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The world of iso tracks awaits: At Multitrackmaster.com, for example, you can find a wealth of isolated tracks in many styles, as evidenced by this almost 11-minute collection from Abbey Road. Listen and learn.
One of my favorite times to play music is during soundcheck. Of course the roar of a live crowd (or gentle golf clap, depending on the night) fuels the performance fire and is a wonderful instant reward for all the work we put into our craft. But for me, the time before the show in an empty house with a head full of crazy ideas can be pure magic. We tend to play odd songs, odd progressions, or even switch instruments during soundcheck. And though most people will never hear these jams, they can be some of the most creative. Beyond playing “Careless Whisper” to throw off the locals that may be listening, the parts I like most about soundcheck are the simple bass and drum grooves.
Once the drums are dialed in, we’ll check the bass signal, and then the drummer and I play together. Sometimes the grooves are great and sometimes they’re lackluster, but hearing only the bass and drums in my ears is amazing. There is no clutter from upper-register instruments, and my ears can focus on the little things I can’t hear when everyone is jamming—be it string noise, a slight fret buzz, or a little intonation problem because we’re in a different climate. Just like the studio, it’s the time where my in-ears don’t lie. It’s all there for me to hear—good and bad.
That said, is the bad really that bad? Intonation, yes, we should fix that. We are the foundation in this business, so let us at least give the violin player the reference point from which to be out of tune. But string noise, fret buzz, etc., is going to happen. You can’t fire up a lawn mower without making noise. In the same vein, a bass, guitar, or any analog instrument is going to have the occasional anomaly.
When you plug in and play through your headphones, you are going to hear the little nuances of your fingers hitting the fretboard, maybe an accidental strike of the pickups, or even the body of the bass hitting your belt. These are not necessarily bad things. No player is perfect, and unless you simply cannot produce notes because of your technique, then don’t focus on the bad. Focus on the good. Focus on the groove, the fullness of your notes and tone, and the accuracy of the licks you are working on. By simply isolating your bass in your ears, you’ll instantly start to notice the things you need to work on. But you may also notice something truly special.
There are subtleties in each of our approaches that make us unique. What one player may look at as a flaw, another may see as style. There is a place in the universe for everyone, and you shouldn’t be discouraged if you don’t sound exactly like your favorite player. Be yourself. And if you really want to feel better about your tone or technique, try hopping online and hearing what the most popular bassists in the world sound like in their own headphones.
In scouring the world for more influence and knowledge, I have become hip to the widening trend of the isolated bass track on YouTube. These tracks are popping up all over the place, and surprisingly, they run the gamut from amazing to remarkably average. Multitrackmaster.com is also a fine site for finding iso tracks of multiple genres. Jammit.com is another good outlet to uncover isolated tracks, but there is a fee for this one. Hearing original studio recordings can be enlightening, educational, and disappointing all at the same time. And just like every poem is open for interpretation, so is each isolated track.
For example, let’s examine the isolated bass track from the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” Historians say this part was played by John Lennon on a Fender Bass VI, and for all intents and purposes, the track is wonderfully awful. (Settle down—I’m a fan, but we must be objective.) First of all, the tone is amazingly raw and nasty. The timing isn’t perfect, the technique isn’t perfect, and if most of today’s producers didn’t already know the song or track, they would probably ask this bassist to leave the studio. But would you? I hope not. While not perfect, this track drives harder than a stolen Maserati when added to the rest of the instrumentation. Just try to imagine a nice, clean, active-bass tone with an aural enhancer and a compression pedal in its place. Um, no.
On the more technically agile side, check out the isolated bass track from “Darling Dear” by the Jackson 5. James Jamerson is held in such high regard in the low-end world, and this track is a shining example of why. It’s simply stunning how Jamerson made the song pulse and move with his expression and intuitive countermelodies—all with a one-finger technique on flat-wounds. This is a much cleaner tune than the Beatles example, but this iso track can show us how great a bass line can be, and help us stretch out from a simple root-5 bounce that we sometimes get locked into.
Another standout in the iso world for me is Geddy Lee. For such “clean” records, his tone is amazingly dirty. We could talk all day about John Paul Jones, but give “Whole Lotta Love” a listen. You will hear the overtones ringing and the pawnshop nature of his bass, but the power overtakes all. Also listen to the bass/drums/vocal track from “Space Oddity” by David Bowie. The intricacies of this track would make anyone want to sneak a fretless onto their next rock record. Thankfully, the list of available isolation tracks is growing every day, because I’d love to hear some iso tracks from players like John Patitucci, Michael Rhodes, and Nathan East. Any links would be greatly appreciated!
So put on those headphones and get to listening, studying, and practicing. Remember that the occasional imperfection is okay, and that your contribution is part of a big picture. When we focus so much on the perfection of it all, tracks get sterile in a hurry.
Steve Cook has been fighting his rock-star frontman urges for decades, holding down the low end for such artists as Steve Cropper, Sister Hazel, and Phil Vassar. Join in his “touring therapy” on Twitter @shinybass.