Recording Bass Guitar
What's to know? You just wipe the rust off the strings, plug it into the desk and bob's your uncle. Don't you? Er... not quite.
Getting a good recorded bass sound has never been so easy, yet it is still an area that seems to mystify people. Paul White outlines a few practical methods.
In the heyday of rock music, pretty much everything was miked up, including the bass guitar and the keyboard amps. Occasionally, DI boxes would be used to supplement the miked bass sound, but it's only in recent years that DI methods have caught on as a serious method of getting good bass sounds onto tape. Part of this change is down to the evolution in bass playing styles, with cleaner sounds becoming more popular. There are also excellent recording preamps available for the bass guitar for those who want a touch (or a lot) of coloration.
Bass guitars fitted with conventional, non-active pickups don't interface well directly with mixer line inputs because the mixer impedance is too low for proper matching. The result is a dull and unresponsive tone. What's needed is a DI box, either a high-impedance active model or a high-impedance transformer passive version. (In the context of bass guitars, high impedance usually means anything from 500kohms up to 1M ohm or thereabouts.) This prevents undue pickup loading and presents a properly matched signal to the desk. Active basses and guitars can be plugged directly into a desk because the active circuitry effectively functions as a DI box.
Though DI-ing a bass guitar means that you will be able to record it easily, it may not necessarily sound how you would like it to, because a bass amplifier doesn't have a flat frequency response — it is 'voiced' to suit the instrument. As a consequence, you may find that you need to apply a degree of EQ when DI-ing a bass to get the sound you're after. A console with a four-band EQ section can usually make a good stab at this, but I find graphic equalisers particularly useful when creating bass sounds. Lately I've been using the instrument input of a Drawmer 1960 compressor instead of a DI box when recording the bass and guitar, which keeps all the main processing in one box. The preamp even has EQ and treble boost so you can get the sound very close to what you want before adding additional EQ at the desk or via a graphic equaliser if need be. This particular unit also features valve amplification stages, which help add that elusive warmth to a DI'd sound.
For those demanding a more distinctive bass sound, there are several recording bass preamps on the market. Some are very simple and concentrate on getting the basic sound right, while others include banks of digital effects for live performance. Most bass sounds can be achieved simply by using EQ and compression, but a subtle overdrive effect can help recreate those nostalgic rock bass sounds of the late 60 and early 70s.
Chorus treatments work well on fretless basses, but they can also be used to good effect on conventional fretted basses, in moderation. Flanging is also viable, but because it is such an obvious effect, it really should be used sparingly.
As with any other sound, getting a good bass sound in isolation is one thing, but it may sound completely different in the context of a mix. For that reason, it is as well to leave as many options open as possible — by which I mean leaving the application of effects and any particularly radical EQ to the mixing stage. I know this isn't always possible when you have a limited number of tape tracks or a cassette multitracker with a very simple mixer section, but at least make a few test recordings to see how the finished sound works in context.
Finally, large amounts of reverb added to the bass guitar is seldom a good idea, as it spreads the sound and results in a generally muddy mix. As a rule, the more sparse the instrumentation, the more reverb you can get away with, and fretless basses can generally stand more reverb than fretted ones. In a busy mix, either leave out the reverb altogether or stick to a modest amount of small room, short plate or early reflections — just enough to create a believable sense of space around the sound.
The main thing to bear in mind is that there's no magic to getting a good bass sound — even a simple DI box with whatever EQ you have on the desk will produce usable results. Most serious problems tend to stem from badly set up instruments or poor playing technique, so if you find you have problems, examine those areas first. If you want a bright bass sound, then don't expect to get it from very old strings, and if you want a powerful, punchy sound, the instrument has to be played hard — not tickled!
Feature by Paul White
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