Recording Electric Bass 101
By Phil O'Keefe |
Selecting the best option for tracking your electric bass
By Phil O'Keefe
The importance of bass in modern recordings can't be over-stated. Bass players can achieve a surprising number of different sounds and timbres; everything from the deep boom of a dub bass, to the bright percussive attack of slap bass--the instrument can cover so much sonic territory that it's impossible to provide the stylistic and tonal recipe for every type of sound in a single article, but what we can do is cover the basics to help you capture your sound.
HAVE A SOUND IN MIND AND USE THE APPROPRIATE GEAR
Decide first of all on the type of sound you're going for. The sound starts at, and is only as good as the source, so use a good quality instrument that is properly intonated and set up. Use fresh, roundwound strings if you want a bright, full-frequency modern sound, and flatwounds if you're tastes lean more towards vintage Motown and 60s rock tones. Remember that different bass models have very characteristic sounds; Rickenbacker, Hofner, Fender and Gibson basses will all sound different, and if you're looking for the sound of one particular model, then the best way to get it is to use that bass. You'll also want to use the appropriate picking technique (pick, fingers, thumb or slapping) and pickups and settings on the bass for the type of sound you're after.
RECORDING: FOUR MAIN METHODS
There are four primary methods that are commonly used today to capture the sound of the electric bass:
- Direct (also known as DI or Direct Input)
- Direct with amp simulation hardware or software
- Miked bass amp
- Various combinations are also frequently used; for example, a direct input and a miked amp are often recorded simultaneously
Here are some details of each method:
Direct without anything. If your recorder or computer audio interface has a HighZ (high-impedance) input, you can plug the output of your bass or effects pedals directly into it and record direct with no additional hardware. If you don't have a HighZ input, then you can use a Direct Box. These convert the bass signal's impedance so it can be recorded through a mic or line input on a audio interface or mixing console. Process the recording with a bit of plugin compression and EQ, and you can get very solid bass tones.
Direct with amp simulation software, such as Avid Eleven LE, Line 6 Pod Farm or IK Multimedia's Ampeg SVX (Fig. 1). Plug the bass into a a direct box or your HighZ input, and then process that signal with the amp sim software. Some programs have low-latency modes that allow you to monitor the processed audio while you record. You can also record a DI, then duplicate the recorded "direct" track, and use one copy "unaffected" while processing the second copy with the amp sim software; then blend the two signals together in the mix for interesting "combination" tones.
Fig. 1: Software amp simulation plugins such as IK Multimedia's Ampeg SVX can give your bass the sound and character of a miked amp.
Direct through an amp simulation pedal or desktop modeling box such as the SansAmp VT Bass, DigiTech BP355 or Boss GT-10B. Depending on the output level and impedance of the particular unit, you may have to plug into a HighZ input or regular line input - check your product's manual to be sure. Using a hardware amp modeler gives your direct recording the "coloration" of a bass amp and speaker cabinet, but as with a "real" amp, and unlike software, once you record the sound, you can not change it.
Miked Bass Amp. The basic principles are similar to those I covered in my Guitar Amp Miking 101 article. For a brighter sound, aim the mic directly at the center of the speaker's dustcap (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: Aiming the mic at the center of the speaker's dustcap will give you a bright, articulate sound.
As you move out towards the edge of the speaker, the sound will become rounder and warmer. (Fig. 3) Some bass amp cabinets contain small tweeters. Depending on their location, moving the mic towards the edge of the cone closest to the tweeter can actually give you a brighter sound than the center dustcap position. You can put a second mic on the tweeter if you need additional brightness. Record it to a separate track so you can adjust the balance of the woofer and tweeter when you do the final mix. In general, large diaphragm dynamic mikes such as Audio-Technica ATM250, Sennheiser MD421, Audix D6, Electro-Voice RE20 and AKG D112 are favored for bass amps, although large diaphragm condenser mikes such as the Rode NTK or Neumann TLM 102 can also work well.
Fig. 3: Normally, placing the mic at the edge of the speaker cone will give you a warmer, darker sound, but the tweeter in the upper right corner makes this placement sound brighter than it would if the opposite side of the speaker cone was miked instead.
Various combinations, such as a miked amp plus a direct input (with or without amp sim processing), or a direct input track plus a track processed by amp simulation hardware or software are often used together. Blending two different sounds can provide tones than neither one can give you on its own. But watch for phase issues when using any "combo" method. I always like to zoom in on my DAW software's waveform display to the start of the first bass note and look at the tracks to see how they align (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4: Three bass tracks, recorded simultaneously through an amp, an amp sim pedal, and a DI box. The DI track is out of phase with the other two tracks.
It is important to to get all of the bass tracks in-phase by dragging or nudging them into alignment so that their "peaks and valleys" correspond (Fig. 5). This is crucial for bass, because when tracks are out of phase, the low frequencies that are so essential to a good bass recording will cancel out and largely disappear.
Fig. 5: The same bass tracks after being dragged into phase alignment.
EXTRAS: COMPRESSION, EQ AND EFFECTS
Whether or not you should record with compression, EQ and / or effects is as much an artistic decision as it is a technical one. Remember that once a sound is recorded with these, it is impossible to "undo" or remove them; but if you're certain that you like the effect, and you're hearing the sound you want, then by all means, feel free to commit to it and "print" it. If you are at all unsure, you can also simultaneously record a clean DI track to give yourself an unprocessed option in case you change your mind later.
Some types of effects that are popular with bass include:
- Compression - pedal in front of amp / DI or post-tracking via a plugin.
- EQ - from a pedal, amp sim hardware or software, or plugins.
- Chorus pedals
- Envelope filters
- Octave and synth pedals for extra fat bass lines.
The two most commonly used effects for bass are EQ and compression. Before reaching for the mixer EQ or an EQ pedal, I try to get the sound of the bass happening through instrument and pickup selection, mic selection and placement, and the amp settings; I save the final EQ adjustments, if needed, for the mix. The one major exception to that is a high pass filter. High pass filters can be used to get rid of the subsonic "gunk" that robs your mix of clarity and power. For bass, this should be set fairly low; remember that the low E string on a four string bass is 41.20 Hz, and on a five string, the low B string is 30.87 Hz, so depending on which one you're using, you'll usually want to set your filter just below there. Try 30 Hz for five string and 40Hz for four string bass.
Compression is another matter. If the player could use some help with evening out the fluctuations in their playing dynamics, you can try a compressor pedal or rackmount compressor with a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio, with a fairly high threshold so it only compresses on the loudest peaks / hardest played notes. Attack time should be fairly short--anything from the fastest setting up to about 20ms. The longer the attack time, the more of the note's initial attack will come through unaffected by the compressor. The release should be set to a moderate time - set it too fast and it will distort, set it too long and the compressor won't release before the next note hits. Try a 100 to 200ms release time and adjust it to taste from there. Remember - you can always add more compression when you mix - this is just to help tame the dynamics a bit and help prevent any unexpected digital clipping or "overs" in your DAW.
WHICH METHOD IS RIGHT FOR ME?
Which recording methods should you use? That depends on your needs and your situation. If you have a great sounding bass amp, then a microphone might be the ideal way to record your bass tones. If you have cranky neighbors and need to work with headphones, going direct with an amp sim plugin or hardware unit may be a better option. Because of their flexibility, I recommend always recording a direct input, even if you plan on also recording a bass amp or with an amp modeler. Every bass player should have a direct box in their gear bag. Direct input recordings are very useful due to the many different things you can do with them. They can be used "as is" as the source of your bass sound, or adjusted with EQ and compression. They can be processed with an amp sim plugin. They can be used for ReAmping--sending the DI sound out of the computer and through a re-amp box (to convert the level and impedance) and then to effects pedals and a miked bass amplifier; the sound of the amp is recorded to a new, separate track.
Experiment with the various approaches to see how each one sounds, then try combining two or three of the methods and blending the tracks together in the final mix. The great thing about recording bass is the number of options we have available today, and no matter what your situation, with a little experimentation, you should be laying down earth shaking bass tracks in no time.
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.