A Kick in the BASS

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in August 1998, contributed by then Senior Editor Bruce Richardson. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Getting the bass sound right is one of the hardest parts of recording modern music. When the average listener subconsciously listens to music, the bass is the instrument that they’re listening to. And they probably don’t know it.

So, how to record that killer-thumpin-groovular bass?

I do a lot of work with Chuck Rainey. Chuck is one of the all-time bass masters, with credits ranging from Aretha Franklin to Steely Dan to Sanford and Son. I have learned a lot about getting good bass sounds working with Chuck – and other artists – and can share a little applied wisdom.

First off, I’m a big fan of Fender basses.

I do like Roger Sadowsky’s basses, though… but they are very Fender-like as well. Lots of expensive basses sound great on stage or amped, but really give you living hell when you try to take them direct… they’re so ‘supercharged’ that they either completely take over the mix, or disappear. No middle ground.

If you can possibly help it, do not track the bass with the player in the control room listening to the monitors.

Bass players, like everyone else, tend to be very locked into their perceived sound, which is a combination of the acoustic sound coming off their instrument, and the way they set up their amp for performance.

Then you get a player in the control room, again listening to a combination of his instrument’s reflected sound and what’s coming out of the monitors. Unless he’s well versed in studio work, he’ll start pumping up the bottom end, trying to get some “feel.” He’s adjusting, you’re adjusting…see-saw-see-saw. Then, when he leaves and you’re trying to mix, you realize you’ve got a big muddy mess on your hands, because those strings are no longer in the room brightening up the apparent sound.

The best luck I have with recording bass is to put the player in the room with his amp for a few minutes to get his sound. Then I mic his amp…put him in an iso closet, and mic his strings with a condenser mic to get the acoustic attack. Putt the mic on the strings, right at the pickup end of the fretboard. Blend a LITTLE of this in with the direct / cabinet sound.

Also, I run a DI on the direct, or take it out of the amp if it’s a Trace or other well appointed rig (and if the player’s tone controls are not too wanked out). Run each to a separate track.

Then you’ve got everything you need. The bass player knows you’re getting “his” sound on tape, so he relaxes and just listens in the cans. You will have every element of the sound necessary to make the part work in the mix after he’s gone.

Good bass players’ tracks always sound noisy when soloed. Chuck Rainey’s tracks sound like someone’s working on a Buick in the background. But plug it into the mix, and the magic is there.

Bare bass tracks, well played, are homely, noisy, scrunchy sounding beasts…but those qualities are the things that punch it through. That’s why MIDI “faked” bass parts sound so awful to me, no matter how clever the programmer…they just don’t have the extraneous funk that makes the groove.

I personally try to let the amp mic drive the sound, with DI for some low lows if necessary, and a bit of the string mike to get a little “metal” in the pops, without having to eq the snot out of the signal. The string noises, finger scrunches, pick noise, grunting, etc, that the mic picks up are priceless in terms of putting some humanity in the track. No compression on that mic, by the way.

Spend some time with that amp mic. Get it right. No EQ…just move the mic around till the sound is as good as you can possibly get…WITH THE TRACK. At least the drums. If it won’t sit in the mix as tracked, then you’re going to fight the bass sound till the bitter end. It’s got to go down pretty much where it needs to be if you’re going to get the killer track.

Hopefully you need only mild compression, if any, on the amp mic. Depends on the player…some players are not very even, and that’s a much bigger challenge. You’ve got to call that one…it’s completely dependent on the player. You’re more likely to need some on the DI, but again, as little as you can get away with. You can always add more later…taking it off’s a bitch.

We all know those tunes where the bass just makes you want to bust loose at the seams. When it’s right, the bass part sells the groove more than any other instrument in the mix.

Panning depends, too. If it’s a hard-nose groove, then straight up the middle. Or not. That’s unfortunately one of those million dollar questions. Whatever sounds good. If it’s artsy, then sure, run it left or right, just to break some sonic ground.

I just did a loop project with Chuck Rainey where we went one channel straight up the middle, direct, through a Manley VoxBox. Killer, killer preamp. God’s preamp of choice. Made for vocals, but has a line in, and the short signal path, with the killer compression, eq, and limiting…and all the amazing Manley hand-built tube circuitry….WOW.

Only $4K. If you’ve got it to throw down (I certainly don’t), the VoxBox is a bass tracking godsend.

And a few more tips: if the bass lacks note definition, try a longer attack on the compressor, so that the attack of the note gets through before it clamps down. This may help.

Is the bass active? If you can switch it into passive mode, try that. Bass players with active pickups seem to always use the active pickups. Active pickups can throw a lot of bottom at you.

Bass is one of the hardest instruments to track successfully. Hang in there…