Ernie Ball Music Man DarkRay 5: What is it?
There needs to be more of this kind of thing in the gear industry, where market-leading brands in complementary fields of expertise put their heads together to come up with something new, something bold, something to upset the established order. Ernie Ball Music Man and Darkglass Electronics’ DarkRay bass guitars are the example to follow.
Here you have one classic design, the StingRay, specifically a modified StingRay Special, and one of the low-end devotees’ most favoured brands, Darkglass, providing the onboard grit and fuzz via a custom-designed active preamp that can be accessed via the bass’s control setup, doing away for the need for a pedalboard, and maybe just presenting players who had not really committed one way or another to having dirt in their tone to give it a try. Why not, right? It’s just sitting there.
The four-string DarkRay impressed us, as in, it blew our minds a little, offering that renowned StingRay playability and feel – not to mention the core tones, deep and powerful – but this time with a real sting in the tail.
The onboard electronics are the newsworthy bit here and justify the moody, noir finish we have for this collaboration, so let’s get them out of the way. You have the dirt on the preamp pot circled by an LED that illuminates blue when the distortion circuit is active, red when the Omega fuzz is in play, with a three-way blade selector to select between Alpha, Omega or neither.
Darkglass fans will recognise the terminology – and some of the sounds that are in store – with the Alpha Omega one of the most awesome dual-distortion units on the market.
Featuring a solid select hardwood body, a roasted maple neck that joins the body with a five-bolt joint, topped with an 11” radius ebony fingerboard, and its 34” scale, the DarkRay 5 feels instantly familiar.
Okay, outside of the one per cent, this is no one’s idea of a cheap bass, but it soon shows you what you hard-earned is paying for; the build is immaculate, the finish tip-top, the neck treatment of gunstock oil and hand-rubbed in the secret wax serum is just so tactile.
Some of the EBMM attention to detail is harder to spot, such as the electronic shielding in the wiring cavities and aluminium lining under the pickguard to keep the performance low-noise. Like its four-string counterpart, the DarkRay 5 is equipped with a single Neodymium humbucker, positioned near the bridge. Custom Music Man tuners are arranged on the headstock in a 4+1 configuration, while the bridge is a top-loading unit with steel saddles.
Finish options comprise White Sparkle and Starry Night, two colours that go nicely with matte black hardware and pickguard.
Ernie Ball Music Man DarkRay 5: Performance and verdict
First impressions of the DarkRay 5 are dominated by how well put together it is, and how everything – from the tuners to the control knobs – feels designed and engineered to a tee. That extends to the setup, to its complement of well-polished and perfectly fitted high-profile/wide stainless steel frets. And thus it comes as little surprise that the low B string is totally seaworthy, offering bold and authoritative clean tones.
It is a naturally warm instrument. There’s a generous width to its voice. The aforementioned shielding is a leitmotif of EBMM’s high-end builds but it is particularly necessary – not to mention effective – where, when we have dual gain circuits to play with. We were blown away by the sounds on the four-string model, and similarly, transposed down to that fifth string there is some real thunder to be found.
• Ernie Ball Music Man DarkRay
The original four-string version was proof of concept, that you could indeed take one of the bass world’s most supremely playable instruments and turn it into a bona fide face-melter and bringer of low-end thunder. Just add Darkglass...
• Sterling By Music Man StingRay 34HH and 34PB
You needn't break the bank for a StingRay action with EBMM's entry-level brand offering some very credible Rays with sublime tones and performance.
What you lose in definition with the Omega fuzz circuit you gain in thick, woollen mids-rich low-end that could really give a rock band’s sound some depth, or a platform for heaviness. You can get carried away with this sort of thing, but the Blend control makes it easy to dial in the required amount of gain.
The Alpha is more of a punch to the face, with a little less in the mids but more detail, and thus a little more power on the low B string but your mileage may vary here depending on how you set up your bass amp. Or indeed, how you configure your EQ.
The Darkglass preamp might only offer treble and bass controls but with that single-pickup configuration, it offers plenty of travel along the frequency range, plenty of sweet spots to stop at along the way, where you can attenuate the upper mids and high-end for really deep growl, or sharpen things up to reveal all the intricacies of busy, note-heavy passages, or indeed percussive styles. It lacks not for treble. It lacks not for bass.
It also lacks not for all those qualities that make the StingRay Special many players’ idea of a dream bass guitar. The onboard effects are both super fun and practical; they’re fun because they encourage us to get out of our comfort zone and try something new; they’re practical because you don’t need to refer to the floor for added drive, the controls make sense – and they look cool, too. Those LEDs? Amazing.
And you can do subtle if subtle is your thing, just a soupçon of grit of either flavour can make give your basslines some really nice texture, a raw heat that is musical and inspiring.
MusicRadar verdict: The rock, metal and punk player is obviously going to love this but the DarkRay 5 is so versatile, so convincing a platform for a five-string bass guitar that it has a low-end voice that’ll speak to players of all styles, with a typically top-tier build and a cool aesthetic to boot.
Ernie Ball Music Man DarkRay 5: The web says
"The Darkglass treble and bass EQ is an improvement over the classic StingRay EQ and a better complement to the humbucker, with its powerful neodymium magnets, than the StingRay Special’s three-band EQ, capable of dialling in a wide range of highly desirable tones with deeper, rounder bass and shimmering treble."
Ernie Ball Music Man DarkRay 5: Hands-on demos
Ernie Ball Music Man
Ernie Ball Music Man DarkRay 5: Specifications
- MADE IN: USA
- BODY: Select Hardwood
- NECK: Roasted maple, 34” scale, gunstock oil and hand-rubbed special wax blend finish
- NECK JOIN: Bolt-on, five-bolt attachment
- NUT WIDTH: 1.75”
- FINGERBOARD: Ebony, 22 frets
- PICKUP: Single humbucker with Neodymium magnets
- ELECTRONICS: Active
- CONTROLS: Volume, Gain, Blend, Treble, Bass, three-way blade switch (preamp, Alpha/preamp, Omega/preamp)
- HARDWARE: Matte and gloss black hardware, five-saddle Vintage Music Man top-loaded steel bridge with steel saddles, custom Music Man lightweight tuners with tapered string posts
- WEIGHT: 9.4 lbs / 4.3 kg
- GIGBAG/CASE INCLUDED? Hardshell case
- LEFT-HAND AVAILABLE? No
- CONTACT: Ernie Ball Music Man l