September 22, 2021
Recording a bass guitar isn’t necessarily the hardest thing in the world – certainly not as hard as playing one - but it can be tricky to really dial it in. With that in mind, here are a few tips for consistently getting solid, reliable bass parts in the studio.
It’s probably obvious to any experienced bass player that not all instruments are the same. A p-bass yields a much different tone than a j-bass, for example. It pays to know what you’re going for ahead of time and prepare the right instrument for the job. If you don’t own the right instrument, you can rent or borrow one.
By the same token, not all head/amp combos are created equally, and it pays to do a little research and experimenting at home before coming into the studio. After all, a focused goal means time saved, which means money saved.
It may seem like common sense, but many players neglect the little things like making sure pickups are clean, buzzes and rattles are tightened up, and strings are sounding good before a session. Maintaining your instrument and amps is a good idea in general, but make sure to give everything a once-over before a session.
If your strings are getting too old and tired, they may not hold a tune well in the studio, or they may just sound dull and lifeless. Putting a new pair of strings on before recording is great – but you probably want to do it a week or so out and get them broken in. That is, unless you’re looking for a particularly bright, sharp sound.
Another no-brainer, maybe, but basses need to be tuned right before the session. Since basses hold tuning a little better and minor tuning issues aren’t as noticeable as with guitars, some players are tempted to ignore tuning, but it’ll make a big difference in recording.
The age-old debate on bass recording is whether to mic the cabinet or record direct. The truth is most pros do both. You can split the signal using a DI box and record the direct signal along with the miked-up cabinet. In today’s world of DAWs with unlimited tracks, there’s very little reason NOT to. The direct signal will give you a more transient sound and pick up detail and high-mids better. The cabinet mic(s) will give you the unique character of the cabinet, head, and room, and probably a rounder, fuller tone that you can use to fill in the low end of the bass sound.
Just remember when you’re mixing to experiment with reversing the phase of one of the tracks, as the mixed signals may create some phase issues.
Also remember that you’re under no obligation to record only one mic on the cabinet. Often, producers will use a combo of direct signal and two or three mic variations.
Typically, bass cabinets are miked with dynamic mics as this type of mic emphasizes high-mids, which can be a good thing for helping your bass cut through a mix and translate well on small speakers like earbuds and laptops.
Placement possibilities are endless. Try starting with a placement similar to what you might see on a guitar cabinet in a live setting. Slightly off-axis, an inch or so away from the grill, just off center to the cone. This is a good way to get a punchy sound. A close placement may also emphasize low end due to proximity effect – depending on the mic.
Due to the long wavelengths of lower notes, pulling the mic back a few feet into the room may also give you a better low-end response.
If for some reason you can’t record a DI signal, you may try a mic combo with a dynamic like the Carvin Audio M68 up close, and a large diaphragm condenser from a couple feet to as much as 10 feet back in the room.
The main key is to listen to what you’re getting before you actually record. Put on your headphones and have the bassist (if it’s not you) play something simple while you adjust mics and settings. Since the room you’re in will be a huge factor, no one mic technique will be the ultimate and only solution.
Bass is a great candidate for compression in the mix, and you may want to apply some going to tape but keep it light – you can’t “uncompress” later. Similarly, if you’ve got pedal effects like chorus or distortion, you may want to also record a dry signal alongside the effected signal, just in case. Reverb use is rare in bass, but the same guidelines apply.
Above all, as with recording any other instrument, make sure to experiment and prepare ahead of time. If you’re paying for studio time, little things like equipment maintenance, pre-production planning, and rehearsal will go a long way to getting a great result quickly. And make sure to listen to results and make adjustments as needed.
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