My first day as a real engineer rather than an assistant was all about bass. The engineer (who was the studio manager as well) took a break after we recorded basic tracks on a Salsa song.
Before leaving the room he told me to punch where the bassist wanted. I started, and was easily able to hear and punch individual notes rather than whole phrases. A few times I disagreed about which note was pulling the groove off but punched where I was told anyway.
After doing the punches, the bassist and producer agreed that we should have punched what I indicated instead, and we had to punch both notes…the one that was originally out and the one we “fixed.”
After a while, I realized that the engineer should have returned. I turned around to see him sitting in the back of the room watching. When I jumped up and said, “Oh sorry, I didn’t see you” he told me, “I’ve been watching…sit back down, ‘cause it’s now your gig.”
In order to be able to punch the bass, you have to capture it first. There are two aspects to recording electric bass—direct or putting a mic in front of the bass amp’s speaker.
Recording electric bass using a direct box is rather simple. The problem many people encounter is too much compression. I tend to use slight compression to smooth out the transients (usually caused by popping techniques and uneven notes) rather than try to force every note to be the exact same volume.
Although I know many people that automatically crank up as much bottom as possible on every direct Bass they record, I usually add a little 100 Hz (when needed) and also a little bump at around 3-5k (again, when needed) so the “note” comes through more clearly. Sometimes I will add a little higher frequency to hear more of the “finger attack” or “pick.”
My favorite signal path for recording direct electric bass is a Neve 1073 or 1081 mic pre going into an LA2A, with just enough compression that the needle stays at zero but drops down no more than 2-3 dB at times.
The trouble with trying to compress and squeeze every note to be the same volume when recording is that you may end up losing some of the tone and dynamics of the performance.
Note: You can always compress more, or differently, during the mix. Although you may be able to make a “flat” sound more full, you can never undo compression.
I remember, in the analog days, trying to experiment with how to record bass so that the bottom did not saturate the tape. At one point I even tried dropping the bottom and boosting the top when recording, then reversing that process on playback (sort of like Dolby).
For that experiment I used an API EQ, dropping 100 Hz and boosting 10 kHz going into the tape machine, and another API with opposite settings coming out. Of course, I recorded the bass on another track straight, without the EQ changes. The track with the EQ had a “rounder” bottom end, but the track recorded straight had a thicker lower midrange that worked better in the mix.
Now that the whole world is digital, tape compression is not an issue (so I recommend just going straight without playing the EQ-in/EQ-out game). Oh, if you hear a strange occasional buzz on the bass that you can’t track down, see if anyone is using a copy machine in the studio. I once spent an hour tracking down a buzz before noticing it only happened when someone in the lounge was making a copy.
Going With Mic(s)
For better LF consistency, sometimes it’s good to mic the bass amp from a few feet further back in the room, instead of, or in addition to, a close mic near the cab. If you mic far enough for the low sound waves, you may introduce a slight delay. What I prefer to do is stick a mic close to the cabinet as well as one a few yards away for the real bottom. Sometimes I just use the far mic.
In either case, the far mic will induce a slight delay as it’s further from the source, so it’s very important to make sure the far mic track is moved earlier, either by sliding the track back (if you are digital) or flipping the tape and bouncing in Repro (if you are analog).
I was recording a famous jazz fusion band, and we just finished all of the basic tracks (so all of the drum and other mics were still out). We took care of some bass punches and I flipped the tape and bounced in Repro so I had an “early” bass track to send into the bass amp.
I miked the bass cabinet with just a far Neumann U 47 microphone, and sent the early bass track through a delay on the way to the amp so I was able to tweak the time and really lock the amp sound with the direct one (I intended to combine them when mixing).
The bassist of the fusion band was scheduled to be interviewed and photographed, so as a goof we put every single mic around the bass cabinet. The photographer was amazed and snapped away at the bassist posing by his rig…never realizing that the only mic that was really being used was the lone U 47 in the distance.
In closing, reflections on a couple of great bassists I’ve recorded:
Marcus Miller: What can I say? Marcus is amazing, and we developed such a close relationship that he was able to stop playing, look at me, and then play a single note. Because I was always paying close attention I would usually know the note he was talking about and be able to rewind then punch into record at that note (of course sometimes he would play me the phrase before the note he wanted punched).
One day he was recording a bass solo through a Marshall amp. The amp blew (complete with light show) in the middle of a phrase. A half hour or so later when the amp was repaired (after we took a break), I rolled back to the beginning of the phrase and then punched in right at the note the amp blew on. Marcus played through seamlessly, as if the punch was seconds after the original performance rather than over 30 minutes.
By the way, people often ask me what chorus I used on certain phrases of “Mr. Pastorius” on the Miles Davis “Amandla” album. That was no chorus, that was Marcus doubling his parts so closely people thought it was an effect on a single track.
Bootsie Collins: When I recorded Bootsie, he was playing a bass with three outputs. Each output went into a different effects chain, and I substituted my Mutron III envelope filter for the box he had (his Mutron had long since died). Although I was told that people usually combined the three signals into one recorded bass track (and the producer suggested I do so as well) I had enough tracks to record each output on a separate track.
When I mixed, I started by getting general sounds, then automating the balances between all three outputs on a part-by-part basis. The sound was great, and I was able to emphasize different aspects of each output as well as each sound combination. (Bootsie played a very funky guitar as well, with his foot stomping the beat as he played).