There may be no better feeling than nailing a bassline in a recording session. On the flip side, there may be no more disheartening feeling than listening to a recording and realizing that your perfect performance was ruined by a technical recording problem. Let’s take a look at 5 tips to record bass guitar like a pro.
You don’t need expensive gear, but the type of bass guitar you use does influence the timbre of the sound you record. It’s important to match the style of guitar you use to the style of music you’re trying to create.
Do you need to go out and buy a new bass? Definitely not, but understanding what your bass guitar is capable of is critical. If it can’t produce the tone you’re looking for, consider renting or borrowing a different type of bass guitar for your recording session.
For example, if you take a look at this list of bass guitars, there are some bass guitars that produce funky growls, some that reduce hum and deliver a thick tone and some that deliver the type of clarity usually associated with metal and rock music. There are also acoustic and fretless bass guitars that provide their own unique sounds.
Making sure that you use the right bass for the job will make a big difference in your recordings. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by recording a bass guitar that produces a tone that clashes with the style of your song.
Once the “Record” button is hit, all the seemingly unnoticeable equipment glitches that you haven’t dealt with yet will get captured. As you begin to mix your song, these issues will get amplified and become painfully noticeable.
Crackles and buzz can be a nightmare to edit out, so it’s best to avoid recording these issues in the first place. It’s worth checking that all your gear is configured to produce the cleanest signal possible before stepping into the studio.
You’ll want to get your bass guitar set up with minimal fret buzz, check that the intonation and tuning is correct, and that there are no issues with the internal electronics. While you’re at it, ensure that the effect pedals and amplifier you’re using aren’t producing any unwanted artifacts.
All of your equipment connections should be made with quality instrument and patch cables. Something as simple as a poorly soldered cable can cause severe recording issues. Learn how to affordably build and repair your own instrument cables; stop spending money replacing faulty cables.
Grounding issues can create hum and buzz that permeate your recordings, but these issues are usually quite easy to overcome. The following video by Loopop demonstrates how you can fix and prevent hum, buzz, and ground loop noise.
A direct injection (DI) box converts unbalanced high impedance instrumental level signal to balanced low impedance mic level signal, which allows you to run the signal over lengthy distances while avoiding noise. A quality DI box or preamp pedal will also allow you to split the input signal between two outputs—one low impedance output and one high impedance output.
Running the low impedance direct output (green) into a mic input on your audio interface provides clean, effect-free recordings to work with. You can apply pedal effects and amp emulations in-the-box, which means you don’t need to commit to any particular effect chain the day you record.
The high impedance output (red) can be used to take advantage of external hardware. You can route the signal into a pedalboard and then into a bass amp. To capture the resulting sound, you’ll need to use a microphone. The great thing about recording in this way is that you can perform with your pedals instead of applying and automating effects within your digital audio workstation (DAW).
Figure 1: A DI box routing used to record guitar or bass guitar.
Using both outputs in combination with one another lets you capture a clean DI signal and use external effects. You get the best of both worlds without any of the compromises. Try mixing your amp recording together with your DI signal; use the volume fader on the bass amp track like a wet/dry control.
When recording a bass amp, the type of microphone that you use is extremely important. I recommend using a dynamic microphone, like the Shure SM57, because they’re built to withstand high sound pressure levels (SPLs), such as those produced by a bass amp. Dynamic mics also work well for recording other high impact sounds like those produced by a snare drum.
Dynamic mics tend to produce a rich and full-bodied tone, which is exactly what you’re looking for in a bass recording. They don’t capture top-end nuances in the way that condenser microphones do, but that’s not particularly important when recording bass guitar. It’s pretty common to cut top-end frequency content from your bass guitar once you start mixing anyways.
Experiment with different on-axis and off-axis microphone positions. When your microphone is perfectly aligned with the axis (red) of your bass amp’s driver, it’s considered on-axis. Any other position is considered off-axis. Keep in mind that some bass amps contain more than one driver, so it’s important to identify where they’re positioned; you only need to record one of them.
Figure 2: On-axis and off-axis microphone placements.
Placing a microphone on-axis, directly in front of your bass amp, will capture the “truest” sound with the most high-frequency content. Shifting the microphone off-axis will produce off-axis coloration and reduce the amount of top-end presence. You’ll generally capture a softer and rounder tone using off-axis placement.
The closer you position the mic to the amp’s grill, the more of the direct sound you’ll hear. Placing your mic close to the driver will help reject the sound of the room you’re in, which is especially helpful in untreated home studios. For best results, apply acoustic treatment to your home studio to make the most of your recording space.
Moving the microphone away from the driver will produce a fuller sound with a richer body. To capture more of the tone of the room you’re in, move your mic away from the amp’s grill. Better yet, use a second microphone positioned far away from your amp to capture the sound of the room and then mix it together with the direct sound of your amp.
Finding the perfect microphone position isn’t rocket science. In fact, you can accomplish this in just a couple of minutes. Start by positioning your microphone on-axis about 1 to 3 feet away from your amp’s grill. Using a pair of headphones, audition the signal picked up by the microphone. Experiment with different mic placements while listening through your headphones until you find the tone you’re looking for.
Whether you decide to apply processing in-the-box or through the use of hardware pedals, there’s a good chance you’ll be reaching for a compressor and an EQ.
A compressor reduces the dynamic range of audio signals and can be used to control the level of your bass guitar over time. If you need to tame a rather lively bass guitar, use a compressor with a fast attack time (less than 10ms) and a fast release time (less than 30ms). This form of compression, known as transient compression, result in a smooth-sounding bass recording.
However, if you’re recording a slap bass performance and want your bass to sound punchy and lively, turn up the attack time on your compressor to allow additional transient material through. Check out “The Ultimate Guide to Compression” to learn more about setting up a compressor.
I recommend taking a look at the Keeley Bassist Limiting Compression Pedal. The interface is easy to navigate and the pedal uses studio-grade internal components.
A good EQ allows you to perform extreme tone shaping, boosting or attenuating different frequency ranges as necessary. When mixing your bass guitar, make sure you listen to it within the context of your mix. The top-end frequency content that makes your bass sound great on its own may clash with the vocals or guitars in your song.
If bass guitar is a minor element in your song, roll off some of the high-end around 5 kHz to allow other instruments to shine. For songs in which the bass is a primary element, boost the the top-end instead. Every song is unique, so it’s always important to experiment with different EQ settings.
The Boss GEB-7 Bass Equalizer pedal is a very popular EQ pedal. It’s a graphic EQ that provides you with +/-15 dB of gain control over 7 bands, making it quite a powerful little pedal. Read “4 Essential EQ Techniques to Get Clean Mixes” to get the most out of your software and hardware EQs.
Practice the recording techniques mentioned in this guide before recording bass guitar for a paying client. It will take some trial and error to perfect your bass recording workflow, but the best way to learn is by making mistakes and overcoming them. Be patient and you’ll be capturing professional quality bass recordings in no time.