I am an audio engineer, a bass player, and a skeptic. When I first saw Guitammer’s Buttkicker system, I’m afraid it was the skeptic that spoke up sarcastically: “Oh boy. Another gimmick! Yet another electronic toy to pay for!” But it was a cool idea and I went over to look at it.
I sat down on the drum throne (why is it that drummers need a “throne” and everybody else gets “chair”?) and it was immediately evident why they’d named the product the “Buttkicker.” They were playing some tracks through the system, and I was feeling it in my hindquarters. Mostly, I was feeling the low frequencies: the bass guitar and the kick drum, as a drum throne and the flesh sitting upon it are not very efficient high frequency transducers. But being a bass player, those were the frequencies I was interested in anyway: as a bass player, there’s no such thing as too much kick drum. If the band is going to be tight, then it starts with the bass and the kick drum being tight. Since I am a “sound tech who plays bass” rather than a “gifted musician”, staying tight with the kick drum sometimes has been a little bit of a challenge for me.
A friend of mine was showing off the Buttkicker system, and he knew that I played bass, so he drew me to the bass player’s position on the stage and had me stand on a funny little platform. It vibrated my feet, but they vibrated in time with the kick drum and the bass guitar: same principle, but we bass players take it standing up! (Since then, I’ve played bass sitting a wooden stool on the bass player’s platform and benefited from the same Buttkicker effect.)
“Now listen to this!” my friend said, and he pulled me off of the platform, clamped some good headphones on me and pressed play on a multitrack recorder. It was through an Aviom personal monitor rig, so I could adjust the various instruments individually in my ears; I’ve always been a fan of personal monitors. I was listening to a worship song that I knew, one I’d played with my church’s band many times, and it sounded pretty good. I listened for a while, adjusted the bass and the kick drum so I could hear them better, then we talked about it.
Then he got this funny grin on his face, and pushed me back on the platform, said, “Now listen again!” and pressed play. I put the headphones and listened, and immediately tore the headphones off and accused him of playing a different track. “Nope. Same track.” I put the headphones back on: the bass guitar and the drum were clearly out of sync; the difference was night-and-day! I stepped off the platform: it was hard to hear the problem. I stepped back on, it was obvious: the bass player was a little bit off from the rest of the band, and without being able to “feel” the low frequencies, I could hardly tell.
As an audio engineer, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked the bass player to turn his amp down, and been met with “But I need to feel the bass!” And I have to admit, when I’ve been the bass player, the audio engineer has sometimes asked me to turn my amp down, and I’ve wanted to say the same to him. Low frequencies – the kind of lows that are made by a kick drum and a bass guitar – are large waves: an low E on the bass is 27’ long; the low B on a 5-string bass is 36’ long. A bass drum’s fundamental note can be 40’ long. These frequencies are indeed difficult to hear up close, and so the bass guitarist turns up his amplifier and the drummer plays extra loud so that they can feel the low frequencies and stay in synch with each other, and with the rest of the band.
By the time I stepped off of that funny little Buttkicker platform, I was completely convinced: a Buttkicker will be a wonderful tool for bass players and for drummers. It will allow them to play tightly in synch, creating a “groove” that the rest of the worship band can ride on. It will allow them to play with less volume, so the rest of the band doesn’t need their monitors cranked up so loud. It makes all the difference in the world for the bass player and drummer when the band moves to in-ear monitors: there isn’t a headphone in the world that can replace a bass guitar cabinet, or reproduce the kick in the chest from standing or sitting near the bass drum.
After listening to the tracks with the bass and drums slightly off, my friend played another track. This time, the bass and drums were tight, completely spot on. Standing on the Buttkicker made it obvious what the difference was, but even when I was not on the platform, the difference was significant: the whole band, the whole mix sounded “tighter” when the bass and drums finally got together. Non-musicians that I quizzed agreed that it sounded better, but they couldn’t tell why.
Certainly, adding Buttkickers to a monitor rig will allow the bass player to turn his amp down (or remove it from the stage) and the drummer to play lighter. And as strange as this sounds, I have come to expect that if the bass player and drummer get Buttkickers, then the whole band will sound better.
Be seen. Be heard.
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