Line 6, a pioneer in digital modeling, has followed up its Variax guitars with a 4-string instrument that promises 24 classic and modern bass sounds at the turn of a dial. The Variax Bass 700 ($1,679.99) is more than a fine bass guitar — it's a digital processor with strings. Housed in the body of the instrument, the digital-modeling electronics are powered by either six AA batteries or the included XPS-DI, a combination power supply and DI box that carries power to the Variax and the signal from it by means of an included TRS cable.
Noticeably absent from the bass's body is any visible pickup; piezo pickups are located in the bridge saddles. The five knobs — one each for Volume, Model Select, Blend, Treble, and Bass (the last two being concentric) — each have a classic chrome look. The Blend knob performs one of two related functions: for modeled basses with two virtual pickups, it sweeps variably between them, and for modeled basses with one virtual pickup, it moves the pickup continuously from the bridge position to the neck position, drastically changing the tone of the given setting. The tone knobs apply active boosts and cuts, regardless of which model is selected. Another slick feature is that if you depress the Model Select knob for a moment, the bass will memorize your Blend and Tone settings for the next time you select that model.
The Model Select rotary switch lets you choose from 12 models, and an adjacent LED illuminates the selected setting. Each model has two versions; depressing the Volume knob toggles between them, changing the LED from green to red. In addition to the electric and acoustic basses you would expect to hear, the Variax's synth-bass sounds are really cool. Although the tracking of the notes was somewhat imprecise at faster speeds, the synth-bass models sound great at slow tempos.
How accurate is the modeling? To find out, I did some A/B comparisons of my '69 Fender Precision versus the Variax's '63 Prebass setting, my '72 Rickenbacker 4001 versus the '71 4001 Clang setting, and a '60s Kay versus the Variax's upright model. Did the originals sound like the models? Well, not really. But keep in mind that even two basses of the same brand from the same year can sound different. I definitely heard characteristics of the originals that held true in the models, such as a chunky, Fenderlike low end on the Prebass model and a crisp high end on the Rick model that sounded as though it could be from a Rick. The upright, well, let's just say that perhaps your ears might fool you into thinking you were hearing an upright if you were playing very simple lines that were buried in a mix.
Because modeled instruments seldom sound exactly like the real thing, an emulation should be judged on whether it sounds good, rather than on how accurately it mimics the original. Most of the Variax's sounds are highly usable and at least resemble the targeted basses.
Its most significant problem is that sometimes, usually in a note's decay and especially on the 8- and 12-string models, you can hear the algorithm fritzing out a little, as if it's confused about which pitch it's playing. And in some models, most notably the upright and flatwound settings, I heard an unnatural woofy sound that I suspect is a product of the processor trying to emulate the physics of a flatwound string. To my ears, several of the sounds had slight digital artifacts, albeit barely noticeable when the bass sits in a mix.
The benefits of the Variax Bass 700 are undeniable. If you're a studio musician, you have a diverse tonal toolbox at your fingertips, allowing you to quickly find just the right tone to match a song. If you're a live performer, you can quickly change sounds for each song without lugging around a carload of instruments. The bass feels good, plays well, and has plenty of sustain. It feels like a Fender Jazz, but with the weight of a Precision. If you want a lot of variety, then by all means test-drive the Variax. Analog purists might laugh at you, but that's a small price to pay for having the right sound at the right time.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 3.5