3 Simple Ways to Get More Out of Your Bass Recordings

Nothing glues a great pop, rock, or R&B track together quite like a present and distinctive bass guitar line. More than just providing some low end, good bass work is a magic way to ground the groove and says the last word in a song’s harmonic structure.

Everything from instrument selection to musicianship to humidity can influence how a bass’s tone fits in a recording. But there are a few basic and effective tricks than can help you dial in the tone of your dreams when tracking and mixing bass in your studio.

Pick the Right Tool for the Job

While keeping multiple basses on hand for each session may be impractical for a variety of reasons, it won’t break the bank to keep an assortment of strings on hand. If your bass is poking out of the mix too much while recording, try swapping out your roundwound strings for a nice, smooth pair of flatwounds (or vice versa if the tone is sounding dead and dull).

Even simpler, changing how you pick your bass can help you switch your tone up in a hurry. If the takes when you were using a pick didn’t sound good, try using your fingers. Remember a the pick’s thickness and material makes a huge tonal difference. Nylon, Ultex, aluminum—even wrapping your existing pick in masking tape—will all impart distinctive tones.

Dial in Huge Tone Without the 8x10

There’s a good chance you’re not going to be able to get your hands on a smokin’ Ampeg SVT with an 8x10 cabinet every time you’re ready to track a quick bass part in your small studio. Luckily, there are plenty of awesome workarounds for getting a massive sound without all the hassle.

Getting intimate with a good direct input (or DI) box is a great way to get a reliable recording tone. There is a wide selection, from humble passive DI boxes made by Whirlwind and Radial to active models like the Radial J48 to tube-based monsters like the A Designs REDDI or Universal Audio’s Solo/610.

If recording into a DAW on your computer, you can transform that solid DI track with a wealth of plugins and amp simulators. These days, bass amp simulators are getting better and better. I own a vintage Ampeg B–15 and hardly ever record with it since getting my hands on Universal Audio’s simulation of it in the UA-2. Even if you balk at the idea of using pre–amp emulations, amp simulators, or digital effects on your guitar tracks, you might find that the (usually) monophonic and more uniform texture of bass guitar lends itself better to digital processing.

Remember that perfect can often be the enemy of good. Don’t be afraid to record or re–amp your bass track through whatever amplifier you have on hand. You might be surprised by how often you can get a good bass amp tone out of a guitar amp. For a while, I used to re–amp all of my bass tracks through a Tiny Terror with a 1x12 cab, mixing the pleasantly distorted amp signal with a DI track. Just remember that most guitar amps aren’t designed to handle low frequencies before you crank yours all the way.

Fix It in the Mix

Even if you’ve tried everything when recording your bass track, sometimes it just doesn’t sit right in the mix. Maybe it pokes out too much or doesn’t have enough presence despite plenty of volume. The good news is that there is plenty of room for improvement while mixing.

First, don’t be afraid to play with the bass track’s panning. A lot of contemporary stereo recordings keep the bass in the center to ground the track in low end, but shifting its position can help it sound less obnoxious or less buried. You can separate the bass from the kick drum just enough by moving it 10% to the left or right. For a more colorful effect hearkening to early stereo recordings from the ‘70s, place it farther to one side.

Using a Compressor

Compressors are another powerful tool in your DAW, either smoothing or exaggerating the transients on a pre-recorded bass track. If your bass track jumps in the mix every time a staccato downbeat is plucked, set a very fast attack time to even out those peaks. If it’s a busy part, set a quick release time so the compressor is ready to fire again on the next note.

You’ll probably have to fiddle with the dials a bit, as there are really no one-size-fits-all compressor settings. In some cases, fast attack and fast release can lead to an undesirable pumping effect. A higher compression ratio will mean your compressor is effecting the signal more heavily, and lower means less.

Advanced Compression: Sidechaining

And if simple compression isn’t doing it, try a technique known as sidechain compression. Sidechaining helps tie the rhythm section in a mix together by using the pulse from one track, like a kick drum, to drive the amount of compression on another track, like your bass.

Some compressor plugins have built–in sidechain options, but you can also rig up sidechain compression manually as long as the compressor you’re using allows for a “key input.” Set up an auxiliary send on your kick drum’s track and feed that send to the compressor on your bass track. Toggle the compressor so that it can be fed by that key input and you’re good to go. Manipulate the compressor’s threshold, attack, and release settings to taste.

Sidechain compression can be applied liberally to make our bass track “duck” or “pump” in time with the kick drum, or in a more subtle way to help everything sit better. Just listen for how your bass’s presence is being affected and adjust these settings until you find that magic point where your bass track sounds like funky super glue binding the whole mix together.

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