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A Different Way To Listen: Thoughts on Transcribing Bass Lines

Listening with Headphones

Photo by Raven3k

Think about all of the ways we can hear music… we can listen to it in our car, hear it as we walk through a super market, be encompassed by it in a movie theater, experience a private listening session on our headphones, or hook a record player up to a great set of speakers. Clearly, there are many mediums by which we listen and the overall sound will be slightly different on each and every one.

So what does that have to do with playing bass? Ultimately, one of our jobs is to learn music… to listen to the bass part and discover ways to replicate it to the best of our abilities.

But what if we can’t really hear the bass part? There are plenty of records where the bass is literally lost in the mix or where the music itself has been mixed for a specific audio medium. So, if you’re having trouble really hearing the bass, try listening in a different way.

Now this may seem a bit excessive, but I urge you to do an experiment: Pick a song, any song… new, old, funky, smooth, whatever. Next, take an account of every listening device you have, and listen to the song on every one of those devices.

Try listening on your computer with just the internal speakers. Then try plugging headphones in (try out different types of headphones if you have them). Then listen to the song in your car… maybe you hear it on the radio, maybe you plug your iPod into a cassette tape adapter. Listen to it on your phone, listen to it at your friend’s house on their speakers.

As you do this experiment, make notes and try to pinpoint the unique characteristics of each device.

What you should find is that the sound of the bass (and the sound of the recording in general) varies from medium to medium. Certain listening devices do a better job with bass frequencies than others… if you listen to a song via the small speakers in your laptop, you may not hear any bass at all. However, if you plug studio-quality headphones in to your computer, you’re likely to have a clearer and well-defined listening experience. To make things even more complicated, certain systems allow for you to change the EQ settings… this can be a great attribute if you know how to find the sonic sweet spot. Now the discussion of EQ can open up a can of worms… we could discuss certain loudness principles, or dive in to room acoustics, but our goal here is to see how it ties in to being a better bass player.

All great bassists spend time ear training… this involves recognizing notes, intervals, chords, grooves, and most importantly, figuring out tunes by ear. Knowing that the system you’re listening on may influence what you hear can keep you from getting frustrated. If you’re having difficulty hearing or transcribing a part, don’t give up. We all run into roadblocks, and sometimes certain bass lines really are above our current ability level, but make sure that the audio system you’re using isn’t the thing that’s holding you back. When you’re trying to hear the musical nuances of a groove or figure out a line that’s quick or technically difficult, you may benefit from listening on a few different devices.

For example, I love my computer speakers, and they work for most of the listening I do, but I know that they aren’t the most accurate when it comes to hearing the low end. It took many frustrating evenings to figure out that my speakers can muddle or distort the bass tone on certain records, and the room I’m in doesn’t help one bit. Whenever I need to really learn a part, I’ll switch to something else… usually noise cancelling or studio quality headphones. Suddenly, the bass seems closer and more distinctive… exactly what I want when I need to learn something note for note. The isolation from the headphones helps me focus and get a more accurate sonic picture at a lower volume. If that doesn’t work, I may even reach for the small, ipod ear buds. Although I don’t normally listen on these, they seem to amplify the midrange of the bass and accentuate the attack on the string. They can be particularly useful if I need to hear a rhythm part and my computer speakers aren’t giving me enough definition.

Now this may not be rocket science, but it’s something that I had to learn the hard way. I’ve been the one to second-guess my ears, put the bass down, and believe that I’ve lost my musical super powers. Thankfully, that’s not true (or so I hope). If switching from speakers to headphones, or vice versa, helps you figure out a bass line, go for it. If you find that some records sound crystal clear on your car stereo system, then listen hard as you’re driving home from work. If you suddenly hear the bass better on the opposite side of the room as your speakers, then set up shop over there. Remember that all records are mixed differently, bass tones vary from year to year, coast to coast, and bass to bass, and all audio systems are not created equal. So, the next time you’re fed up with learning a tune and ready to throw your bass out the window, take a step back, switch up the listening environment, and give it another go.

How do you deal with learning those hard-to-hear lines? Tell us about it in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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