It’s ironic that bass guitar is such a conundrum for so many recordists. While the importance of bass in a mix cannot be overstated, it is the very thing that perplexes aspiring audio engineers. Be assured that bass mastery is achievable. To become at one with the bass, read and master the bass recording chops below.
Why is bass so important?
What’s the big deal with bass anyways? Aren’t bass players merely kept around to give the homelier groupies something to do?
As a mix engineer on a perpetual quest for better mixes, you would do well to first master the issue of bass and drums. You could be great at getting a killer guitar sound, but without the bass locked into the mix, your tracks will still sound like goat urine on a popsicle stick.
Together with the drums, bass players are the Atlas of the band. I’m not talking about a book with maps in it. I am talking about the poor Titan in Greek mythology who holds the weight of the world on his shoulders. The bass forms the backbone of all that rhythm and groove your band hopes to thrill the world with. It’s time for some respect for the bass player.
Set the bass guitar up for success
In keeping with the belief that good sound starts at the source, let’s take a look at a few things worth addressing on the bass guitar itself before we hit the record button.
Tuning and intonation
If there is one instrument that cannot get away with any funny business in the tuning department, it is the bass. Ignore this and I promise that as you bring other instruments into the mix, something is not going to sound right no matter how many alcoholic beverages you consume.
Since precise tuning will make it sound like the studio engineer turned the “suck” knob down quite a bit on your mixes, a good rack tuner is a worthwhile investment for the sound of the band. Use this one tuner on all instruments in the band and re-check often. You would be surprised at how often various electronic tuners do not agree on what is in tune.
I strongly suggest that you take a moment to check the intonation on a bass guitar before recording a single note in the studio. A poorly intonated bass will sound out of tune despite hours spent swearing at your electronic tuner.
- You will need to use a high quality tuner to do this properly.
- A bass is intonated by adjusting the position of individual string saddles. This usually requires an Allen wrench or a Phillips screwdriver.
- Bring the string in question precisely into tune before proceeding.
- Check the pitch of the 12th fret note on the same string.
- If the 12th fret note is also precisely in tune, then the intonation on that string is fine.
- If the 12th fret note is sharp, use the saddle adjustment to lengthen the string.
- If the fretted note is flat, then the string length needs to be shortened.
- Be sure to re-tune the string between each adjustment.
- Go through each string on the bass and calibrate it this way.
Break in new strings a day or so ahead of time
First of all, to break in a new set of strings before recording, you have to be willing to put a new set of strings on the bass. Far be it from me to suggest that bass players rarely change their strings. If you do happen to see something so elusive as a new set of strings on a bass guitar, make sure that they are put on a few days ahead of time. As new bass strings tend to buzz a little, this will help them “settle in” before you arrive at the studio.
Hot pickups vs. resonating wood
Let’s think about hot pickups and also pickups that are adjusted closer to the strings than they should be. The hotter a pickup is made or adjusted to be, the more the pickup itself will dominate the bass guitar’s sound rather than the resonating wood of the bass. Resonating wood sounds nice. To get the most out of that big chunk of wood that you hang from your neck and shoulder, be sure that your pickups are not too close to the strings. Interestingly enough, when magnetic pickups are too close to those telephone wire sized strings, the magnets will exert so much pull on them that they will slightly bow towards the pickup, causing buzzing and a lack of sustain.
Use the on-board tone controls
It is worth noting that a lot of yummy tones can be achieved by reaching for the tone and volume controls on the bass guitar itself. As interesting and exciting as the knobs and flashing lights are on a bass amp, try starting with the tailor made controls on the bass. That’s what they are there for.
Fat is where it’s at
If you are using a bass amp with the head separate from the speaker cabinet, be sure to use a BIG FAT cable between the head and cabinet. It takes a lot of power to drive those bass speakers. When you try to quickly force all of that power through a wimpy cable not suitable for the job, your bass tone is going to suffer greatly. I have seen bass players beef up their tone and power significantly by simply switching to a thicker speaker cable. I have also seen a guitar patch cable catch on fire when someone tried to use it for a speaker cable. Bigger is better.
How to capture some great sound
We finally get to the meat and potatoes of recording great bass guitar; how to grab those bass tones and stuff them into your recording interface with all the fatness and clarity you can muster. Some say that you only need to record direct, while others will say there is no replacing a properly miked bass cabinet. I am going to say that a proper combination of the two is where it is at.
Record with a DI box
When you record with a DI box, you get a bass tone that is clear and devoid of any bleed through from other instruments. Using a DI box is a great option for home studios that have to be careful not to disturb the neighbors.
Invest a little money in a DI box that is intended for the bass guitar. My favorite bass DI is the SansAmp Bass DI by Tech 21. When my first one finally died after years of being packed to studios and venues all over the world, I went out and replaced it with the exact same thing. They are that good. You can dial in a whole host of tones and even provide yourself with some nice saturation if the situation calls for it. I also like the ability to use the parallel output to send a raw signal to the bass player’s amp. This allows the bassist to use his amp as normal while I get the great SansAmp tone as a direct feed.
Mike the bass amp
As much as I love the sound and simplicity of the SansAmp bass DI, I have no problem stating that there are tonal elements of a miked bass cabinet that you can not get via a direct signal.
Miking a bass cabinet can be a bit different from the “right on the grill” practices you see used on guitar amps. With just one mic, you may need to use a placement that is anywhere from 6 inches to a few feet back from the speaker. Bass waves are different from higher frequencies and need a little space to develop off of the speaker.
Mic selection for bass guitar should take into consideration that we are picking up very deep frequencies and often very loud sounds. For this reason, dynamic microphones are predominantly used when miking a bass speaker.
Mic choices for bass guitar
I could list scores of mics that have been used for recording bass guitar, but instead, I will list what I believe to be the three best mic choices for sticking in front of a bass guitar amp.
- The egg shaped AKG D112 is a well known microphone for kick drum and bass guitar. This is a dynamic mic with a larger than standard diaphragm.
- The EV RE20 has been used for recording everything from lead vocals to electric guitar and yes, bass guitar as well. The thing that makes these dynamic mics unique is that they have virtually no proximity effect. The proximity effect is common among directional mics and is a boost in bass response as the mic comes closer to the sound source. One would think that a boost in bass response would be great when miking bass guitar. However, there is a big difference between an extended bass range and a boost in bass. A further reaching bass response RANGE always trumps a narrow bass range that is simply boosted in volume.
- Another well known mic that often finds its way in front of bass cabinets is the Sennheiser 421. Aside from being famous for miking toms and brass sections, these warm sounding mics are tough enough to take a blasting in front of a bass amp and still come out shining.
Aside from the added distance often needed when miking a bass amp, placement is very similar to a guitar amplifier. The sound will be brightest at the center of the speaker with tones getting warmer as you move towards the outer edge of the cone. If you are using multiple mics to specialize on different facets of the tone, grab the highs from a smaller speaker in the cabinet and capture the lows from the larger speakers. There are no hard rules here, just do what sounds good!
Lest we forget that electric bass is not the only kind of bass there is, I want to mention miking the upright bass.
- In general, a large diaphragm condenser like the Neumann U47 placed part way between the neck and the bridge will pick up the bass sound nicely.
- You may also want to try the sound of a warm ribbon mic on an upright bass. The Royer R121 will not disappoint you.
Combine both mic and DI
Once you have become familiar with both the DI and miked cabinet methods of recording the bass guitar, try combining the two. It is usually pretty simple as long as you keep two things in mind:
- Decide what elements you are trying to capture with the two different methods. I go for the clarity and wide range with the DI signal and then try to capture punch and growl with the miked cabinet.
- Remember that the DI signal will always arrive at your DAW faster than the miked cabinet signal. The reason for this is pretty simple. The DI signal leaves the bass and goes through the DI box before going to the DAW, while the miked signal leaves the bass, goes through the bass amp head and speaker, is picked up by the microphone and then goes to the DAW. For the best tone possible, always zoom in and view the two tracks on your DAW. Slide the DI track back in the order of milliseconds to line it up with the miked signal. You will hear a significant improvement in tone as you do this.
Use a close mic, distant mic and a DI for the best bass sound
So long as you can handle the extra variables without it all turning into a tangled mess, using the three elements of a close mic, distant mic and DI box will yield some nice bass sounds. The same rule applies as above for sliding the DI signal back a bit in time so that it aligns with the miked signals. Let’s look at an example of this three element approach using specific equipment:
- Use the ever faithful SansAmp bass DI to get your direct signal.
- Insert a patch cord from the “parallel output” of the SansAmp going to the bass player’s normal bass amp. This will allow the bass player to dial in her tone just the way she likes it.
- Place an AKG D112 up close to the speaker. Play around a little bit with exact placement to get a particular tone you like.
- Place a Sennheiser 421 several feet back from the bass amp and find a nice sounding placement.
- Check the phase relationship between the two microphones by panning them both to the center and fade the distant mic in and out. If the sound gets thinner as you bring the distant mic into the blend, you need to change the distance between the two mics to bring them into a nice relationship with each other. I suggest moving the distant mic back a bit until you find that the two signals do not fight each other. This is much easier with an assistant out in the studio room while you are in the control room calling all of the shots like a boss.
- Remember that you will need to slide the DI signal back a bit after the recording has happened.
There is magic in those fingers
Often enough, some of the problems with the sound of the bass have more to do with the arrangement or performance rather than strictly mics and compression tricks. The skill of the bass player has a lot to do with the professional sound of a bass track.
Pick or pluck?
Every great bass player knows that the way the bass strings are set into motion will completely change the character of the track. Sometimes a pick is needed for a sharp, harmonic rich sound, while plucking with the fingers produces a warm, fat sound that a lot of tracks need.
A good bass track sounds like the sibling of the kick drum part
This one pearl of wisdom will transform the backbone of your arrangements and recordings. The bass guitar and kick drum parts should be close personal friends. To get started with this skill, simply do not ever play a note on the bass unless a kick drum event is happening right at that moment. As you get better at this groove-producing discipline, you will soon be able to create a bass part that does not imitate the kick drum precisely, but is locked in while bringing something original to the rhythm of the kick drum.
If you are not a bass player, but merely the recording engineer, you will need to be able to articulate this idea to clients in your studio. Some will already have a firm grasp on this concept while others will need a bit of your keen guidance.
Sometimes, it’s what you don’t play…
As a bass player, you spend countless finger blistering hours sharpening your skills. Walking bass lines, three octave arpeggios and bass chords all go into your repertoire at the cost of hundreds of hours of practice. When the day comes that you get to show those death defying skills, you find that what you DON’T play is as important as what you do play.
Depart from the idea that there must be a continuous string of non-stop bass notes in a track and you will bring those bass recordings to the next level. The space between the awesomesauce you create is pretty important.
When you do choose to damp notes to create some rhythmic space, think about when you are silencing those notes. So much effort goes into being right on rhythm when plucking notes, but what about being in rhythm when you stop a note? Try it and you will find that it adds an additional measure of “in the pocket” to the bass track.
Compression and limiting
If you are going to master recording bass guitar, you have to master the use of compression and limiting. There is no way around it. The bass guitar usually has a wide dynamic range. This makes it hard for a bass to sit well in a mix. Recording an amateur bass player will stretch your compression chops to the limit. This is because unseasoned bass players don’t yet have the fine control over the dynamics they are producing.
Start with a limiter when tracking
So far as dynamic control is concerned, a two tier plan works best. Save the serious dynamic manipulation (with compressors) for after you have recorded the track. Initially, just start with a clean limiter while you are recording. Don’t smash the bass to smithereens while you are recording it. Get a little bit of control over transients that jab out of the norm from time to time. This will allow you to track with a hotter signal and avoid over-driving the input to your interface while using more of your bit depth.
As long as you understand how to be VERY gentle, it is OK to use just a bit of compression when recording your bass tracks. If you don’t understand subtlety though, this is going to cause you some problems that you can’t undo later.
Compression AFTER you track
After the bass track has been recorded, then you are free to roll up your sleeves and decide just how much dynamic control you will need to apply to get it to sit right in the song. As you apply compression to a bass track, keep a few things in mind:
- Multiple passes through compression is often better than one heavy pass. This means that two passes at 2:1 will sound smoother than one pass at 4:1. Experiment with creating a chain of multiple compressors and you will find that this always sounds better than one compressor set to tightly control the bass. This is a nugget that you would do well to master.
- When using compression, make sure that you realize that this is a tool that, if used wrong, can completely squish the life and punch right out any instrument. You can get very loud mixes with excessive compression, but your track will sound like a wall of non-dynamic mush. Employ the fine art of finesse.
- In contrast to the statement above, it is best to have the bass guitar completely under control before moving on to master compression on your main mix. Do not allow the bass guitar to be the single driving factor in your main mix compression. Master compression is for the whole mix, not just the bass.
- Note that the “attack” setting on your compressor will determine how much attack of each note shines through. A faster attack time will snip off a bit of each note’s attack, while a bit slower attack time will let those transients shine through before the compressor clamps down on each note.
No bass is an island
When trying to help a bass track find its place in a song, remember that the bass needs to fit into the sonic scheme of things like pieces of a puzzle fit together, not like a pile of toothpicks piled one on top of another. Sometimes, you find yourself asking what is missing from the bass track when really, you should be asking what is covering up the bass.
Kick and bass
These two instruments are your first concern when setting up a soundscape that works for the particular song. If the predominant frequencies in your bass recording are the same frequencies where the particular kick drum lives, the two instruments will be masking each other and fighting for sonic space in the mix. Since these two are so critical to the backbone of the song, consider the sonic content of each carefully.
Since the kick drum is melodically static, meaning it does not have changing pitches, I suggest that you first look at the sonic content of the bass guitar and decide how the kick drum will fit in. If the predominant low end in the kick happens to be at 80hz and the bass guitar is hot there as well, you may consider slightly pitch shifting the kick drum up or down to separate the two.
Another way to be sure that the kick does not invade the space for the bass guitar is to locate a dominant frequency in the bass guitar and scoop that same frequency out a bit on the kick drum with an EQ. Be sure that you decide on a dominant frequency for the kick as well by scooping that frequency out of the bass track. This helps instruments play well together with less competition for sonic space. Let’s look at an example:
- This particular kick drum has it’s “bump” living at 65Hz.
- Put an EQ on the bass guitar and make a fairly narrow cut at 65Hz.
- You note that the bass guitar has a lot of it’s tone in the 80Hz range.
- Open an EQ on the kick drum track and make a narrow cut at 80Hz.
- Take this concept further by focusing on multiple elements of each instrument. Kick drum would be divided into: snap, thump and bump. You may be wondering what the difference is between thump and bump. In a nutshell, thump is the low frequency content that is usually around 100Hz and can be heard in systems with no subwoofer while the bump may be as low as 40Hz and will only be heard on systems that are specially designed to give you extended bass range. You really need to be sure that both are there. That snap can be found somewhere in the 5kHz range. Be sure that these different elements do not conflict with the important facets of the bass guitar.
Scoop some of the mud out of there
Like most instruments in a mix, bass guitar has a lot of content in the 250Hz range. This is a problem. If each instrument piles its own contribution of 250Hz tones into the mix, you soon have a wall of indistinct muck to listen to. Since this article is about bass guitar, I will just say that it is a good idea to make a cut in the 250Hz range when sculpting a bass guitar sound. This applies to other instruments as well.
Define a lower limit and cut off the rest
Use a high pass filter and set it to cut out all lower frequencies in the extreme low bass range. This may sound counter-intuitive if you are yearning for a mix with so much low end bump that it blasts clothing off each time the kick drum hits, but try it and you will find that this tactic allows you to choose what instrument will handle the sub-bass region. This results in better low end. Instruments should not fight with other instruments. It’s just not natural.
Apply this concept to ALL other instruments in the mix. This will create space for the bass guitar. You may think that the electric guitar or heavy metal piccolo flute would never create frequencies in the bass and sub-bass region, but you would be wrong. Open up a GOOD spectrum analyzer and watch what happens in those ridiculously low frequencies. There are rumbles, bumps and all kinds of electronic flatulence that have no musical value at all. They only serve to crowd out the bass guitar. Get control of every other instrument with a high pass filter.
Do your EQ work before major compression
Always be sure to do the bulk of your EQing on the bass before you dig into the compression. When you shave off the unneeded elements and artifacts from the bass guitar track, you ensure that your compressor will be responding to the musical bass guitar that you want. Using this method, you will get away with more compression without the track sounding over compressed.
Use a multi-band compressor
Aside from standard limiting and compression, a multi-band compressor is a powerful tool for getting a bass track to sound solid and professional. Consider this scenario:
- You are listening to a bass track that you have recorded in the studio.
- Although compression has already been added, you can hear some notes pop out of the track above the other.
- This seems to happen on specific tones on this bass guitar. Every time that one note is played, it jumps out of the track.
- When you try to EQ that one note out of the track, it kills the overall tone of the bass when other notes are being played
Here is the problem: Either the bass or bass player naturally accentuates that one note whenever it is played. This is actually quite common. You will find this happens a lot less as you deal with bass guitars that cost as much as a car. Since we don’t have that luxury all of the time, we need to find a way to tame just that one note without killing those same tonal shades in other notes. This is where a multi-band compressor comes in. It allows you to divide the range of the instrument up and compress each range separately. Focus one of these bands on the specific problem frequency and then set the threshold and ratio to make the rogue note the same volume as the others. As you begin to spot this common bass problem, you will know just how to handle it from here on out.
Consider what kind of music you are creating
Depending on the style of music you are mixing, the bass track will play drastically different sonic roles. If your church band is recording the next great death metal album with bass notes so fast that it rivals the lead guitar player, I can guarantee you that a super deep bass sound is going to turn into that wall of low frequency rumble that we all hate so much. The mellow pace of reggae music usually allows a bit more space for an extremely deep bass sound. Consider this before you lay down the first track in the studio.
Blend and double
Let’s talk about a few tricks that have been used on some famous recordings but still seem to be a bit of a mystery to plenty of audio engineers. Just like with compression, you have to be able to handle the concept of subtlety in order to use these tricks without it turning into an overdone disco. Blend these tricked up sounds into your bass mix quiet enough to where no one could pick out what you are doing but loud enough to where they add something to the bass guitar.
Create an evil twin
If a bass guitar does not seem to be cutting through a mix, try creating a duplicate track and run the copy through something that will provide some overdrive. The SansAmp is perfect for this. Over-driven tones can be dialed in with the SansAmp by cranking the “drive” knob. Blend this over-driven clone in under the main bass track and you will find that it adds some nice harmonic content.
If you are wondering why we would not just add a little saturation to a single bass track, give both methods and try and listen to the results. They are two different things. When you add the dirt on a duplicate track (This is also called “parallel” or “New York style” effects), you still have all of the pure content of the original still preserved despite the fact that you ran the bass through a signal crunching overdrive box.
Recruit a keyboard in the studio
For an age old trick that will fatten up your bass sound, grab a keyboard. With the bass track already recorded, thump out an identical part on a fat keyboard sound and gently blend it in to reinforce the bass. If you are afraid that utilizing a keyboard on your grunge metal recordings will tarnish your perfectly crafted street reputation that only your grandmother knows about, you can just keep it on the down-low. Grandma won’t tell anyone so long as you visit her on Sundays and always let her dominate the mosh pit when your band is in town.
Let a guitar pretend to be a bass
As much as guitar players are glad that they are not a bass player, recording a simple double of the bass guitar with its six string cousin may help the definition of a bass in the mix. The rule of subtlety still applies here. We are not trying to reinvent the bass here, just reinforce it a bit.
Don’t fool yourself
I will leave just a few words about your monitoring setup and then leave the rest of that subject for an article dedicated to good studio monitoring. The point here is that you are not going to be able to record, judge, or mix bass parts unless you can hear them in your studio. It sounds simplistic, but if you can’t hear it, you can’t use it properly.
Turn it down
I know. Those three words really bring me down too. Aren’t we supposed to be defiantly cranking it loud and proud regardless of what the neighbors think? In this case, the answer is no. If you are listening to your bass tracks at ear splitting levels, you are artificially making it appear as though your bass tracks have range and backbone.
Monitor your tracks at a moderate level. If you can create a sound that is full and punchy at these low levels, they are going to sound amazing when you crank it to ear-shattering, cop-calling ultra-mode.
Balance your subwoofer
If you are using a subwoofer as part of your studio monitoring scheme. Ask yourself if you are using it to extend the true range of your monitoring abilities or to disproportionately jack up the bass you hear so it sounds nice in the studio. Trust me, you want the first choice. Use a variable sine wave generator (available in most DAWs nowadays) and sweep it through the range where your main monitors leave off and the sub takes over. Use your ear or a power level meter to set the volume of your subwoofer as a perfect continuation of your monitoring solution. Just like the tips above, the name of the game here is to not fool yourself. We want an accurate reflection of what the bass region sounds like. Falsely accentuated bass in the studio is fun when the groupies are around, but when those same mixes exit the studio and enter the real world, they will be transformed from a snarling pit bull to a neutered Chihuahua. Always mix with the truth coming from your studio monitors.
Do things differently
How about a few tips that have been used at one time or another but are not the typical way things are done? As long as you try these proven techniques carefully and wear proper safety equipment, no one (that we like) should be hurt in the process.
Bass players reamp as well
Just in case you thought that reamping was the sole territory of guitar tracks, bass is a prime candidate for reamping as well. The trick to reamping without botching it is to use a good reamping box like the Radial ProRMP that matches the impedance of the signal going back into the amp. This way, your amp thinks it’s getting a signal from a bass guitar as usual. Aside from your main bass track that you record with the whole band, grab a dry signal from the bass on a separate track. This can be later played back into the bass amp and miked up to provide you with the same performance as before minus bleed from the rest of the band. This also opens up the possibility of exploring more exotic sounds while keeping ahold of the main bass track.
Get a little dirty
Even though the majority of bass tones are not heavily saturated with distortion, certain situations just beg for us to break out of the norm and crank up that bass fuzz like we don’t care what others think. If it fits the song or band, try it.
Use a piezo on your bass
What if you could blend in a bit of snarl and scratch with your bass track? In certain situations, I love the raw sound of blending in a piezo pickup with the standard bass pickups. It gives the bass a sound that slaps you in the face and makes you feel like you need a tetanus shot just from listening to it. There are bass guitars that feature an added piezo with an isolated output for running to a separate track. In the absence of a bass ready-made for the occasion, I have been known to hot glue a garden variety piezo element to the body of a bass and solder a ¼” jack on just for the occasion. When breaking out the hot glue gun, it may look like I am about Bdazzle someone’s bass with pink diamonds and glitter, but wait till you hear the results.
Use the old chorus trick
I once toured with a scruffy fella from New Jersey who played his bass through a special chorus effect. He showed me how it splits his full range signal and only applied the chorus to the high end before blending it all back together. Years later, I have used this trick in the studio with good results. Simply use a frequency divider and only apply the chorus to the higher frequency half. Using chorus on the low frequency components of a bass guitar usually just muddies the sound up. This is no new trick by any means. Plenty of fretless bass players used this in the 80s. It has moved out of mainstream usage and is now an interesting technique to keep in your bag of tricks.
These techniques are not yours... yet
Good for you! You made it to the end of this article sporting the best bass recording chops around, but these tricks are not yours until you try them on for yourself. Get into the studio, take them for a test drive and make them your own!