It's not that difficult to get a great sounding bass in your home studio if you are willing to take some time to prepare and get things right. Many professional recording engineers use nothing but the DI on their console and don't use any expensive gear to get the sound they want.
Follow the process below and guarantee yourself a Killer Sounding Bass every time you record and mix. If you have never recorded bass before and need some basic background on the instrument's construction, tones, and general setup and recording tips, try to read the whole article. If you are more familiar with the bass, skip to the section on recording and mixing. Our 2 band mixing formula will help you produce a great bass track in no time at all.
As a home studio owner, you don't have to know all the details about every bass manufacturer and model since the 1950s but it is probably useful to know which are the most “recorded” bass guitars, and what to expect from a few well known models.
This will help you to understand how “easy” or “difficult” it is going to be to record a great bass line in your own studio. For example, if your bass player struts his stuff with a Fender Precision or Fender Jazz you probably won't have many problems. Likewise, if the bass guitar of choice is a Rickenbacker 4001 or a Modulus Quantum it’s the same story.
But, you don't need a Fender Jazz, Fender Precision, or Rickenbacker 4003 to lay down a great bass track. Modern entry-level basses can also sound fantastic when approached with the right care and attention.
I own an Ibanez SDGR Bass and it sounds and records great. It's not on the list of 'superstar' bass guitars above but it is something that produces a great tone and is easy to play - especially as I am not a bass player!
Take care that the bass player is not using unfamiliar equipment. Either the bass or the rig that you have setup to record. Be mindful of 'forcing' a bass player to use your 'better' studio equipment, the payoff is never there!
Bass guitar tones come in every shape and size imaginable - it's one reason the bass sound is so much fun to mix. From crisp and round, to punchy and distorted, the sound and feel of a bass line can often make or break a tune.
Basses differ with their controls, but as a minimum, you will find at least one volume knob. Depending on the make and model you will also find volume controls for each pickup, a pickup balance, overall tone control, bass frequency control, a midrange control, treble control, and sometimes a 2 or 3-way pickup switch - and often combinations of all of those things!
Use a reference song, or imagine what sound you are seeking for the song or album and try to create it. Adjust the tone while playing through your recording setup. If you have a good pair of headphones double-check in those.
Having settled on a tone that suits the song, make a record of all of the settings just in case you need to refer back to them at a later date. Mobile phones are perfect for this - use a handwritten note of the date and session settings in the picture.
Hopefully, your bass player will be familiar with all of the bass control settings but do remember that it’s up to you to get the right tone tracked to the DAW. Playing live and recording requires different approaches, so be prepared to explain to your bass player why “the normal” settings may need to be changed.
Figure 1: Main Parts of the Bass Guitar
The body of the bass guitar plays a big role in the overall tone. Generally, bodies made from softer woods (Mahogany, Alder, Basswood) produce warm tones while harder woods (Ebony, Bubinga, Maple) are brighter. Body shape and size can also play a part in the tone, although usually to a lesser extent.
The neck design also plays a part in the overall tone. Again, different wood types produce different tones and wood combinations with the body contribute to the complete sound. The cross-sectional shape of the neck is also important, but this has more to do with the ease of playability for the musician more than tone. Thinner necks, like those found on the Fender Jazz, are often prefered by new players or guitarists who transition to bass.
The tuning keys are the metal parts that protrude from the Headstock. One key for each bass string. The keys are turned clockwise or counter-clockwise to tighten or loosen the string. The key mechanism is deliberately designed to be difficult and stiff to turn - if it wasn't stiff the string tension would unwind the key and the instrument would be out of tune in no time. Do not attempt to lubricate a stiff tuning key without expert help.
The headstock houses the tuning keys. The headstock is designed at a shallow angle so that each tuning key can be lined up to a string.
A typical bass has 24 frets. One fret position on one string is ONE note. So, a 24 fret bass, with 4 strings can produce 96 notes (although some notes are the same but played in a different position).
The volume of the pickups can be adjusted along with the tone. Depending on the bass model tone control is achieved with one knob, or a few knobs to filter (adjust) low, mid, and high frequencies. Read the manufacture's product information about your bass's controls, or keep twiddling the knobs until you have figured out what they each do and which settings provide the best sound.
Be especially careful on old or uncared-for bass guitars for dirty potentiometers (part of the control circuit), loose connections (either inside the guitar or on the input jack), and ground hum. Take the time to address these issues before starting to record (a day or two in advance is good if possible). Try not to record with a faulty bass guitar or damaged leads.
This is where the cable is plugged into the bass guitar. Use a standard ¼ inch instrument cable. Watch out for loose connections, ground hum, or crackling noises. Test suspect input jacks with a 'known-good' cable before opening up the guitar and poking around the circuits. Most of the time, fixes can be made easily with a soldering iron and an inexpensive multimeter.
The bridge is the metal bracket-mechanism attached to the base of the body. The bridge helps to transfer the string vibrations to the body, and create overtones. The bridge can also be used to adjust the height of the strings off the fretboard - commonly knows as the 'action' of the guitar.
Many bass guitars, like the Fender Jazz, have two pickups. The 'bridge pickup' (labelled ① in figure 2) is positioned close to the bridge and provides a thick, fat, round, warm tone. The 'neck pickup' (labelled ② in figure 2) is positioned close to the neck and provides a brighter, treble, cleaner tone.
Figure 2: Bridge and Neck Pickup Positions
It is so important to make sure every instrument you record is in tune. An out of tune bass will cause no end of problems while mixing so take the time to tune-up at the start of the session. The typical tuning for a four-string bass is E-A-D-G. The 'E' is the string closest to your face. The 'G' is the string closest to the ground (unless you are floating in space!). Tune the bass using a dedicated auto digital-tuner, or a phone app - there are a few free ones to choose from like 'GuitarTuna'.
Figure 3: Bass Guitar Tuning
Keep on top of the guitar tuning as the recording session goes on. A guitar tuned 30 minutes ago could be out of tune by the time you get to record another take. Basses can go out of tune if they are old, not well cared for, if the player is aggressive, if new strings have just been fitted, if the tuning keys are damaged or dirty, if the temperature or humidity of the room changes (air-conditioning on and off or heating on and off) plus a few other factors.
As with most things in the universe of musical instruments, bass guitar strings come in different materials and designs. Each with something unique to offer. The most common strings are made of nickel-plated steel. Metal compositions have unique magnetic properties and change the way the pickups interact to make the sound.
Strings are gauged by their diameter (see table 1), with thicker strings producing lower frequencies and thinner strings producing higher frequencies. Strings are manufactured Roundwound, Halfwound, Flatwound or Groundwound.
This string design uses wire with a round (circular) cross-section. The strings tend to produce a brighter sound.
No prizes for guessing this construction - halfway between a Roundwound and a Flatwound!
This string design uses wire with a rectangular cross-section. The strings are smooth and less abrasive than Roundwound.
This string design uses wire with a D-shape cross-section. The strings start life as Roundwounds but are ground (grinded down) on their circumference to make the 'flat' of the 'D'.
|String Gauge (inches)|
|String||Extra Light||Light||Medium||Heavy||Extra Heavy|
Table 1: String Gauge Reference
A set of new strings will provide a pleasing poppy, crisp, clear tone. Older strings tend to sound deader. Some music sounds great with a crisp bass tone, while other music sounds better with a dead tone. There is no right or wrong here - just a matter of genre and taste.
New strings need time to 'break-in'. Because of the way that strings are designed and manufactured, new ones will continue to stretch when they are first fitted to a bass guitar. The strings need time to 'creep' or settle after being put under tension.
If you are fitting new strings on the day you want to record, tune and then overtighten each string by a quarter of a turn on each key. Overstretching the strings will help them settle in a little bit quicker. Obviously, loosen the tuning key and tune again before the performance! If you can, re-string the bass a day or two in advance to avoid this problem.
Some professional players swear they have not changed strings for decades. And as we said earlier this is great for certain music styles. However, it's up to you, your wallet, and the bass player to decide what's best.
Can I clean my old bass guitar strings? It is possible to clean old strings by boiling them in water, using rubbing alchohol, or white vinegar, standard washing up liquid, or using specialised string cleaning products. This is a cheaper alternative to purchasing new strings, but does require some additional time for cleaning and drying. Do a little more research if you are going to take this route.
Now that we have spent time understanding the construction and key elements of a bass guitar, it's time to think about recording. We are going to cover some important stuff here so don't skip this part. We need to think about:
A musician's performance is arguably the biggest contributing factor to getting a great sound. We mentioned earlier that unfamiliar equipment can be detrimental to a performance, but there are a few other noteworthy areas to consider.
Firstly, rehearsing the tune before recording is a must. This will provide a level of confidence for an amateur player but also serves to save time and frustration during a recording session.
The next consideration is playing style. Some bass players are great live but do not necessarily have the control to be able to play in a studio. Aggressive playing is fine if it suits the style of music but over-aggressive playing can cause headaches down the line when its time to mix the track.
Try to balance the aggression needed for the song with the control required for recording. And keep in mind that the bass player may need encouragement if things are not going as expected.
Finally, if the song has a solid groove (provided by kick and snare) the bass player needs to lock in as much as possible to keep the mix exciting. Above all else, prioritise the performance! Some manual track timing editing may be necessary at the start of the mixing process but do not over quantize a human performance.
You can plug the bass directly into an Audio Interface with an 'Instrument Level' input. Figure 4 shows how this is done with a Focusrite but most Audio Interfaces have the same kind of setup.
Figure 4: Connecting to the Instrument Input of a Focusrite Audio Interface
Here's the full workflow for the DI connection:
Seriously .... it's that easy.
Important Note: Always, always, get a clean DI recording of the bass.
If you already own a SEPARATE passive or active bass DI box then go ahead and include that in the recording chain if you want. We will assume that if you already own one you probably know what to do with it. If the bass player owns a Bass DI box and wants to use it, that’s fine too.
If you do not own a bass DI box pay it no more thought until you have a bit more experience under your belt. Many professional records have been made without a dedicated bass DI box and you will be fine without one.
A DI box such as a SansAmp, Beringer Ultra, Hosa Sidekick or REDDI is designed to add tone to your bass guitar sound. As the DI box is outboard gear whatever setup you use will be printed to the DAW track. This is perfectly fine when you know exactly what tone you need for a song but can be limiting when you don’t. In the setup explained here you will be able to adjust the tone directly through 'Band 2' using the SansAmp plug-in. A separate DI box is NOT compulsory and it won't be difficult to dial in the bass tone to sit well in your mix.
When recording into a DAW give yourself plenty of headroom. There is no major downside to recording with 20 dB of headroom so don’t be afraid of levels that do not switch the yellow and red lights on!
K-20 is a great system to use for recording and if your DAW has the K-20 monitoring setup, use it! (I know that Pro-Tools has it.) With modern recording, there is no reason to clip your incoming waveform. Digital audio can be raised in volume without adverse noise concerns.
When recording, there are a few pieces of equipment in the signal chain. For example, Bass Guitar, Pre-Amp, and DI (Audio Interface). And each of those pieces of equipment needs to send a signal at a good level (a good level being something around -20dB) for the next piece of equipment in the chain. All links in the chain should have enough headroom and not clip the waveform.
Ask your bass player to play the most aggressive and loudest part of the song to set the gain staging and the DAW record level.
Re-amping with a physical bass amp is entirely possible after you have recorded and captured a clean DI track. There is plenty of great information online for re-amping so we won't talk much about that here. However, it is worth noting that there are some great software alternatives, plus paid services if you are determined to get the re-amped sound but don't have the equipment.
Re-amping the bass can add room tone to your mix but it's not necessary.
Softube, in my humble opinion, offers the best bass re-amp plug-in by far. There are three unique bass cabs (8x10", 4x12", 1x12") along with the ability to change microphone positions and amp characteristics. They offer a trial version following a short sign-up and account setup. The full version is $149. If you are new to recording and mixing bass don't splash out, just yet, on any plug-ins or paid services. You will do just fine if you follow our 2 band mixing formula!
Figure 5: Softube Bass Amp Room
There are a few Re-amp Services available online. You can easily find someone on Fiverr who will re-amp your bass for less than $30, or find a more professional studio who could charge up to $200. Don't go down this route until you have recorded a few times yourself and figured out exactly what you can or cannot achieve with your own setup.
If you do end up using a re-amped track make sure you check for any phase issues caused by the microphone placement at the bass amp.
Our mixing trick (or mix formula if you like) is simply a 2 band (multiband) compressor and processor. We will make a copy of the DI track and process the two tracks in different ways. One band will focus on the low end of the bass frequencies and another will focus on the midrange. Finally, we can blend the two bands to balance the instrument and add clarity to the notes being played. See Band 1 and Band 2 in figure 6 below.
Figure 6: Bass Guitar 2 Band Mixing Concept
The key to this mix formula is to separate the two bands with a steep roll-off on band 1 and more gentle roll-off on band 2. This essentially removes the need to think about any phase or comb-filtering issues and keeps the bass sounding solid. Most importantly is the application of harmonic tube distortion to band 2 to bring out the midrange bass tones that are needed to help the bass cut through the other instruments in the mix.
|Band 1: Bottom||Band 2: Top|
|Frequency||Below 180Hz||Above 400Hz|
|Slope||12/24 dB/Octave||6 dB/Octave|
|Keywords||Guts, grit, solid||Tone, body, movement, life|
Table 2: Concept Summary
Our weapon of choice for adding harmonic distortion on band 2 is the SansAmp PSA-1 plug-in. More on that later!
The first band (the bottom) will focus on the low-end energy of the bass guitar. The low-end control is critical to provide stability, feeling, the guts, or the grit of the bass guitar. As a starting point, Band 1 will be the frequencies up to 180 Hz, will have a gentle roll-off and will be heavily compressed. Band 1 compression should affect the level only and not the tone. Add track inserts in the following order:
The second band (the top) will provide the tone, body, movement, articulation, momentum, intimacy and the life of the bass notes. Band 2 will be the frequencies above 400 Hz, will have a steep roll-off and will have medium compression. Add track inserts in the following order:
Removing Muddyness on a Bass Guitar: By cutting above 180 Hz on Band 1 and cutting below 400 Hz on Band 2 we are effectively cutting out frequencies around 250 Hz which is often the area where a bass guitar can sound boxy or muddy.
Keep the two DI tracks MONO and centered in the stereo field. That is, panned to ZERO - right down the middle. Balance Band 1 and Band 2 using their respective faders and balance the whole bass sound with the kick drum. Do not try to balance the mix in isolation. Always mix in context to the other instruments and the vocals.
The SanAmp plug-in is a versatile tube amplifier emulator. The plug-in has nine important controls (see Figure 7 and Table 2). We will use harmonic tube distortion in band 2 to bring out the character of the bass player and bass tone.
Figure 7: Important SansAmp Controls
|1||Bypass||Switches plugin in and out of the chain.|
|2||Preamp||Preamp simulation circuit|
|3||Buzz||Low-end distortion and overdrive|
|4||Punch||Midrange distortion and overdrive|
|5||Crunch||High-end distortion and overdrive|
|6||Drive||Power-amp simulation circuit|
|7||Low||High Pass Filter|
|8||High||Low Pass Filter|
|9||Level||Output (Make-Up) Gain|
Table 3: SansAmp Tone and Filter Controls
Use the bypass to switch the plug-in in and out of the signal chain.
The preamp knob controls the amount of distortion being fed into the preamp circuit. Turn the control clockwise to increased noise and distortion (dirty). Turn the control counterclockwise to make the sound cleaner.
Left = Clean - Right = Dirty
Buzz, punch, crunch, and drive each provide further manipulation of the distortion effect. The low, mid, high and power-amp effects can each be dialled in. Turning each control clockwise increases the amount of distortion and overdrive while turning counterclockwise reduces the amount of distortion and overdrive. As with the preamp, turn to the right for dirty and turn to the left for clean.
The low and high controls are post-distortion low and high-frequency EQ filters. On the minimum setting (control fully turned left) 12 dB of gain is attenuated and on the maximum 12 dB is added.
Use the level control for gain staging (either boosting or attenuating).
The plug-in comes with 10 presets for use with the bass guitar.
It's often good to cycle through presets to see what kind of sounds you can create. Then hone in your own tone with the controls. Remember to bypass the effect too to hear the difference the SansAmp plugin makes.
The bass guitar naturally has a wide dynamic range compared to other instruments and for most music genres requires a good dose of compression. As much as 10 dB or 20 dB gain reduction is not unusual for rock, pop, or rap. Think about bass compression in terms of 'bringing the volume of lower notes up' not 'making the volume of everything equal'.
As a starting point, go for about 10-15dB of gain reduction on Band 1. Obviously, this can be more or less depending on the performance and recording. Use the limit switch on an LA-2A for controlling peaks and aggressive playing styles.
On band 2 try about 5-7dB of gain reduction (try first without limiting). For both bands, use the attack and release settings to create sustain and emphasize individual note attacks.
Any stock plug-in is more than capable of doing a good job but here are a few favourites and standard compressors:
For completeness, I have included the Bass Cheat Sheet excerpt from my article Home Studio Audio Compression Explained. Just as starting points for those that need it.
|Ratio||Attack||Release||Threshold||Make Up Gain|
|Bass I||3 to 1||2ms||100ms||Set to reduce gain by 3 to 4db||3dB|
|Bass II||3 to 1||10ms||40ms||Set to reduce gain by 4 to 5db||4dB|
|Bass III||4 to 1||100ms||25ms||Set to reduce gain by 5 to 6db||5dB|
Table 4: Instrument Compressor Setting Starting Points
If you have followed the advice above you shouldn't need to EQ the bass at all. However, as this is the real world, where nothing is perfect, a little bit of EQ may be necessary to polish off your sound. Here is a list of all the usual suspects for bass offences and their ballpark frequency ranges to cut and boost.
|Fundamentals and Body||80-250Hz|
|Low Mids (and Mud!)||250-500Hz|
|Clarity, Presence and Upper Fundamentals||700Hz-1.5kHz|
|Bite and Growl||800Hz-1.6kHz|
|High Frequencies3||above 5kHz|
Table 5: Bass Guitar EQs
To finish off this article I'd like to throw a few advanced techniques out there for anyone who wants to research more, or is still not getting the sound they want. Other techniques are as follows:
Back in 2009, I bought myself a copy of Pro Tools and recorded some home made music. It was challenging to start with, as I had no idea what I was doing. I made many mistakes on my journey - some fun, some expensive, and many time-consuming! I find running a Home Music Studio a fascinating and rewarding hobby and still enjoy it every day. This website is where I’d like to share everything that I’ve learned.