SansAmp Character Series Bass overdrive pedal, preamp and amp sim/DI recording tool
$225 MSRP, $169 "street"
By Phil O'Keefe
What have we here? The SansAmp VT Bass is part of Tech 21's amp emulating "Character Series" of pedals, and looks like your typical stompbox, but as I found out during the course of the auditioning and review process, it's actually much more - not only can it serve as a bass overdrive pedal with a wide range of classic and modern amp-like sounds, but also as a bass preamp, and as a direct recording tool and speaker emulator. Let's dive right in and have a closer look.
OPEN THE BOX
The VT Bass is packed in a cool "biscuit tin" metal box that includes a Tech 21 sticker, a pair of VT "sample settings" cards, and a well-written, thorough and easy-to-understand manual. The manual includes not only a full description of what each control knob does, but also some suggested applications and tips to get you started. The general visual vibe of the VT Bass (Figure 1) is very suggestive of a classic American built bass amplifier line, and gives you a good indication of the basic "character" that Tech 21 is shooting for. Housed in an all-metal 4 5/8" X 3 5/8" X 2" stomp box, the build quality of the USA made VT Bass pedal is solid and road-worthy. The controls have zero wobble and feel reassuringly solid, and are sensibly laid out--once you understand the Character knob and what it does, and the way it interacts with the other controls, it's a very intuitive pedal to dial in.
Figure 1: The Tech 21 VT Bass pedal's graphics offer a strong clue as to the type of amplifier sounds it seeks to emulate
I/O is on 1/4" unbalanced jacks. According to Tech 21, the input is designed to have "the same sensitivity and loading characteristics as a tube amp," and I noticed no issues with pickup "loading" when using either my Rogue VB-100's passive pickups, or the active EMG's in my Ibanez SR1100. The 1/4" out is a unbalanced 1kOhm low impedance "universal output" that can be plugged into a guitar or bass amp, other effects pedals, or even a low impedance mixing console or sound card input. The VT Bass doesn't have an XLR output, which may be an issue with some setups, but adapters and 1/4" to XLR cables are readily available to allow for direct connectivity with pro level recording systems and consoles, and the vast majority of users will have audio interfaces with line level 1/4" inputs that they can use instead.
Like all Tech 21 pedals, the VT Bass features buffered bypass switching, with unity gain when bypassed. Discussions on the relative merits of true bypass and buffered output types aside, the output of the VT Bass was clean, and there was no "tone suck", even when the pedal was inline and bypassed. I think that on a pedal of this type, using a buffered output does make sense since it allows Tech 21 to tailor the output for low impedance and compatibility with a wide variety of devices - amps, mixing consoles, PA systems and so forth.
Power consumption is a very low 5mA, which the manual suggests will translate to about 100 hours of battery life from a fresh alkaline 9V battery. I haven't managed to kill a battery yet, so I can attest that they last a long time. The LED indicator will visibly dim once battery voltage drops to about 6V. Of course a center negative 2.1mm ("Boss style") 9V DC adapter can be used instead if you're going to put it on your pedalboard and use it constantly, but if you'll be using it for recording the occasional bass part, it's nice to know you can just grab it, plug it in and get going quickly without the hassle of having to hunt around for a power supply - as long as you change the battery every few months or so, and remember to disconnect the input jack (to disconnect and conserve the internal battery) whenever you're not using the pedal. Battery access is tool-free, and through a heavy-duty plastic cover on the bottom of the pedal, so unless you have the pedal bolted down to your pedalboard, putting in a new battery is literally a snap. There is no battery or adapter included with the pedal, so make sure you take that into account when purchasing.
The controls in general are very responsive and cover a wide range, so a little tweak of a knob can go a long way. The Character knob in particular makes big changes to the responsiveness and attitude of the sound. You can think of it as an "amp type" selector knob; with SVT tones in the lower third of its range, B-15 "flip top" sounds near noon, and with things getting progressively heavier and more raw as you wind through the last third of the knob's range. In most cases, I found it was best to dial up the Character knob first, then adjust the drive, level and tone knobs as needed. The Character control and how it is set "defines" the sound of the entire pedal. It not only modifies the frequency response, but it also affects the drive, distortion and attack characteristics of the emulated amp; as you turn it up, it becomes more modern and aggressive sounding, and it distorts more readily and at lower settings on the Drive knob, so you really have to work these two controls back and forth; adjusting the drive and EQ to taste after setting the Character knob for best results.
DRIVE THE LEVEL
The Level and Drive controls adjust the volume (overall output level) and amount of grit, grind and overdrive; again, both have a wide range and are very interactive with the Character knob - especially the Drive control. There is a large amount of dirt available from the VT Bass pedal; more than I personally will probably ever need, but if your tastes lean towards the exceptionally heavy and distorted, you should certainly audition the VT Bass for yourself--it can definitely rock. With the Character knob set fairly low, I was able to push the Drive control a bit harder without the sound becoming excessively dirty for the material we were working on. The best "clean, but with character" tones are with low to mid Character settings and relatively low Drive settings; it's easy to get good clean tones and very slight break-up sounds too, but this pedal wants to rock, and does so with gusto, which is what makes it so effective as a bass overdrive pedal in front of an amp. Just crank up the Drive knob and adjust the output Level to taste.
EQ FOR THREE
The three knob EQ on the VT Bass is very effective. It uses active "boost/cut" controls," as opposed to the passive ("cut only") EQ controls found on some pedals. The Low is centered at 125Hz, the Mid at 500Hz and the highs at 3.2kHz. I would have liked to have seen the midrange set just a touch higher - somewhere in the 700 to 800Hz range, where the note definition of the electric bass is typically found - but that would be untrue to the spirt of the amps it seeks to nail. In actual use, I was able to get just about any basic timbre out of the pedal that I wanted with very little effort. I could see some players wanting this pedal primarily because of its excellent EQ-shaping abilities. Between the three EQ controls, a wide range of bass tones are available; from Motown to metal, mellow-jazz fingerstyle to bright and aggressive rock plectrum tones, bright slap or deep funk; it's all in there.
I should point out that the VT Bass is not a digital pedal; it doesn't use "digital modeling" technology to emulate amps and speakers. The circuitry is all-analog, and frankly, I am amazed at how similar some of the sounds are to the classic amps that Tech 21 has set out to emulate. As part of the review, I put the VT Bass to use while recording so I could check out the sound of it going direct. I'm producing the new EP for Inland Empire local legends The Sedans, and both bassist Robert Gonzalez and I were impressed and pleased with the range of sounds that were available by running the VT Bass straight to Pro Tools; enough so that we wound up using it for all of the bass sounds on the project. Since the music of The Sedans covers a range of styles from Americana to Reggae, a variety of tones were called for, and due to its versatility, the VT Bass was certainly able to deliver. Since the VT Bass has a low impedance 1/4" output, I could have patched it directly into my Pro Tools HD system, but I wanted to add a bit of compression to the chain, so I ran it into a Groove Tubes Brick DI box and a FMR Audio RNLA limiting amp; everything else was handled by, and a wide range of tones achieved just by varying the controls on the VT Bass.
SANSAMP - THE BUTTON
Other than the bypass footswitch, the VT Bass only has one single push switch on it. It's located next to the EQ, and midway between a graphic representation of a speaker and the word "SansAmp™." This switch is a new addition with version 2 of this pedal, and when depressed, it engages the SansAmp speaker emulation circuit. On previous versions, the speaker simulation could not be disengaged. The smooth and very believable sounding speaker emulation is, according to Tech 21, designed to emulate the sound of a multi-miked 8X10" speaker cabinet. You can experiment with using or bypassing the speaker emulation, with the best setting depending on how you're using the pedal. I'd recommend starting with the emulation engaged when using the pedal for direct recording or when running it directly into a PA system, and bypassing it when using the pedal as a overdrive in front of an amp. I tried this out with my SWR LA12 (Figure 2), and the VT Bass definitely changed the sound of my little recording combo amp and gave it more of a "flip top" sonic vibe. If you really want to increase the effect, you can bypass your amp's onboard preamp by plugging into the power amp input / effects loop return jack and rely on the VT Bass for all tonal and volume controls while using only the power amp section of your amplifier. You can take that concept a step further and connect the output of the VT Bass directly to the input of a rack mount power amp - there is more than enough output level available to drive one directly - and use that amp to drive a full-range speaker system.
Figure 2: An Ibanez SR 1100 with active pickups and roundwound strings, and a Rogue VB-100 with passive pickups and flatwounds were used along with a SWR LA12 combo amp for part of the review testing
FOR WHO? MAYBE YOU!
So, who is it for? Different types of musicians will appreciate what the VT Bass has to offer. Bass players who have a modern, clean, high-powered amp rig but who would like to add a little "vintage character" to their sound at the click of a footswitch. Recording musicians who want the sound of a bass amp on their tracks and need an affordable, versatile, easy to use package that can in many cases serve double-duty as a direct box. And finally, for those who need a ultra-small and portable bass preamp; as a backup to a larger bass amp, for running direct into the PA, or to drive a power amp and speaker. The VT Bass can do a great job in each of these applications.
Do I have any gripes? Well, in some cases, the direct box functions would be easier if the pedal also included an XLR output, but this would have added to the cost of the pedal, and probably increased the size of it too. There is a Deluxe version of the VT Bass ($350 retail, $269 "street") that offers that feature as well as several more (memory locations, two inputs, effects loop) if that's important to you. Most home recordists will probably have 1/4" line inputs on their audio interfaces that will work just fine with the low impedance output of the VT Bass. The only other thing I could possibly complain about is the lack of panel labeling for the SansAmp speaker emulation switch, but you'll remember soon enough that when the switch is depressed, the speaker emulation is active, and when it's released, it is turned off. But that's so minor as to be quibbling, and outside of that, I've got nothing. It's a great pedal that has a ton of versatility, and I love versatile pedals that can cover a lot of sonic turf and serve multiple purposes. A rare few can actually do multiple tasks extremely well and sound great doing them. The VT Bass belongs on that short list. It's an outstanding tool for the modern bassist.
|Input: 1/4" unbalanced instrument level (-10dBm / 250mV nominal), 1MOhm impedance
Output: 1/4" unbalanced, 1kOhm impedance
Bypass: Buffered bypass
Switching: Silent switching via custom actuator
Power: 9V battery (~100 hour battery life) or optional 2.1mm center negative, regulated or unregulated 9V 100mA minimum DC adapter (Tech 21 DC2 or similar)
Power consumption: 5mA
Dimensions: 4 5/8" X 3 5/8" X 2"
Warranty: One year limited warranty
For recording, I'd recommend putting it last in the chain; similar to how you'd run an amp. Alternatively, you can run it early or even first in the chain - this might be a better option if you're using it more as a overdrive or distortion pedal as opposed to an amp simulator.