Revered among bass players as one of the instrument’s most skilled and iconic craftsmen, Michael Tobias is no less revered among his friends as a connoisseur of fine spirits and life generally. He’s taken many an edge off a NAMM show for me, and stopping by his booth for a quick drink and stimulating chat about motorcycles, backroads, or just about anything else is one of a handful of encounters that I genuinely look forward to each January. I mention this to illustrate that Tobias is deeply passionate about his interests, and lucky for us, one of those happens to be bass building. Beginning with his own Tobias line in the 1980s, which later evolved into the MTD brand, Tobias earned a reputation for skilled luthiery with an explorer’s hunger for discovering new and exotic tone woods. Just like I’m sure he’d make a mighty fine Old Fashioned, his basses mix top-notch, carefully chosen ingredients into a delicious sonic cocktail.
The Saratoga reviewed here is Tobias’ take on the oft-copied Fender Jazz Bass. Instead of a bass that looks like a Fender unless you squint, however, the Saratoga is every bit an MTD, sharing a few features intrinsic to his other designs. Like most MTD basses, the Saratoga has a zero-fret for evenness between open and fretted strings, a comfortably contoured body with prominent horns, top-shelf Hipshot hardware, and an asymmetrical neck profile to improve feel as a player moves into the higher register. Like other MTDs, the bass is also constructed with near perfect precision and expertly finished, here with a subtle stained magenta-burst. I found the Saratoga comfortable and balanced, and quickly adapted to the mildly asymmetrical neck.
MTD is a longtime fan of Bartolini electronics, although some recent models feature pickups and preamps from Nordstrand, Aguilar, and others. The package on offer in the test Saratoga combines Bartolini single-coil J pickups with the company’s 3-band, 18-volt NTMB-FL preamp. The installation was gorgeous, with a thoroughly shielded control cavity and a separate battery compartment. The finer details were present just like I’d expect on an expensive instrument. Both the control-cavity and battery covers were made of the same colored alder as the body, for a clean look. The much more frequently opened battery cover uses machine screws and threaded-metal inserts to prolong the lifespan of the receiving holes.
The control layout is easily understood: Separate knobs control the EQ and blend, while a stacked pot’s top knob controls volume and its lower ring controls the passive tone. A rugged switch is on hand to choose between active and passive modes, but as I prefer, the tone control is always in circuit, regardless of mode. The midrange pot is push/pull to switch between two preset frequency centers. The Saratoga’s knobs present my only real niggles with the bass. I dig the rubberized texture and unmissable white indicator line on the knobs, but without a set-screw, knob adhesion relies on the fit between the split pot shaft and the knobs’ ribbed interior. The push/pull midrange pot came off in my hand a few times when I tugged a little hard on the switch. Spreading the pot shaft a little fixed it, but without a more positive connection between the pot and the knob, it’ll likely come up again. Also, the stacked volume/tone knobs were made of a different, somewhat cheaper-feeling plastic than the other knobs. Finally, I’m not sure about putting something as frequently accessed as tone on a stacked pot, as it’s fairly difficult to make adjustments on the fly without accidentally changing volume due to the relatively shallow depth of the bottom ring.
I tested the MTD on a handful of local gigs and did some reference recording in my home studio. My live rigs consisted of gear from Aguilar and Gallien-Krueger, while my home recording front end was a Tube Tech MEC-1A preamp into an Apogee Duet feeding Logic Pro X. With all controls flat, tone full up, pickups blended, and the bass in active mode, the Saratoga presented as an extremely well balanced, harmonically rich bass with a forward treble response that’s either just right or too bright, depending on your predilections. Its evenness, no matter the register, was an immediately obvious quality. Notes below E on the B string didn’t aggressively stand out; rather, they blended smoothly with the “4-string” range. In the everything-flat setting, the bass is an absolutely righteous instrument for slap—tons of booty, sizzle for days, and just the right amount of midrange dip. Anxious to check the Saratoga’s J-Bass bonafides, I soloed the bridge pickup and rolled off the treble with the well-voiced tone circuit. Sure enough, all the burp and bump of the classic fingerstyle Jaco-esque J tone was there, but with perhaps a bit more color and depth. Similarly, the soloed neck pickup has the woody bark I’ve come to love, but with a tinge more sophistication and poise than the occasionally over-raw sound of other J-style basses. The EQ works as expected, and the switchable midrange frequency adds even more versatility to the circuit.
The Saratoga is an extremely flexible, beautifully built, all-around killer instrument that’d be at home on nearly every sort of gig imaginable, except for the rootsiest of bands. It manages to retain the bite and elegance of MTD’s classic sound while folding in a healthy dose of iconic J-Bass gnarl and vibe. It’s expensive, sure, but it’s also all the bass you’d ever need for just about everything.
Pros Beautifully made, balanced and refined J-style tone, superb playability
Cons Stack-pot volume/tone knob combo might need a rethink
Bottom Line Hard to believe, but the Saratoga is your cheapest entry into the rarefied world of a handcrafted Mike Tobias bass. An excellent, slightly more traditional addition to his already famed lineup.
Neck Maple w/Honduran rosewood back cap over brass plug to quell dead spots
Frets 21 medium
Nut Plastic w/zero-fret
Tuners Hipshot Ultralite
Scale length 34"
Pickups Bartolini 59CBJS single-coil J-style
Controls Volume, tone, blend, treble, midrange, bass w/active/passive switch
Weight 8.15 lbs
Made in USA