Wal MB4 midi bass review from Guitarist Feb 1990
Wal MB4 MIDI Bass
Wal MB4 MIDI Bass
As MIDI controllers grow in type and in complexity, one instrument seems to have been overlooked - the bass guitar has always been the 6- string’s poor relation... Review by Ollie Crooke.
AS A BASS PLAYER who works a great deal in a MIDI pre-production studio, I have spent the last few years gnashing my teeth in jealousy as controllers for drummers, guitarists, saxophonists and trumpeters have come on to the market; there just didn’t seem to be much commercial interest in making MIDI accessible in any acceptable form to bass players. I contacted Yamaha, who make guitar and saxophone controllers (both of which I have bought in frustration) to ask if they had any plans to develop something to help me, and was told that although the technology was of course available, such a development was highly unlikely, as there was not a sufficient market to make it worth their while. Well, I hope this instrument proves them wrong.
I am hardly unbiased, but I believe that the potential of a MIDI bass controller is immense - even more so when coupled with a machine like the Simmons SDX and a good drummer. Whole rhythm sections can be recorded into a sequencer, edited, looped, tightened up and generally manipulated, giving whatever balance of human feel and computer precision you require. Exciting, eh? Like drums, although great bass parts can and have been programmed from a keyboard, most of them don’t sound the same as if they’d been played by a real bassist or drummer. Neither is there any of the spontaneity or interaction generated by a good rhythm section playing together. And as there just happens to be a Simmons SDX lying around in my studio, perhaps you can understand my desperation for a decent MIDI bass controller...
Enough of this, onto the review proper, or at least a brief history of the instrument. It came about as the result of a collaboration between Steve Chick of Bass Technology and Pete Stevens of Electric Wood. Steve is the Australian-based designer of the MB4 system, while Pete, together with the late Ian Waller has been responsible for the highly professional range of Wal bass guitars since 1978. A mutual respect for each other’s work led to the collaboration which spawned this instrument. In essence, it amounts to an Australian MIDI system fitted, with some improvements, into a heavily customised Wal Custom bass.
The Wal/MB4 comes in three separate units: the bass itself, a 1 U high 19" MIDI interface and a fairly small pedalboard. The bass in question is a 4-string model, but built into the body of a 5-string, with a two-octave rather than the standard 22-fret neck. At first glance it looks like a particularly fine example of a normal Wal Custom bass - it certainly doesn’t scream out ‘MIDI’ at you. The craftsmanship on the guitar really is outstanding, with the kind of exotic woods and laminations which are only seen on hand-made instruments. As these basses are made to order, you can choose between paduak, shedua, American walnut and wenge as facia woods. One of these sandwiches a central core of Brazilian mahogany.
MIDI Bassics For those who are unfamiliar with the Wal’s tone control system, here goes: there are four, the first being a master volume pot with a click-up position, more of which later. The second is a pickup pan pot - the centre notch representing both pickups full on. Being a pan pot rather than a switch, it can mix any combination of the pickups, though the guitar’s overall output level will always remain at that set by the master volume. Underneath are two quasi-parametric controls, one for each pickup; clicking up the knob produces a boost of around10 dB to the harmonics at or near to the roll off frequency set by the rotary position. Lastly, when the master volume control is clicked upwards, ‘Pik-Attack’ is introduced - a narrow band of high frequency is added to the overall tone setting to provide extra attack. Both the overall output level and the level of Pik-Attack are trimmable from inside the bass’s battery compartment.
The only external signs that this is not just a normal bass, are (a) the MIDI Bass logo on the headstock, (b) a small extra pickup next to the bridge which is wired though the body to (c) a computer port socket on the back. All very neat, and by far the most discreet MIDI system I’ve seen on any guitar. The obvious advantage of all this is that you’re still playing a real instrument, and it’s still entirely possible to go out without the interface and play a gig as though you’d never heard of MIDI.
The computer port on the guitar is attached via a special multicore connector to a similar port on the interface. This is a slightly fiddly process, as there are four screw-like attachments which fasten from the ends of the lead into the receiving sockets. However, once fastened, they hold the connections extremely firmly and eliminate any chance of the sockets being damaged whilst in use. On the front of the interface itself are two rotary control knobs and five slider switches, with a standard quarter-inch high-impedance audio output socket. The first knob controls the sensitivity of the unit to different playing strengths. Next to it, the Velocity control has two functions: its setting represents the maximum velocity that can be generated by the system (0-127), and for the ‘scanning’ of a sound - pluck a string, twiddle the knob and it scrolls through the different velocities as you play.
The Style switch has three positions: A for finger style and slap playing, B for plectrum playing and C for two-handed tapping. It has also taken on some software-related functions (more of which later on). Next comes a three position Octave switch - 0 being the centre position, with octave up and down positions to the right and left respectively. The next control is Dynamics Off/On, which in effect switches on velocity sensitivity to the synthesiser, or in the ‘off’ position, transmits constant velocities at the level set by the Velocity control. Then there is a fairly self-explanatory Mono/Poly switch; if you’re playing only single lines, then the Mono setting is for you, but if you’re trying to play guitar power chords... then perhaps it’s not so appropriate. Just before the Power switch come two LEDs - a MIDI active and Power On indicator. The Audio Out from the interface sends a high-impedance signal, which is not suitable for studio use - for that you plug an XLR into the socket for the DI box built into the guitar itself. On the back of the interface is a multi-pin connector for the pedalboard, and a MIDI Out socket. The pedalboard is rather pleasingly mounted on a nicely polished piece of wood, and contains three DX7-type pedals - the first for patch changes, the second for modulation and the third being a hold pedal.
Does the system actually work? Does it track well enough? The answer to these is a resounding yes. I must say that I’ve never felt so comfortable with a guitar controller of any kind. This is because you’re playing a conventional instrument of the highest quality which just happens to possess very accurate MIDI triggering. The adjustments in playing technique are, for a player with a reasonable basic facility, about as minimal as MIDI will allow them to be - especially when you consider some of the crazy guitar controllers that have come out! Of course, your fretting needs to be cleaner and more precise, and good left and right hand co-ordination is necessary to avoid double triggering. It is also best to pluck as near to the bridge as possible. I found that practising these things sharpened up my own technique quite substantially.
I have been told that the tracking time is under two milliseconds, and I never had any reason to believe otherwise. It is a fret contact system, working in two stages - underneath the fingerboard and in the MIDI pickup itself. All note information is derived from electronic sensors beneath each fret, thus bypassing the delays associated with string vibration/pitch sensing systems. The pickup senses only the dynamics of a note, and translates them into velocity information. Hammer-ons are interpreted using pitchbend information, a system which works very well for most uses, except that the interface will not respond to string bending - a sacrifice perhaps, but one which is worthwhile when you consider that most bassists use hammering and sliding techniques far more often.
The system is a very simple one, but the important thing is that it actually works, and has the advantage of being mounted on a real instrument, allowing you to mix the synth signal with the audio signal - a huge advantage, especially for live work.
In the short time I’ve been in possession of the bass, it has got me practising something I swore I would never do - two-handed tapping. In Style position C, which reads data from the fingerboard only, some highly spectacular results can be achieved. Using a good lead guitar patch it’s easy to program some of those over-the-top Van Halen imitations that we all know and (some of us) love. On a more subtle front, it’s possible to orchestrate huge, widely spread chords - a lush string sound on a couple of strings and a brass sample on the others. In position A, where it will most commonly be used, a slapped audio bass line mixed in with a little tracked synth bass can sound truly thunderous; if you’ve got a good fretless bass sample, then you’re playing a programmable fretless bass on which it’s impossible to go out of tune! Another nice touch is the patch changing system. The first 16 frets on each string represent 16 patches, giving a total of 64 sounds instantly accessible from the bass itself. All you do is press the fret of your choice whilst tapping your foot on the Patch pedal. The other two pedal functions are useful, only the Modulation seeming a little limited, in that being an on/off switch it sends a fixed, rather than variable amount of modulation information to the synth. The Hold function is fairly self-explanatory - and useful too, especially for slow, graceful passages. In order to get the most realistic feel from the instrument it’s necessary to use the Poly mode to trigger a multitimbral module, receiving on MIDI channels 1-4 in Mono mode (the G string transmits on channel 1, the low E on channel 4). Slides come out very well in this mode, though good results can be obtained using the Mono position on the interface, the catch being that you are effectively playing a monophonic synth.
Any criticisms I have of the system are minor, and must be tempered with the fact that it seems to be the only one around that actually works. It would have been nice to have had the possibility of different tunings (a good feature of the Yamaha G 10 guitar controller), and while the fixed channel MIDI transmission is fine for live work, it can seem a bit limited in a studio setup - some flexibility would be useful. The manual is, on the whole, extremely good, but the order of some of the material has become somewhat misleading due to the fact that software improvements have taken place (which depend on the setting of the Style switch prior to powering up the unit), and are relegated to the back pages.
All in all, I really can put my hand on my heart and say that, in 24 years of music-making on a variety of instruments, I have never been as excited as I am about this. I can’t stop playing it, and when I’m not playing it I’m staring at it because it’s so lovely. I also find it refreshing that two small companies have got together and between them created something which many, much larger concerns seemed to have decided was not commercially viable. I also admire the success with which they have achieved it.
The final question: should every forward-thinking bass player now rush out and order themselves a Wal MIDI Bass, or should they have the MB4 system installed in a bass of their own choice (perhaps even their vintage, unique, totally original ‘S0s Precision?). If you opt for an MB4 retrofit on your own bass, you send it to Australia with a cheque for $2000 (Australian) plus freight costs, and eagerly await the arrival of your souped-up, MB4-ified bass... At this point it must be mentioned that Electric Wood have extensively repackaged the MB4 system for use with their Wal basses. On a retrofitted system, you will receive a rather flimsy and insubstantial plastic box housing the interface, with the dreaded external PSU to plug into the mains. The three pedals would have to be bought over here, as they are not actually supplied as standard with the MB4, and each pedal has a separate lead going to the back of the unit, thus creating a spaghetti-like state of affairs. Add to this the fact that an old neck might not appreciate the drastic surgery necessary to install the sensing system, and that such a system might not work too well with a dodgy neck. Any problems which might occur would have to be referred to Steve Chick at Bass Technology in Australia, who I’m told is experiencing exactly these problems, and while the folks at Electric Wood are extremely helpful, they can hardly be expected to take any responsibility for other people’s work!
I’d think very carefully about subjecting an instrument that was dear to me to such a process - better to fit it to something a little cheaper! For roughly the same price, however, you can get around £1000 worth of very fine bass guitar, the interface housed into a 19" rack unit which plugs straight into the mains, one single multipin- connected pedalboard, endless cups of tea, advice and backup service from Electric Wood in High Wycombe. Suffice it to say that I’m already selling a piano, a fretted, a fretless and double bass, two amplifiers and two speakers to buy the Wal MIDI Bass, and I’ve never been happier to buy anything..!
RRP; £ 1700 plus VAT
For further information contact: Electric Wood Ltd, Sandown Works, Chairborough Road, High Wycombe, Bucks. Tel: (0494) 442925
This review was first published in the UK’s “Guitarist” magazine in February 1990