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.
If you’re heading into some intense woodshedding, why not make it easier?
Greetings, guitar nerds! I recently got together with legendary studio ace (and old buddy) Tim Pierce to make a video for his YouTube channel. He wanted to ask me about exactly how I approach learning a full set of music for upcoming tours or one-off gigs. We discussed the anxiety that we all feel when we are faced with learning 10, 20, or maybe even 50 songs for a gig. First of all: That anxiety is universal. We all feel it.
Coincidentally, I also recently received an email from a guitarist considering joining a Queen tribute band, and he was aware that I’d recently had to learn an entire set of Queen music in order to sub with Marc Martel’s Ultimate Queen Celebration band.
I wonder if you have any advice/experience on this kinda feeling? Should I bow out gracefully, feeling it’s beyond me? Or is it just natural nerves of a gig that’s a big step up for me, and I should approach it with an “I can do this” attitude? Any advice is much appreciated!
First things first. Number one: Yes, you can do it. You just have to pace yourself. Know and honor the speed at which you can learn and absorb music—taking into account the difficulty and complexity of the material—and make yourself a loose schedule. This will be different for every player, and it depends on how much time you can devote to practicing. I know I can only comfortably learn three or four songs a day. And when I say “learn,” I mean top to bottom, memorizing the rhythm and lead parts, the form, and the feel—everything. Since we’re talking Queen music, I’d limit myself to three songs a day. This means it would take me approximately nine days to learn 26 Queen songs. If I had four weeks, maybe I’d just learn two a day to give myself some slack. (It would then take me 13 days to learn 26 songs.) The point is, by laying out a roadmap, I’ve relieved some of the anxiety of the impending journey. I know I can do it. I have time. I just have to apply myself.
I like to learn in the morning. I’ll make a pot of coffee, get my mind in the zone, and go to work. From day one, I also like to get my guitars, effects, and amp dialed in for each song. I’ll go over the songs and try to absorb them by using all available tools, including my ears, transcriptions, YouTube videos, and whatever else is available.
So, let’s say I’m learning the Queen material. I’ll do the first two songs and get them down at 85 percent or so that first day—parts and arrangement. I might pick a hard one and an easier one: say, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You.”
On the second day, I’ll start off by reviewing those tracks. I usually find I will have forgotten much of what I learned the day before, but it comes back very quickly. I’ll then nail down the final details of each song—the final 15 percent—after which I’d move on to leaning two more tracks.
I’ll use this process of learning and review for a few days until I have six or seven tracks learned. I will then spend one day just reviewing the songs (with no new material that day), and then I’ll take a day off! I find that following the review day with a day off solidifies the tracks in my mind. Also, it can’t be overstated how important proper sleep is during this time. You need it to fully absorb the material and it’s essential for your memory to function properly.
Use a good phrase trainer. I use Transcribe! from Seventh String Software. It’s a terrific program that allows you to load WAV or MP3 files, and slow them down, loop them, change keys, and more. It’s so much better than using something like iTunes for learning the nitty gritty musical details. Once I’ve learned the material, I will load the songs into an iTunes playlist, which I’ll use when reviewing the entire set.
Just know that the anxiety you feel when faced with learning a large volume of material is something we all deal with. It’s a challenge, but it’s supposed to feel challenging! It’s the moments in which we are challenged, and then rise to the occasion, that we make the most progress in our lives. And there’s still no substitute for good old-fashioned hard work. Just be good to yourself along the way. Until next month, I wish you great tone!
Inspired while on the road? These devices can help.
Greetings, guitar nuts! As any of you who follow me on YouTube may know, I record and produce a smattering of videos each month, and many of them feature original compositions. In turn, I get a number of questions about my writing process and how I keep the creative juices flowing. I’d like to discuss some of the tools and strategies I use to maintain that creative spark this month. In my March 2019 column, “Make Your Creative Space Rock,” I talked about streamlining your studio space for maximum creative potential. But what to do when inspiration strikes elsewhere?
Your phone is your sketchpad. I often walk around humming and thinking about riffs, grooves, and melodies. They pop into my head all day, and when I realize I may have stumbled on an interesting one, I reach for my iPhone. That’s because the voice-memo recorder has become one of my favorite tools for archiving ideas. I’ll just sing the riff or groove into the phone, and then it’s right there for me to reference when I have a guitar in hand later.
Multitrack recording apps (such as GarageBand) are, of course, also available for phones and tablets, and while I haven’t personally delved deep into them yet for my work, I can only imagine the possibilities. I once heard a story about Tommy Lee making good use of his time during a stint in jail by using the pay phone to sing song ideas into his home answering machine. You know what? Those ideas turned into his next solo album.
Small amps are getting cooler. I recently got a couple of small amps that make for great practice and creative tools. The tiny Blackstar Fly 3 battery-powered amp was a great jam companion while I was on tour in Japan last year. When I’m in a busy, vibrant city like Tokyo, it can be hard sitting in my hotel room for practice and writing time. That said, I found myself playing more than usual once I got the Fly 3. I could just turn that little sucker on and conjure up a pretty inspiring tone instantly. Combine it with the voice recorder on the iPhone, and man, you can be an anywhere, anytime riff-writing machine!
Sadly, I somehow lost my Fly 3 on a trip back to the U.S., but I replaced it with a similar unit from NUX. Their Mighty Lite BT is about the same size as the Fly 3, but it also has built-in drum grooves and effects, which can help spawn even more musical ideas. (The NUX also has Bluetooth.) Both the Fly 3 and the Mighty Lite BT have aux-in 1/8" jacks, so you can plug your phone or laptop in and jam to tracks.
A studio the size of a soup can. I recently checked out an amazing little device called the iZotope Spire Studio. It’s a powerhouse full-blown multitrack recorder, the size of a soup can, and runs on batteries. It has two mic pres, a built-in high-quality mic, and it integrates with a phone app—which lets you add effects and mix individual tracks—and then easily exports your recorded creations to a stereo file.
The learning curve is minimal. I was up and running in just a few minutes, and didn’t even need the manual to figure out its basic operations. I was pretty blown away by just how great the internal mic sounds. I could record my acoustic guitar and voice, and quickly export the file right out of the Spire Studio with some basic auto normalizing. The resulting track sounded full and robust. I’m going to be getting a ton of use out of this little device, both as a multitrack writing sketchpad and as a field recorder (useful for YouTube videos) to capture high-quality audio wherever I go.
Spruce up your acoustic. Another great tool to spark some inspiration, the ToneWood Amp is an innovative and portable device that allows you to easily add some effects to your unamplified acoustic guitar. It mounts on the back of the guitar itself, and uses the vibrations of the guitar to generate effects such as reverb, delay, echo, and tremolo. You can also use it via a 1/4" input with any acoustic-electric guitar. It will enhance the sound of any acoustic in a pleasing way that just may inspire more than the basic guitar sound could alone.
To sum it up, there’s no shortage of great portable devices to help foster our creativity and musical abilities. Even just making good use of the smart phone you probably already have is a great way to make sure you’ll never lose a good idea again. Until next month, I wish you great tone!