Choosing the Right Tone for the Song: On Stage and In Studio

Q: How do you decide what tone to use for different songs?

A: This is a great question. And it is one that is very subjective. This will be different for everyone, but I’m happy to share my personal take on it. This is also something that may be very different live than it is in the studio.

Quite often, what one decides is the best tone when playing by themselves and dialing things in winds up being nothing close to what is going to work best in the mix as a whole.

In the Studio

The first step: make yourself happy with the sound in your headphones. Finding the right tone will help you stay relaxed and distraction-free with your sound, and let you focus on your playing.

Next, listen during playback and make suggestions on your tone – things you think might work, and anything that stands out to you in a negative way. If it sounds good, let the band leader, composer and/or engineer do what they think is best. This doesn’t mean you’ll always be happy, but in the end, if it is someone elses record, then its not our call anyway. If they’re happy, we should be.

Live Sound

To an extent, think like you would in the studio – find the tone you like, but focus on blending well, enhancing the overall musical experience, and definitely don’t compete sonically with anything or anyone on the stage with you.

When it comes to changing your tone a bit to cater to one song or another, it really just comes down to listening. Always focus on the band when you play (and not just yourself). When you do this, you may realize that you may need to cut more, round out the tone or could use a bit more punch. Alter your EQ or the way you’re playing the instrument to help facilitate a more appropriate tone.

In addition to EQ and on-board pre-amp tweaking, there are a hundred different ways to sculpt your tone on stage. Here are a handful of things we have at our disposal as bassists:

  1. Palm muting
  2. Left hand muting
  3. Shifting your plucking position further towards the headstock or bridge
  4. Playing with a pick
  5. Playing with my thumb (in place of index and middle fingers)
  6. Changing the length of my notes
  7. Plucking harder or softer

The end result should always be to the purpose of making the song come alive and really speak the way it’s meant to. Try not to think in terms of genre and what this genre would require. Treat each song individually and how it feels.

If you think this particular tune wants to do this, then do everything possible to try and help it to do this.

The short and sweet version: listen and react to what you hear.

Remember that the best way to become a working bass player that’s in demand is not to make sure that you sound great every night but to make sure that the band sounds great every night with you on bass. That’s the secret!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. I always tend to go as far as possible without any EQ changes, mostly the hand changes you mention. Studio work is another ball game. A lot of times it involves changing instruments so I always have 3-4 at my disposal for studio work.

  2. I really love the direction of No Treble, it’s always about ethics and spirits, never about technical stuff. Nice work.

    As additional info, it’s important to remember that the venue you play in has its tone, too. The size of the venue, of the stage, the proximity of the walls, the material for the walls and for the stage, the hollow-ness of the riser behind your feet, all that stuff can completely destroy the “perfect sound” you cooked back home, or in your rehearsal studio.

    And don’t trust your monitor mix! Get a reaaaaaallly long cable and move to the audience during the sound check (or go wireless). Monitors aren’t really good with deep bass sounds: you need the PA for that. And when the venue will be crowded, the low end will move better however your high-end will get muffled. I found that when I boost the high-end a little more than I want to during the soundcheck, less people are telling me that “the bass wasn’t loud enough” after the gig. And the soundman can always muffle them a bit if it’s too much…

    • Oh yeah, and if you’re using a pedal board, ALWAYS do a run of ALL your effects during the soundcheck to ensure the volume is consistent. For instance, when I set my volumes home, my amp is like at 20% power. Maybe, one of the sound will be at 16% and the other at 21%, but 5% is hard to recognize by the human ear.

      But when you get on stage and play at 60% power, your 16% sound will be 48% and your 21% sound will be 63%. YIKES! It’s no longer 5% difference, but 12%, the difference is more than twice as easy to notice. Result is that no one will hear you when you play that 48% sound, because the soundman balanced your volume expecting your 60% power…

      Just talking about past experiences here :)

    • (Sorry it’s 15% difference once you get on stage, not 12% in my example)

    • Thank you Jonathan. Love hearing that.

  3. I just throw darts at my pedal board and start turning knobs. Here I thought tone was just arbitrary ;).

  4. Well now! Hahaha. There is so much wisdom to be found in stuff like this, and I really am grateful for that. Honestly, the community in No Treble is unbeatable.
    All I can say is what I’ve learned from my experience and hope that might be useful for someone else. I hope you’ll give my words a look whether you are more experienced than me or aspiring to be. ( Not to be arrogant, egos don’t work in the music business.)
    First off, I’d like to second practically every notion covered in the article. Most of which comes instinctively after a good bit of time playing on and off stage with other people. Truth is, the best way to go about tone is to experiment and see what fits in. Now, that’s often harder than it sounds ( that’s a pun by the way…), but that’s the way it is. Dial it in, and don’t be afraid to be bold at first.

    The best place to start and often where you go to finish anyway is volume. Now, I’m a firm believer in a good low end, but you have to know your limits. Always check with the sound guy, or if you don’t have one, just check with somebody in the crowd during soundcheck. In my experience, I always try to be equal with the guitarist. ( I’m in a four piece where the low end, aka me, has to make up for the lack of rhythm guitar often.) Guitar amps carry a bit further even at lower volumes simply because the pitch seems to cut through the mix, so I try to be present so to speak. The key is to strike a balance. Try to find the middle point between over dominant and nonexistent. You want to be heard, but you don’t want to wreck the sound of the band. To finish that bit off, always check volume before and after the other parts. Things change given different circumstances, learn to be adaptable. ( The venue you play in makes a big difference. Acoustics are different in a cafe and a theater to put it in layman’s terms).

    Now I’ll move on to the pedalboard. ( Whew! I tend to get a bit in depth, but I hope those details will help someone.) I personally LOVE effects to death. They can make things sound more interesting, add dynamics, and often sound more personal that way. They can also mess up the whole mix of the band. I proudly use a beaten and bruised road worthy BOSS GT-6B. They don’t really make them anymore, but the thing has everything I need. ( From a looper, to wah, and back) I use effects extensively to assist in filling up the sonic atmosphere. When the song drops into a breakdown or needs that extra bass I use distortion and whatnot. Check your levels with that before any performance. If you don’t, then you could end up overwhelming the crowd and be heinously loud.

    Effects can help you sound interesting and assist your tone, but they can also take away from that. All I can say is, try things out, see what works with your band, but don’t rely on spending more money to sound interesting.

    Even though I love effects, the truth is that tone is mostly in the hands. What you’re doing as a player is going to be the bottom line no matter what. The smoothness or punchiness of your attack with your fingers ( and/or pick) can make all the difference. Your not going to slap aggressively to an acoustic ballad (and if you do, you are well commended as experimental…). As said in the article time and time again, find what works best with the song. Most of that is covered already so I’ll stop there.
    Well, I think I said what I needed to say. Best of luck in all your musical endeavors fellow bassists.