A couple of years ago, the bass player in my band announced proudly that he'd bought himself a Markbass combo. I wasn't very familiar with the Italian manufacturer of amps and cabs at the time, but the combo was a pleasant surprise, providing a full, confident and rich sound in a mercifully portable package. It turns out to be the baby of a range spearheaded by a number of impressive heads and cabs, three of which have now been emulated in software.
The Markbass Studio 1 plug‑in (which is available for $199) was created by developers Overloud, who have recently launched their own TH1 guitar‑amp simulator (which we reviewed in SOS March 2009). Three Markbass valve heads — the TA501, R500 and Classic 300 — are emulated, along with six cabinets ranging from 1x15 to 8x10 in configuration. There's also a compressor, and the usual wide range of options when it comes to miking up the virtual speakers.
Unusually, Markbass Studio 1 uses Pace copy protection, but not the iLok system: authorising it requires you to fill out a typical challenge and response form via the Markbass web site. The CD includes VST, RTAS and stand‑alone versions, each of which must be installed separately, for some reason.
When you load up Markbass Studio 1, you're greeted by an enormous on‑screen amp head next to a tiny cabinet. Both are sitting on a shelf where the rest of the controls reside. Presets are saved and loaded using the buttons along the bottom centre, in banks of eight. I found this system quite irritating, as there's no way to see the names of more than one preset at once, so you're often reduced to blindly hovering the mouse over a button to find out what that preset is called.
One thing that's immediately apparent with all the models is that there are a lot of controls. Even the simplest of the heads has four EQ bands, while the TA501 has several additional tone‑related parameters. On top of that, there's a compressor which can be switched pre or post the preamp and EQ, while the final output can draw from no fewer than five different sources: direct, room and rear mics, a separate tweeter signal, and a simulation of the amp's DI output. This latter can even be phase‑reversed with respect to the miked signals.
Although each of these signals has its own level control, the overall output of the plug‑in is just the same whether you have them all at zero or all full up. This makes it easy to A/B different sounds at the same level, but can sometimes be confusing — even if all the levels are down, it still outputs a full‑level signal, so it's not clear what that signal represents.
Interestingly, though, despite the possibly excessive number of controls and options, Markbass Studio 1 always sounds like Markbass Studio 1. The qualities that I first heard in that small solid‑state combo are here in abundance, no matter what you do to the controls. So what this plug‑in won't give you, for the most part, are the gritty overdriven and distorted bass sounds you might find in hard rock or punk, although I suppose you could always use a separate distortion device. Its strengths are more likely to be in pop, jazz, soul and other genres where what's needed is a warm, solid sound to anchor the mix. In general, the tone controls provide gentle massage rather than fundamental alteration of the sound; likewise, the various mic and DI options sound convincingly like subtly different takes on the same source signal, and the built‑in compressor does pretty much what you'd want a compressor on a bass amp to do.
All three amp models cover a lot of similar ground, but they're not exactly the same: to my ears, the TA501 head provides a more precise, sharply defined sound that might suit slap bass and modern pop/rock, while the Classic 300 delivers a deeper, more rounded tone that lends itself well to vintage sounds. It's not a jack of all trades by any means, but despite the annoying preset handling and unnecessary proliferation of controls, this plug‑in is definitely the master of some. Sam Inglis