By Jon Chappell
Lace Musical Produces is a company known primarily for its quality pickups, which have been used on many classic instruments in the Fender stable, as well as being highly desired for aftermarket replacements on all guitars. The company also has an instrument division, and has always tried to provide intriguing and forward-looking solutions for both basses and guitars.
New to the company’s arsenal is a line of basses called the Helix series. There are several versions, including a single-pickup 4-string with a bolt-on neck, a two-pickup bolt-on 4-string, and a two-pickup 4- or 5-string with a neck-through body. My review covers the single-pickup 4-string ($499, street), but I also got to check out the two-pickup 5-string neck-through model. As a bonus, Lace offers a no-cost option for fretless versions. Sweet!
All models feature the same modern-looking body style and Alumitone pickups, which designer Jeff Lace created to capture the response and sound of an active system but using passive (non-powered) circuitry. Lace describes the process as being “current driven” rather than “voltage driven,” and this approach provides a broader and stronger signal, creating more girth and smoothness to the sound. At the same time, the company notes, this process eliminates the use of batteries, which is not only a convenience for the user, but the more “green” and less wasteful way. The pickup is housed in an attractive soapbar design, with chrome-, gold, or natural-aluminum-colored strips offsetting the exposed, darker-colored magnets. The adjustment springs are situated under two Phillips screws which sit discreetly under the second and third strings.
The Alumitone system uses the aluminum exoskeleton to function for the windings—really, a single loop of wire—rather than conventional copper material, to surround the ceramic magnets. The aluminum is inductively coupled to a smaller coil, or transformer, located just underneath the exterior. Most of what the pickups do is visible from the top; if you remove the pickup, all you see is the little coil underneath. It’s mostly hollow space (and way lighter than most pickup constructions), and exhibits a fairly radical design approach. The high-current/low-voltage output retains characteristics of active, low-impedance pickups, including a higher output (compared to other passive pickup designs), a higher resonant frequency, a broader frequency response overall, and very low noise.
The non-hardware materials for the Helix series are traditional hardwoods: maple for the neck and mahogany for the body. So while you’re sporting a progressive appearance courtesy of the body shape, and sounding unique because of the Alumitone pickups, you can at least be assured a familiar feel. I really liked the quasi satin finish on the bolt-on 4-string (I actually preferred this to the gloss finish on the 5-string, but that’s just my personal preference). I could play this bass comfortably all night, moving my hand up and down the neck with ease. The fingerboard is wide, but the feel is nice and fast. The neck is joined to the body with six bolts, and the neck cutaways, upper-fret access, and body sculpting made this bass very comfortable for my hands. The fretwork and workmanship are impeccable as well. The instrument ships with a well-made, solid, padded gig bag that’s fitted to the Helix’s unique shape, making the entire package very appealing for professional bassists looking for a solid performer.
As for the single-pickup Helix, the electronics are a pretty simple affair—one volume knob, one tone. But I liked the variety the tone control produced and was pleased that I could set up a bright sound on the amp and then roll off the tone for mellower tones without losing focus or introducing mud. The tone control is well calibrated and offers quite a nice deep sweep in its treble cut. The two-pickup basses feature a volume control for each pickup and a master tone control. On the five-string, the two pickups provide a wider palette of tonal colors than the one-pickup version, due in part to the placement of the bridge pickup placed closer the bridge and the neck pickup closer to the neck. And of course, you then have the option to blend the two pickups. The two-pickup version would be essential for modern bass styles, or in any situation where you might be called upon to produce a wide range of tones.
The data-jogwheel knobs have a plastic disc on the top that forms circular depression with a protruding rim (similar to data controllers of many microprocessor-based components). This makes it easy to feel if you’re just using a right-hand finger to determine the knob’s position, but it’s mostly there to provide an interesting look. When grabbing the knob in the normal way—between the thumb and index finger—the rubber coating provides a firm grip, even when your hand is sweaty. I didn’t miss having ridged or knurled edges on the bass and tone controls.
In addition to looking good, the Alumitone pickups sound great and feature a current-driven design.
I used the 4-string Helix bolt-on, single-pickup bass on several gigs in the time I had to review it, and appreciated its light weight, compact and ergonomic body shape, and the feel of the neck. Since I play in a cover band (that does pop and R&B from Motown onward), I’m used to employing a lot of tonal variety, and I like to do it from the bass, if I can (we do a lot of medleys, and fussing with the amp is impractical). So I was initially concerned that the single Alumitone pickup wouldn’t provide enough variety when going from, say, a crisp, ’60s-era flat-picked P-sound to a fuller and funkier thumb-and-finger funk approach.
The single-pickup on the bolt-on actually proved to be a good acid test for the Alumitone pickup technology: With only one sound source to feed the amp (in my case, a 300-watt Ashdown combo with two 10" speakers), I had to rely on the pickup’s range to fill the sonic bill. I found the tight bottom end, smooth midrange, and crisp highs delivered by the single Alumitone to be quite versatile, and I was fine using just the bass’s tone control as my primary tone modifier. The Alumitone definitely has personality—in addition to providing a relatively high output for a passive pickup—and one that suits many musical styles.
The Helix basses combine a radical look with a traditional feel and a great sound. The 4-string feels comfortable in the hands, and the instrument performed very well under the rigors of professional demands, both on stage and in the studio. The Alumitone pickup does a nice job of bridging the gap between passive and active technologies, providing clear tone and broadband frequency response in a noise-free setting. For an instrument boasting all of these qualities, coupled with solid workmanship and a street price of well under $500, the Helix 4-string bolt-on is a great choice and darn hard to beat.
Jon Chappell has written five books in the For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing), as well as The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Digital Home Recording (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill).