September 23, 2014

How to Record an Electric Bass

Search the web for jokes about being the bassist in a band and you'll, no doubt, have no problem finding pages of material.  Though they (or should I say "we", as a professional bassist for over 20 years) are the butt of many a joke, the role of the bassist in just about any genre of music is one of the most important aspects of a mix; yet the nuances of capturing the performance, tone and vibe is often over looked.  Let's take a look at what it takes to get the best sounding bass tracks that fit into a mix with a minimal of effort during mix time.

Capturing bass, or any live instrument for that matter, follows a hierarchy of importance in getting the "perfect" take:

1. Start with an Awesome Bassist

At the top is the player him/her self.  The right person for the job is the single most important aspect of getting a great take, with minimal effort.  A well seasoned bassist, that knows their instrument and that has a great technique can all but make up for any other weak link in the chain of recording.  How the instrument is played can alleviate a whole bunch of other problems down the line.  A bassist that is dynamically controlled (not just bashing away on the instrument) will save you from having to over compress and EQ out unwanted string attack noise later on.  Will playing with fingers or a pick sound better with the track?  Again, its the technique and knowledge of the musician that will be able to execute the performance for a usable track.

A musician that has a great feel can make even a simple quarter note phrase bounce and fit into an arrangement.  One with a great ear knows when something sounds right (and wrong) and can adjust for what is needed, saving the engineer countless hours of trying to fix something in the mix.  Sometimes, the musician isn't up to par for the recording process, so you do the best with what you've got, or call in a session musician to lay it down.  Hopefully the quality of the recording will trump any bruised egos that might result from such a move.

2. Select an Appropriate Bass

Next let's take a look at the instrument itself.  For many "band" musicians, (as opposed to session musicians) there is a "main" instrument, or in most cases, the "only" instrument.  This can range from a $99 special to a work of art that goes for more than the vehicle the bassist arrived in.  Neither of these is better than the other. PERIOD.  If something sounds right for the song, then it is right.

Woody Phifer Signature Bass By: Anthony Paganini

One easy way to get different tones out of an instrument is as simple as changing the strings or string type.  Depending on the genre of music, I will often suggest that the bassist bring a certain type of string with them (or just a change of strings in general).  A classic rock band, I might suggest using flat wound strings to get a dull, hollow, Beatles-esque sound.  A metal band, round wound strings all day.  Jazz could go either way depending on the music as could country.  Sometimes an old worn set of strings is what is called for, and that's what we'll go with.

Sometimes, the instrument is just not right for the session, and there isn't much that can be done, except buy, rent, borrow a different instrument for the recording.  Many studios have a selection of instruments to use for just such a case.  And, to reiterate, a great player can make up a great deal for a less than perfect instrument.

3. Input Selection: Amplifier, Mic, and/or DI?

The next tier is a combination of things: amplifier, mic and DI.  Use any one of them, use them all, but which ever way you choose, but: make sure your ears are making the decision.

Tip: A mic'd cabinet can yield some incredible sounds but be careful of how you're listening.  If the bassist is sitting in the same room as you are while you're dialing in the sound, be aware that the acoustic string noise (yes even on an electric instrument) may be giving you, and the musician, a false sense of brightness.  As a session player, I often fall for the trap of "sounds great in here!", only to listen to playback and have it sound less impressive since all that bright attack from the fingers hitting the strings is no longer there.  A good practice, if possible, is to have the bassist sit with the amp while you're dialing in a mic'd cab sound, so that you can hear exactly what is coming through the mic without any other coloration from the player.  If you ARE the player, its a bit harder, you'll have to record, and listen back, adjust and repeat until you get it right.

4. Choose a Microphone

But what are you listening for?  Usually a nice clean, crisp tone without a TON of sub (below 100hz) content.  Your microphone choice here will help determine how much of that bottom end you are capturing.  Usually a dynamic mic works best for miking the cabinet.

Standard choices include the following mics:
  • AKG D112 
  • Shure Beta 52(a) 
  • EV RE20 
  • Shure SM7b 
  • Shure SM57 (yes, even an SM57)

ev re20, re20, ev mic, bass mic, record electric bass
The EV RE20 - An Audio Engineer Favorite

If you have a bunch of these mics at your disposal you can swap them in and out to find the best candidate for the job and if you're looking to purchase a mic to play the role, reading and understanding frequency response charts are a decent alternative before purchasing if you're not able to try the mic before you buy it.  (We'll touch on that in a later article).  The amp should NOT be blaring loud or anywhere NEAR what the musician would need for a concert environment.  Unless they're using a tube amp that they're trying to push into overdrive, set them straight, this isn't a show, it's the studio, you don't need to compete for volume here, that's what the faders are for.

5. Calibrate Your Tone

Start with the mic just a few inches from the grille of the amp at the edge of the speaker cone. With a decent pair of isolating (closed back) headphones, have the bassist play and slowly bring the mic to the center of the cone.  Listen to how even an inch of motion drastically changes the overall tone of the bass in the headphones.

If you want more bass, pull the mic away from the cabinet and grille.  You will now hear more bottom end, but you will lose some of the focused sound and tone you got from the mic being very close to the grille. However, it should be noted that some mic's that exhibit strong proximity effect  might actually LOSE some bottom end by moving the mic away from the cabinet.  (See our other article on how the proximity effect affects mic'ing guitar cabs). Tilting the mic left and right will produce what is known as an "off-axis" sound.  Generally sounds a bit more nasal and thin as the signal is not directly bombarding the diaphragm of the mic straight on.  Again, use your ears and listen to how the sound you're capturing fits into the rest of the material as a whole.  What might sound GREAT on its own, might sound terrible or not fit in at all with the rest of the mix.

6. Blending in DI for More Attack

Once the mic sounds right, you might feel that you want a little more of that attack from the strings/pickups.  There are a couple of ways to do this.  First is with a DI (or direct injection/input) box.  This is a device that allows a musician to plug their instrument in, have it balanced, usually by a transformer, and get sent out as a mic level signal to be plugged directly into a mic preamp.  The box also usually has a "through" output which is just another instrument cable that is unaffected by the transformer and is just a pass through of the signal directly out (to the amp for example).  The direct signal usually exhibits more brightness and attack than you would get from miking the cabinet alone.

If you're getting a great low end from the cab, try plugging in a DI along with it an blending the two signals to taste.  Be sure to check phase between the direct signal and the DI.  Sometimes flipping the polarity switch will fix things if the combined sound is thin or tinny.  Other times you may have to simply move the mic a little closer or further away from the grill to combat the phase issue, or a combination of both.  The other way to get that attack sound is to mic the bass itself.  Yes, mic the electric bass, no I'm not crazy.  That "clickity clack" sound that many people lovingly say sounds like someone working on a Buick, can be a perfect presence boost that a bass sound needs to cut through a mix.  It's a great trick that is often overlooked or forgotten.

7. Everything Else

At the bottom of the spectrum are the rest of the components in the signal chain.  Cables, preamps, converters, (tape?); all these are almost inconsequential compared to the rest.   If you've done your client and yourself the service of using your ears during the setup, you should have a really easy time in fitting the bass track into the mix with minimal effort, editing and processing.  Which will be my next article, "Mixing Electric Bass."

By: Anthony Paganini of MEI Records


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