The Company Line
A bass from Mike Kinal has been on my review wish list for some time, now. This feeling is compounded every issue when I put together the Luthiers Round Table, as Mike has been one of our “knights” of the Round Table since its inception. For those not in the know, Mike is based in Vancouver, British Columbia and has been building guitars and basses for over four decades. In addition to building instruments, Mike also teaches woodworking and industrial arts at the high school level. This has included teaching kids the art of lutherie.
A Solid Introduction
The model being reviewed here is the solid-body counterpart to Mike’s classic, hollow-body Kinal Kompact. The Kompact is a 30” scale, 20-fret acoustic bass guitar design; a great travel bass. This model was first introduced in 2003, and has developed quite a strong following. The Kompact S takes the basic size and scale, but presents it as a solid-body instrument, complete with active J-bass style electronics. The body shapes are a bit different, too, with the Kompact having more rounded horns, and the Kompact S featuring horns that curve back in, towards the neck, and coming to more of a point (which is very characteristic of Mike’s full-scale solid body designs). As such, the Kompact S seems to reflect styling ques from a number of previous Kinal basses.
I asked Mike about his inspiration behind the original Kompact, and why he decided to introduce a solid-body version. He replies, “I guess my inspiration for designing the first Kompact was simply a small, lightweight bass that guitar players could adapt to easily. The solid-body Kompact was the next step to this line of small short-scale basses that I build.”
Mike and I had been talking about a review bass for a while, and when he told me that he had a bass ready to send in for review, he did not mention what model he would be sending. As the Kompact S had not been officially released yet, I was totally blown away when I opened up the (full-sized) Reunion Blues gig bag and found this beauty inside (the Kompact S model now ships with an appropriately sized gig bag). As part and parcel of this job, I get to play a lot of different basses, with a wide range of scale lengths. Most of my gigging basses are 34” or 35”, but 32” is normally fairly comfortable for me. However, most 30” basses tend to hang on my shoulder in such a way that my right hand position gets outside of my comfort zone. One thing I noticed with the Kompact S is that I immediately felt comfortable with its proportions, both on the knee and on a strap. I’m not quite sure how Mike managed this feat, but it might have something to do with the deep-set neck into the body, with the upper horn meeting the neck at the 15th fret. The top of the horn extends such that the strap button lands at about the 10th fret, and that seems just right, considering the bass’ dimensions. To further increase the chances of finding a comfort spot, the Kompact S has two strap buttons to choose from on the bridge end of the bass.
The review bass features an alder body, with a rich sunburst over a quilted maple top (and matching headstock). The neck is roasted (or torrefied) maple (with graphite rods, for added stiffness), and the back of the headstock is treated to a veneer of burl of some kind. The pau ferro fingerboard is adorned with 21 stainless steel frets, but no dots. The larger side-position dots are highly visible, though. The pickups are Bartolini’s new, b-axis series (which are J-style designs with exposed alnico V poles), paired with a 3-band Bartolini NTMB preamp. The controls are volume (push/pull for active/passive), blend, stacked bass/treble and midrange (push/pull for frequency selection). The bass control offers +/- 15 dB at 30Hz, the treble goes +/- 16dB at 6kHz, and the midrange control can add or subtract 13 dB, at either 250Hz or 800Hz. This preamp can be run at either 9V or 18V, and Mike Kinal has opted for more headroom and two batteries with the 18V configuration. This is a top-notch electronics package, for sure.
Mike Kinal did not scrimp on the hardware, either. The very nice Babicz bridge allows for stringing through the back of the bridge, or through the body, which allows for the use of standard-length strings (very nice). The tuners are Gotoh’s, with amber-colored plastic keys which match the finish on the headstock very nicely. The neck is secured with six bolts, and the control cavity cover is made from a matching piece of alder. Finishing off the backside details, there are dual black plastic pop-up 9V battery compartments, plus the four chrome ferrules for the string-through-the-body option. A recessed-cup input jack resides on the side of the body.
Removing the control cavity cover reveals one of the secrets of the Kinal S. It is not really a solid-body bass, after all. In fact, it is built much like an acoustic instrument, or at minimum, a chambered instrument. This helps to explain the exceptional feel and sustain when played unplugged. Mike discusses this unique construction technique, “I’ve always liked the tone of alder, and by chambering the body, I’ve found the resonate vibration has much more open, singing tone. I’ve done much research and development with my solid-body guitar line in this area of chambering bodies. I’ve been working with roasted maple for about five years, and have found favorable results, as far as stability and even tone throughout the neck fretboard. The Kompact S is comprised of a number of different materials and parts that give this short-scale a unique sound. The body chambering, stainless frets, Babicz bridge, and bone nut all give the acoustic qualities that are enhanced once it’s plugged in. A short-scale bass with some modern day improvements.”
The finish on this bass is really amazing. The body has a nice, medium-thickness gloss finish that feels very protective, without looking or feeling “plasticy.” The neck finish (satin poly) feels just amazing, with a natural, smooth feel. This is seriously one of the best-feeling necks I have played.
The Playing Experience
Bartolini describes the b-axis pickups as having, “huge, punchy tone, precise articulation, rich harmonics and incredible versatility.” I’ll buy that. Predictably, it does have an “active J-bass tone,” with perhaps a bit more richness and life. Playing to the strong acoustic qualities of this instrument, Bartolini further explains that b-axis pickups were designed to, “… provide a highly asymmetric magnetic field in order to preferentially sense string vibrations normal to the string plane. This high asymmetry provides tonal characteristics similar to acoustic instruments, which have a naturally asymmetric response due to the bridge structure and increasing and decreasing biased tension.” Again, as previously noted, the Kompact S has a great unamplified voice, and this does translate very well to its amplified tone.
As I spent some time playing with the various pickup blend options, I noticed that the tone does not thin out as much as I would have expected when soloing the bridge pickup. You get a very usable tone, even without any bass boost. Blending back towards the center detent, this bass did not have a big tone suck-out when both pickups are brought into hum-cancelling mode (which I often do hear on J-basses). Moving on to the soloing the neck pickup, while it did not really cop a P-bass tone (J-basses never really do), it did have this great, more forward, aggressive and woody kind of tone. There are a lot of great variations in tone based upon pickup blend, alone.
Moving on to what the preamp has to offer, the treble boost does not seem to go too far “over-the-top,” with usable tones all the way up to full-on boost. The treble cut works as you would expect. I do prefer a passive tone control for taming the high end, but on such a small bass, I can see where adding yet another knob could be problematic. And again, the active treble cut is serviceable in its own right. The bass boost is a bit more obvious when cranked, but it is still within the range of usability (and many bass boosts are not). The bass cut option goes from subtle to pretty dramatic. Of the two midrange frequency options, I found the “down” setting (800Hz) to be the more nuanced of the two, and in my opinion, the more usable. At this frequency, there are musical options at all points in the travel of boost/cut. At the “up” setting (250Hz), the effect of boost/cut is much more dramatic. There are certainly many useful settings at this frequency, but do twist knobs with care!
The volume knob features a push/pull option to choose between active or passive mode. I found the overall volume to remain very consistent between both active and passive options, which I like. This enhances your ability to switch between two different tones on a gig without having to worry about adjusting your volume, as well. Of course, in passive mode, your only tone controls are volume and blend.
My prior experiences with stainless steel frets left me with mixed feelings, but they really seem to work well on this bass. Mike explains, “I chose different materials that I thought would achieve the sound I was looking for. The stainless frets add an edge to the roasted maple. The Bartolini pickups and electronics give the bass a more open round tone that isn’t choked. The tone is more along the lines of a 34” scale bass – more focused.”
While I don’t really have any bass which directly compares to this short-scale, active J-bass, I did spend some time comparing it to several other modern, active J-bass style basses, albeit of the 34” scale variety. At the end of the day, once I accounted for the various wood combinations and the different brands and ages of the strings on each bass, my primary conclusion was that the Kompact S sounds quite similar to, and can definitely hang with, some of the nicest active J-style basses out there.
The Bottom Line
Mike Kinal is a highly skilled luthier, making some of the best basses on the planet. His prices are a relative bargain, to boot. If you want a top-notch, hand-crafted bass that travels well and fits on a tight stage – or if you just prefer short-scale basses – the Kompact S is an amazing option.