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Hands-On Review: Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Drivers

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Three reasons bass players love analog

By Jim Gault
Musician’s Friend Staff Writer

The SansAmp Bass Driver DI from Tech 21 isn’t new. It’s just good stuff, so it hangs in there while other products become obsolete after a year or two. It’s a bass preamp, direct box, stompbox, and recording tone tool all in one, and it remains popular with bass players because it works great. Now the SansAmp Series has been expanded to include two newer units that add programmability and greater sophistication. All provide reason to love the sound and feel of analog.

Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI

The SansAmp Bass Driver DI

I’ve been a long-time user of the SansAmp Bass Driver DI and for a very basic reason: it makes my modestly priced bass amp sound top-end and, in the process, makes the task of dialing in a great sound a lot easier. It’s simple to use. I just plug the SansAmp into the effects return jack on my amp and skip the amp’s controls except for the volume knob. What results is noticeably quieter operation and a smooth, sweet, warm tube-like tone that is unachievable from my amp’s own preamp section, no matter how much tweaking I do.

I’ve always been of the set-it-and-forget-it school, and that’s the way I use my SansAmp. I get the sound I want and leave it on. But it can be a great tool for those seeking tonal versatility too. You can put it in front of your amp, set up the SansAmp and amplifier with different tones, and then use it as a footswitch to toggle between the two sounds.

Besides the footswitch, it has two active EQ controls—Bass and Treble—a Drive knob and a Presence knob. These controls are so effective that little tweaks can do a lot. This makes it easy to learn and simple to change settings between tunes. Just following the setting diagrams that come with the unit teaches you the most useful settings: a Bassman sound, an SVT sound, a fat reggae sound, a King Crimson sound, etc. It gets a little trickier to adjust when you have the SansAmp running into an amplifier’s preamp because of the latter’s added layer of coloring, but setting levels is no problem because the SansAmp has a switch for selecting instrument or line level output.

The SansAmp Bass Driver DI is also a superior DI box. It has a parallel output for running a bypassed signal to a second amp, and a balanced XLR output for connecting to a mixing board for either sound reinforcement or recording. This circuit also has speaker emulation so it’s like having a double-miked cab. The SansAmp runs on phantom power, a nine-volt battery, or optional DC power supply. Like the main instrument output, the XLR output is level and ground-switchable.

Tech 21 SansAmp 3-Channel Programmable Bass Driver DI

SansAmp Programmable Bass Driver DI

This second-generation SansAmp Programmable Bass Driver DI is essentially the same unit as the classic model but with three channels of digital programmability added. It has all-analog tone circuitry, only the programming and memory are digital. The only analog difference is an added 0/+10 boost switch for the output (this is in addition to instrument/line switching). What the digital portion gives you is three footswitchable custom settings. If you’re the kind of bassist who uses different tones for different tunes onstage, this is a huge deal.

It comes preprogrammed with a Fat Tube, SVT, and distortion bass settings, which cover the gamut for many players. But creating your own custom presets is easy. You simply adjust the knobs to taste, then hit one of the footswitches twice to store it in that channel, giving you up to three custom settings overall. At press time, a new version, the SansAmp Bass Driver Deluxe, featuring dual inputs for up to six presets is planned and should be available as you read this.

The SansAmp RBI

This unit is the classic SansAmp Bass Driver in a rack unit with added controls and expanded I/O. It is designed for use as a preamp in front of a power amp, and because this combination can be used to run whatever speaker setup is appropriate for a particular gig, it is especially flexible. A great gig rig, for example, would be the Tech 21 SansAmp RBI Rackmount Bass Tube Amp Emulator combined with the Tech 21 Bass Power Engine 300 or 400.

The SansAmp RBI is a single-channel unit, like the Bass Driver DI, but has beefed-up features. One addition is a dedicated mid control giving you three bands of tone tweaking instead of two. It also incorporates an effects loop with a Mix 50/50 switch for series or parallel operation. It also has two XLR outputs, one with selectable levels, and a second buffered XLR that outputs a dry signal. It also has footswitch inputs for easy on/off control onstage. With these connections and controls, the SansAmp is pretty much compatible with any mixer, amp, preamp, recording device, and playing situation.

Boss CH-1 Super Chorus Pedal

Tech 21 Sansamp RBI Rackmount Bass Tube Amp Emulator

Common denominator: Great tone!

Whether you choose the Bass Driver DI for its simplicity and affordability, the Programmable Bass Driver DI for its ready access to stored tone settings, or the SansAmp RBI that covers all requirements for professional studio or live gig use, the core benefit of these units is the same: a range of bass sounds that compares well with that of high-end tube amplifiers. With SansAmp, you don’t need to be a millionaire to sound like a million bucks.

Features & Specs

SansAmp Bass Driver DI:

  • Preamp, stompbox, and direct box in one
  • All-analog circuitry
  • Wide range of bass amp sounds
  • Level, Blend, Drive, Presence, and active Low and High EQ controls
  • Balanced XLR output with ground and level switching
  • Instrument/line switching on main 1/4" output
  • 1/4" parallel (dry) output
  • On/off footswitch
  • Active EQ boosts/cuts up to 12dB
  • Phantom, 9V battery, or (optional) DC-powered
  • Metal construction

SansAmp RBI:

  • Single-space rackmount unit
  • Same tone circuitry and controls as the Bass Driver DI
  • Dedicated mid control
  • Individual level control for the XLR out
  • Effects loop with Mix 50/50 switch for parallel/series operation
  • XLR output with level selection
  • Buffered unaffected XLR output for a second recording channel
  • 2 footswitch inputs: on/off and switching between 2 SansAmps

SansAmp Programmable Bass Driver DI:

  • Same controls, features, and analog tone circuitry as the Bass Driver DI
  • 3 footswitchable digital channels and storage for 3 custom tone settings
  • 3 metal footswitches for channel selection/bypass
  • Added output boost switch on 1/4" output

Tags: Preamps Effects Pedals Direct Boxes Tech 21

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