Updated: Dec 2, 2021
As ever with any instrument, the single biggest thing helpful in getting a good bass sound is the player. This is the default mantra for all instruments, so I won’t bother repeating it more than twenty times. A good player makes everything better from the start. Good gear helps, but it really is the player that makes all the difference. The instrument is important, but not everything; one of the best sounding in-house basses I ever recorded was this no-name Fender Precision Bass copy made of plywood and finished in black car spray paint. It just *always* sounded good; fat low, sweet mids and just the perfect highs. Go figure.
The good news is fresh strings are perhaps the biggest help to getting a good tone - you can always remove top end later, but creating it and all those juicy harmonics is another matter. Of course you will meet resistance to this sometimes from your bands as they are expensive to buy, but be a pain in the ass and insist if you really care. You can also do a couple of other things; boil the old strings which helps dislodge the crap and can help regain a bit of tone, and clean them with rubbing alcohol (or cheap aftershave, which is why those horrible no-name bottles Auntie would get you Christmas always made it to the studio - reassigned to string cleaning duty) Conversely, if things are too twangy, you can damp them down with baby powder, though the brightness tends to disappear in the mix and after a few hours playing, and often way too soon.
Bass players always buy cool amps they want to use that half the time don’t really sound cool, especially at the average listening volume; it’s just that you FEEL the bass loud, which is why when tracking I like big ass monitors. Bass just doesn’t kill you coming out of NS10’s, but is more likely to send you on a quest to find it. That said, the sound of an amp, and especially dirtier amps has a quality which you wouldn’t want to miss, so my advice is always take a DI. With fresh strings, sometimes a DI can be out of the box perfect, and it’s super depressing when you have a $2000 bass rig.
The next most important thing is your tuner. What? Well. A couple of weird things happen with bass. More than a couple. In less than ideal rooms because of the acoustics monitoring can get weird for bass. That can often lead to some notes sounding really loud, and some really quiet which makes the band shout at the bassist for being such an uneven handed idiot, which he’s actually not. The second is that pitch changes with how hard someone plays, and in rock & roll, you get some real animals. For these guys you may find you have to tune a little flat as when they..twang...for lack of a better technical term..it comes UP to pitch. Thirdly, many basses have the worst intonation imaginable, and if your bass line is on the adventurous side, you may well be in perfect tune at the fifth fret, but by the time we get to the ninth...you get the idea. Sometimes recording bass can be like a battle plan, figuring out what order to do what. You may need to record the section where your hero the bassist plays up the neck separately to the part when he is playing root notes. Sometimes it’s not that hard, and everything is beautiful. Just don’t let anyone tell you bass “is easy”.
Back to the technicalities. Use any mic you like that has a good bass response. That can range from a condenser to an RE20, to a kick drum mic to a 421. Avoid the tweeters that some cabs have built in and start at the centre of a cone about a hand’s width away. Further away from the centre for more low, close to the centre for more bite. Don’t get too far away as once the room gets into it, things get weird fast. Having mic’d up our bass amp, we also tracked a DI, which will now be out of phase slightly with the amp. Why? Because the microphone has to wait for the sound wave to leave the speaker, and get to it. When close mic’d this usually isn't a big problem, but the further back you go, the more it can be. Remember that sound goes about .3m per second, so if you were a foot away... that’s 1 ms delay.
Since I'm going to assume we’re using a DAW, it’s easy to move tracks around a little to see what sounds best, bearing in mind your mic track will be late compared to your DI. There are also a few plugins, like Waves InPhase, or LittleLabs IBP to do the job for you. And of course never forget the golden rule..if it sounds right, it is right. Maybe everything’s fine straight away so don't panic. I’m a huge fan of the Sansamp gear for bass. The BassDriver DI pedal is the best thing I’ve ever bought for depressing bassists and other engineers as it works so often, and isn’t even that expensive. There's even a pretty cool FREE plugin version of it from TSE called the BOD.
What about compression AS you record? I'd say yes, and not too much.A 4:1 ratio and 3db or so is a good starting point. Rock solid even-ness is really in the hands of the player so work with your bassist. The compression is only to add that little extra bit of focus. EQ? Track pretty flat unless you are going for something very, very specific as bass is one of those instruments that is really really sensitive when it comes to context. It seems to change as the other problem is bass tends to get recorded early, i.e before the 200 other tracks which will later obliterate it so it is hard to really get a good sense of perspective which is why it’s good to get a bit of everything in there in case you need it later. I quickly want to mention one more thing, sub-bass. Not so much a problem with real basses but pay attention to it. It eats up valuable room, and can in extreme cases cause nightmares. Look at your monitors cones sometimes slightly from the side, and see what they are doing. If they seem to be wanting to escape the box, or doing some weird dance, have a little check and see what’s happening, as you may not want it to. As well as synths, a common culprit of this is DI’d acoustic guitars, so pay attention!
I hope you enjoyed this adventure into the world of recording bass, and if you enjoyed this article I have a good selection of other articles for artists elsewhere on the blog you may like to check out. Happy Recording!