Oftentimes we here at Ernie Ball Music Man will get asked: What’s the difference between a passive and an active bass? Why choose one over the other? The instrument isn’t active or passive in and of itself, these terms are referring to the type of electronics that are used to output the sound created by the strings to your signal chain. As with many choices for musicians, it often comes down to personal taste.
Let’s explore the benefits and differences that active and passive electronics provide:
An important thing to know about active electronics is that if the battery loses power, they can just stop working. A passive instrument will not have that issue, since they do not require a power source. In general, passive instruments require less electrical maintenance, since they have fewer electronic parts in total.
Passive basses are considered to have more dynamics than active basses, meaning that your playing can affect how the tone comes through in the bass. Playing gently can lead to a softer tone, playing harder will likewise affect the tone. Active basses tend to have a more compressed signal, which will normalize the output no matter how it is played.
You’ll also notice that, because the passive electronics configuration does not require the additional components or power source that an active configuration does, that back of the instrument’s body will typically be nice and clean.
One of the other factors between passive and active basses is cable length. Passive basses can lose signal strength when connected through longer instrument cables, whereas in active basses the output is buffered, and the output will remain consistent through almost all cable lengths.
Simply put, guitars or basses that have “active” electronics use a power source to power an onboard preamp. This power source is typically a 9-volt battery that is housed within the instrument.
The preamp acts as a buffer, enabling the instrument’s pickups and electronics to deliver their true tonal character to the attached cable and out to the amplifier. Additionally, this power source allows the signal to travel significantly further through extended lengths of cable without experiencing any signal degradation.
In some cases, this preamp also acts as an equalizer (EQ). To understand what the EQ does, consider your car stereo. Most car stereos will have an option to control the level of bass, treble, or mid sound frequencies that are put out of your speakers. Active pickup EQs work in the same way, with knobs assigned to control the level of bass, mids, or treble, depending on the type of EQ your instrument will have. Since the signal on active pickups is boosted, all those frequencies can either be cut or boosted, allowing you to mix in more bass, mids, or treble to your tone. Typically the types of EQ are 2-band (bass and treble), 3-band (bass, mids, treble), or 4-band (bass, low mid, high mid and treble).
Because the active electronics configuration requires more parts, as well as a source of power, the back of the instrument’s body will typically include a control plate for easy access to the components as well as a slot for one or more 9V batteries.
It’s important to note that, although an instrument may be equipped with active electronics, this does not mean the instrument cannot achieve passive-style tones. When rolling off volume and tone from a passive configuration in the “dimed” position (all controls set to 10), the sound almost immediately loses much of its frequency range. By starting with the controls of an active configuration already rolled off to some degree, the instrument has a far greater tonal spectrum in which to operate.
As you can see, passive and active electronics both have aspects that will appeal to different types of musicians; its up to the player to decide what they prefer, and which instrument best suits their needs. Ernie Ball Music Man makes a wide variety of both passive and active basses, which you can learn more about at music-man.com.
You’ve read the breakdown and seen the photos, now hear for yourself what these two electronics configurations sound like by watching videos featuring both an active (Bongo) and a passive (Caprice) bass below, featuring bassist Joe Dart of Vulfpeck: