Polishing a Turd…Getting The Job Done With Cheap Gear

Posted on November 2, 2010


I could bore or depress with stats on unemployment, but I won’t.  Musicians just don’t have as much cash to splurge on cool gear.  As a bass player, I can hear the difference between a $300 Squier and a $3,000 Sadowsky, but it’s much easier for me to drop $300 and live with the differences.  Would I let a friend jam on my Squier?  Sure.  Would I let the same friend jam on my $3,000 bass?  Sure, if he gave me 2 forms of ID and a major credit card!

Below are 2 examples of how I greatly improved the tone of a piece of gear for under $5.  I’m going to show you how I made a $140 Acoustic bass combo go from a boomy, muddy mess to a more defined bass sound and how $1.50 can take a Boss SD-1 from a one trick pony, to a usable overdrive pedal.

LISTEN! The first step is to really, really listen to a piece of gear and decide what you like and what you don’t.  Use all the amps, pedals, instruments and cables you have to really learn your gear.  Don’t just mod to mod.  You’ll just end up chasing your tail and not enjoy any improvements that you’ve made.

Boss SD-1
An overdrive pedal is great to have.  You can dirty up a clean signal or boost your signal for a solo.  You could get a $20 pedal made of plastic or drop more than the Kelley Blue Book value of your car on a pedal.  Personally I like the Ibanez Tubescreamer, but it never sounded right for bass.  I did my homework and found out the Boss SD-1 pedal has a similar circuit and is very user-friendly to a new pedal modder like myself.

Boss builds tough pedals.  (This is coming from a guy who towed his car with a guitar cable) I took the bait and for $40/shipped I scored a brand new Boss SD-1.  Out of the box I wasn’t in love, its only use to my ears would be to boost a guitar for a Slash-style guitar solo.  I was hoping it’d be more bass-friendly, but it sucked out all the lows.  The tone knob was pretty much useless stock.  After and hour or so of reading some very opinionated mods for this pedal, I realized most people agreed on these mods to boost the bass.

Before I go any further, I’ll warn you, opening up your pedal will void your warranty.  So if you screw something up, you’re out $40, but it was a risk I was willing to take.

First I removed the capacitor in the C6 position.  I did not jump it, nor did I replace it, I just took the capacitor out.  This unlocks the Tone knob and allows a greater sweep of high and low frequencies.  Next, I removed the resistor in the R10 slot.  I needed to jump it, which means placing a bare wire to connect the circuit.  That gave the pedal a little more bass.  So far, I’ve taken out 2 parts and inserted 1 strip of bare wire.  I have no money invested in upgrading the pedal and it sounds much better.

I decided to break the bank and upgrade the C3 spot to a .01uf metal film capacitor which set me back a cool $1.50 at Radio Shack.  This was the biggest aid in retrieving lost bass back into the signal.

20 minutes of work and $41.50 resulted in a sweet bass overdrive pedal.  A silent victory since the bass overdrive pedal world is slim pickings compared to the guitar world.

Acoustic B20
Originally I bought this amp as a bedroom practice amp.  It sounded great at low volumes.  I attribute its bigger sound to the 12″ speaker it has, when most bass combos in its price range boast a wussy 8″ or 10″ driver.  I really enjoyed its portability (OK I’m lazy) and I brought it out to a gig.  Once I got the amp past 5 the sound dramatically thinned out, losing lows the box just kind of buzzed.

Later I took a long look at the amp, the modder in me really wanted to drop twice the price of the amp on a new speaker, but when I opened it up to look at the speaker, I noticed the box was empty and had nothing to acoustically treat it.

Don’t think I’m about to get all scientific, because I’m not.  Let’s look at a drum set, ever notice how some drummers throw a pillow in their kick?  It’s a quick and easy fix to dampen unwanted frequencies resulting in a deeper sounding kick.

I didn’t want a pillow rolling around in my amp, it runs a slim potential to damage the speaker as well as I wouldn’t have a consistent sound if the pillow moved during transport.  I looked around and remembered I had a few 2″ thick egg crate pattern mattress pads.  I cut squares of that and glued them all along the back, top, bottom and side walls of the interior of my amp.  I used Titebond Wood Glue, spread it on the back of the mattress pad, laid it on the inside of the amp and set a stack of magazines and a 25lb. dumbell on top to let it hold for 30 minutes a side.

I can get the same tone I enjoyed on a low volume at a louder volume.  No new speaker, no selling plasma to buy a new bass rig, just an afternoon, some foam, scissors and wood glue.  Sure I couldn’t go play a stadium with this combo, but I can now jam with a controlled drummer and load in and out in one trip.

End Credits.
I didn’t invent any of these things, I just wanted to share how I got the best bang for my buck on some cheap gear.  I’m not insulting bigger and better gear out of the box, nor am I picking on Acoustic and Boss for cutting corners.  I’ll buy cheap gear all day long and put the time in.  They have budgets to meet and need to make one product appeal to a broad market.

No great skills were used for what I did.  Just a few notes:

Pedal Modding
-Take out the 9 volt battery
-Have basic soldering skills
-Be sure your replacement parts will work

Speaker Cab
-Speaker Cones are made of paper and are VERY fragile.
-Carefully remove the speaker and set it away from your immediate work station.
-Mark your negative and positive with masking tape.
-I used 2″ thick mattress pad foam because I had it laying around.  There is such thing as too much padding.  The back of the cab is most important.  This is more for bass or PA cabs.  Guitar cabs are specifically voiced for some of the unwanted overtones to ring out, but give it a shot, you can always rip it out.

That’s my patented screwdriver grip.  A loose hold with your non-dominant hand around the tip of the screwdriver will prevent slippage.

Good Luck and Happy Modding, let me know if you come across anything cool or what you want to see me ruin before you give it a shot!

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