(Dave Molter | Posted 2010-07-14)
For more than 40 years, Bassist Francis Rocco Prestia and drummer Dave Garibaldi have formed the supertight rhythm section of California-based funk machine Tower of Power. And while Motown bass legend James Jamerson may be better known to the general public, there’s not a bass player older than 30 who doesn’t owe a debt of gratitude to Prestia for virtually inventing the bass genre of “finger style funk.” Rocco’s burp gun-like precision turns his bass into another percussion instrument, and it demands an amplifier that can deliver punch and plenty of low end yet which can still cut through the mix in a loud, 10-piece, horn-driven band like TOP. In the new Staccato ‘51 from TC Electronic, Prestia has such an amplifier.
Known for using the old Ampeg “flip-top” B15 bass amp at the beginning of his career, Prestia over the years turned to larger amps as stage volume went up, but he, Garibaldi and other TOP members felt that the elusive “something” was missing from his newer amplifiers. That something was tightness, warmth and the smooth, almost imperceptible tube distortion that the low-powered B15 achieved easily when pushed — but that modern hi-fi bass amps sometimes fail to deliver. In 2009, TC Electronic approached Prestia with a gutsy idea: take one of our new RH450 bass heads, play gigs with it, then tell us what you’d like to change to make it “your sound.” Prestia did just that, and after hundreds of gigs and multiple meetings with TC Electronics techs, the RH450 was tweaked, repackaged and renamed, emerging early in 2010 as the Staccato ’51 — Staccato for Prestia’s playing style, ’51 for the year of his birth.
Over two weeks in July 2010, I was able to test the Staccato ’51 and one of its companion RS210 cabinets (46 pounds) both in the studio and in a live setting with a moderately loud seven-piece rock band and with a variety of basses, from a Hofner Icon and an OLP StingRay copy to Lakland 55-94 a Dingwall Combustion fivers and an Epiphone Zenith chambered-body acoustic-electric. For comparison purposes, I ran the unit side-by-side with a Genz-Benz Shuttle 6.0 powering two 112 cabinets, my main gigging rig for the last two years. The verdict in a nutshell: the Staccato ’51 can proudly join the ranks of small, high-powered bass amps now flooding the market, and the changes made in response to Prestia’s input give the unit a funky voice all its own —let’s call it “Rocco in a Box.”
At first glance, the Staccato ’51 (8.8 pounds; 450 watts into 4 ohms) looks very much like its brother RH450, except that the Staccato case is red instead of black. The front panels of the amps are identical, with a single ¼” input jack that automatically detects if the bass plugged into it is active or passive and adjusts its level accordingly. A single Gain knob is followed by Bass, Lo Mid, Hi Mid and Treble, with TubeTone (overdrive) and Master volume knobs completing the lineup. A ¼” headphone out jack on the far right of the front panel disconnects any speaker connected to the head for silent practice. (TC electronic supplies a stereo Y cord to feed signals from an mp3 player, iPod or other audio source to stereo RCA inputs on the back of the Staccato.) Above the knobs is a display for the built-in electronic tuner, three Preset pushbuttons that allow the user to store favorite settings (which makes using more than one bass on a gig a snap), a Shift pushbutton (for changing EQ and Tube Tone parameters) and a Mute button for silent tuning onstage or cutting signal when switching basses. Control positions are displayed by sets of red LEDS ringing each knob — except for the Master volume, which gave me my lone head-scratching moment when testing the amp. If all other settings are displayed with LEDs, why not have them on the Master as well? As things stand, the Master is ringed with standard white, unnumbered dots, although a white line on the Master knob makes it easy to see what your setting is.
An optional footswitch allows the user to access Presets and the Mute function and also acts as a remote Tuner display – a handy feature for tuning silently on a darkened stage when switching basses or between songs. Speaking of tuning, the built-in electronic tuner is easy to use, with bright red LEDS literally pointing the way to accurate tuning, even on a darkened stage. A circle indicates “in tune,” while arrows point right or left for sharp or flat, respectively. In tuning mode, the LED ring around the gain control shows you how far out of tune you are: when only the 12 o’clock LED is illuminated, you’re in tune. The tuner can be touchy, but I found that dialing back the bass on my instruments stabilized the response. One note: although the tuner is supposed to be set at A=440 from the factory, the tuner in my test unit right out of the box was about ½ step sharp. Resetting to A=440 is accomplished by holding in the Mute button while powering up the amp.
Rear panel features
The Staccato rear panel houses all the standard features bassists have come to expect in a touring-level amplifier.
* The supplied three-prong power cord plugs into a receptacle that automatically adjusts to any mains voltage between 90 and 240 volts.
* A single speaker jack accepts either a Speakon or ¼” cable. The Staccato ’51 can power any three TC Electronic cabinets, which at this writing include the RS112, RS210, RS212 and RS410, each of which carries a tweeter with level control, and which have to be daisy-chained given the single connector on the amp. The RS110 and RS112 cabinets can be stacked vertically to bring speakers closer to the ear onstage. (Editor’s note: Prestia uses a single RS410 stacked atop two RS212s placed horizontally, giving him plenty of bottom while raising the 10’s closer to ear level for stage monitoring.)
* Remote Out accepts the optional RC4 footswitch mentioned above.
* Digital Out allows the Staccato ’51 to be connected directly to any digital audio device, meaning users can record the amp’s output directly to ProTools or any DAW. The Pre/Post switch near the rear-panel XLR DI jack determines if you will send pre- or post-EQ sound the recorder.
* Aux in/Rehearse accepts the stereo Y cord RCA jacks to allow you to connect an outboard music player for practice. (Editor’s note: These jacks work only when headphones are plugged in to the front panel; they cannot be used to play signal through the speakers if, for instance, you’d like to play with a drum machine or prerecorded tracks onstage.)
*Insert Preamp I/O functions as a regular serial effects loop (providing Tone, SpectraComp and TubeTone settings) or can be used to chain two Staccato ’51s together for added power.
* Line Driver Out uses an XLR connector to send a balanced output to the PA or recording console — choice of Pre/Post settings is handled by a toggle switch. The Mute function cuts signal to the DI as well as to the speakers.
Rocco in Box
By allowing Prestia to tinker with the successful RH450 amplifier, TC Electronic took a bold step that speaks to the company’s commitment to make products designed with working musicians in mind. Prestia worked with TC engineers to change EQ points as well as to add just the right mix of SpectraComp compression for tightness and TubeTone overdrive for growl. Simply put, the Staccato ’51 delivers the Prestia funk tone when all tone controls are set flat (with only the 12 o’clock LED illuminated) and with TubeTone dialed all the way counterclockwise. In Shift mode, the Gain control allows you to set the level of compression, which is then monitored by the dual-purpose LED ring around the knob. Unlike most bass compressors, which typically act on the level of the loudest string and can produce a squashed sound, TC Electronic’s SpectraComp works as a multiband compressor, applying compression equally to all strings. It’s transparent, balanced, effective compression – I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of “squash” SpectraComp applies.
I first used the Staccato ’51 with my Dingwall Combustion, a very modern-sounding bass strung with stainless rounds and pickups capable of producing extreme highs and lows. Using Prestia’s built-in amp settings and running the Dingwall flat with both pickups wide open, I was surprised to hear the TOP sound coming out of the RS210 cabinet: tight, punchy mids and rumbling yet clear lows, but just enough high end to add definition without sizzle or clank. In fact, the Dingwall sounded very much like Prestia’s custom four-string Conklin bass. However, the Staccato still delivered the goods with the vaunted Dingwall 37” scale B string. Engaging the shift control, I tinkered with the Staccato’s Lo Mid and Hi Mid center points, found something I liked, then boosted Hi Mids by about 6dB and Lo Mids, Bass and Treble by about 2db each. These changes produced the standard Combustion sound I’d heard coming previously from my Genz-Benz Shuttle 6.0, which I run primarily flat with almost all my basses. (See sidebar for the changes TC Electronic made to EQ centerpoints based on Prestia’s preferences.)
I next rolled out my USA-made Lakland 55-94 fiver, strung with two-year-old TI Jazz Flats. Reverting to the “Rocco in a Box” settings, I plugged in and immediately found that I had to reduce the gain control to accommodate the 55-94’s higher output. Once that was done however, the wonderful, slightly thudding sound of Motown came from the Staccato ‘51. Although I don’t claim to be able to replicate Prestia’s amazing muting technique, I was able to make the Staccato live up to its name with little effort. Overall sound was more punchy, with a deeper, chest-crushing low end kick and tight high end. It was then that I realized that the Staccato more than held its own with my Shuttle, which has 150 more watts and drives two 12” speakers in separate cabinets. In fact, the overall gain settings for the Staccato were lower than those I usually use on the Shuttle. I also plugged in my Hofner Icon, strung with Labella flats, and an OLP Tony Levin Signature StingRay 5. With only minimal tweaking of EQ centerpoints, I was able to find usable sounds for both basses within a matter of minutes. At one point, I even used the TubeTone to dial up a very “Mean Mister Mustard” fuzz bass tone for the Hofner. With the OLP (strung with Ernie Ball Nickel Wounds) and using a tad more SpectraComp, I was able to come very close to Tony Levin’s signature, heavily compressed bass tone. Best of all, I was able to save these tones for instant recall by pushing and holding a Preset button.
In the studio
I also used the Staccato ’51 to record three tunes using Cubase in a small studio. We first ran using a split signal — straight to the board and with a microphone on the RS210 cab (which uses custom Eminence speakers with dual-concentric placement of the HF driver inside the top woofer). Again, the stock “Rocco” EQ produced a very warm, old-school Motown sound with no tweaking of settings. After the engineer said he was getting too much bottom from the cab, we switched to running straight to the board from the Staccato’s XLR DI jack and eliminating the direct split from my bass. Voila! Virtually perfect sound. The only drastic changes to EQ I had to make were when I used my Epiphone Zenith chambered-body acoustic/electric, which has an extremely wide range, from almost upright-like bass to sizzling treble. But, by using the Staccato’s Shift control, we were able to find a good mix within five minutes.
The bottom line
Difference in EQ between RH450 and Staccato ’51
|Lo Mid 400Hz
|Hi Mid 800Hz
|Bass 125 Hz
|Lo Mid 224
|Hi Mid 630
After using Genz-Benz amplifiers exclusively for the past 10 years, I approached the Staccato ’51 with a “Show Me “ attitude. And the Staccato called my bluff. In fact, having begun playing bass many years ago with a 50-watt Bassman head and a 212 cabinet, when the Staccato first spoke I felt like I was again hearing the voice of an old friend. Although not as powerful as the Genz-Benz Shuttle 6.0 I normally run (450 watts vs. 600 watts into 4 ohms) and although running two 10” speakers rather than two 12’s, the Staccato put out equal sound pressure levels with a Gain setting slightly lower than and a Master setting equal to the Shuttle’s. The Staccato delivered in a rather loud band setting (three guitars, keys and acoustic drums, plus bass, with PA support) in a vaulted-ceiling room inhabited by around 400 people. And, although the Shuttle has more headroom, I never felt I was pushing the Staccato.
The Staccato ’51 may not sound as hi-fi as many of today’s modern, lightweight bass amps (Genz-Benz, Markbass, Gallien Krueger) when set up right out of the box, but that’s not what Rocco Prestia intended when he helped to revamp EQ points, add compression and dial in a little tube growl. This amplifier has a distinctive voice, one that hearkens back to the glory days when the Ampeg B15 “flip-top” was the amp of choice for discerning bassists both onstage and in the studio. Yet, with just a little tweaking, even non-geeks can find a hi-fi sound easily and – what’s even better — they can store that sound with the push of a button. The Staccato ’51 is not your father’s bass amp —it just sounds like it is.
MSRP $1,559 USD; Street, $1,199
MSRP $696 USD; Street, $499
MSRP $195 USD Street, $149
For more information on the Staccato ’51, cabinets and other TC Electronic products, visit www.tcelectronic.com.
Dave Molter is managing editor and Bass Guitars Editor of MusicGearReview. He has played bass professionally for 45 years. His primary bass is a Lakland 55-94. His bass influences include Paul McCartney, James Jamerson and Tony Levin. Send questions or comments to dave@MusicGearReview.com.