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The Lightbulb Moment: Studio Tones

Recording Studio

For most musicians, walking into a professional recording studio is like setting foot in Disneyland. There are so many colors, so many shiny microphones, so many synthesizers! You want to touch everything, including those knobs on the console that are so perfectly aligned. The faint scent of aged wood, treated walls, and ghostly vibrations transport you to a world of creativity and wonder. It’s easy to get distracted and to feel overwhelmed by the records that have been recorded in that space, but it’s important to stay focused. After all, you’re there to record a song.

It’s time to make your way over to bass land — the space that is hopefully within sightline of the drummer. If the engineer has prepared things properly, it’s ready for you and your gear… hopefully you’ve got a music stand, headphones, access to power, an XLR cable, and maybe even a bottle of water. It’s time to make the space your own: to set up your basses in an orderly manner, plug in your pedal board or tuner, and find your happy place. It’s also time to exercise judgment regarding how to record bass. Do you use an amp? Direct box? Both? There are many different opinions on the matter, ranging from the availability of certain gear to superstitious notions about tone. So, how do you decide?

If you’re in a professional studio, they are usually prepared for two different scenarios (or they’ve asked you about it before the session). First, the engineer may suggest a way that they usually record bass; this typically involves a house amp or DI. Second, they may expect the musician to have a specific set up with their own gear. The more experience you have in the studio, the more you’ve developed personal preferences and knowledge of what works best. Some players have a magic pre-amp or DI box that they use and therefore, opt not to go through an amp. Others enjoy mixing the tone from their DI with a mic’d cabinet. It truly depends on the gear that is available, maximizing studio efficiency, and the style of music that is being recorded.

Personally, I enjoy just using a direct box and/or pre-amp for recording; it’s usually the best way to get a solid, clean tone whether you’re tracking at home or at a fancy studio. However, every now and then, when there’s cool gear available, it can be fun to use it.

On a recent session, I found myself face to face with an Ampeg B15 that was wantin’ some lovin’. I opted for the DI-Amp milkshake, a combination of my favorite preamp/DI with a mic’d cabinet for ultimate blending possibilities during the mixing process. Maybe an 80/20 ratio will sound good… mostly DI with a little bit of roomy warmth thrown in. Or perhaps we’re going for a “live” tone and decide to go 50/50. Either way, there should be plenty to work with.

As the session got underway, we got mixes set and played a few takes of the song. Feeling fairly confident with the performance, it was time to listen back. Everyone to the control room! Huddling around the middle of the room, we each listened intently to our parts, quickly noting cool licks and mistakes, places to punch and tweaks to make. My ears were set on the bass and I instantly realized that something wasn’t right. There was an all-encompassing muddiness; the band was suddenly swimming in the deep end of a pool without a life vest. The notes lacked definition and any playful nuance had been lost.

Ah ha! All amp, no DI. It was the sound of a small isolation booth and a big boomy amp. The clarity that you get from a DI was absent and I was chomping at the bit to find out why. Apparently, the engineers had an issue with the DI line and therefore, didn’t bother with it. Didn’t bother with it? Really? At this point, I would have to a) wait for the problem to be solved in the studio so that I could recut the part, b) hope that who ever is mixing the project will do some serious low frequency tweaking, or c) talk to the artist afterward and suggest recutting the part.

Option (a) was not in the cards; it would waste everyone’s time and potentially cost more money. Option (b) might work, if there’s enough attention to detail and the intention of the mixer is to keep the bass fairly dark. And finally, option© is the most logical. Although we’d have to book a separate time to cut the part (either at the studio or at home), it wouldn’t impact the other players and it would be fairly easy to get a few new takes.

The moral of the story? Know what your bass typically sounds like when it’s recorded, why something may sound wrong, and how you can fix it. In this situation, the engineers didn’t take enough time on the front end of the session to get the DI line working. They weren’t familiar with the room, time was limited, and they spent most of the session troubleshooting other glitches. Ah, the joys of being in the studio. You live, you learn, you know your gear.

The good thing about living in the 21st Century is that we have the technology to record at home. We can test gear, experiment with tones, and fix errors that may have occurred during the session. Most of us don’t need to practice tape splicing and can instead outfit our basements and computers with decent gear. If you plan on recording, learn how your basses sound. Get used to listening through headphones vs. monitors, find a DI or preamp that works for you, and be flexible with the kind of tone you can produce. After all, you want to enjoy the ride and savor the time you have in professional studios. They are places filled with fancy amps, hundreds of knobs and blinking lights, musical vibrations, and invisible magic.