Essential Tips for Recording Bass Guitar

Bassists have it rough. They’re always the butt of the joke, the band always makes them ride in the back of the van, and worst of all, their tracks always end up buried in the mix — usually because no one was really paying attention when it was time to track them.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, and we’re certain that if you follow the fundamentals in this guide we’ve laid out, you’ll be on your way to more successful bass tracking. We may not be able to promise you a better seat in the tour van, but we can help you stand out in your band's mixes.

The Gear

First, it’s important to start with the instrument itself. Your trusty P–Bass might be a great all–around instrument, but some basses are better for certain jobs than others. See if you can get your hands on something with a different tone that’ll better fit the specific part that you’re playing.

1968 Ampeg B–15N

Adding pedals to your signal chain is another way to modify your sound on a song–by–song basis, and adding effects like distortion, modulation, or even an octave pedal for pitch–shifting can help you stand out in the mix.

Once you have the right bass, you need the right amp head and cab combination. Are you looking for something warm and vintage like the Ampeg B–15? Or something gnarly and mid–rangey like the SVT? Or maybe you’re looking for something modern and hi–fi like the SWR Redhead?

If you’re using a combo amp, there’s no need to worry about a cab. But if you go with a head, you’ll need to decide what kind of cab you want to pair it with.

For a deep, rich tone, you should use something with a single, large driver, like a Harte HX115. For a mid–rangey rock sound, grab something with several smaller drivers, like an Ampeg 8x10. And for a more balanced tone, try combining two cabs — something with a large driver on the bottom and a 4x10 on top.

Direct Injection

Once you have you gear in order, it’s time to start capturing your sound. First and foremost, you should always record a DI track. Even if you don’t use it when setting your tone, it’s a great safety net to have when mixing.

Maybe no one noticed that weird hum in the mics during the session, but now it’s the loudest thing in the track and no one can "un–hear" it. DI to the rescue. You can always run your DI track through an amp simulator, or even re–amp the signal through another amp.

The DI captures the direct sound of the bass guitar before it’s processed by the head, the cab, or the microphones, so it’s actually the purest bass recording you can get.

To set up a DI, use a standard instrument cable to plug the output of the bass into the input of the DI box. Then, use another instrument cable to connect the 1/4” thru/output on the DI box to the input of the bass amp. Finally, connect the female end of an XLR to the output of the DI box, and the male end to your interface.

DI boxes come in a variety of options, the most notable of which are either active or passive. Active DIs require an external power source but tend to provide a more balanced tone with richer low–end, while passive DIs tend to sound more mid–rangey and “electric.”

Some of the most popular DIs for bass guitars come from Countryman and Radial Engineering. Your Whirlwind DI will work fine too, but you may notice an improvement in tone with a unit that uses larger transformers, like the aforementioned.

Some DI boxes are meant to emulate the sound of a bass head, like the SansAmp. Occasionally, some bassists (like James Jamerson, for instance) actually prefer to use DI boxes and never record with an amplifier. This also allows you to add effects like EQ, compression, and even distortion to your track without having to collect the extra pieces of hardware.

If you’re not in the market to drop any extra cash right now, you may be in luck. Most bass amps have what’s called a Direct Output, which is just a duplication of the signal being sent to the cab before it’s processed by the drivers. This output will give you a slightly more colored tone than the DI box, but a less colored tone than mic’ing the cab.

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Rules of Recording

In most situations, you’ll want to reach for a dynamic mic when tracking bass. They can handle the high sound pressure levels (SPLs) coming from the bass rig, and they tend to capture low–end really well. Common dynamic mics used for recording bass include:

Occasionally, you may want to include a large–diaphragm condenser mic like a Neumann U 87 to capture the detail of the bass or the sound of the cab in the room. This works particularly well when paired with a dynamic mic close to the grille.

There are a few important things to remember before recording:

  • Larger drivers create a deeper tone, and smaller drivers create a brighter tone.

  • Move the mic toward the center of a driver for a brighter/crisper tone, and toward the edge of a driver for a softer/darker tone.

  • Move the mic closer to the driver for more punch and clarity, and further away for a more diffused tone.

  • Placing a mic on–axis will give more punch and clarity. Placing a mic off–axis will give a more diffused tone.

  • Proximity Effect: As the microphone gets closer to the cab, there’s an increase in low–end.

  • 3:1 Rule: To avoid phase issues when using more than one mic to record the cab, make sure the second mic is three times the distance from the first mic as it is to the cab. (Example: Mic 1 is one inch from the cab, Mic 2 is three inches away from Mic 1)

Placing Your Mics

First, start by placing a dynamic mic on–axis, about one inch away from the grille in front of one of the larger drivers. Move the mic toward the center of the driver for a brighter, crisper tone, and towards the edge of the driver for a softer, darker tone until you find the sweet spot.

If you find that the low–end is overpowering, try moving the mic back about one inch. The proximity effect will increase the amount of low end the mic picks up the closer it gets to the cabinet. Don’t be afraid to use that to your advantage, either.

Shure SM57

The low–end probably sounds pretty good right now — the subwoofer is pumping and you can feel it in your chest. But just remember, most of your fans are listening on earbuds, phones, and laptop speakers. They don’t have a subwoofer. They don’t feel it in their chest. To make sure the bass cuts through the mix on small speakers, you need to capture something other than low end.

Try using a brighter dynamic mic like an Sennheiser MD421, Audix i5, or even an SM57 on one of the smaller drivers, about one to two inches from the grille to capture some of the mid range and “string noise.” Alternatively, some engineers use a condenser mic in this position to capture even more detail.

Finally, you may also want to use a large diaphragm condenser mic to capture the sound of the cab in the room. Any balanced LDC will do, but common favorites include Neumann U 87, Audio Technica AT4050, and AKG C414. Place the mic a few feet back from the cab so you can just start to hear the sound of the cab reflecting off of the floor and walls.

*Protip: A good starting point is to stand in front of the cab and slowly step backwards until you can no longer feel the vibrations, then place the mic there.

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Bringing It All Together

At this point, you should have at least four signals that you can blend together to create the perfect bass tone:

  1. Bass DI
  2. Low–End Dynamic Mic
  3. Mid–Range Dynamic Mic
  4. Room LDC

Some engineers choose to “sum” these signals down to one mono channel, while others choose to keep all four and process them each differently. Some use EQ and compression when tracking, while others swear against it.

It's important to note that while having four sources as outlined here may be an ideal way to broaden your bass tracks, it's certainly not essential. Using any single one of these approaches can achieve inspiring results in isolation, and like most things home recording, it's all about experimentation.

Use your ears and and when in doubt, just remember “The Good Rule” from David Huber’s Modern Recording Techniques: "Good musician + good instrument + good performance + good acoustics + good mic + good placement = good sound."

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