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By Phil O'Keefe, Associate Editor, Harmony Central
The importance of bass in modern recordings can't be overstated. Bass players can achieve a surprising number of different sounds and timbres; everything from the deep boom of a dub bass to the bright percussive attack of slap bass—the instrument can cover so much sonic territory that it's impossible to provide the stylistic and tonal recipe for every type of sound in a single article, but what we can do is cover the basics to help you capture your sound.
Have a sound in mind
Decide first of all on the type of sound you're going for. The sound starts at, and is only as good as, the source, so use a good-quality instrument that is properly intonated and set up. Use fresh, roundwound strings if you want a bright, full-frequency modern sound, and flatwounds if your tastes lean more toward vintage Motown and '60s rock tones. Remember that different bass models have very characteristic sounds; Rickenbacker, Hofner, Fender, and Gibson basses will all sound different, so if you're looking for the sound of one particular model, the best way to get it is to use that bass. You'll also want to use the appropriate picking technique (pick, fingers, thumb, or slapping) and pickups and settings on the bass for the type of sound you're after.
Recording: 4 main methods
There are four primary methods that are commonly used today to capture the sound of the electric bass:
Direct (also known as DI or Direct Input)
Direct with amp simulation software or hardware
Various combinations of the above
Here are some details of each method:
Direct: If your recorder or computer audio interface has a Hi-Z (high-impedance) input, you can plug the output of your bass or effects pedals directly into it and record direct with no additional hardware. If you don't have a Hi-Z input, then you can use a Direct Box. These convert the bass signal's impedance so it can be recorded through a mic or line input on an audio interface or mixing console. Process the recording with a bit of plug-in compression and EQ, and you can get very solid bass tones.
Direct with amp simulation software (such as Avid Eleven LE, Line 6 Pod Farm, or IK Multimedia's Ampeg SVX): Plug the bass into a a direct box or your Hi-Z input, and then process that signal with the amp sim software. Some programs have low-latency modes that allow you to monitor the processed audio while you record. You can also record a DI, then duplicate the recorded "direct" track, and use one copy "unaffected" while processing the second copy with the amp sim software. Then you can blend two signals together in the mix for interesting "combination" tones.
Direct through an amp simulation pedal or desktop modeling box (such as the SansAmp VT Bass, DigiTech BP355, or BOSS GT-10B): Depending on the output level and impedance of the particular unit, you may have to plug into a Hi-Z input or regular line input—check your product's manual to be sure. Using a hardware amp modeler gives your direct recording the "coloration" of a bass amp and speaker cabinet, but as with a "real" amp, and unlike software, once you record the sound you cannot change it.
Miked bass amp: The basic principles are similar to those I covered in my Guitar Amp Miking 101 article. For a brighter sound, aim the mic directly at the center of the speaker's dustcap (see fig. 1). As you move out toward the edge of the speaker, the sound will become rounder and warmer. Some bass amp cabinets contain small tweeters. Depending on their location, moving the mic toward the edge of the cone closest to the tweeter can actually give you a brighter sound than the center dustcap position. You can put a second mic on the tweeter if you need additional brightness. Record it to a separate track so you can adjust the balance of the woofer and tweeter when you do the final mix. In general, large-diaphragm dynamic mikes such as , , , Electro-Voice RE20, and AKG D112 are favored for bass amps, although large-diaphragm condenser mikes such as the Rode NTK or Neumann TLM 102 can also work well.
Various combinations (such as a miked amp plus a direct input—with or without amp sim processing—or a direct input track plus a track processed by amp simulation hardware or software): Blending two different sounds can provide tones than neither one can give you on its own. But watch for phase issues when using any "combo" method.