This week I would like to indulge my fellow bassists and their search for the perfect solid state, single channel, light-wattage combo amp. Fair warning: if you’re the type of bass player who wants two 4x12 cabs hooked up to some tube-rectifier zillion-watt head and who only plays in the decibel levels of Satan’s howling, this blog may not be for you. However, if you’re a bassist searching for a medium to small combo amp and you also happen to be interested in UFC fighting, this may just be the best article you’ve stumbled upon in the last ten minutes. Probably.
Why write about UFC fighters and combo amps in the same article? Let me break it down for you…
When my husband and I watch UFC fights, we always attempt to predict who will win before the fight even starts, and we each have a system. His system is based almost solely on the context of the fight and how the fighter looks; seemingly superfluous things like the color of their trunks or the amount of tattoos and facial hair they have. He swears that this system can determine the winner of a fight about 90% of the time. On the other hand, my system tends to be more about the stats (specs) of the fighter himself: how tall is he? What’s his reach? How old is he? What is his primary fighting style? Previous fight records, etc? Each of us swears our particular system is the best way to gauge the outcome of a fight, although we tend to focus on only some of the factors of a fight, not all of them. My husband focuses on the context, I focus on measurable, quantifiable stuff ‘n junk.
In a way, comparing one bass amp to another is a lot like watching a UFC title fight. Each amp, like each fighter, has its own strengths, weaknesses, reputation, specialty, and overall sense of appeal. So let’s imagine I’m hosting a fight at the octagon between these two contenders:
IN THE RED CORNER…
Weighing in at a convenient, manageable 18.3 pounds and boasting a sizeable 20 watts and a single eight-inch speaker, it’s the PEAVEY MAX 158 COMBO BASS AAAAAAAMMMMPPP!! *cheers, applause, wooing, beer tossing*
AND, IN THE BLUE CORNER…
Weighing it at a substantial but still portable 22 lbs, boasting 15 watts and a single eight-inch speaker, it’s the newly redesigned FENDEERRR RRRRRRRRRRUUUMMMBBBLLLEE 15!! *more cheers, wooing, general rowdiness*
Okay, I’m done pretending to be a fight announcer because typing like this is dumb and hard. Let’s cut the showmanship and get in the fight and see how each one of these holds up against the other. We’ll start with my system and dive into the specs, and then we’ll use my husband’s system; evaluating each on context and general feel of the thing.
Round #1: Usability
The Peavey Max: as far as reputation is concerned, it’s hard to paint Peavey’s amplifier manufacturing in a bad light. As a bass player and a regular live-performer, if I can have my choice of bass amp brands, I’d almost always appreciate a Peavey something-or-other. I’ve had my Peavey Minx 110 for years (I use it as an acoustic amp as well), and I love the dang thing. The Max series of amplifiers are nothing but Peavey, and that’s always a good thing in my book. But let’s dig into this a little deeper and see if the Max has what it takes in my “bass amp title championship: lightweight division”.
As mentioned before, the Max 158 outputs 20 watts at 4 ohms through an eight-incher. Controls include a fairly simple 3-band EQ (low, mid, high) with a couple of extra goofy Peavey things thrown in. Like a fighter who’s not afraid of diversity in his style and is always willing to try a new move, the Max has a couple of interesting features to help tailor your tone; some of it helpful, some of it, maybe not so much. It just depends on what you need when you need it. On the volume control, you have a push-button distortion boost (on the larger Max models, you’ll find it beneath the gain switch). This will basically kick you into the dirty department much faster than having to crank up to an unholy volume, which is helpful if that’s what you’re looking for in your sound. On the EQ, you also get a mid-shift button which helps shape the contour of your mids depending on where your knob is set (also very versatile and you can get a lot of different noises out of a few different presses of a button).
Peavey also chose to toss their new “Psycho-Acoustic Low-End Enhancement” button on their which…unless you really want to dive into the sophisticated concepts of psychological perceptive sound, the practical use of the button is, essentially, a low-end booster. I know that’s not technically that simple, but this is the UFC, dangit, and no one came here for a lesson in physiological auditory physics. At least, not his week ;)
As far as strict usability and comprehension is concerned, the extra bells and whistles that can come with a Peavey bass amp (even the smaller ones) may come across to some players as “overthinking it” just a little. With the Max series, I’ve found there’s a bit of fiddling one has to do before you find a good tone (or at least, my idea of a “good tone”). However, the possibilities the extra features afford you can often make up for the extra fiddley-fiddley-fiddley in certain contexts. A lot of this is determined by your genre, or the particular sound you’re looking for; and once you get passed some of Peavey’s jargon, it isn’t a hard amp to understand and operate.
The Fender Rumble: Though Fender isn’t exactly world-renowned for their bass amps, we here at Bigfoot have been pretty impressed with Fender’s Rumble Series. Think of it as the newcomer challenging the title champ. And the Rumble is easily comparable to the Max, if not perhaps an improvement…? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
The Rumble 15 is a simple 15 watter at 8 ohms coming out of an eight-inch as well. In classic Fender amp tradition, it’s not so much about the extra features as it is about doing a few things, but doing them well. Plain and simple 3-band EQ and a volume knob; not too flashy, but certainly packs a punch. A very accessible and consistent amp, easy enough for amateurs and pros to use. This would be the amp for simple rehearsals, smaller live gigs, or just a decent all-around great sounding amp. Though it doesn’t provide as many features or tone-coloring options as its competitor, but it makes up for it by being a simple, sophisticated piece of technology that is ready to have you plug-in and play right away. It’s an eager fighter, and it fights by instinct and feel.
Round #2: The Sounds Themselves
The Max: Like I said in the previous round, the Max’s strengths are in its extra bits and bobs. The versatility and diversity of the amp is probably what it has to offer most extensively, what with the distortion and low-end boosts and the handy mid-shift option. However, the downside to having more options is needing to fiddle and finagle trying to lock in that one sound you’re after. I’ve also found that tonewise, the speaker tends to bottom out on the low-end relatively quickly once you start venturing into higher volumes and gain. Basically, not as much clean headroom as most bassists may be used to. But that’s not necessarily a deal breaker, especially if you want dirty signal fast. For some of you high-gainers who are in search of a practice amp with dirtier tone that comes to you quick, the Max may be your holy grail.
The Rumble: In nearly the opposite vein, the Rumble 15, despite being a little shrimp of a thing, boasts a surprising amount of clean headroom. It has a simple tone, but with plenty of dimension and body. Keeping in the UFC fighter analogy, it’s a fighter that fights simply and effectively. Personally, this is the sort of bass tone I’m usually after, and you can get pretty loud before it starts to distort or bottom out. This is an amp that keeps to the best of Fender without disappointing a bassist’s ear for good, wholesome tone.
So now, the final consensus…
Round #3: The Judges’ Final Call
Back to the beginning of the article when I was saying how though each of us have our own system for gauging a fight, neither of us gauge the fight by all of its merits. I may rely more on the numbers in any given UFC fight, but that doesn’t always mean the numbers will mean anything in that particular context. On any sort of bad day, prize-fighters can go down in one swing despite how many hits they landed or how many points they racked up the round before. And the same thing could be said for my husband’s system: evaluating a fighter just on the sixth sense principal and gauging a fight only by its context without keeping the stats in mind may be a poorly-informed way of making a decision.
Of course, the real UFC judges who aren’t just sitting around in their own potato chip crumbs on their buddy’s couch and do this crap for a living take every fight under consideration of both systems: the numbers AND the way the fight played out anyhow. The best fighter isn’t always chosen because of his number of strikes or points, or even his technique. By the same token, they don’t just go with which fighter who put on the best show and was the most appealing (usually, they’re still human and make bad calls on occasion). But to pick a good winner is to evaluate the fight and the fighter as a whole.
With amps, it’s the same thing. With any given amplifier (and any of us here at the shop would be happy to rant your ear off about the whys of this), specs don’t mean squat if the amp sounds like crap. You could have “ideal” wattage, impedance, speaker efficiency, circuitry components, and spend upwards of a grand on a custom boutique amp but…if that amp happens to sound bad to you, or bad for what you’re trying to do in that context, what’s the point of all those numbers? Same thing goes the other way…you could just take a stab in the dark on an amp that may sound good, but if you don’t know the practical limits and advantages of your amp, it may be hard for you to use that amp to its full creative potential. You have to consider both sides: does it sound good and is it the right amp for what you want to do?
So, what’s the overall opinion on each of these amps?
The Peavey Max 158 ($109.99): though the Max has a lot going for it in one combo amp, it may only best suit a certain genre or style and context. I could see this amp being much more useful for recording of in-studio work rather than a live gig. I think Peavey consistently makes cool, versatile amps and they are constantly impressing me with their innovation, but if you’d rather not bother with the extras and you happen to be pickier about your tone, the Rumble may be the better contender for you in this fight.
The Fender Rumble 15 ($79.99): I personally think this is an overall higher quality amp for the kind of money we’re dealing with here and will serve you well for live gigs or studio work in most genres. I prefer simple tones and good, clean headroom most of the time. But that’s just me. If, however, you like the options that the Peavey Max provides, the ability to dial in your particular sound, and you don’t mind a little extra time and attention, or if you’re just bored and fed up with traditional bass tones, then I’d definitely give the Max a test-drive and put it through its paces to see if it would be your title champ.
So, the next time you're out shopping for amps and you're stuck between a couple of them, just do what I do and pretend you're a UFC judge...hopefully minus the Tap-Out shirts and the backwards sunglasses. That stuff is ridiculous. You're not fooling anyone.
Stay excellent and have a good week!