There was a time when the preamp was simply considered part of the amplifier head and little more, but that time ended with the expansion of electronic hardware for the studio—not to mention a little thing called 'funk' in the 1970s. When this genre exploded in popularity, it brought the idea of an external bass preamp to the forefront for high-gain sounds that have been making an impact ever since. In today's music scene, bass preamps are used for a wide variety of musical styles. Whether they're connected in-line with an amplifier for a stacked effect or used with a mixer in the studio where power amps and speakers aren't needed, preamps are great pieces of equipment to have.
The smallest and simplest bass preamps you'll find are the onboard models. These compact devices are made to fit comfortably inside the control cavity of your electric bass, giving the signal a boost of amplification and tone before it even leaves the instrument. With one of these little preamps installed, you can get the cutting tone of active pickups without having to give up your favorite passives. Turn on the onboard preamp when you want the added power, or bypass it to maintain the vintage passive sound.
Bass preamps also come in pedal form, giving you yet another layer of control as the signal travels from your bass toward the final amp. With a preamp pedal, you gain the benefit of foot control, allowing you to change up your sound onstage with a simple stomp.
Many of the bass preamp options give a nod to the studio recording artist. These include the tube amp emulator from Tech 21, which makes it possible to get the rich warmth of tubes even in a studio setting without a traditional amp. There are also a slew of preamp modules and master modules by Markbass to connect the guitar directly to your mixer without losing the benefits of a preamp.
Whether you're playing on stage or in the studio, there are definite perks to incorporating a bass preamp into your setup. Not only can it help you boost the power and character of your tone, it can also provide the advantages of a preamp in situations where the other components of a traditional amp stack don't quite fit.