Well, actually, they do – sometimes.
I’m writing this in response to a recent “Ask Paul” video, where he was asked the question, “why don’t musicians use audiophile speakers?” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2iAqepNnow]. When it comes to live sound, keyboard players tend to use full-bandwidth systems for onstage monitoring, as did drummer Bill Kreutzmann during the Grateful Dead’s “Wall of Sound” moment. But generally, Paul is right. Guitar players, bass players, we tend to use a very specific bandwidth. Howsomever, once upon a time… let me regale you with a story of yesteryear.
In 1984 I was one of two consultants to a man who wanted to build a better bass amp. Was he successful? OMG – unbelievably so. By a decade later, everyone was copying him: even Fender and Ampeg. Good for him.
Anyhoo, along about 1986 or 1987, I started experimenting with plugging my bass into my hi-fi system. At the time I used Thiel 03As. This was before I got the Snell “refrigerators” – really large Snell Type B prototypes that are flat to at least 16 Hz. I liked the sound – a lot. I connected a bass amp of my friend’s design up, and still liked it. It was wide-bandwidth for a bass amp.
So I hauled one of my Thiel 03As out to his place for him to have the experience. I showed him what happened to the top end of the bass when heard with a 3-way system with a soft-dome tweeter. It sounded very much like my bass unplugged; a nice, easy upper mid-range going on out to a natural roll-off. He “got” what I wanted to hear and I thought we were in agreement, but he ultimately refused to build me a cabinet that would do that.
However – the next year, his company introduced a speaker with a really ugly-sounding “bullet” tweeter built into it (so named because the center of the cheap piezo tweeter looked like a bullet). This was, for them – and most other people – now full-range bass, and of course they felt that one tweeter would suffice and handle the power required – and be cheap. Soon after, just about every other company followed – bass amps and cabinets with these tweeters were super popular and ubiquitous as all hell. For me it was disastrous – nothing like I had heard or been looking for.
I had been hoping this guy’s company would build me a box with half-a-dozen-at-least-probably-more soft-dome tweeters in it. But…no. Dream on, kid. And after hearing what bass sounded like through a speaker cabinet with a bullet tweeter, I lost all interest in it.
However, my pal Henry Heine of Bag End Loudspeakers understood the difference, and for a while was the designer of the cabinet parameters for this company – a small bass amp that used two 8-inch woofers which he sourced from speaker manufacturer Eminence and a 5-inch cloth-dome tweeter from MTX, but sort-of based on the tweeter that Bag End originally used – the same JBL 2105 that the Grateful Dead used so unbelievably many of in the “Wall of Sound” (http://www.lansingheritage.org/html/jbl/specs/pro-comp/2105.htm). It’s still one of three great products that this company ever produced (which is better than most companies can claim). And given the sonic connection with the Dead, it’s no surprise that I liked the sound of the Henry’s original design for the cabinet. Again – too bad it changed. I’m not privy as to why, but it was probably money.
Eventually the company I was consulting for gifted me a speaker cabinet, which I used to use frequently, and it does have one of those horrible bullets in it. But it also has a volume control for the bullet tweeter and it’s never once been turned up from “0.”
I suppose it’s a sign that I was so turned off by the ugliness of the sound of a bass through a bullet tweeter that I never thought to just go to Henry and Bag End and ask for what the local company wouldn’t make – that cabinet of multiple drivers that I wanted.
Nor did I make the mental connection with the Dead’s Wall of Sound (though not Phil’s bass amp, which used four Alembic F-2B tube preamps, four McIntosh 2300 power amps, and 36 JBL D140 speakers. If I had I might have realized what do to – I was looking for a system like their designers (Owsley Stanley, John Curl, Rick Turner and Ron Wickersham) had designed for piano or drums.
Ah well. Live and don’t learn. Nobody ever said bassists aren’t stubborn.
Header image: JBL Professional 2446H horn compression driver, used in pro audio PA systems.