There are countless professional bass players using active and/or passive basses. Therefore, this question doesn’t have a straight correct answer. It is a matter of technical requirement and personal preference. I will share my opinionated answer – so spare me the objections.
|Description||The classic choice||The modern choice|
|Initial sound||Raw, low presence||Clear, high presence|
|Typical pickups||Harmonically rich, tasty||Dry – colored by the preamp|
Doesn’t sound as good in passive
|Compression||No||Yes (by the preamp)|
|Tone shaping||Low (treble cut only)||High (cut / boost many freqs)|
(treble loss on long cables)
|Maintenance||Low||High (batteries, cable)|
As seen above; passive and active basses bring different contributions to the table.
Passive bass is the classic choice. In fact, countless hits from 60’s until today were recorded with passive basses and many professionals use them live as well; so it is by no means the “inferior” choice.
Their initial sound is typically raw with relatively less presence; but that isn’t a bad thing! It is simply a sound choice, and with todays technology, you can shape the initial passive sound easily anyway; with preamps, compressors and whatnot.
Passive basses don’t contain batteries and preamps; therefore, they are low-maintenance instruments, have less components to fail & risk your gig and are eco-friendly.
On the other hand; passive basses have limited on-board tone shaping possibilities. Typically, you can cut the treble and that’s it. If you don’t change your EQ during a gig, this is not a problem; but if you are adventurous and change your tone from song to song, this is a point to consider.
Passive basses also have high-impedance signals. This means; if you run your signal over many pedals or long cables, your tone will be affected and you’ll probably lose your trebles. This issue can be solved with buffer(ed) pedals or active DI boxes though. If you go directly into your amp with a short cable, that’s no issue at all anyway.
Active bass is the relatively modern choice.
They typically have a clear, articulate and present sound; where the treble is especially emphasized. Due to the preamp, the sound would typically be colored and a little compressed though. Some people like that. Some people, such as sound engineers, don’t like that and prefer to have a raw sound so they can EQ & compress using their higher-quality appliances as they see fit.
Active basses let you shape your tone via their on-board preamps. The same can be done with pedals and your amp as well, of course. But it is convenient to have this possibility right under your hand – especially if you change your tone during a gig. Be careful though – you don’t know what the audience is hearing, and you may be ruining their evening. That’s why I don’t touch my EQ during a gig.
Active basses provide a low impedance signal – meaning that your signal can travel longer distances (cables) before starting to lose treble. “Longer” doesn’t mean infinite, though.
Active basses come with a maintenance cost: Batteries. You constantly need to track the life of your batteries, and make sure that they won’t die in the middle of a gig. Leaving your jack on the bass is also not an option because it drains the battery. We all know that batteries aren’t good for the environment either, so they are not eco-friendly.
Because active basses have more components (such as the preamp), they have more parts that can fail and jeopardize the gig. This is not very common, but possible.
Active – Passive Switches
Many people claim that by switching the preamp off, they can use it as a passive bass too. While this is technically correct, this mode usually doesn’t sound as good as a passive bass. Why? Because of the pickup difference!
Pickups of passive basses are designed & wound targeting a passive instrument, so they sound good and rich without a preamp. Pickups of active basses are designed & wound targeting their corresponding active preamp. When you turn the preamp off, the bass will probably sound dry, weak and washy.
Therefore; pick an active bass for its active sound. Its sound without the preamp will probably not satisfy your ears.
The switch is useful as a backup though – if your battery fails in the middle of a gig, you can switch the preamp off, boost your volume to unity gain and finish the set. You will compromise your sound, but better than compromising the gig; eh?
The disadvantages of passive basses, such as tone limitations and impedance, can easily be solved with pedals. However; the disadvantages of active basses, such as battery management and inevitable sound coloration, can’t really be eliminated.
Although I like & want an active bass sound for some musical styles (such as funk), I like & want the pure passive sound for many others (such as jazz, rock, blues, soul).
Therefore; having passive basses and an optional preamp pedal provides the best of both worlds to me. I can enjoy a low-maintenance & low-risk & eco-friendly passive bass, and activate the pedal in case I want the present & clear sound of an active bass.
Further pedals, such as a compressor and buffer, help balancing my sound even more.