Basses for Newbies - The "SX Effect"

After playing the stock SX pickups for a while, we discovered a serious sonic defect.  While these pickups have a unique sound that is punchy with a nice mid-forward growl. . .super fun to play by the way. . . when pushed past a certain threshold during aggressive playing, the pickups distort severely.  For lack of a better term, we started calling this the "SX Effect".  This clipping is very abrupt popping sound as the pickup spikes.  It sounds very similar to digital clipping when an A/D converter is driven too hard.  In the studio, the instrument sometimes really needs to be feathered to stay just under the level where the "SX Effect" rears its ugly head.  Some players would probably never push the pickup to distortion, but if a player is unaware of its existence and finds himself in the middle of a recording session, the engineer may spend hours trying to chase down the clipping because all meters and indeed the input signals would be showing very normal levels.

While I was unhappy it would drive the cost of the instruments up . . . perhaps quite significantly, I deemed the stock SX pickups unsuitable for the mission which is to deliver an instrument capable of going the distance (an entire lifetime) and stay with a student from beginner all the way through professional use.  A few players I know are lucky enough to still have that first instrument, and I wanted to put an instrument into the student's hands that could still be a go-to gigging or studio weapon of choice well into a playing career.  After all, there is always ample use for a nice 4 string jazz or p-bass in the studio.  Sonically and ergonomically, it needs to be able to run with the big boys.

The search for a replacement pickup lead me to a conversation with Carey Nordstrand of Nordstrand Pickups, Inc.  through and introduction from a friend who was developing his electric guitar designs.   Nordstrand is a premium brand, and there was much debate about whether the pedigree and cost of these meticulously spec'd pickups is too high for newbies.  They are after all manufactured in the US on state of the art CNC winding machines with the finest materials and processes.  In my mind, there was only one way to find out and that was to test them and discover with my own fingers and ears if there is some magic left in pickup development that has not been successfully translated to off-shore manufacturing.

 I ordered 2 sets of NJ4's and one NP4. We'll see if they make enough of a difference to bite the bullet and standardize on them. This move would probably drive the cost of these basses right up to and quite possibly past the $500 threshold and that's getting into some pretty non-newbie-friendly territory. I'll have to do a new cost breakdown to figure it out. The basses have been getting more expensive to source as well since I have to buy necks now. Certainly, I can sell off the original fretless necks to offset the cost, but who knows what those will actually sell for.

I scrounged around the house looking for some foam, and this is what I came up with. . . in my plumbing bin. . . a foam rubber seal that looked promising.

And #4 is the first to get the Nordies. It pains me to see it sitting there all ready to go without strings, but The Perfect Bass only had 2 of the 6 sets of Dunlop stainless steel strings I ordered, so the entire order is held up. I do have a set of DR extra life strings I could throw on there, but I like the Dunlops so much I was thinking of selling off those DR's. . . plus, they're blue which would be pretty darn cool I thought on a yellow or blue bass, but might be a bit much on this guy. It's an exercise of will power to resist using the strings I have on hand. Testing would give me better data if I stick with the same strings on all the builds.

Jasaman is coming by and I'm going to upgrade #3 to nordies. . . we'll have some seat of the pants feedback then. After that, I think I'll have to get back in the studio and get some concrete data on how the Nordies perform. If they really do work incredibly well, I'm game to use them in all builds going forward. If they're good, but not mind-boggling, I'll continue searching for lower cost pups that simply do not go into "SX effect".

Going back into #3 to install nordstrands

Unfortunately, I had a washing machine meltdown and spent most of today finding, transporting, and moving, and hooking up another washer. I borrowed a minivan from my parents and in the car swap, left my regular bass cab in the car. When Jasaman came by to swap pickups and test basses, the Acme B2 I had available did not have working mid driver or tweeter. I was not able to get a good idea of what was happening tone-wise.

But, we did find out a couple of things:

1. The characteristic of the bass has completely changed
2. If our original goal was to achieve that "standard", familiar jazz bass tone, we have hit it right on the nose.

The Nordstrand NJ4 is now smooth, nuanced, and articulate. It does not, however punch you in the gut like the stock SX pickup. For me, being relatively inexperienced with jazz basses, this was a real learning opportunity. It would appear we have created a very nice vintage clone.

I couldn't resist and strung up #4. . . had to prove to jasaman that this one "will rule them all".

After Jasaman went home and had a chance to sit with #3 now with Nordstrand NJ4's, he provided some feedback:

"Chunger was kind enough to hang out last night and install the Nords in bass #3. I played 3 church services today which gave me a chance to really check them out. I hate to say it but I am not that impressed. Maybe I had huge expectations but they are changing the bass way too much for me. #3 had such personality with the stock pickups and now it just sounds like a very good Fender Jazz. It sounds great but I think we lost something by switching out. I'm going to keep them in for a while and do some more gigs before I yank them out. I'm pretty sure at this point that they are not making a home in #3. I have been so impressed by this bass and having a blast playing it. Today was the first time I wasn't pumped up and inspired by #3."

"So! I played #3 with the Nords last night at my gig. I played it through my Walter Woods with an AccuGroove 12. I have done this gig with the same setup but with the stock pups twice before which gives me something to compare the Nords to. I was generally disatisfied the whole night with way too much amp tweaking in search for tone. I'm getting such a bland and uninspired tone with the Nords. With the stock pups, the whole band was freaking out at the sound I was getting. It was easy to dial in and I quickly learned how to make the tone present in the room. I never quite settled in with the Nords. The bass sounded horrible wide open so I had to constantly tweak the tone and volume knobs. Chunger installed the best tone knob I've ever had so that was helpful. I'm not on a mission to bash the Nords but I'm just talking from my experience so far. I really wanted to like these pups. Chunger is talking about unwinding the stock pups a little to see if we can solve the clipping problem. I'm all for it!"

And with that feedback, the search for a suitable pickup begins in earnest.

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