adds up to a thick, deep tone which is certain to shake the room. Care is required on the sub harmonics though- the amplifiers actually have such capacious low end that it is easy to get carried away and end up with nothing but squelchy, undefined rumble, especially on 5 and 6 string basses. The amplifiers are possibly not the best suited to fretless work either- they can lack subtlety in certain applications. Think of them as the TVR of amplification- big, British, ballsy and with distinctive styling, although grace is sometimes lacking.

The Ashdown range covers all pockets- from small 150W 12″ and 15″ combos, up to 900W heads, or even a separate pre-amp and power amp arrangement. A small practice amp range is in the pipeline. The equipment at first glance appears to be expensive, (a 300W, 1 x 10″ ABM series combo costs in the region of £6-700), but these are not just any old amp- they are designed to be truly unique. Customer service also second to none

Notable Users

  • Nick Fyffe- Jamiroquai
  • Adam Clayton- U2
  • Mark King
  • John Entwhistle
  • Pino Palladino
  • Damon Minchella- Ocean Colour Scene/ Paul Weller

Laney (http://www.laney.co.uk/)

Touting themselves as ‘Classic British Amplification’, Laney have been a player in the UK amp scene for as long as many can remember. There is a reason for this. Their products are good, solid performing units that will not the break the bank of a beginning player or someone looking for an amp to use at home. Hardware is subtle but good quality- for example, the majority of the range sports genuine Celestion speakers.

Admittedly, the equipment is not boutique. It is, however, reliable and serviceable. We would all like a Ferrari, but at the end of the day a Ford or a Vauxhall is the sensible option that does the job efficiently and with the minimum of fuss. Having owned a Laney many years ago, I can attest to this being the ethos that Laney amps are built to. And believe me, there is nothing more embarrassing than having your amp drop it’s output stage mid gig…

The Laney range spans from the ‘Hardcore’ series, featuring 15W practice amp right up to 120W combo amps with all the feature necessary to make a solid gigging amp, through to the ‘Richter’ series of heads, cabs and combos of up to 800W. This equipment is well suited to all styles, the tone being very neutral and versatile- playing a Laney is not like cranking up an SVT, where everyone with any idea about bass will know, but on the other side of the coin, this means that you are not shackled to one particular tone – the perfect workhorse amp for those on a budget.

Hughes and Kettner (http://hughes-and-kettner.com/)

A relatively little known player in the market, German made Hughes and Kettner amps often do not command the respect that I believe they deserve. Their BassBase equipment provides a serious alternative to the big players- SWR, Ampeg, Trace Elliot etc, in a classy looking all round package. The BassForce series provides a range of smaller amps for those on a budget or who don’t feel the need to own a stack as big as they are, although a head and cab set up is available.

In all honesty, I do not have a lot of time on these amps- I have played a Bass Force XL in a shop, so it would be wrong of me to comment on longevity of the products. However, on the sound side they are bright and punchy, maybe slightly lacking in their own defining character, like the Laney, but remember, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Think of them as a blank canvas rather than the same old same old of SWR tone or Ampeg tone etc.

Orange (http://www.orange-amps.com/)

Orange are a founding rock of the British amp scene, having been started back in the 60′s out of the back of a shop in Denmark Street, London. Their amps were immediately revered for the tone that they delivered, and of course, the ‘groovy’ orange Tolex didn’t go amiss in the swinging 60′s… Their recent revival is due, in part, to their extensive use by the new wave of guitar bands- Oasis being one of the most visible proponents of their products.

Until recently, the range did not contain specific bass amps, rather the design amplifiers meant that they proved to be serviceable alternatives for both guitar bass players. These original models, notably the AD120 and the AD80, are now highly prized amplifiers, commanding large sums of money on the second hand market.

The new range of Orange products recreates the older units, but in a more robust, modern package. The bass unit is the AD200B, 200 watts of British valve power. Cost is prohibitive, but this is a purists amp- the kind of amp that it’s a shame to use effects on, believe me, these things sound sweet, even better than the AD80 that I owned for a (very) short time.

Of course, with this tone comes drawbacks. To achieve this smooth tone, Orange use 6 valves in the AD200B- 2 pre amp valves and 4 output stage valves. With this comes the mass of the extra transformer and the associated electronics, resulting in an all up weight of 24kg (quoted on the Orange web site). This means that if you lug equipment around a lot, this may not be the choice for you. Along with this, valves do not take kindly to being thrown into the back of a Transit van at 2am…

A further consideration that must always be considered in the purchase of a valve amp is the price of a re-valve. Power tubes do not last forever, so expect to be changing them every 2 years or so. Retubing a 4 valve output section, like the one in the AD200B, will stretch to approximately £200 with labour.

Notable Users/ Recommended Listening

  • Oasis

Marshall (http://www.marshallamps.com/)

Last but not least, the big M: Marshall. The name that anyone recognises- watch any music programme and you can be guaranteed that half of the guitar amps will have that all too familiar lettering style across them. Marshall, although being a manufacturer of both guitar and bass amps, have never seemed to command the same position in the bass amplification market as they do in the 6 string world.

The Marshall range begins with the low end BassState equipment- the bass equivalent of their Valve State guitar amps. The range includes 30W, 65W and 150W combo amps. The higher end B150 contains a blendable valve in the input stage for a smother tone.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I play a Marshall JTM60 guitar amp, which I LOVE, but the BassState bass amps just don’t cut it as far as I am concerned. The tone lacks grunt compared to other manufacturers, and I believe that in the price to features stakes, Marshall are resting on their laurels, or on that aforementioned typeface. The amps are good, true enough, but others are better. I would swap a Marshall for an equivalently priced Trace Elliot any time.

For those of you with roadies (and the kind of money to pay them…) Marshall also make the VBA range, a full valve bass system consisting of a 400W head and matching cabinets. I’ve never even seen one in the flesh, as such,- due to their cost most shops will not stock them. Remember also, the VBA sports 12 (yes, 12!) valves, 8 of which are in the power stage. This is big bucks to retube…

What do I use?

So, at the end of this very brief overview of manufacturers that we Europeans have at favourable price to the Americans, what is my verdict? Well, I’ve played amps from all of these manufacturers, but the one that got my money (all £1k+ of it) was the Ashdown. An ABM500RC with a BP1510 cab in fact. This, of course, doesn’t mean that this is correct for everyone- as I said, the Ashdown is the big hitter of the bunch, but it can lack in subtlety.

I have a friend who plays a 1980 American Jazz into an AD120 and Marshall 4 x 10″ cab, compared to my Hotrodded Jazz into the Ashdown. The tone is incredibly different, polar opposites in fact, in rigs of approximately the same theoretical value. There is no way I would swap with him, and I think he’d rather die than play my brash, modern amp.

Choice of the amp many also depend on what bass you personally play. I play fretless occasionally (I like the E-Z rollers), but I find the tone of my Ashdown swamps the natural sound of a fretless. My amp of choice for this is a 1971 Selmer Reverb 100 all valve PA head into a Trace Elliot 1048 4 x 10″ cab. No balls, but a beautiful, sweet, singing tone.

In short, get out there and try some. What I consider to be a bad tone may be your sonic Nirvana. You’ve got to live with it, not me. Unless you live next door to me, that is…

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About Steve Smith

Steve Smith has been playing bass and guitar for 10 years now, his current band being the Sheffield based group "Fineline". Previous projects include 'Hasselhoff', a fairly ridiculous Derby based 3 piece playing music inspired by that aging lothario and general Knightrider stud, David Hasselhoff., and some small session work pieces for local universities.

Comments [1]

  1. Hey,
    Thanks for putting all that info up. Most folk seem to have a lot of knowledge about great British guitar amps but not so much about Bass amps. I’ve owned Ashdown ABM and Orange Bass Terror and think they are both great amps, bang for buck, ashdowns are great and to me sound much more focused and less Woolley than Trace Elliot’s, the Orange is also great for portability and the amp seems to have a more natural and solid bottom end than the ABM. ABM is solid state with hybrid solid state/valve pre amp, Orange Bass Terror is digital with all valve pre amp, both manufacturers all valve series are very very nice. Very different sounding from each other tho… But… To reference the car analogy… you seem to have left out the Aston Martin of British all Valve bass amps!! Hiwatt!! They have the growly grunt (throw bass in your face) of the more american styled valve amp tradition, but the big bad room filling bottom end and sparkly mids, more synonymous to British amps. Lots of bands that are known for their prominent high energy baselines use them. They are also known for that singing, cello like quality when playing in higher registers and are a little cleaner and have more headroom than the the Orange AD200rb (which is known for big dirty bottom end and very bright highs) The Hiwatt DR201 is a legendary amp and built to a military standard, point to point wiring, too quality componants. They cost slightly more than the others, but it’s one of the few high end valve amps out there that you really get what you pay for.

    Another car not represented is the land rover of British amps. Peavy! My mates got a 3rd or 4th hand Peavy Bandit that is probably older than he is, that has been abused time and time again and still pumps out loud old school sounding solid state bass. It’s fallen out of vans, had beer and god knows what else spilled on it and is still going.

    Peavy, like Laney seem to have fallen out of favour recently but they have and still do bring out good products. It’s just a bit sad that ownership and manufacturing a lot of great British products has been taken overseas. So I guess if you are proud of the legendary British Amps and want to be part of it all, you should check out what manufacturers still make their amps in Britain, pay the extra money and help keep the tradition going. :)

    I know Hiwatt do, Orange do, I think Marshall and Ashdown have a “made in Britain range”. You’ll probably find most manufacturers have a boutique custom product that they have that is made in Britain. Valve amps are coming properly back in to fashion tho, which is definitely a good thing and should bring prices down.

    Bass amps… Giggidy!!

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