Tone dials pointless?

What do you reckon?

“Live, it is a delusional point of view that the players have of all those dials on their guitars. You have all those dials left, right and centre; treble up, down, different pickups and all of that. Those are the variables. Then you plug into an amp and it changes your sound. Also, if you have a preamp of some kind that’s going to change your sound. Then you go through speakers or you go direct. That goes to the mixer, which does its thing. By the time your playing goes through the sound system, you’re on crack if you think you’re controlling the sound. You’re not.”

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I think… it depends.
For Gene Simmons, with a bass tech (or 3), sound engineers (probably 4 or 5?) and a stadium of sound to fill… it’s accurate?

But if you and your bass are plugged into an amp in any club from 20 - 200 capacity… you are in full control, and everything you do with your knobs is going to affect everything.


Fair points, Gio. Horses for courses, I guess.

Besides which. massive arenas generally have rubbish acoustics. Saw Foo Fighters at Wembley and it sounded horrific from the seats (was ok nearer the front of the stage). Same for a few days ago, Flight of the Conchords, could barely make out the lyrics let alone worry about if the bass tone was dialled in.


Totally agree with you both here - depends on the room, if you have a Gene-Simmons-level production happening or not, and most live sound is terrible anyway. But what can we really do but try?

The whole point of those knobs live isn’t just about “getting your sound” either, it’s about tuning to the room to try to make live sound less terrible. I still think it sucks a lot of the time though. I went to show at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland a couple weeks ago, which is normally the kind of room where every seat in the house sounds great… and the sound totally sucked that night! Just something that happens with our current level of sound production technology, it seems. So many variables must converge to create “good sound” in a room.


Live sound is super tricky.
Here are the secrets that I’ve tabbed over the years that have been consistent for good live sound:

1.) not too loud. The louder, the worse it gets.
2.) not too much in the subs. The subs dominate the entire experience, and trying to get anything clear and loud enough over pumping subs is near impossible.

Annnnd - all music today loves the subs. The louder the bass, the more physical the experience. So - (and it’s usually the band) - everyone is always asking for more bass, and more volume. Thus, the sound suffers.
The trick - get suuuuuuuper shlammered before listening. Then you
a.) don’t care
b.) only feel the bass

It seems to be the current tacit agreement among all concert performers and goers. It’s very functional. BUT! If you show up to listen to your favorite band (and they don’t just play a bunch of backing tracks / pre-recorded stuff) there’s a good chance it will sound bad.

My true solution: Go listen to super loud metal bands in venues under 500 capacity. The band alone is loud enough to dial in their own sound, the vocals get (thankfully) buried, and it rules.


+1 on the sub thing. Probably the number one annoying thing about most shows I’ve been to lately where the venue is catering to the turn up the bass til my fillings rattle inside my teeth crowd. That’s not even music anymore. It has degenerated into sound effects at that point. A good sound tech can overcome a poor venue to a degree but nothing can be done to fix a bad mix in ANY venue. Also…digital SUCKS!


Interesting stuff, Gio.

Thinking about it, there are a couple venues I go to where the sound is always awesome and they’re both fairly small places.

Guess I’m gonna need to drink more beer.



Another big live sound thing I was thinking about after this last bad experience at Yoshi’s - if a band doesn’t manage their dynamics internally, it won’t sound good in the house. In this band, everyone was hitting somewhere between forte and fortissimo the whole time, it seemed like, even the rhythm guitar and background synth parts, so there was no space in the arrangements for things like lead vocals to cut through clearly. No amount of house sound engineering can fix that. So everything in the chain has to be impeccable:

  • Individual instrument tones
  • How those tones blend
  • Band dynamics
  • House EQ and blend (and overall volume! why are all these shows so effing loud?)
  • Room acoustics
  • How loudly the girl next to you is yelling to her friend about bubble tea

What is it with those west coast gals and bubble tea? lol


Ok, I came out of all that with good advices and most of my bases (basses) covered. As a band we usually provide our own PA. We try not to be too loud either. 50W valve bass head, 30W + 50W valve amps for guitar and keys respectively. Both the guitarist and I also hire out as engineers, so mix is never a problem. Everything goes through the PA (even the bass on a split DI before the amp.) I think most of this is down to control. Because I play through a dub stack my tone rolled off and that tone goes through to PA, any incremental tone change I can hear. My tone is usually on 2-3. Dependent upon the venue I’ll roll it up or even off. It does make me laugh when I see guys lugging 3-500W Bass rigs and 100W Marshall stacks into a small club gig. You can almost see the house engineer crying! But the main question I have to ask you guys is, wtf is bubble tea.


As a audio eng, I found really interesting (and revealing) Marcus views from a musician standpoint.

Regarding getting the “tone” and “how engineers” work (just ditch the marketing, the rest, i.e. frequency “layering” etc is spot on):

Regarding how to use the tone controls (specially the mids parametric EQ usage):

The thing is as an eng, you’ll soon learn to pay tons of attention to/fear the bass, as it can seriously wreak havoc on stage. We all have tattoed “Live performances: bass players via DI, always!” on our brains.

On studio with enough time, (multitrack), controlled environment, etc, we have no problem and love tinkering with this or that mike, this amp, tone controls, effects, sound textures, etc. On live acts you work around the clock, and have to fight tons of limitations, no time for that.

Dunno how is it today with all these wireless IEMs, etc… On live performances you actually fight in several areas: PA, Monitors, miking. Do wrong on any of them and it will affect the others, so you look for a balanced, compromise solution.

PA has a limited headroom for dynamics and frequency response. Gear and physics impose limits on that, Venue imposes limits on that, and that’s usually the first of many limiting factors.

Once you “nail” (or not depending budget for staggered PA Arrays, delays, etc the venue, so that those farer from stage still listen to something intelligible) it’s time to nail the monitoring and miking, then lay down as much safety nets as posible: eq, noise gates, limiters, compressors, etc.

If you go overboard with monitoring, you’ll harm miking, getting bleeds, feedback, howling, rumbling (basss!), squealling… and in the end a good sound starts with the best possible prime matter (miking), so… as long as you can play properly, monitoring, and any sound sources on stage (amps) will be the first ones getting the axe.

Will you control tone from your bass? Yes. How much? it depends:

  • How much do the sound engineer trust you.
  • Venue / conditions limitations (eq, limiters/gates/compressors)
  • How much you rely on the amp to get your tone.

If the venue is suboptimal (low notes reverb mudding everything else) you’ll actually control very little, as you will be “cut” in the PA mix console, leaving just your assigned “room” with regards of frequencies and dynamics (what Marcus explains by the end on the amp video).

Funnily, is actually the bass tone dials the only ones that may allow you to tweak your tone, as the rest may not be used at all, or just a tiny bit for “texture” (miked/line out amp) .

If you’re picky with your tone on stage, the best approach from a bassist point of view: work on trust and coordination with the engineer if time and conditions allows i.e. not overwhelmed with something else (ahem, vocalists?).

A good thing is doing a quick rundown on your “tones” for the setlist, so that he can soundcheck and get “a grasp” on you. The more comfortable he feels around you, the less limits and more “creativity” he will allow. The more coordination, the more freedom you’ll get within certain limits.

In summary: if a bass player comes to me at souncheck, and I notice it’s an “old cat” that knows his thing (like Marcus) I’ll give the him the most “slack” for creativity. If I’m not sure, or time is not available… will be “caged” for sure :smile: for the performance, and for the own bassist sake!


Forgot to add, Back to the Original question: Will you control your tone?

The answer may sound counterintuitive: those knobs in the bass are actually your only sure way to shape your tone when live. How much, is the actual unknown variable that renders “control” a relative term.


I saw Blues Traveler a number of years ago, in a small, converted movie theater. They ran me out of the show. Not because they were bad, it was soooo loud, that it was painful.


I understand completely.
And unless you spring for the custom-molded, flat-attenuation ear plugs, putting foam in your ear is brutal for the sound experience.
I need them custom plugs…


Absolutely. First thing I do as a bassist is run through my “tones”. Pedal settings, mostly. As an engineer I try and pay the same attention to the room as the mikes/cabs. Rarely does everything work in harmony. I’m lucky. I’m in a band which runs out a stereo line from a stage mixer and DI for everything else. Everything runs through the stage mixer first!


You don’t have custom plugs??? Duuuuuude they are lifechanging. Lemme know if you want contact info for the lady to go to in SF to get fitted. Something like $250 out the door.

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Had them, then lost them.
An expensive thing to lose. Both in time and money.
Haven’t re-upped yet… finances, etc etc.


Awww that sucks. Frankly I can’t believe I haven’t lost mine, I just have them in a little blue carrying case they came with. Which I have misplaced numerous times. Had a bad habit of leaving it in my pocket after packing up all my gear, I’m trying to force myself to put it back in the amp bag as part of my load out so it’s always in the same place!


I couldn’t believe I had them as long as I did… it was a near-loss many times, and then they’d turn up. Alas. This time they have failed to turn up for several years…


I saw them in London, what amazed me was John Popper playing that amazing harmonica through a SVT 8x10 stack! Absolutely wicked.

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