The Centreville, Virginia trio that goes by the name Iris Divine sure produces one rich and thick progressive hard rock/metal sound for a three-piece band. With their new 8-song affair, Karma Sown, set for worldwide release on March 31st, we wanted to learn more about the guys' sound. We chatted with bassist Brian Dobbs about his 2002 4-string Music Man StingRay bass guitar.
What one piece of gear do you use to obtain your signature sound? Dobbs: Well, I'll start off by admitting that I'm not much of a gear head, but I've found a sound that I think works for me and Iris Divine. That one piece of gear would have to be my 2002 4-string Music Man StingRay bass. I blame being a Flea fanatic on my absolute love of the tone of the StingRay. Endlessly listening to RHCP stuff during my formative years really ingrained in me that that is what a bass player who doesn't want to get lost in the mix should sound like. I've played on instruments which had a better feel, and some that maybe are more forgiving, but nothing beats the sound of a StingRay.
I play through an old Ampeg SVT III, which has a tube pre-amp which really kicks the power up a notch. That combination gives the mix of punch and growl that only the StingRay can deliver. I've actually gotten more compliments on my tone than my playing! But that played through an Ampeg BXT 4x10 lets me cut through and be heard in most venues. I take a strategic approach to my live sound. Maybe it's just my ears, but I'm in the audience and the low end of the bass is up too much, everything turns into a muddled mess and I just can't make out any notes. I hate it when the bass is there just to be "felt" and not heard. I want to hear what the guy is playing! So I actually turn my low end down, and boost my low-mids. I find that lets me sit in the pocket, higher than the kick drum but lower than the guitar, and my sound really cuts through. Being a 3-piece, I like to think that my musical voice needs to be heard to fill out the sound.
How was this gear used during the recording of your latest album? Dobbs: I've always found that the StingRay comes out really well on recordings with just a plain tone. Every recording I've done with it, we've only ever used a simple pre-amp (Don't ask me which ones!) With modern mixing and mastering techniques, it seems that so much is done in post that what you give your final stamp of approval on after a recording session can sound entirely different after the black magic of sound engineering has done its thing. For Karma Sown, as well as the demos before that, my tone coming out of the studio was definitely not to my liking, but it was re-amped and mixed so that the final results were great.
How do you recreate your album (guitar/vocal/bass) tones in your live set? Dobbs: It's always hard to know exactly what you sound like live as compared to an album, but with recording, I'm generally re-amped through Ampeg stuff, so I think it comes out sounding roughly the same. I have been looking into what could make my live tone clearer.
What are the major pros and cons? Dobbs: Pros: The tone coming out the bass is pretty consistent. That is crucial in keeping up the confidence needed to put on a good show. Knowing that you will sound good, and that you will be heard is a must. Cons: The fact it's a 4-string, and that we use a drop-D tuning (well, really drop-C, so that its C-G-C-F) makes improvising difficult for me sometimes. There's only the upper 3 strings that are tuned in 4ths. I'd switch to a 5 or 6 string but going A-C-G-C-F-B makes my head hurt. However, at the very beginning of the band, I chose to match the guitar's lower 4 strings in tuning so there is a more consistent phrasing and feel for the unison riffing, which is far more important. Besides, because we tune down so much, my lowest not is only 1 step higher than a standard-tuned 5 strings!
Do you have a backup for this gear, if so, what? Dobbs: Yes, I have nearly the exact same bass, but a fretless version. I'm not nearly disciplined enough to play a fretless, but have it in case there is a critical malfunction on my main instrument. I can limp along on that until I get the main one restrung.
How long have you had it, how do you use it, would you ever change it? Dobbs: I've had this particular bass since 2002, when I got it as a replacement for a 1999 model that was stolen. I tend to have lots of inertia when it comes to gear so I'm not looking to replace it, but some days I get the urge to pick up an American Fender Jazz bass, which can sound incredible. To be honest, there are probably tons of instruments out there that would work, I just haven't spent enough time in music stores. However, I hesitate to change anything because I think I've hit on a really good tone.
Give us your best "gear goes wrong" story. Dobbs: OK, we had the chance to open for Fate's Warning to a nearly packed house. I had recently changed string types to DDTs, which are designed for drop-down tuning, (and I really like). I got a fresh set for the show, but tried the medium gage, instead of my normal heavy gauge. For some background, my instrument rarely goes more than ¼ tone out of tune at even the worst conditions. After the normal breaking in period for these strings, onstage they started dropping about 1 ½ tones PER SONG. Of course it was that night that the stage monitors were abysmal, and I couldn't hear myself at all. I played almost the entire set horribly out of tune struggling to tune up between songs. Probably the worst I've ever played.