By Lonnie NaVeau
This Article Was Originally Published On: February 3, 2015 #Issue 15.
Michael Tobias has been in the business of crafting some of the highest quality guitars and basses for the music industry for almost four decades, and his work is highly respected by the all of the professional musicians using his products – and also by a host of part-time gigging musicians. Staring his career in Washington, D.C. in the early ’70s doing repairs, it wasn’t long before he was building his own instruments. In 1978, he started Tobias Guitars in Orlando, Florida, and just a couple of years later, he moved from Florida to California. After setting up shop in a couple of different locations, he finally landed in Hollywood in 1981, where his guitars – and eventually basses – would grow to be very popular. With several failed attempts to expand to a larger facility, Michael eventually sold the company to Gibson in 1990, and in 1992, Gibson moved the Tobias operations to Nashville. Michael stayed on for a time with Gibson as a consultant at the Nashville facility. When his no-compete clause time period ended in 1993, he moved into a small shop in New York to begin working on new designs and a new company, Michael Tobias Design (MTD).
Michael has also worked doing research and development for other companies (such as Lakland and Modulus), and has continued to find a way to offer more affordable MTD-brand models, while still using many of the design elements of the custom American-made series. These efforts have led to the MTD Kingston series of basses, which includes the Saratoga 5-string reviewed herein, along with a whole range of affordable basses, including the CRB, the Artist, the Heir, the Z, the ZX and the AG, all in 4, 5 and 6-string configurations. While the custom American models are all hand made by just a select few people, including Michael’s son Daniel, the Kingston models are manufactured in China to Michael’s specifications and distributed by Dana B. Goods.
From top to Bottom
The Saratoga is reminiscent of a Jazz-style bass, and comes in trans black and a tobacco sunburst, as we have here. Just looking at this bass closely leads you to believe it is would sell for much more than it actually does. With a suggested list price of $735.00, you can find this model for sale at a street price of $599.00, which is hard to believe considering the quality of this instrument. There is nothing on this bass that feels or looks cheap. The quality of the Saratoga definitely compares to any of the other overseas-made, name brand basses priced at $1,000.00 or more. Not sure how they pulled this one off. The 34” scale feels just right. Being built in China might scare some people off, but it shouldn’t.
The headstock has a nice contour with the MTD logo sitting right on top, but the first thing I noticed was the use of the zero fret and the “shelf nut,” as used with the Buzz Feiten tuning system – a feature that is usually only seen on much more expensive basses. No nut to file down to try to get that perfect action we all look for. I tried to bend the strings hard enough to throw the strings out of tune, but not a chance; the Saratoga is easy to tune and stays in tune. We are seeing more of the zero fret being used in some of today’s boutique basses.
Heading down the one-piece maple bolt-on neck, I notice a clean and smooth-looking rosewood fingerboard. The lack of dots or markers gives it a more professional, clean look, as well, but as I run my hand down the neck, I also notice the sharp edges of the jumbo frets. Actually, the thin neck and fingerboard has a great feel. It’s very playable and fast, but I wouldn’t go ripping up and down the neck without polishing those fret ends a bit (it looks to me like the fingerboard may have shrunk a bit since the frets were installed). At 19mm, the string spacing is not very tight, but it doesn’t feel like you’re reaching around the fingerboard as much with the thin profile neck. This profile makes the neck easier to play, but still has a very solid feel to it. I found the neck adjustment to be a little cumbersome, by having to remove a plate at the neck joint to get to the truss rod adjustment, but the plate does look nice and it gives the body a clean look.
The body is modeled after a Jazz Bass, but has a slightly more modern look and feel to it, with the help of the contouring that makes it feel just right. Also, the use of basswood helps keep the weight down, yet it is perfectly balanced on your lap or over your shoulder. The company estimates the weight for the 5-string at about 10 lbs, but the bass we have for this review weighs in at a back-happy 8.2 lbs. Wow, very impressive! It may be light on weight, but not on sound and sustain
The two high output J-style pick-ups sound great, with plenty midrange punch to cut through. Each pick up has its own volume pot (500k, audio taper), with one tone pot (500k, linear taper) for both. I found the sound to be much larger than expected from an entirely passive setup (I typically play basses with active pre-amps). Soloing the neck pickup yields a sound reminiscent of a P-style pickup, and had just the right amount of punchy mid tone to give that single-coil aggressiveness. I seemed to favor the bridge pickup, as it has all bite you expect from the placement close to the bridge, but still had the warmth and low end to cut through and sound BIG. But I did find that I had to boost the lows on the amps I was using. Since each pickup has its own volume, just about any sound desired can be dialed in by mixing between the two of them. While playing with different sounds, I found that full volume on the neck pickup, combined with approximately half volume on the bridge pickup, gave me a full bottom end with enough mids; the bridge pickup gave just right amount of bite for my fingers. I have to admit, for passive pickups, I am impressed. Big sound!
On The Gig
At the gig, I was pleasantly surprised how well the bass delivered. The gig is a high-powered show covering a variety of music, which can be demanding while changing tones and sounds to match the music. In all honesty, I did have to add some lows and mids on my amp to compensate for the lack of beef that comes with the passive electronics, but then again, I am accustomed to an active pre-amp that gives me tonal control on the bass. With all of the control on the amp, I was able to get the Saratoga sounding big and ballsy. Whether I was digging in with my fingers or slapping and popping, it delivered a quality sound with great tone.
The Total Package
Born in New York, and raised in China, I think these basses are going to live a long prosperous life. At a very affordable price, you just can’t go wrong with the Saratoga. It has a very pro look, sounds great and offers everything you expect from a high quality bass to deliver. It’s apparent that the research and development has paid off for Michael Tobias with regard to this import line. It’s a great design and the manufacturing quality is well beyond what you would expect. Do yourself a favor and check out the full line of Kingston models.
|Ease of Use:||4|
In-hand Score 3.85average
Today’s bass players demand a big tone that cuts through and at an entry level price you get that tone with the MTD Kingston Saratoga.