Rock That Bass!
Why is it that the engineer says, “Here’s a
direct box. Plug in and let’s get recording,”
when a bass player shows up at a studio,
then proceeds to spend hours and hours
setting up the drums, guitar cabs, mics,
pedals, etc? Without a kickin’ bass line,
there is no foundation for the music. You
need a bass sound that will punch, thump,
rumble, boom, and articulate. So, how do
we add rocket sauce to bass tracks?
Obviously you need to start with a great
bass and new strings. For rock and metal
there are some fantastic choices. I love
Ibanez basses for this purpose. Fender,
Tobias, Music Man, and others also make
solid, quality choices. As far as strings go,
I’ve found DR hand-wound strings sound
and feel incredible, but this is purely a personal preference. Get yourself a nice bass
amp/cab rig— I enjoy Ampeg, SWR, or
Trace Elliot. Any sort of speaker configuration will work. I have managed to get amazing sounds out of a diverse range of gear,
from tiny combos to giant-sized cabinets.
To begin, mic the speaker up. One of my
favorite bass amp mics is the Sennheiser MD
421. I use this mic constantly. If you want a
little extra zing or sparkle to bring out articulation and attack, grab a nice condenser
mic as well—there are tons of them out
there from Neumann, Shure, AKG, Audio-Technica, Blue, Rode, among others. Putting
the mic directly in front of the cone often
works to achieve a punchy, “in your face”
sound. But you can also experiment with
placing the mic near the edge of the cone,
placing it halfway between the center and
edge of the cone, turning it off-axis (turned
slightly away from pointing straight on to
the cone), and pulled back varying distances
from the cabinet. Try a few things to see
what you like and what works for the track.
Now, the magic: mic the bass guitar itself.
Yes, I want you to grab a condenser mic
and place it in front of the actual bass, even
if it is a solidbody. This gives tons of grimy
transients and attack that you can mix in
gently with the mic’d bass amp. Add a little
bit of this signal in the cue mix for the bass
player’s headphones. It aids in giving them
the feel of playing live and can dramatically
enhance the performance.
Without a kickin’ bass
line, there is no foun-
dation for the music.
You need a bass sound
that will punch, thump,
rumble, boom, and
articulate. So, how do
we add rocket sauce
to bass tracks?
Next, take a direct feed from the bass
through a nice DI box (Radial or something
of that caliber) and track it straight to your
recorder. Lately, I’ve been using the DI
track with several amp simulators. For me,
the IK Multimedia Ampeg SVX plug-in has a
stellar sound. In fact, I read that all the bass
parts on P.O.D.’s latest record used the
Ampeg plug-in. Very cool stuff.
Now take all three tracks—the mic’d
cabinet, the mic’d instrument, and the
direct signal (with or without a bass amp
plug-in), and make sure they are properly
in phase. Nothing kills a good bass part
like phase issues. I like going into my
DAW (I use Pro Tools) and zooming into
the waveforms of the three tracks and
manually lining them up with one another,
so they are perfectly in time.
Finally, mix the three tracks to taste. In
most situations some compression will be
needed, though I recommend not compressing the raw mic’d instrument track.
I find myself relying on plug-ins for bass
compression. Some of my favorites are in
the Waves Studio Classics Collection. I also
use the Waves SSL plug-ins constantly, as
well as the Waves V-Series. There’s something about the “vintage” vibe of these
plug-ins that works well with electric bass.
The bass tracks soloed will probably sound
terrible! They should sound loud, noisy, and
obnoxious. But when you bring in the rest of
the band you will find they make the overall
track. This is the case with many types of
tracks you will record. On their own they
may not sound “right,” but in the context of
the overall mix, they’re perfect! It’s all about
figuring out what function each track should
perform in the mix, then working to make it
fill that niche as well as possible.
The Noise Factor
Don’t be afraid of a little noise and grime.
The fact that you can get a noiseless
recording rig for just a few bucks may make
it seem as if we must be obsessed with
recording perfectly clean tracks, but that’s
not necessarily true. Noisy rock bass can be
one of life’s most pleasing sounds.
Now, crank up the amps, break some stuff,
and make some music!
Chris Scheidies is a musician, studio engineer and
video/visual effects monkey. A true geek, he has worked
in some sort of tech/creative industry for almost two
decades, and currently runs several websites about pro
audio and Linux as well as a Propellerhead Reason help
site. He is employed at Sweetwater as a Sales Engineer
and can be reached at 800-222-4700 ext. 1388 or by