Expanding on the modelling technology used in their Variax and Variax Acoustic, Line 6 have dropped an octave and turned their attention to the bass guitar. The Variax Bass features 24 models of 'classic' instruments — is it all the bass you'll ever need?
How many bass players does it take to change a light bulb? Nobody knows. Nobody's ever dared trust us with something so high-tech, you see. Actually, I really don't buy the 'bass player as semi-educated Neanderthal' cliché, and not just because I am one (a bass player that is, not a Neanderthal). If willingness to embrace new ideas is any guide, we bass players seem to be less conservative than our guitar colleagues an octave up (and yes, I can already imagine the flood of indignant SOS Forum posts). For example, it was no accident, when Ned Steinberger redesigned the guitar in the early '80s with bridge-end tuning and a minimalist one-piece carbon-fibre body and neck, that he launched his bass first. And you only have to spend a few man-days browsing the web to find that the population of weird and wonderful bass designs out there exceeds the number of similarly off-the-wall guitars by quite some margin. Not that I've ever done such a thing of course — I do have a life...
So at last bass players get to have a go with the Line 6 instrument modelling technology that electric and acoustic guitarists have had for a while. And judging by the posts I've read on various bass guitar discussion groups, bass players around the world are generally intrigued by the prospect. With the Variax Bass, Line 6 have produced an instrument that can, they claim, take on the sonic character of 24 classic models from the bass guitar hall-of-fame. It's a tall order. The characteristics of say, a Rickenbacker 4001 and a Kay M1 Upright, or a Hofner 500/1 and a Warwick Thumb, four of the basses modelled, are poles apart — they might as well be entirely different species of instrument.
But before I cut to the chase and write about the sound of the bass there's some description of the instrument and analysis of its context to be done. The first thing that you can't miss about the Variax is that, despite its leading-edge electronic technology, its look is one of unadulterated tradition. The shape, body and headstock, are mild variations on a standard Fender-esque theme that could have come from any number of Far Eastern 'generic bass' manufacturers (the Variax is actually made in Korea). Perhaps the only element that stands out, or rather doesn't, is that the Variax has no obvious pickup. The job of turning the strings' vibration into electrical signals is done instead by piezo-electric transducers under the saddles of the bridge.
From my point of view the conservatism of the Variax aesthetic and ergonomic design is a disappointment. For such a ground-breaking instrument it seems a shame not to have developed a similarly modern piece of design. And before you say it can't be done, that bass aesthetics are the result of decades of ergonomic refinement, I must cite Musicman with the Bongo, Cort with the Curbow and Parker with the Fly Bass — three examples among many I could have selected that have all shown that there are still viable and attractive new shapes for bass guitars out there if you just apply some imagination and industrial design to the problem. It's difficult to understand why Line 6 went for such a conservative design, it's not as if the company has a backward-looking philosophy in any other respect — far from it. Maybe the decision was marketing driven, or maybe it was cost driven, but in either case I fear they got it wrong. If the marketing bods decided, well my feeling is that the majority of bass players would be more attracted to something more forward looking; and if the bean counters decided, I think that a couple of hundred quid more for something that looks a bit special, rather than a bit ordinary, would have been worth the extra money, especially as the bass already retails in the UK at just under £1000 anyway.
The Variax is also, thanks to its traditional 'slab' body, not a particularly comfortable bass to wear on a strap. It's a relatively heavy instrument, and neither the elbow or waist profiling on the body are generous — in fact there is no waist profiling at all. But while we're on the subject of profiles, the neck feels to me to be somewhere between a Precision and Jazz Bass in basic proportions — a good comfortable compromise for most players.
Build quality on the Variax is good, but as with the aesthetic, a choice of black or 'sunburst' doesn't break any new ground as far as finish is concerned and I'm afraid the bass doesn't, to my eyes, look as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as a £1000 instrument should.
Set-up was good though; buzz free with intonation just about spot-on and strings nice and low. The fretwork is neat, with no sharp edges, lumps or bumps apparent.
|Pair Name||Green Bank||Red Bank|
|VINJ||1961 Fender Jazz||1960 Fender Jazz (flat-wound strings)|
|MODJ||2004 Fender Deluxe Jazz||1961 Fender Jazz Fretless|
|PREBASS||1963 Precision Bass||1958 Precision Bass (flat-wound strings)|
|MANTA||1977 Musicman Stingray||2003 Modulus Flea|
|CLANG||1971 Rickenbacker 4001||1963 Rickenbacker 4001 (flat-wound strings)|
|HOLLOW||1966 Danelectro Longhorn||1963 Hofner 500/1 (flat-wound strings)|
|THUMP||1963 Gibson Thunderbird||1966 Gibson EB2D (flat-wound strings)|
|MODERN||2002 MTD 535||2003 Warwick Thumb|
|ALCHEMY||1978 Alembic Long Scale||1984 Steinberger XL2|
|8 & 12||1968 Hagström H8||1994 Hamer B12A|
|ACOUSTIC||Tacoma Thunderchief||Kay M1 Double Bass|
|SYNTH||Mini Moog||Modern Bass Synth|
Once the bass is strapped on and powered up, you're faced with four control knobs. From the top down there's volume, pickup blend, stacked bass/treble, and lastly the all-important instrument selection knob. The volume and tone are self-explanatory but pickup blend and instrument selection have a little explaining to do. Let's deal with instrument selection first. The 24 Variax instrument models are held in two banks of 12 — the green bank and red bank. Each of the twelve pairs of instruments has a generic name and it's this name that's etched onto the side of the detented selection knob. Instruments are paired in loosely related couples. For example, the two vintage Jazz Basses are paired, as are the two Precisions. The adjacent table lists the instruments stored in each bank.
The currently selected instrument pair is illuminated on the selection knob by an adjacent green LED if the green bank is selected, and by a red one if the red bank is selected. Switching between banks is simply a case of depressing the volume knob. There's one final trick incorporated in the instrument selection knob. Once a preset bass model has been tweaked to personal taste using the tone and pickup blend controls, depressing the instrument selector saves the adjusted settings as a preset that is recalled as the default when that instrument is next selected. A useful and simple refinement.
In use, the Variax is pretty straightforward. Only a day or two after I'd first had sight of it, I was able to try it out on a few songs at a short gig without any trouble. (The sound guy's face was a picture as I dialled through a few different basses during the soundcheck!) The first thing to appreciate, however, is that the electronics within the Variax need a healthy supply of volts. Two options are available. Option one is batteries — either six AA or a single 9V battery within the bass provide an estimated 10 to 12 or one to two hours operation respectively. The 9V option is clearly for emergencies only. Option two is the included power supply/DI box that 'phantom' powers the bass via a TRS jack lead. Of course this box itself requires power, and that's supplied by a simple mains adaptor. What a shame the power supply/DI box couldn't itself have been phantom powered from a 48V supply — presumably its current demand is too high.
If you're at all familiar with any or all of the basses listed in the table you're probably doing a Mr Spock-style quizzical glance on reading the term 'pickup blend'. You see, quite a few of the basses modelled either have only one pick-up or, in the case of the two acoustic instruments, none at all. But it's quite logical, Jim, and works like this. On basses that do have multiple pickups, the blend control does exactly what it says and models adjustment of the blend between them. On single-pickup basses however, the blend control very cleverly models what would happen if the position of the pickup were moved either towards the neck or bridge. So if you've ever wondered what a Precision Bass would have sounded like if Leo Fender had stuck the pickup hard up against the bridge, the blend control is just the job. On acoustic instruments (the Kay and the Tacoma), the blend control models microphone distance by apparently adding some proximity affect and increasing the level as the microphone moves closer.
A second Mr Spock moment might be provoked by the two 'bass synths' modelled. These selections model a classic Mini Moog and an un-named contemporary bass synth — both with a layered two-voice patch and both with a filter sweep. The bass, treble and blend controls on the bass adjust filter speed, filter depth and voice balance respectively. I'll go on to describe a few of the conventional bass sounds in the next paragraph, so I'll start off with the synths — and get the bad news out of the way. The synth sounds really didn't work for me. Partly, I can't help thinking these sorts of sounds are best played on a keyboard anyway, and partly they seemed to me to have little depth and power — just not warm and rubbery enough, if you know what I mean. That's not to say they'll never find a niche, just that it'll be, to my ears, a small one.
So, finally, what does it sound like? Does it work? Well from one point of view, it's hard to say, as I own only one of the actual basses modelled (that original Steinberger) so could only do one direct comparison — a comparison that the Variax passed with quite extraordinary flying colours. It does a very good impression of the Steinberger, and not just in tonal character — the note shape (attack and decay) sounds and somehow 'feels' remarkably similar. From another point of view, without a near priceless collection of classic basses for direct comparison, which will be the position of the vast majority of players, I was left just to consider the sound of the Variax in isolation; and it sounds great, fabulous even.
The ability very quickly and easily to try very different instrument voices within the context of a piece of music brings the kind of liberation to playing bass that keyboard players have taken for granted for years. It's a very seductive thing, and I found myself immediately hankering after real-life versions of the modelled basses. I especially loved the Precision, the Musicman, the Danelectro and the Tacoma, but all the basses (other than perhaps eight- and 12-strings) would no doubt get a regular run-out. The only issue that nags away at the back of my mind is wondering how the Variax performs once its strings have lost their brightness. I guess though that buying new strings more often than you're used to is very much less expensive and very much more convenient than a collection of classic basses. If you can accept, or even like, the conventional design of the bass, then it may well be 'The Only Bass You'll Ever Need'. However, I also have at the back of my mind a crazy scheme to wait for the five-string Variax, rip out the electronics and have them build them into a crazy, custom-designed, half-fretted chimera — see, I said bass players are more radical than guitarists!
Selecting the basses to model for the Variax must have been like choosing Desert Island Discs or an ultimate 'best of' collection — difficult and guaranteed to attract differing and passionately held opinions. So here, for what it's worth, are a few basses I'd have liked to see.
Firstly, I don't have any problem with the first 18 models and the two acoustics. Having said that I'm not sure I'd ever need four versions of the Fender Jazz — especially as the fretless doesn't work to my ears on a fretted bass (and I don't think it ever can, as the characteristic fretless sound comes as much from left hand technique as it does from the model of instrument). But I'm really not convinced about the value of the eight- and 12-string models or the bass synths.
Replace those with a mid-80s Wal Custom, an Aria SB1000 from the same period, an original US Steinberger Electric Upright and the bass strings of a Chapman Stick, and I'd be far more tempted by the Variax (once I'd de-fretted it, that is). If I'm lucky, Line 6 might read this and perhaps add those instruments later, as there's a presently unused RJ45 socket on the side of the bass that the manual says will 'connect to future Line 6 products with a Variax input adding additional sounds and abilities to your Variax Bass in the future'.
- Great sounds.
- Simple and easily accessible controls.
- Well finished and set up.
- Conservative design.
- Not the most comfortable bass to play.
- Short battery life.
Brilliant effort to model classic basses, although maybe not quite the selection of basses I would have chosen. Such a shame the look and feel is ordinary at best.