No song is complete without the coveted low-end that only a bass can create. Famous songs have been built on (quite literally) the foundation of the kick drum and bass guitar, which is why engineers over the years have experimented with hundreds of techniques to capture that perfect low-end recording.
As you may already be aware, there are numerous ways to capture a bass instrument. Though no way is “wrong,” there are secret tips and tricks to implement when recording your bass guitar to make sure you have a final recording that you’re proud of. Here are the best techniques to use when producing bass guitar, from tracking all the way to mixing.
Record Both DI and Amp
This is one of the oldest but best tricks in the book! When tracking your bassist, it’s common to capture two signals: the bass through an amplifier, and the bass unprocessed as a direct signal. This provides flexibility later in the mixing phase if you have both signals captured. Many engineers will track the direct signal and add effects later. Others will use the growl and bite of the amp as is. The best engineers will mix both tones together to create a combined, powerful low end.
This practice can also be applied to electric guitar players as well. It’s a technique that provides a lot of insurance when recording a song. Consider this scenario: you have a bassist who comes with their own rig and insists on recording with a distorted tone. You record their part and end up finding later that their effects added more dirt and noise in their signal chain than you had originally heard. A direct signal would be insurance in this case, as it would be dry and usable to either add distortion effects or add an amp simulator.
Tips for the Bassist
There are a couple things you or your bassist can do to prepare for their session. Before we dive into the technical and gear we need to address the most obvious: make sure you have a good bassist! If you’re using a friend who’s not comfortable performing, or if you’re trying to translate your guitar skills to bass (we’re all guilty of this one), it’s absolutely worth finding somebody who has honed-in on their bass craft. Don’t worry, you and your friend can invest in bass lessons later, but don’t compromise a good bass recording if you can’t play it well.
Back to bass tips — It’s really important to double check and even triple check that the bass is in tune before and during tracking. It’s easy to oversee this obvious step … so be sure you listen constantly for any notes that don’t sound quite right. Use a tuner, and remember to listen with your ears … sometimes tuners can be deceiving!
In addition, it’s common to put new strings on electric and acoustic guitars, new heads on drums, etc. But should your bassist play with new strings at a recording? Yes and no. Brand new strings often have that “sliding” sensation which yields finger noise in the recording. Old strings often sound lifeless and dull. A happy medium is putting on new strings and breaking them in by playing a couple sessions before the final recording session for optimal tone. This is a subjective point, however, so always trust your ears and do what’s best for the vibe of the song.
Best Mic Practices
Assuming you’re recording line-in and mic’ing a cabinet, it’s important you know which mic to use and how to properly place it! Mic selection is a personal choice, and there’s no right or wrong way of mic’ing an instrument as long as you understand what you’re trying to capture. Generally, engineers use dynamic mics that are more capable of picking up low end than a standard sm58. Think of a kick drum mic like the AKG D1112 as an option for tracking your bass. Other common options include the RE20, 602-II, D6, and the Beta 52A.
Once you’ve landed a microphone, you’re only halfway there. Placement and gain staging is everything. You can read about how to gain stage with a quick search on the web, but basically you want to give yourself enough headroom later when mixing. If you record ‘too hot’, you may reduce the dynamic range of the recording. As for mic placement, you can center a mic in the middle of the cone for a punchy sound, or move off center to find a warm, less aggressive tone. This requires experimentation to find the perfect spot, which you can mark with some tape for your next session. Bear in mind the proximity effect as well when recording bass: the closer a mic is to a source, the more low end it’ll pick up due to its proximity.
Best Mixing Practices
Any great sound designer or engineer will understand that tracking bass is only 75% of the work. The final push to the finish line includes mixing the bass instrument to fit well into the mix. There’s thousands of hours of experience and training that are to be had when learning mixing, but here’s the general things you need to understand when mixing bass.
Using your DAW’s equalizer can really shape the tone of your bass tracks. Oftentimes giving a slight boost or cut can make or break a song. Cutting is used to provide space for the drum bass so the two sounds don’t compete with each other. Boosting, which should be used sparingly, can help bring out mids or certain low frequencies on a bass.
Compression & Limiting
Like most mixing tools, it’s easy to get carried away with plugins. It’s important to understand your effects rack and to use them to enhance a track. In this case, a compressor or limiter can be your best friend when tracking or mixing bass. Compression helps even out your signal by boosting and “compressing” it. The threshold, gain reduction, attack, and release knobs will depend on the signal from your instrument.
Limiting is similar to compression, but more drastic in reducing peaks. Compression ducks a signal whereas a limiter will place a ceiling and stop a signal from breaking a threshold. Both are useful but can be detrimental if you over compress or limit your track. If you’re not sure, leave this to the mixing engineer!
Saturation, Effects, and Other Plugins
Arguably the most fun of mixing and producing music is utilizing other effects and sounds to your recordings. Outside the typical EQ, compression, reverb, and common plugins on channels, there’s always room for some experimentation to really set apart your sound. These effects need to be used the most in moderation, but they can add that unique sparkle, tone, and edge to your bass recordings.
Saturation effects such as overdrive, distortion, fuzz, and harmonizers are all common effects to apply to your bass guitar. Less common but unique effects include chorus, octave-effects, modulation, and genre specific plugins (Lo-Fi plugins like vinyl, angelic tones like shimmer, etc.).
Happy Bass Recording and Producing!
Remember — there’s no right or wrong way to track your bass. Try applying some of these tips, and never stop experimenting. Practice makes perfect, and the more you try the more experience you’ll have under your belt. Now go record that hit song with that killer bass line!