Tracking Bass Guitar: Tips to Improve Your Process

The bass guitar is easily one of the most versatile sonic instruments there is before you even get to the processing stage of a production. It can be a very enticing instrument to pick up for new learners, and yet, you could spend your entire life playing it without ever mastering all the different approaches there are to playing it. 

You can really get a great bass tone on tracking day if you take your time getting to know how the performer is using his instrument. For instance, if the player is using a lot of high notes, make sure their tone knob is set to accommodate that. If it’s meant to be a big aggressive sound, you need to be sure to really crank up the amp in the live room. Establishing a great sound on tracking day leads to setting the stage for an epic bass sound that cuts through the other heavily layered tracks in the mix. Let’s take a deeper look at what it takes to bring this beast into the spotlight.

Tip 1: Identify End-Goal for Bass Sound ASAP
We need to make clear decisions as engineers right from the tracking stage. It’s incredibly important to decide how we want the bass guitar to come across in the final production as early as possible. In the case of pop and rock, the bass usually falls into one of two approaches.

Either the bass is intended to be:
1) A shining hero of the record, meant to be a highlight of the entire album
2) Acting more like another low guitar, meant to blend in with the wall of guitar sounds

This is gravely impacted by the amount of space we give to the bass. I find that guitars really want to have low-end all on their own to feel powerful on a hard-rock album. If that ends up masking the bass a bit, so be it. Think of it as if the guitar and bass are actually working together. They cross over sonically. For funkier stuff, guitars or synth really need to get out of the way of the low-end frequencies so the articulation of the bass is clear.

Keeping this low range clean is very important when it’s intended to be the star of the show, and can actually be addressed in the voicing of other instruments during tracking. The low-end will almost clean itself up if guitar parts are voiced with inversions (or without the lowest string present) while keyboards and synths are played in the middle octave and above.

Tip 2: Use Different Settings for Different Playing Styles
It’s very important that sound engineers pay close attention to how a bassist is playing their instrument instead of just using the tried and true bass guitar settings. While there’s a lot we can do at the mix stage, we need to make sure that the full bandwidth of the performance is captured on tracking day in order to have things come together on mix day.

Many of the approaches I’m about to discuss can be manipulated on mix day if you use a DI box when recording. On the other hand, you can save yourself time later down the road by handling some of these issues on tracking day before diving in deeper on mix day. Let’s review how we can capture these different playing styles to their full potential.

Players who use a pick tend to have a much brighter tone than finger players. It’s really important to observe how the arragement of the song, and it’s accompanying instrumentation, can alter the tone of the bass. When pick players use higher strings it can make the bass sound more like a guitar, even losing the bottom end of the instrument altogether in some cases. As a general rule of thumb, I try to get pick players to play their parts on the lower strings, within the first 7 frets due to this phenomenon. Another option is to do multiple takes. Adjust their settings to have more low-end boost when they play their higher strings and then comp the performance together after the fact.

Thumb strummers
A lot of transient information can be lost when a performer uses their thumb to strike the strings. It comes across as incredibly round and often needs a little bit of help to keep up with the attack of other instruments in the mix. A compressor set with a slow attack and a high threshold can help adjust the incoming signal to be more punchy. This will help the attack of the instrument without forcing the player to lose the round quality that they love.

Bass players who use the traditional approach of plucking strings with their fingers usually have a darker natural tone. A bit of overdrive really helps this style keep up with other instruments on mix day. It’s been my experience that even more overdrive may be necessary if you know the production will have lots of guitar layers or several synth pads recorded overtop of the bass at later stages. It may seem a bit too distorted or fuzzy in solo, but it will be just right in the mix.

Slap players are quite the opposite. They will produce a very percussive sound through their pickups and need a fast compressor to help keep things in line. This is one playing style that I highly recommend processing on tracking day. Slappers can get so much attack on their strikes that they may clip your chain on the way to the tape or hard drive without the compressor active on tracking day. I even recommend setting up 2 or 3 compressors inline on the channel strip to help out the big pops. Sometimes we even overdub individual slaps to get them just right after the initial performance.

Bass players can be incredibly dynamic with their playing. While a compressor can help even out these jumps in volume level, I usually prefer to take the time perfecting the part on tracking day. I’d rather record more takes and comp in the more consistent performances than rely on a compressor or automation to do the job entirely. That being said, 1176 style compressors are usually great on the tone of a bass. Even with the compression itself in bypass, the circuit works well on a bass tone and will even help out with a bit of that fuzz.

It’s incredibly important to listen for the release time of notes when capturing the performance of a bass player. It’s very difficult to fix incorrect release times on mix day. Timing can be edited on a grid, tone can be adjusted… but one note is bleeding into the next, it’s almost impossible to fix. Pay close attention and have the player record another take if you need to.

Manipulating the envelope of a note, especially the sustain, can be incredibly difficult with bass guitars. Good players can time their note durations with muting techniques. Less experienced players often over-mute though, or conversely, allow their strings to ring too much when playing. Placing a piece of foam behind the bridge or between the pickups can help these issues on tracking day.

Bonus: Using Real Amps
At a minimum of getting a versatile Bass sound the DI signal can ultimately do the job in a mix with virtual amps when nothing is available for the live room. I still personally like to record bass guitars with real amps in the live room, even though we have access to so many great virtual amp plugins in this day and age. True, it can be more of a hassle, but I just love the sound of air actually vibrating around microphones (especially when it comes to low-end). It’s great when the room gives something back, when the speaker colours the gain structure… a really unique character can come from these moving parts.

It is important to note that whenever a DI and amp recording are combined, the waveforms must be in phase with one another. DI boxes send signals to the recording device much faster than the moving parts of a cone and microphone. This means that the two signals are almost always a little bit out of phase, resulting in a thinner tone when they are combined. You can manually adjust these waveforms in a DAW to line them up, or you can use a very precise sample delay plugin to nudge the DI signal a bit later while tracking.

Why it all matters...
We can set the mix engineer up for success by ensuring that we’ve recorded an excellent bass tone on tracking day. Handing over a simple DI track or a poorly managed multi-mic array will only create a whole lot more work down the road. If the tracking team has done their job well, the mix engineer can immediately begin focusing on what’s most important for their job: deciding how to let that great tone sit right in the context and aesthetic of the song as a whole.

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