We've seen a plethora of units recently dedicated to emulating those hip and trendy analogue squelches (send in the clones, Mr Roland), but jack-of-all-traders, offering many different types of bass sound, are something of a novelty. In fact, I can think of only one -- the Peavey Spectrum Bass, now in its Mark II incarnation. Having used a Mark I version in the past, I can say that there are definite advantages to being able to quickly access a range of bass presets, particularly when you're more interested in writing a real mover and shaker of a bassline than you are in programming the sound with which to play it. Hence my more-than-passing personal interest in the arrival of Alesis' new NanoBass. Like its cousins, the NanoPiano and NanoSynth, this is essentially a preset instrument (and, if you haven't twigged yet, those presets are all bass sounds) with relatively limited editability from its own front panel, but with awesome potential via MIDI. If you like nothing better than to eat System Exclusive data for breakfast, dinner and tea, the NanoBass is far bigger than its third-rack width might suggest.
As with all the other Nanos, there's no need to expend too many words on the externals. Front -- five knobs, controlling volume, effect level, MIDI channel select, bank select and program number, plus two LEDS (power on and MIDI activity indicator). Back -- socket for the supplied 9V AC wall wart, MIDI In and combined MIDI Out/Thru, and stereo left and right outputs (on quarter-inch unbalanced jack sockets). If you want to use the NanoBass as a mono unit, you need use only the left socket, although you will lose the full benefit of the effects, as many of these are in true stereo. That's the bodywork covered; what about the
engine? Under the hood you'll find 4Mb of ROM, chock-full of 264 16-bit, 48kHz samples. Further sound manipulation comes courtesy of Alesis' Composite Synthesis system, as used in their QS range of synths (and, indeed, the NanoPiano and NanoSynth). Each NanoBass voice consists of a waveform, a sweepable low-pass filter, three envelope generators, three LFOs, and a programmable effects section offering four independent stereo multi-effect processing busses. So much power for one so small. But, as with the NanoPiano, to be able to customise the sounds you'll need editing software equipped to handle SysEx data, plus a far more comprehensive MIDI data specification than is supplied in the current manual. Also, as the NanoBass has no means of storing user edits, you'll need an external patch librarian.
The good news is that it may well be a long time before most of us would even want to tackle the DIY modifications, such is the diversity and range of the 256 presets on offer within the NanoBass. These are presented in 16 banks, namely: Acoustic, Fretless/Harmonic, Elec 1, Elec 2, Elec 3, Funk, Acid, House, Rap, Industrial, Synth 1, Synth 2, Synth 3, Layer, Drone and Effect. With 16 sounds per bank, you can already begin to appreciate that there's plenty to get your teeth into, whatever your musical preferences. Inspirational acoustic double basses, FM funk floor-fillers, gritty analogues, vitriolic indie pop, clunky clavinets, flanged, fuzz, dub, sub... it's all served up here in glorious Technicolor. I could go through the list of my personal faves (a big hello to Big Emo and Fuzz Pluck from Synth 3, Super Rez and Gargoyle from Acid and Woody from House) but I don't think that's the point here. In most styles of music, the bassline is rarely treated as a character part: what matters is how it integrates with the rest of the track. So to put that to the test, I invited the NanoBass to sit in on a session with my usual virtual sidesmen while we ran through a series of MIDI file standards covering many different styles of music. This confirmed what I already knew as soon as I switched this little creature on -- that one of the main virtues of having the NanoBass in your studio is in being able to quickly dial up the right sound for the situation.
The NanoBass responds to both velocity and aftertouch, and what's noticeable with many of the patches is just how dynamically expressive they are. Hit a key harder and you get more resonance, more sustain or, in the case of most of the layer sounds, a change to a complementary sound.
There's further fun to be had with the modulation wheel, the precise result being dependent on the sound chosen. On some presets it simply, er -- adds modulation; on many of the acid sounds it opens the filter to create that nasty fizzing effect we all love. With several of the presets in the Effect bank, which sound as though they're arpeggiated, it alters the tempo of the sequence.
All this you have to find out by trial and error, as the preliminary manual is woefully short on detail, merely advising 'suck it and see' experimentation with the modulation wheel, plus controller numbers 12, 13, 91 and 93. The manual is also reluctant to reveal details of the preset effects which, again, vary according to the preset selected. Aside from straightforward flanges and reverbs, clearly, there are some sophisticated multi-effects being thrown at the sounds in there. I should mention that, like the NanoPiano, the polyphony of the NanoBass varies between 64, 32 and 16 notes, depending on whether the preset selected uses one, two or four voices per note respectively. Again, the manual doesn't make it clear which presets use the most voices, although most conventional basslines would be hard pushed to exhaust even the lowest limit. That said, if you're into the Jaco Pastorius chordal approach, or find that the upper registers yield some appropriate lead sounds (as indeed they do), then you'll find a friend in Alesis' intelligent note stealing system, known as Dynamic Allocation.
A good bassline can make or break a track, so for my money it makes sense to give the job to a dedicated unit which can handle it properly. You might not see it that way, but let the NanoBass into your studio and you'll wonder how you ever did without it. It's easy to use, it's versatile (even more so via MIDI), it sounds good, and it's got a few surprising sounds which are quite inspirational in their own quiet way. And for generalist musicians, I bet it'll prove a better long-term buy than any analogue bass clone.
But if there's scant detail on the technical side, what does that manual contain? Apart from preset lists and info on setting up, there's a couple of jokes about bass players and a whole chapter devoted to how to approach the writing of basslines (and, indeed, of music generally) in an open-minded and creative manner. And that's the point of the NanoBass. It won't write great basslines for you, but it will provide an armoury of sounds which may just spark your creativity.
No shortage of presets for the real world.
Easy to use, but with considerable clout via MIDI.
Small enough to hide in your socks.
No user memories.
Need to be a wizz with SysEx to edit.
Versatile all-rounder with plenty of bang for your buck.
£ £339 including VAT.
A Sound Technology plc, Letchworth Point, Letchworth, Herts SG6 1ND.
T 01462 480000.
F 01462 480800.