Don’t wait ’til mixing to get a great tone. Record your sound as best as you can to make your tracks shine.
Recording bass can be a challenging task. Whether we are talking about a natural, woody upright-bass tone that balances well within a jazz quartet, or a nice, round electric tone with definition and copious amounts of low end for “modern” situations, the science behind how to achieve these sounds has eluded more than a few engineers and players. As both a player and as a recording and mixing engineer, I wanted to pass on a few tips that have served me well over the years.
Get the sound you want out of the instrument and amp first. Before attempting to patch, mic, process, or record anything—listen! Making sure your instrument’s sound/signal chain is free from buzzes, ground loops, unwanted distortion, and that your amp and instrument are placed where they sound best in the room will save you lots of time and headache. Make sure that the player and engineer agree that the tone is what the song or project calls for. If you opt to record electric bass direct only (not my choice), then the above still applies, but the console and speakers are now “the amp.”
Once we have a great sound in the room, let’s look at how to capture it. Speaking with my mix hat on: I hate mixing acoustic or electric bass that is contaminated with “bleed” (leakage from other instruments in the room). Too much bleed makes it difficult to do post EQ, compression, level adjustments, automation, or correctional edits. Yes, yes … Blue Note, Motown, Stax Records, yada, yada—I love them all too! But here, I’m talking about great sounding modern recordings and mixes. In short, try to get as isolated a signal as possible, even if this means putting your amp in a remote location. I have mine set up on the third floor, while my studio is in the basement. If you’re recording acoustic bass, then either use an isolation booth or very good baffles and mic placement to minimize bleed.
A little compression allows for a more even tone throughout the bass’s range, and can even tighten a good performance, without really being noticeable.
With acoustic bass, I use two mics—one over the lower fingerboard (where the player plucks the strings) and one over the soundhole beside the bridge. My favorites are the AKG C12 (fingerboard) and the Neumann U47 (soundhole). There are many generic mic choices. Experiment with smaller diaphragm mics for the fingerboard and larger diaphragm mics for the soundhole, six to eight inches away from the instrument. With electric, I use a single mic (U47 usually) and a good quality DI (direct injection) such as the Avalon V5. If you don’t have a great DI, then use the DI-out on the player’s amp.
Some mic pres are more bass-friendly than others. I’m a fan of ’70s Neves like the 1073, 1081, and others. Neves have phenomenal EQ, mic pres, and DIs. I’ve also had great success with Avalon’s all-tube VT-737sp—a great mic pre with an amazing optical compressor, EQ, and a very nice DI. After the pres, I put both signals (mic+mic or mic+DI) through some sort of light compression or limiting. My favorites are either LA2A- or 1176-type compressors. Untreated, low notes are quite a bit louder than those throughout the rest of the instrument. A little compression allows for a more even tone throughout the bass’s range, and can even tighten a good performance, without really being noticeable. This also allows us to get more signal on each track without overloading.
For recording, my approach to equalization is mostly corrective. I usually don’t “print” EQ unless the instrument tone, the mic choice, mic placement, or room sound are problematic. I like to leave the mix engineer with options by not over-compressing or EQing the bass sound as I record. With that said, if you happen to have a Pultec, then throw it on there. Even with nothing boosted or cut, it does wonders for bass. My goal is a great-sounding bass track that uses the entire dynamic range available without ever clipping. If you don’t have access to vintage gear, check out new stuff by Golden Age, Heritage Audio, or even software plugins by UAD (their emulations are exceptional).
Pay attention to phase. You’ll probably need to reverse phase on either the DI or your second mic to defeat phase cancelation (two very similar signals canceling each other out). I usually match the level of both signals and then reverse the phase on one to see if the sound becomes clearer/more defined. Sometimes (rarely), the mic or DI are dissimilar enough to not need it, but I always check.
Room vs. instrument: For me, a good instrument tone involves some of the sound from a good room. This adds depth and dimension, while the DI (electric) or fingerboard mic (acoustic) adds definition. Play with the mic placement and/or the balance of the two signals until it sounds good. My particular ethos is that whatever I record needs to sound great before the mix.
For the Band of Other Brothers, this dynamic duo carries a light load.
Nir Felder has been called “the next big jazz guitarist” by NPR and hailed by The New York Times as a “whiz kid.” Will Lee is the Grammy-winning Musician’s Hall of Fame member you’ve likely seen and heard playing bass as part of Paul Shaffer’s World’s Most Dangerous Band on David Letterman’s late-night talk shows.
Currently, Felder and Lee are touring together with drummer Keith Carlock (Steely Dan, Sting), Jeff Coffin on saxophones and woodwinds (Dave Matthews Band, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones), and keyboardist Jeff Babko (James Taylor, Toto) as Band of Other Brothers. On April 20, the Other Brothers made a stop at Nashville’s City Winery, supporting their second album, Look Up. Lee and Felder took a break pre-soundcheck to usher PG’s John Bohlinger through their rigs.
[Brought to you by D’Addario XS Electric Strings]
First and Best
Although Nir Felder has plenty of guitars, he usually gigs with his stock 1995 Fender Tex-Mex Stratocaster—his first electric guitar. The Strat has high mileage and plenty of battle scars.
He plays with Dunlop Jazz III picks and keeps it strung with D’Addario NYXL strings. And no nets for this musical high-wire walker. Felder has been touring without a backup axe.
Felder plays Fender Deluxe ’65 reissues on tour, speccing the model for backline amps. It’s a ubiquitous 1x12, so he can always get a consistent tone.
The Tenacious 10
Felder’s uptown sound—on the ground—includes a TC Electronic PolyTune Mini, an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer with a Keeley mod, and a Klon KTR. Those two overdrives usually stay on, and he rolls down the volume of his Strat to clean up the signal while giving it a warm, rich undercurrent of dirt. From there, it’s a King Tone Duellist, King Tone Octaland, Meris Ottobit, Line 6 DL4 MkII, Strymon BigSky, Boss DD-3, and a Neunaber Wet Reverb. Power comes from a Strymon Zuma. The board is by Stompin-Ground, and cables are from L.A. Sound Design and Nice Rack Canada.
Will Lee plays his signature 22-fret Sadowsky bass. This J-style features master volume, a pickup blender, a push/pull treble roll-off, a bass boost, treble boost, and a mid-boost on/off switch. There’s a push/pull pot that’s a preamp bypass switch for playing in passive mode, and the instrument is equipped with a Hipshot Bass Xtender that Lee tunes down to low C. Strings are Dean Markley SR2000s.
The Haunt of Eagles…
is what the Latin word aquilare means. And linquists believe Aguilar, a common town name in Spain, is derived from it. But Lee’s amp for this gig—an Aguilar DB 751 pumping through one of the company’s SL 210 400-watt, 8-ohm bass cabinets—was from SIR rentals.
The Rig for This Gig
Lee says he has a rig for every gig, and with Letterman he had to have enough pedalboard space to create every sound he might need to cover a wide variety of guest artists and genres. But for the Band of Other Brothers, Lee plugs into a Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner, an MXR Bass Envelope Filter, and a POG, a Mod 11 Modulator, and a Canyon—all by EHX. Juice comes from a Truetone 1 Spot Pro.
Guitarist Amy Love and bassist Georgia South highlight artists that inspired them, but ultimately provide a shining example for musicians to forge their own sound and style.