Thunder. Ah yes. So you’ve spent hours trying to get the perfect bass sound in your mix. You’ve twisted every dial and EQ has to offer and punished a compressor. Whether you’re looking for pristine, click, distorted, or plane ol’ booty-lishious the method to achieve your desires starts in the same place, tracking it properly.
If you can chat with the player before the session make sure they have their bass “set up”. If they don’t know what that means then they need to look online or at the local music store. It relates to string height and implies string noise (when string makes a clicking sound or rattle against the frets). Sometimes the strings are too low and others times the player is just beating it too hard like their fingers are ball peen hammers. It also refers to intonation, which means that the bass is in tune regardless of string or position on the fret board. The countless hours I’ve wasted ducking around a badly set up bass – always with less than desired results.
Put a new battery in it! If it has “active” pickups, it means they need a battery to work. Don’t waste time or make everyone wait to find a screw driver or drive to the local store. New battery, in before the session.
If you’re not going for a James Jamerson sound (see: every classic Motown and soul tune, just about, and a nod to Bootsy) then be the Samuel L. Jackson of bass and change your motherf$%^in’ strings. The day before or even a couple. They’ll be stretched and ready to stay rock steady for the session.
Now you’re ready to record. The instrument and the rig are first, mic choice and placement are second. Have the bass player get in front of the bass rig and play their instrument through the rig. If they like the sound, you’re more than half way there. If you don’t, at least you’ll understand what the player is going for in a general way. But what if you know that sound won’t translate? Depends on your relationship with the player. Can you suggest things without them getting their panties in a bunch? If you can, then go for it. If not, you might try to tell them that this sound is awesome live and that you want it to come across just the way, but recording is a different medium and with a few tweaks they will be a godhead.
Try not to turn the amp up to 11. A moderate volume can do wonders when recording – you’d be amazed how good things can sound with moderate amp volume and good mic placement. On amp volume, think you standing in front of a fire hose. If you can’t brave it then the mic will probably feel the same way and what you’ll really be hearing is the sound of surrender, with the mic soon to bring you up on assault charges. Turning it up doesn’t always translate that way on playback.
I try not to have too much low end from the amp – I’m looking for a crisp top but not harsh and lots of punch on the high mids 1K to 3K range. This is part of the bass that will really come through on your mix and give the bass definition rather than a low end sloppy roar. Don’t get carried away with how low it can go – just enough but make sure the top end is there and right.
Okay, you both listen, you both dig. Time to put a mic in front of it. If I can, I will use a U47 fet (or a large diaphragm condenser) and if not a RE20 or D112 (or a large diaphragm dynamic mic) can get the job done. I generally go about a foot back and the mic just off center from the middle of the speaker. I listen again and start adjusting – either the amps eq, change the placement of the mic, or both depending on what I’m going for. Some people like the mic up against the grill and other 2 to 3 feet back. It’s a taste thing and no wrong or right. Each give a different sound so pick the one you dig or the one that’s right for that particular track.
If you have the luxury of different mic pres, match the pre to the tone you want. If you have a compressor in the chain I suggest a lighter dip into compression – you can always smash the crap out of it later in the mix. Just enough compression to get a good hot level in to your recording program but not enough to squeeze it to death.
Some people don’t have the luxury of recording a bass amp or a good enough sounding rig. This is where a D.I. box (direct injection box) is your BFF. A cable from the bass to the “in” of a DI box – the mic line out of the DI to a channel on your mixing console or audio interface. And even if you are recording an amp I’d suggest to also simultaneously record the bass with a DI box. Some amps even have a DI out on them – some with the signal as it comes from the bass itself and other after the settings on the amp (try not to use this way – it limits what you can do later). Every DI has a “Thru” or “Out”. Take a cable from the “Out” and plug that into the “in” of the bass amp. You can now blend the two or just use one. You’ll have to double check the phase is right between them. Click the phase button above one of these channels in your recording software on playback (if you don’t have that choice on your mixing console/audio card or mic pre). You notice the bass getting bigger and more low end or small and thin – depending. Bigger’s better. If you’re using two channels to record the bass and have a stereo compressor – make sure the compressor is on “stereo”. Feed enough signal in that hits both sides of compressor equally. If you only have a mono compressor – then don’t use compression! Things will get funky in a bad way if one channel is compressed and the other isn’t or isn’t at the exact same settings.
Now hit record and lay down the bottom.
I can’t tell you how to love the one you’re with. You know that a hell of a lot better than someone that’s never met them so what I say here is starting point, like don’t beat them and do give flowers, the intricacies I leave to you. Beyond that, you’ll make it what you want it to be or they’ll let you. Onward.
Hopefully you have a good sound to begin with (see above). You have either an amp track or a DI track or both. If I have a descent amp sound I generally blend some DI into that (about -10db down from where the amp fader is). First, make sure the phase between the two is cool. With both channels at equal levels and panned center, hit the phase button above one of the track. If it’s small it’s wrong, if it’s big it’s right. If things still don’t feel right you can enlarge your view of the two tracks and ever so slightly adjust the wave of one track to align perfectly with the other. If you just have a DI track you can throw one of the zillion amp simulators on it as a plug in on that channel or leave it “untreated”. Don’t use simulators when tracking if you can, it limits your choices later when you’re trying to get it into the mix. Some of you might have Bass Pods, or the like, and once the track is recorded there is no way to run the pure Di signal back through it. In this case, you have my blessing to go on ahead and track it with amp simulation on. Pick the one that sounds right for the track and start twisting knobs. I use a Line 6 plug in and I use the flip top model with the cab and a 47 mic a little off the cab. You can also get some dirt on the DI signal this way and then blend it into the channel you recorded from the amp. If I have and amp track and a DI track most of the time I leave the DI track alone and just blend the two together.
If I have two channels, I’ll “bus” them to a mono bus channel and then add compression and eq. The compressor is first in the chain. I generally like the to get the needle to hit in the -3 to -5db range, and set my attack to moderate to a little slow and my release pretty damn fast. The numbers and increments change according to the plug in you’re using but the rule for bass is slower attack and fast release. I almost also set these setting exactly the same as the kick drums settings. This will tighten up their relationship into a harmonious blissful thing that their friends will be jealous of. Ratio is generally 4:1 but sometimes I’ll go to 8:1. Depends on how it’s fitting in the track. The goal most of the time is to get the bass punchy but not dominating the entire mix. I’ll add eq if needed and generally I add at 1.2K with a fairly narrow Q and take away at 250hz with a narrow Q. Start there. I’ll even commit the sin of taking a little out at 35hz if the bass is just too boomy and it’s messing with the relation between it and the kick drum. Sometimes I even add a bunch at 50hz with a roll off at 35hz. I want to hear both kick and bass, both big and punchy, not a unified indistinguishable thump. Sonic maximizers can be a great thing to use – they can also turn your mix into a something that peaks your main meters before you even really hear it. It’s salt and pepper, baby. More is not always better and too much low end is just as bad as not enough. Pick the middle porridge, Goldie.
You’d be surprised how much the upper mid’s matters on bass. You’d also be surprised to really listen to the bass placement on some of your favorite record, especially on what you might have thought as guitar hot mixes. When you listen to the proportional placement in the tune you dig, I bet you find the bass is louder than you imagined. In rock the bass should connect and give the guitars more aggression and also connect and punch with the kick drum – so it covers a pretty vast area. It’s got to hold steady and not overtake or wimp out – it’s a foundation of a house. Go build something that can carry the weight.