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DI, Mic or Both? Perspectives from Bassists and Engineers

Q: Could you do an article or a poll about whether to mic your bass amp during live gigs or to use a direct line into the mixer? I’ve heard opinions on both sides.

Mic and bass ampA: I definitely have my own thoughts and opinions based on my experiences, and I’ve also asked some engineers this question at various gigs lately to try and gain some insight into the front-of-house guy perspective.

I’ll start with my thoughts on the subject.

Much of this decision depends on the venue and the quality of the gear available to you.

In a large hall, outdoors or any theatre, you can’t do everything from the stage. Meaning, you want to have a controlled stage volume so the engineer can mix for the entire room well. And outdoors, you just can’t project like that from the stage adequately, so your stage volume is really just for reference, and your own sense of sound and vibe. What the audience will hear is what the front of house engineer gives them.

More mics = more problems

When you fill a stage with mics, it can quickly become a nightmare for the engineer, because each mic also picking up the other sounds on stage. This is called bleed. Acoustic pianos are notoriously tough on stage for this reason.

In addition, if the stage is hollow, sound (especially low frequencies) will travel through the floor and can cause some serious low end rumble as they travel through the floor and up the mic stand, transferring the vibrations into mud via the mic.

You can see how, with a stage already full of mics, adding more just adds to a heap of potential troubleshooting situations and difficult-to-trace feedback issues, rumbles, and so on.

I prefer to use a good quality DI because I know that I can trust the signal, especially if I am using back-line gear and don’t know the shape of the amp I’ll be using. I know that with a DI, it will sound good. I usually encourage people who work in a variety of different settings to do some homework and buy themselves a good quality Direct Box.

From the engineer’s perspective.

I was surprised to hear more than one engineer say that they do indeed prefer the sound of the right mic on a good cab and – if given the time and resources on the gig – will often do both (using the DI as more of a backup system or as a way to help tighten the sound if needed).

My friend Matt said, “if the guy is using a great amp and has a great tone, I’ll better capture that with the right mic, but if it’s a crappy or a generic sounding low-end solid state rig, I’ll just stick with the DI because it’ll be cleaner and won’t sound any worse than the rig”.

He also added that he prefers less mics on stage (for the reasons I gave above) and that it certainly adds to the potential for issues on stage.

This reminds me of an article I read on acoustic guitar pickups. The author made a great point, which was this:

A cheap pickup will make every guitar sound the same so, buying an expensive pickup and slapping it on an average guitar is a waste of money. It’s only worth buying a high quality pickup if you have a high quality tone. A great pickup on a cheap guitar will make it sound like a cheap guitar. A cheap pickup on a great guitar will make it sound like a cheap guitar. If you’re going cheap, keep it cheap but if you want tone, you have to marry quality products with quality products.

I think that holds true for DI’s and mics as well. Mic-ing a cab is only really worth the trouble if you have a fantastic tone. If it’s a loud setting, a mic will likely be more trouble than it’s worth, but if it’s a manageable volume and your sound is happening, I’d combine a good mic with a good DI to give the front of house sound guy everything he needs to translate that to the audience.

Which brings up another point:

Most sound guys just make it loud. If we’re talking your average dive bar gig or way-too-loud funk club, I’d say go with the DI for sure because it’s not really going to matter anyway. But, if you have a sound guy you trust and a good sounding rig, it might very well be worth exploring the mic option.

Here are a few suggestions on mics from an engineer friend who also does live sound work:

  • Shure Beta 52
  • AKG D112
  • Electro Voice RE20
  • Sennheiser 421

As far as quality DI’s go, there is no shortage of companies making quality DI’s out there. Among my favorites are:

  • Basswitch IQ-DI
  • Aguilar Tone Hammer
  • The Basswitch and Tone Hammer both have great EQ’s and tone tweaking capacity as well as being well built and ultra quiet. The RedDI has no controls but is a GREAT sounding tube DI.

    Personally, I don’t mess with the mic thing unless the sound guy wants to. I love the sound of my Basswitch DI and trust it to get my “thing” across. There is one touring gig I have with Gino Vannelli where I’ve recently added a Two Tone Cabinet Simulator in front of my Basswitch, because we’ve gone completely amp-less on stage. No amps and everything is direct to our in-ears. This is a dream for our front-of-house engineer but it was a bit challenging to me and the guitarist, because I really missed my live sound. The shows sounded incredible, but I felt like I was in a studio and had a hard time copping a live vibe. The amp simulator really helped me to feel more comfortable on stage because it closely resembled the tone I want on stage. There’s nothing but clean tone coming from everyone on stage with a very low stage volume, so the engineer has 100% control over the sound of the room. Everybody is happy!

    Bottom line: experiment and go with what not only sounds best to you but works best for the situation. Hopefully you are blessed with quality sound guys!

    How about you?

    As always, I love what readers add to these columns. Share your ideas, experience and preferences on DI’s, mics and the rest in the comments.

    Photo by rockmixer

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