The short answer to the question in the title is “not as much as you think.” To get up and running recording professional-standard bass guitar tracks you need—at least—the following.
Don’t get a six string bass. So much recorded music has featured a Fender Precision bass and that’s the sound many people expect. The other main type of bass is a Fender Jazz. Get one of each (or one with a P/J pickup configuration) and you’ll be covered for most styles. To take it up a notch or two, build a collection to cover the main bass tones. I have vintage basses from Gibson, Fender, MusicMan, and Rickenbacker. To get started though, get a well set up P bass. Whatever instrument you have, make sure there are no crackles or buzzes and that it plays well all across the neck.
A DI is to a bass player what a high-quality tube amp is to a guitarist. It converts the bass signal to one that can be used by your recording hardware. For a clean, transparent tone look into the Avalon U5; it’s an industry standard. I have one and also a Jules Monique which is a tube preamp/DI. There are loads of other options but do spend your money on this.
A great bass tone can be achieved relatively cheaply and easily with a DI box. On most units you can take a signal out of it into an amp so you can record the DI and amp and give your client two signals to blend in the mix. For home studio players who can’t make much of a noise, the other benefit of recording just through a DI (and no amp) is silent recording. Your neighbors will love you!
Along with your DI, this is the other piece of hardware you need to spend a little money on. It is an absolutely essential piece of gear for the home recording musician. It takes the analogue signal coming from your bass and converts it into digital information that can be processed by your computer. This is one of the huge reasons that we can all record at home without expensive, large tape units.
Apogee, Presonus, Focusrite, and Universal Audio all make excellent gear. I have a UA Apollo which is the spine of my studio. I don’t need several big hardware units costing thousands as the Apollo comes with plugins modelling a range of famous recording gear.
It doesn’t really matter if you use PC or Mac. Most musicians tend to favor Macs but a good PC is just as good. The computer is where all the digital information you recorded is stored and processed. The recording, editing, mixing, and mastering will be taken care of by a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). There are many fantastic solutions including Pro Tools, Studio One, Reason, and Cubase. I use Logic Pro X. Think of your DAW as the tool that takes all the ideas in your head and brings them into the world. This is the environment where you record all your bass lines along to the guide tracks you’ll be sent by your client.
You need a computer with enough spec to handle the audio tasks you’ll throw at it. Consider a laptop setup if you’ll be recording in different locations or travelling whilst still needing to record.
A good bass guitar signal chain is fairly simple so don’t buy cheap cables and ruin everything! This applies to live work too. Buy more expensive, high quality cables and take care of them. Look into Providence, Evidence Audio, Vovox, Mogami, and Monster Cable.
A high-quality cable tends to be a little thicker than normal. Look for high quality connectors (Neutrik are industry standard), and good shielding. Some companies make cables designed for particular instruments. There is debate around whether they actually do make a difference but, even if it’s just one percent, that can add up. It’s also reassuring to know that your signal isn’t going to fail you and that you won’t hear crackling in the middle of a session. A good cable will preserve low end and not let you down.
I tend not to record with compression because I like clients to have freedom in the mix and add whatever they need. However, a compressor can add heft and punch to bass tone so you may want to consider one.
Compressors are used for different purposes but one popular way to use them on bass is to even out the dynamic range so that the bass can be brought forward in the mix. It can also be used to add a little sustain which can sound good in rock and pop especially. If you play slap or heavier styles of music, you will want a compressor to even out your tone so you don’t hear huge jumps in volume (although making sure you have solid, even technique is something you should master)
The Universal Audio plugin compressors are amazing. Alternatively, you could go for a hardware unit like an 1176. That will be much more expensive. Pedals like the Origin Effects Cali 76 are not far off being as good as a rack mounted compressor so be sure to check that one out.
Amps and Effects
So much can be done in the box these days that you really can use plugins and amp modelling to get a great sound. Consider recording a clean DI signal and a processed one. The processed signal could be a real amp, with or without effects, or something you process with plugins. Make sure your clean and effected signals are in phase. This gives a client options. Many times, they’ll probably just want the DI but, by giving some choices, you make their life easier. Blending an amp and a DI track together can produce an awesome bass tone that sits perfectly in a mix.
I have the holy grail of bass amps — a 1966 Amp B15. It’s fantastic and I do use it but, more often than not these days, I’m using a simpler setup involving plugins and maybe some pedals.
This really isn’t that much gear and you can easily make back the cost of it with work you generate from your playing. We really are living in one of the best eras for cheap-but-amazing gear so take advantage of it.
The better the quality though, the more you won’t have to worry about your tone. Instead, you can focus on creating the most groovy, creative basslines.