The electric bass guitar is the backbone of a great song, which makes it a crucial part of the recording process. Unfortunately, when figuring out how to record electric bass guitar, musicians don’t always make this a priority. They’re concerned with the vocals and other instruments like the drums.
Of course, vocals and guitar are key ingredients, but when the bass is not recorded properly, I feel like it’s a criminal offence. That’s why today, I’m going to show you how to record electric bass guitar correctly, so I don’t have to listen to any more bass-less or badly recorded basses out there!
What Does Bass Do In Music?
Before we get to how to record electric bass guitar, let’s talk briefly about what it does and why it’s important. The electric bass guitar is what creates a song’s low tonal frequencies, which are part of the overall frequency spectrum off highs and lows contained within any given piece of music.
This is particular true for pop and rock music, not to mention electronic – hell, MOST music. The bass is the anchor, and keeps the song in check.
Also, did you know that in any given music, the bass actually controls the melody? This is important to know, because when the bass melody changes, everything needs to change with it.
Listen to this isolated bass track by the Beatles and then check out the original recording with the full band to see just what the bass adds to the song in terms of melody and tone.
Bass is typically under-appreciated by many beginner record producers, not to mention band members. Why? – because guitar just sounds flashier, when, in the grand scheme of things musically, guitar is there just to add dressing on the bass, more or less. That’s what I think, anyway.
For musicians who have played music for a while, they know that bass counts for so much and that certain bands would just crumble to the ground without their bass player. I could make a case for this all night long, but here’s just one great example with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
If you have a good speaker or headphones, you can hear the bass as it should be, and just try to imagine this song without the bass.
How To Record Electric Bass Guitar
When it comes to recording electric bass, you want to be able to capture all those low frequencies of the instrument with the proper mics and mic set up.
Bass notes often get recorded with less definition, due to their low nature and the “wrong” mic placement. Of course, you do want some definition (higher frequencies), or else is your bass just sounds like a murky mess and you can’t very well mix it in to your song when the time comes.
So, there are a few ways to go about recording electric bass which I use. If you do it differently and you’re a seasoned recording expert – that’s great, please share your methods in the comments, but in this article I’m explaining how I do it.
Basically, there are two main ways to do it. You can either go direct in to the pre-amp / mixing board, or you mic the amp.
You can also use a combo of these two methods to get a blend. Usually this third option can get pretty cool results, because it’s the best of both worlds. Oh, and also you can put two mics on the amp which are slightly different. This is also cool.
Miking Your Bass Amp
Microphone placement is tricky with this instrument. You’ll have to alter mic placement based on the sound you want to capture, not to mention the type of mic – dynamic or condenser. The sound of the room is going to come into play as well, but less so, the closer you mic your amp.
For electric instruments that produce sound with more force, I recommend a dynamic microphone vs. a condenser. Dynamic mics are able to capture the high SPL (sound pressure level) coming from the instrument.
The Shure SM57, SM58 or Electro-Voice RE20 are good choices for miking your bass guitar. You can use a condenser microphone if you have one with a large diaphragm for capturing the low tones. Or you can use any combination of mics. A microphone a few feet back from the cab will catch sounds the reflect from the floor, walls, and items in the room.
Say you have a Shure SM57 – place the mic an inch from the grille of the amp. If you want to capture more body, the mic should be moved away from the amp a bit further. You’ll need to play around with mic placement based on the sound you want recorded for the song.
Two or More Mics + On / Off Axis Miking
Placing two mics near the amp can create an on-axis and off-axis sound that can be used together. Basically, on-axis means you’ll be pointing the mic directly at your amp’s speaker cone, to get the most attack possible, while off-axis means slightly to the side of the speaker cone.
The maximum bass will be obtained by keeping the mic as close to the speaker as possible, whether it be on or off-axis. The further away you pull the mic from the amp, the less bass you’ll get and the more room sound will be added to your recording.
There’s a rule called 3:1 where the second mic should be 3 times the distance from the first mic to the amp. For example, if the first mic is an inch away from the amp, the second should be three inches from the first mic. Play around with this if you like, and see if it works for you.
If you like the idea of 2 mics, remember that you can use two different mics, and this may involve a condenser as well as a dynamic, or two dynamics. You can point them in different spots and see what kind of sound you get. As you can see, there’s quite a few things to consider here when it comes to mic placement, including the position of the mics, the number of mics, and the types of mics.
With me personally, I make sure to also take into consideration the type of bass I’m recording as well as the type of amp I’m using. Some basses, for instance, are very clang-y, and so there’s more high frequency, and that changes things a lot when it comes to one mic recording, not to mention two.
“Direct In” Recording of the Bass
The DI (direct in) method looks rather intense and complex from the above picture (there’s even a tape machine, wow!), but can be super easy as well. That’s the thing with the DI method, there’s so many ways to go about it, it can get out of hand quickly. Or you can keep it simple.
But basically, DI can just be as simple as your bass plugging into to your pre-amp or mixing board, which is then hooked up to your recording software through one of the inputs. That signal can then run through plug ins which the software has built in, and you can get your desired sound from there.
Why Use Direct In For Bass?
The DI method sucks in some ways, and it’s great in others. For instance, if you have a specific bass guitar sound that you’ve refined and it sounds just the way you want in the room, coming out of the amp (say with some wicked natural distortion), it’s not like you can easily replicate that with DI. In fact, you can’t – maybe not at all. All the subtleties of the room and the mics and the amp and the bass – gone using DI. Going DI means your bass will sound the way it sounds, but with no effects and essentially no “oomph”. So in this way, it sucks. From there you have to rebuild your sound.
But, on the other hand (and not to sound like a hypocrite), DI is great! Why? Well, any room sounds like buzzing and humming and weird signals that find their way into your microphone are gone now, because it’s just your bass going into a device. There’s less things that can mess up your sound this way, although to be honest there still are things that can interfere, like static or if there’s something wrong with your patch cord or the input jack on your bass (this one happens to me sometimes and it’s really annoying).
The other cool thing about DI is you have a world of plugins at your fingertips. It can be a lot faster than plugging in and doing mic placement as well, plus, you can really sculpt your sound from the ground up. It all depends on if you’re doing this all yourself, or you have a producer working with you to help you get the sound you want. Another thing about DI is you can switch the sound of your bass via a different plugin very quickly. Don’t like the sound of your bass? Try a different one out!
When recording with mics, you generally have to just “deal” with the sound you get after the track has been recorded. There’s a lot more prep time involved than with DI. A lot of recording engineers are lazy and they aren’t paying attention, so you record your bass, it sounds horrible, and you have to “work with it”. This is not cool. This is a bit of a worst case scenario – hopefully your engineer is awesome, and he helps you get a good bass sound that you like.
Bringing the Sound Together
When you mic more than one signal, you’re able to blend together a perfect sound for your song. The bass DI, low-end dynamic microphone, mid-range, and room mic can be “summed” down to a single mono channel. They can be kept separate and processed differently depending on the sounds the producer wants to create. With all those signals to play around with, you’ll end up with exactly the sound you want to produce for your song’s tracks.
When you’re recording at home, you might not know what kind of sound you want to create since you’re not a professional music producer. You should use as many methods as you’re comfortable with and experiment with the sounds. As a musician, it’s always about experimenting and finding a sound that you love.
Play a little while recording to find the right version of the sound that works with the band’s sound as well as what the song requires. When figuring out how to record electric bass guitar it’s almost always about experimentation.