Thank you to everyone who has commented on my previous articles and send me emails and PMs here on the site. One request I've had several times now is to do an article on recording bass guitar effectively, so that is what I'm going to discuss here.
Bass guitar often gets overlooked by bands when they record (and elsewhere, as many a gloomy bassist will tell you). But a badly recorded or mixed bass track can play havoc with a recording, and a lot of bands realise too late that they've not given enough thought to it and suffer as a result. So let's go over some basic principles.
1. Do your homework
Many of the same principles that apply to recording guitar apply to recording bass. Your bassist must know every note of his or her parts and have practiced them, preferably with the red light on. Some studio engineers have started recommending that guitarists learn the bass parts as well because bassists so often come to the studio without having prepared adequately, and I've lost count of the number of times where I've had to overdub a bass part myself to make it acceptable (and I'm not exactly Jaco Pastorius). I've even been paid to be a session bassist by bandleaders who despair at their bassist's inability to record adequately. Not only will half-a-sing the bass parts cost you in quality, it will cost you in money extra studio time and session musicians are not cheap.
2. Have a clear idea of how you want the bass to sound
This is a problem that extends beyond the recording studio and into the rehearsal room. A lot of bands give no thought to how they want the bass to sound tonally. I worked with a bassist who routinely cranked up the mids on his bass and amp so that he could hear it more clearly in the rehearsal room. However, this made his bass sound like a dreadful, honky mess, and he insisted on using the same tone onstage and, just as bad, in the recording studio. In the end I played most of his parts myself and buried the rest in the mix where it couldn't do too much damage.
Some bassists have the opposite problem they dial in a tone that sounds good in isolation with no regard to the rest of the band's sound (guitarists are often guilty of this too), usually by cranking up the treble for a clunky Korn/Tool type sound without regard to whether the guitar tone or kick drum style was suitable, resulting in the bass overpowering the mix by swamping the key 1-5KHz frequencies also needed by the vocals, guitar and snare (and sometimes the kick as well, especially in metal). In this situation, the only choice left open to the mix engineer is to kill off the offending frequencies with EQ cuts, improving the mix at the expense of the bass sound.
Listen objectively to your band and work out where the bass sits in the overall sound, particularly in comparison to the kick drum and the guitars. If you can't do the job yourself, get a sound engineer into your rehearsal room and get the bass to sit properly in the mix. Your live performances will massively benefit from this exercise too.
3. Use all your recording options
As with guitar, modern methods of recording give you a wide array of options when recording bass guitar. Many bands choose to DI the bass, just plugging it into the desk or interface and playing away.
However, there are two things to remember if you're recording this way. The first is that you're going to do bad things to the tone if you don't use a bass amp simulator to give some air and tonal shape to the sound. You can either use a hardware v-amp (a bass POD or similar) or a software amp sim there's a free amp sim called B.O.D. which is very good and has some nice distortion effects, or the free version of IKM's AmpliTube comes with a decent sounding virtual bass amp with plenty of mic and cabinet options to help you get the sound you want.
The second is that the signal from the bass is likely to have bigger peaks than that of a guitar, particularly if you play fingerstyle and especially if you play in a slap/pop style. To avoid these waveforms peaking, many bassists cut the input gain on the interface so that the biggest thumps don't break up. However, this can result in the rest of the sound being too quiet, and a lowered signal-to-noise ratio impacting on the sound quality. To solve this, insert a compressor between the bass and the input either with a compressor pedal or by using the built-in compressor in a bass v-amp (most good ones have one for this reason). If you set it correctly you will take the sting out of the biggest bass hits without losing any funk.
If you're mic'ing up a bass cab, as ever it's a matter of trial and error and the same principles as micing up a guitar amp apply. Particularly important is the distance between the cab and the mic the further away the mic is the more room ambience you will pick up and the less sub-bass you will pick up. For a big metal Korn-style wallop, I've put the mic anything up to 6 feet from the cab, giving the sound definition and air at the expense of warmth. Closer in you'll get more wub but less attack. Best of all is to split the signal from the bass and get a line recording in parallel to the mic'd up sound, so that if you don't like the tone you got in the studio you can re-amp or use a v-amp rather than have to go through the bother and expense of doing more takes.
About The Author:
James Scott is a music producer in London, UK who works with emerging and independent artists to help them get noticed in the industry.