Steve Bunker, a rockabilly player, recently asked me about the “best way to record the upright bass.” While I don’t think there is any one single way that is the best to record every upright bass in every style of music, I have noticed a few things over the years.
Get your sound before you walk into the studio
This may seem self-evident, but I have met many a bassist who thinks they can walk into a studio with bad tone and no sustain and rely on the audio engineers work magic for them. While engineers can do incredible things these days, I think most will agree that having the right sound before hitting “record” makes everyone’s job easier and the end product better. It’ll also be cheaper.
Work on getting the sound you want when you practice alone and with the group. Get the best instrument you can and polish your tone with proper setup, strings, etc., never forgetting that how you play the bass makes a huge difference. Fine-tune your technique and your instrument so that you can produce the sound you want before the recording date. If amplification is part of your core sound, then work that all out too, so that you are producing the sound you want before you walk into the studio.
Your recording engineer can work with you much more easily if you walk into the studio with a clear opinion on the sound you want, and are able to reproduce it. Be able to say “This is my sound, I want that on the recording.”
Also, go in with a recent re-hair (if appropriate) and fresh – but not brand new – strings… unless you are striving for that dead “thunk” with a lack of sustain.
Amplification and Pickups
Oftentimes a good engineer will have the best ideas on this, and if you have a good engineer it may well be best to defer to their expertise. That stated, in general I prefer a mic in front of an amplifier (provided this is a good sound to begin with!) over a pickup direct into the board or run through studio equipment. Also, if your preferred sound exclusively comes out of your amp, without any acoustic timbre, then I would advise not mixing in a microphone with it. At a minimum, if you want the amplified sound you should be recording the amp. Also, if the amplified sound is even a part of the sound you want, don’t use only a microphone. You will likely be disappointed in the end result.
This is where it can get tricky, if getting the best and most accurate sound of your bass is a priority for any particular session. Often it is not, and priorities are placed on the vocals, guitars, drums or melody instruments. They just set a mic and go. However, if you want the best sound you can get, I have noticed that a process of experimentation is generally needed the first time you walk into a particular studio, or use a specific microphone. With experience, this can be a very short period, but there doesn’t seem to be any template that works for all basses, mics and rooms.
Here are a few suggestions:
- If you have a great sounding bass, you may be able get a good sound fairly simply. Put a single mic around bridge height. Experiment with placement directly in front of the bridge, in front of each F hole and at various distances away from you. Experiment with height as well to find the best sound. Play in all the registers you will be playing in. Also, play bowed, slapped and pizz, as appropriate for the date.
- I have heard great results using a microphone wrapped in a towel, or foam, jammed in between the tailpiece and the belly of the bass. This can add more depth to a thin sounding bass. It can be used as a primary or secondary mic.
- Some basses push a lot of sound out the back or sides, which the player hears. In some cases, I have heard great benefits when a second mic has been placed to pick up sound coming out of the back of an instrument. This can be mixed in with the primary mic in front of the bass.
- If you are recording acoustic rockabilly or other slap bass (i.e. with a tone and a “click”) you might benefit from two mics out front. One near the F-holes, or around the bridge and one higher up to get the “click.”
- Placing a microphone higher up to pick up the sound somewhere on the neck can add great clarity to a bass recording. This can be helpful if you are doing lots of fancy finger work.
- If your bass isn’t great to begin with then you may need more than one microphone and you should experiment with placement until you find an acceptable tone.
- If you get a great sound with one mic, then great! Stop! If not, don’t be afraid to have more than one track devoted to the sound of your bass with various microphones and placements. They can be mixed to help get a tone you are pleased with.
- If you are working with engineers, be nice to them, and be clear in the sound you want.