So many all-time great songs are driven by a great bass line. Some great examples include “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5, “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder, “Under Pressure” by Queen, and modern songs like “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar and “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake. There are so many more that could be listed here, but one thing is for sure - if a song has a great bass line, you can dance, bob your head, and move to that song better than most others.
I want to share with you what I consider to be the essential elements in getting a great bass recording. As a bass player first, I have spent the last 20 years writing, recording, touring, and working towards the best bass tone possible. Here are my top 5 tips for getting a great bass recording. I will cover bass guitar in these examples, but that is in no way meant to diminish the power of a great synth bass part in a song.
It doesn’t have to be expensive, a name brand, new or vintage, it just has to sound great. Lets define “great”. Great to me means a consistent, even tone from the lowest note to the highest note with no “dead spots” or “hot spots”. This will help you get a great sound. I have made great bass recordings with a $300, imported bass and I have had a difficult time making great recordings with an all-original, American made, 1960s Fender bass. As with all things, trust you ears and how the instrument feels, don’t be fooled by the price tag, the name on the headstock or if someone tells you “this is the holy grail of bass guitars”. Judge it on sound and feel only.
HOW you play the instrument is as important as the instrument itself. The only thing that makes this slightly less important than the instrument is that you can’t make an instrument that won’t play in tune or has tons of dead or hot spots sound great. You may be able to make it sound decent, but it will have its limitations. If you have a solid instrument, the technique you use when playing it will have a huge impact. Whether you’re playing with your fingers, a pick, your thumb, or anything else for that matter (see Tony Levin), playing with a consistent dynamic and attack is super important. While the dynamics of a song will go up and down from section to section, rarely do you want your part to dynamically move up and down from note to note. Practice makes perfect in this case. Use a metronome and record yourself often, listening back for timing and consistent attack. Not only will this allow your part to sound better when played back, it will make the song feel better and it will “sit” better in the overall recording.
How you record the bass - Direct vs Amp
If you have to choose one, I always go with a DI (direct input) first. This will allow you to get the most low end from your instrument possible. I also love miking up my vintage Ampeg B-15, but I almost always do it in tandem with a DI signal. Being that the bass guitar will be an anchoring factor in your production, you want as much low end as you can get to work with. The exceptions to this rule for me are a) if you also have a big, low-end filled synth bass that will occupy the frequencies below the bass guitar, and b) when there’s a big kick drum sound that is using up most of the frequencies below 100hz. In those cases, I will sometimes go for a thinner sound, or just record my amplifier without a DI. Even in these cases though, it’s nice to have the option of a full sounding bass guitar part recorded. A great tube DI like a Reddi or a Noble is a good choice when recording bass because it adds warmth and can bring out cool harmonic characteristics in your bass. If you don’t have access to a tube or higher-end DI, plugging straight into the input on your audio interface will serve you well.
Let’s talk about compression. If you are a very consistent player dynamically, you won’t need a lot of compression on the way in to your recording interface. I almost always use at least a small amount of compression though when possible to even out the little, occasional peaks and resonant notes. This can also be very helpful if the bass you are recording sounds great but has a few “hot spots” in the neck. Even if you are a very consistent player, a hot spot here or there will jump out and compression is very helpful in taming these moments. If you don’t have access to a compressor, fear not, you can still get great recordings, it will just be even more important to play dynamically consistent. When I set my compressor, I typically use a 4:1 ratio with medium-slow attack and medium-fast release times. I want the compressor to engage but not sound “pumpy”. I’m typically looking for 2-3 dB of gain reduction at the most on the loudest notes or most resonant spots on my instrument. This way I leave myself or whoever is mixing the song some tonal options during the mixing process. If I squash the sound too much, there won’t be any life left in the sound, but if I am all over the place dynamically, it will make the mixer’s job harder in getting my part to sit right in the mix.
Phase is extremely important when recording a bass guitar, especially if you are recording multiple tracks of your bass at once - a DI, an amp, an effected DI, etc. First I will talk about the importance of making sure your low-end is in phase across a song. If you are recording a bass part, chances are you have a kick drum, a synth, some sort of percussion, or something else sharing frequencies with your bass guitar. This is where phase is crucial. You can check the phase several ways, but my two favorite are: #1 - Zoom in as far as you can with your bass guitar track and your kick drum track next to each other. Look closely to see if the waveforms are pointing up or down and compare the two tracks to each other. If one is moving up and the other is moving down, there’s a good chance your two instruments are out of phase. This also applies when you are recording a DI and an amp simultaneously. While the timing of the kick drum and bass tracks may be slightly ahead or behind from each other, your DI track and your amp track should not be. #2 - check the phase in your low-end by inserting a phase reversal plugin or an EQ plugin that has a phase button on it, and flip the phase back and forth with your eyes closed, listening for which setting gives you the most low-end. There are other tools that can help with phase correction such as the Little Labs IBP plugin if you want to dig deeper, or are dealing with phase that is not strictly 180 degrees out.
There you have it folks, 5 ways to quickly and easily improve your bass guitar recordings. There are other things to consider such as EQ, effects, 4 vs 5 or 6 strings, what type of amp to use, etc. But these 5 tips, if applied, will definitely help you get a great sound. The rest is a matter of taste and preference. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try different things, that’s how new sounds are discovered! As with all things in recording, trust your ears and your intuition and have fun! What are your tips & tricks for getting a great bass sound? Let us know below!