The RD Artist was launched in late 1977, after two years of development (see the RD Artist timeline), as Gibsons first active bass guitar. According to the Gibson product development director at the time, Bruce Bolen, it had been designed from a "musical purpose" point of view, "to determine what the musical instrument is supposed to accomplish".
Gibson had worked closely with Moog (at this time both companies were subsidaries of Norlin) and Who bassist John Entwistle, to create a bass that would benefit from the newly emerging electronics being fitted to basses by manufacturers like Alembic. Bruce Bolen explains, in this 1978 quote, some of the vision behind the RD Artist.
One of the particular musical qualities that I personally was looking for in one of the models, was a similar effect to that of a steel player - this being the reduction of the intitial attack and the swell of the note after the initial attack had been made. A steel player of course uses a volume pedal to accomplish this but it was still something missing. Bob designed a special circuit that would achieve this as well as an expansion circuit unlike any other that had been designed to date.
Three-piece maple set neck, with ebony or maple fretboard
Natural, ebony, antique sunburst and fireburst.
Justin Meldal-Johnsen:"the basic tone is cool, particularly with flats". Read more in the GibsonBass JMJ interview
Ralphe Armstrong:"I liked because it was big and it had a long fingerboard; you can play a G harmonic on it and it had a big sound". Read more in the GibsonBass Ralphe Armstrong interview
Krist Novoselic plays and records with several Gibson basses. In the Nirvana days he was regularly seen with a Gibson Ripper, and as pictured here, a black RD Artist bass. Image courtesey Brad Barrish, whatevernevermind.com
It was a very high quality instrument with a terrific array of sounds, but John Entwistle soon stepped away from the project. It didn't sell in huge numbers, but did replace the Ripper as Gibsons best-selling bass of 1978 and 1979.
The four dials on the active RD guitars were a volume for each pickup, as would be expected, a treble control, and a bass control. The unusual thing about the bass and treble controls was that they operated in the range 5 to -5, with 0 being the neutral position. Listen to this clip - it demonstrates the RD bass at its most mellow (neck pickup, bass 5, treble -5) and then again at its most brash (bridge pickup, bass -5, treble 5 expansion and bright mode). This was recorded with a second version Artist bass; the earliest versions were not able to employ expansion and bright mode simultaneously. These sounds are extremes, but the RD can do anything in between.
The RD Artist requires a 9 volt battery to operate; it has no passive mode. When the input jack is removed from the instrument it draws no power, so to prolong battery life, it should be left unplugged when not in use.
Compression - neck pickup only. As can be seen in the graph, compression reduces the fundamental attack, and 'compresses' each note into a long sustaining signal.
Listen to this clip of the RD Artist neck pickup (bass 0, treble 0); the first few notes are without compression, the second few notes are with. Notice the way the second clip sustains for significantly longer.
Expansion - bridge pickup only. Offers a very fast, explosive response, with a rapid decay.
Listen to this clip of the RD Artist bridge pickup (bass 0, treble 0); the first few notes are without expansion, the second few notes are with. Notice the difference.
When both pickups are selected, the neck will undergo compression whilst the bridge is subject to expansion
Bright Mode - affects the output of either (or both) pickup, and as the description suggests, accentuates the treble frequencies. This final clip demonstrates both pickups (bass 0, treble 0), without, and then with the bright mode activated.