The bass is generally regarded as a tricky instrument to record. I recently caught up with One Flight Up Producer/Engineers Michael Vidale and Dave Dempsey to find out their secrets for recording the bass. Michael and Dave are two of Sydney's most experienced Producers/Engineers/Musicians, and it just so happens that Michael Vidale is one of Australia's top Bass players. He's a member of Don Walker's (Cold Chisel) solo band, The Suave Fucks, as well as the Bushwackers.
N: So guys, what's your 'ultimate bass sound' and how do you get it? Spill the beans!
M & D: We generally use a combination of 3 recording methods: a DI, a microphone on the bass amp, and a mic in front of the bass itself to capture the sound of the player's fingers.
N: Great, so take us through the three setups.
Dave: Well the DI (Direct Injection) is the simplest part.
Michael: I like to use a WALTER WOODS Bass Pre-amp. I've got a Model 300 Head Amp, which has been modified as a pre-amp only, model MM-225-I.
Dave: The Bass is plugged into the pre-amp, and the DI output is recorded.
Walter Woods 225
Michael's amp is a model 300 Head modified as a pre-amp only. It is known as model MM-225-I.
N: Sounds pretty straight forward, but as anyone who's tried to record bass knows, the DI sound by itself doesn't really give the 'full picture' of the bass' sound.
Michael: That's right. So the next part of the picture is the microphone on the bass amp.
Dave: This gets us some of the 'power' and the sound of the bass amp to give more character to the dry DI sound.
N: So what kind of microphone are you using on the bass amplifier and where do you place it?
Dave: Generally a Large Diaphragm Condenser (LDC) is best as the larger diaphragm is better for capturing low end frequencies.
Michael: We've found the best placement is about 10 inches from the speaker, slightly off-axis and angled towards the centre of the cone.
N: And do you have a preferred make or model of microphone to use?
Michael: Look, any half-decent large diaphragm condenser will do the job.
Dave: Of course we'd all love to use Neumanns all the time but there are plenty of great LDC's out there and most of them should be fine.
N: Cool, so the amp microphone plus the DI would be combining together to make a pretty darn good bass sound, but there's one more thing you guys like to do, right?
Michael: When I'm playing and recording an upright (acoustic) bass, I like to have a microphone in front of the fret board to capture the sound of the fingers plucking the strings and moving about the frets.
N: I imagine that would give the recording a natural 'live' feel...
Dave: That's right. By adding this third element to the mix, the bass sounds real and live again. Not just like an amped instrument.
N: So what kind of mic would you use here then?
Dave: A Ribbon microphone works really well in this application.
Michael: They're very natural sounding and beautifully capture the 'slap' and finger noises on the fret board. We'd generally place the mic slightly below the neck-joint of the bass.
A Royer 121 is a great choice of Ribbon microphone for guitars and bass. (Studio mic collection)
Michael Vidale is one of Australia's top Bass players, Producers & Engineers.
Dave Dempsey is one of Sydney's most experienced Producers / Engineers / Musicians.
N: Great, so that's the miking side of things covered. Let's head into the control room and talk about what happens to the bass signals there. What do you do in the way of compression?
D: I generally don't compress on 'the way in' (recording). So in mix, the first step is a light limiting to contain the peaks.
M: Then we'll use one - or often two - compressors, each set pretty light: maximum of about 2:1 ratio. But usually less, somewhere around 1.2, 1.5:1.
D: Each of these just does a little 'squeeze' on the signal. Just gently to keep everything tight but not sounding compressed.
UA 1176LN Limiting Amplifier
The Universal Audio 1176LN Limiting Amplifier is great on Bass.
Teletronix (UA) LA2A
The Teletronix LA2A is a great choice of compressor for Bass.
Michael: Having said that, in case one wants some compression actually recorded as part of the sound: I have in various sessions & live used an 1176LN (which was part of my bass rig for a while).
Also I have used an Allison Gain Brain, like those in the studio racks, set to more RMS mode than PEAK.
Dave: The LA2A and 1176 both sound great. In the box I tend to use the Waves Fairchild plug and Bass Rider, as well as C6 for tonal shaping.
N: Bass is generally panned mono. How are you blending and panning these 3 signals?
D: That's right. We'd keep it pretty narrow panning.
N: And the levels?
M: Pretty even, but a bit less of the 'slap' channel. But as always, use your ears and blend till it sounds right to you.
N: So we've been talking about miking and recording an upright Bass. But you could do pretty much the same thing with a Bass guitar, right?
M: Absolutely. An acoustic bass guitar, definitely, and an electric bass guitar as well. You may not need or want the mic in front of the fret board for an electric bass guitar, it all depends on the music and whether you want that sound and also whether there's space for it – to hear it – in the mix.
Dave: You know, something else that can work really well is using a pencil mic – a small diaphragm condenser (SDC) – behind the headstock.
N: On a bass?
Dave: Yes, or a guitar. I've found that's a good spot to capture some interesting harmonics.
N: Cool, I'll have to give it a try sometime.
A Neumann KM 184 is a great choice of Small Diaphragm Condenser (SDC) microphone. (Studio mic collection)
M: Another thing I like to do is double the bass part using a Chapman Stick. It has 10 strings and does long notes really well. You can even just 'tap' on the fret board and the internal pickup will pick it up. Just record it using a DI. They're very cool instruments.
N: I'm intrigued! I'll have to check them out.
Dave: One more thing: Try to bring the tracks in around -12dbFS. The benefits of that will become obvious at mix time and even moreso at the mastering stage.
There's a great quote from Bob Katz (legendary Mastering Engineer): “It’s not how loud you make it, it’s how you make it loud”.
Tracking too loud doesn’t give you a final product that’s any louder, it just gives you a final product that might be loud but doesn’t sound so great.
N: Great advice. Well guys, thanks very much for sharing your secrets of Bass recording with us.