Bass doesn’t always get the attention it deserves in a recording situation. I see a lot of home recordists rush through bass recording, only to later be frustrated with the bass when it comes time for mixing. It’s really too bad because it’s the foundation of the song. A great bass will groove tight with the drums and support the guitars. Fitting it in the mix will take minimal effort and you will be loving life.
A great recording starts with a great source. When it comes to tracking bass guitar, the source is comprised of many factors:
- Technique and playing position – Playing with a pick or with fingers or thumb. Intensity, Playing close to the bridge, in the middle or close to the neck. Choose what is appropriate for the song
- What is played – playing bass lines that serve the song and don’t clash with the drums or guitars rhythmically or melodically.
- Tuning – Check the tuning often
- Strings – new strings usually sound best and give you the brightest tone to start with.
- Electronics (Pickups and EQ) – The pickup selection and tone settings
- Wood and construction – The wood used in the neck and body really effect the sound. Maple and Ash are bright and punchy, mahogany is thicker and darker.
- Cable – debatable how much impact this has, how about just using one that doesn’t hum or crackle if you move it.
- Pedals – If a particular pedal helps get you the desired tone, go for it. I would hold off on spatial effects (delay, reverb) until mixing as they require their own attention.
- Amplifier and EQ settings – tube or solid state. As a starting point put all EQ knobs at 6.
- Cabinet – 1×12″, 4×10″, 1×15″
- Cabinet position – where in the room, close to walls, on the floor or elevated
Everything contributes to the sound you’ll be recording, do whatever you can to get this close to what you need from the start. It won’t be the same for every song so you may want to have a few options for basses, though a Fender Jazz bass or MusicMan is versatile enough to get you what you need 80% of the time. Rent or borrow what you don’t own before looking for magical plugins to solve all your bass problems.
In my experience getting good bass gear for recording made my life so much easier further along in my projects. For recording you don’t necessarily need a massive bass rig, I use a Sterling Ray 34 (Low-end Music Man. Swamp ash body, maple neck, humbucker pickup with active EQ) into a small Ampeg BX112 solid state combo amp with a single 12″ woofer. Greatest bass recording gear ever? Ha, far from it, but it got me so much closer to the sound I was looking for. Prior to that I was fighting with a mahogany bass that was deep but had almost no midrange when recorded making it hard to hear clearly in the mix.
A great bass tone in the room is more likely to inspire a great performance. Now you need to capture and enhance it.
The Recording Chain:
- Mic selection – Dynamic mics and large diaphragm condensers are most common for bass amps. Spend some time comparing.
- Mic position – distance and angle play a big part as always.
- Direct Box (DI) – A direct box allows you to split the signal from the bass, one side continues to the amp, the other goes to a preamp.
- Microphone Preamp – Every preamp has its own tone. A pad option may be required.
- Compressor – Optional but worth testing if you have the option. Its very common to compress the DI track while recording in pro studios.
Record at a conservative level, if you’re really digging in for a grindy tone keep the peaks no higher than -6dBFS (DAW metering). An average of anywhere from -18dB to -12dB is all you need. Dynamics will likely be reduced and additional processing is inevitable by the final mix. A clipped signal is useless.
Can you get a great bass recording with just a DI (or plugging right into the interface)? Yes. Can you get a great bass recording with just an amp? Yes. Splitting the signal with a DI before the amp and recording to two tracks gives you more flexibility when it comes to mixing. You may prefer the sound of one over the other, or a blend of the two.
When you do blend the DI and miked amp signals in your DAW it is very likely that you will hear some phase issues. The problem is caused by the DI signal gets to the interface before the mic signal does causing a slight delay. Try inverting the polarity of one of the tracks. This will usually be a dramatic improvement in the low frequencies. This can further be improved by delaying the DI track, often just by a few milliseconds or even samples. You might find it easiest to start with the tracks ‘out of phase’ then adjust the delay until you have the most cancelation, and invert the polarity again (now in phase). You may not get it to be absolutely perfect but do try to find the best compromise.
By now you should have a good, very usable, better than average bass track recorded into your DAW. We won’t get into processing and mixing bass in this article, if you really need info on that right now, check out the Sept 2011 issue of Sound On Sound, great tips on mixing bass in there.
Have a listen to the audio examples I’ve prepared. Compare the different playing styles, mic position, mic type. In the delay compensation file, notice how the tone changes quite dramatically just by delaying the DI in increments of 10 samples.
There is one more problem, at least in home recordings: the speakers used to playback the audio have poor bass response, which makes it difficult to detect any issues with the bass. For instance, when I was in college and an amateur musician (sadly, haven’t progressed from that tag), I would record a song on my laptop, think that it was ‘okay’ and finalize it. Then when someone gifted me a rather expensive pair of Bose headphones did I realize how poor the bass in my tracks really was. I wouldn’t have realized it if I was still using my sh**y logitechs