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
  • REDDI
  • 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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    Leave a Reply to Steitz Maurice Cancel reply

    1. What about the DI on amps? Poor quality for the most part? Or do you prefer taking a line off of the pre-amp out and running to a direct box?

      • When I use my amp in a gig (Hartke HA3500) I use the DI output to send my signal to the mixer. In some gigs I must use other amps and, sometimes they are low end. My next purchase will be a good preamp/DI (I love Sansamp’s Bass Driver)

      • I’ve got to say, when I had a Hartke 2500 I always had sound guys and studio techs compliment both the tone and the decent built in DI (and usually ended up with a mic on the cab as well as a DI output), which always surprised me as its hardly an expensive amp, but there you go…

    2. I use an EBS HD350, and I normally use the DI out from the amp. I carry a DI with me as an amp back-up. I’m sure I could get a better result from a DI box or a mic, but playing mostly clubs and pubs the PA is usually not the best anyway.

    3. I’ve often used a Behringer BDI21 (really inexpensive, but works very well indeed) with just the house monitors – but I’ve been really impressed with the results from a little Line 6 Studio 110, with the mic-emulated DI-out running to the PA. Best of both worlds?

    4. I’ve used GenzBenz heads exclusively for about 6 years. All four that I’ve had have sent a quiet signal to the board. On a few occasions I’ve had sound guys say the line was noisy; in EVERY instance it was a bad cable from the DI to the snake/board. I do carry a Radial JDI in my bag though just in case.

    5. Buy a good DI and sound guys will hate you less than they already do. It is absolutely KEY to getting a good live sound. I use a Radial JDI and it sounds killer.

    6. A SansAmp Bass Driver DI is the only piece of gear that has stayed in my live rig my entire career. I don’t remember the last job I played without it.

    7. For me it depends on which amp I’m using. I’ve been told by sound guys that my Phil Jones amp has a clean D.I. sound. I’ve been told some of my other amps aren’t so clean. I normally leave it up to the sound person. Most of the ones I work with know the room I’m playing better than I do. If they want D.I., I give them that. If they want to mic me, then I let them mic me. If they ask if I have my own direct box I worry a bit.

    8. I use a lot of different distortion sounds, so the D.I. Signal is not really my option. Because with the distortion you have many harsh high frequencies in the sound. A good speaker evens out the sound.
      I also use a combination of D.I. and Mic, a Shure SM57 is just enought for me. I don’t need the low freq. in the mic sound, these frequencies create the most problems.

    9. I’m partial to an Audix D6 blended in with the direct tone out of my bass with Legacy Lane Poor pickups, I’m also a pro audio engineer and 9 times out of 10 I will mic and DI any bass cab I get unless it’s a cheap rig.

    10. I have 2 mid-’90’s pre-Fender SWR SM-400S heads that have the best sounding built-in tube DI I’ve ever heard. Line/Direct switch allowing control of volume, EQ, and tube grind. 18 years old and both of them are still as quiet as any amp today. Every sound engineer I’ve dealt with loves them too. Just my $0.02…
      Oh, and ones in decent condition can be had for around $300. Unbelievably fat stage amp as well.

    11. I am a live sound engineer in ecuador. Most of the venues here are pretty small so I’d rather use the DI. On bigger venues I’va had the chance to Mic a nice ashdowon or a Aguilar , but just to add the actual color (i wil still mix it with the D.I.) On the mic part, I permanently work with a band that has 10 musicinas (drums, percussion, melodica, trumpet, 2 keyboards, 2 guitars, trombone, bass and 5 voices), so on this case, even if it is a medium venue, but the stage is kinda of small, I’d still go with D.I.

    12. I also use distortion sounds. But I use the Tech21 RBI and RPM as a preamp and the DI out ist very close to my actual sound. When we were on tour the front-of-house guy took my DI signal every night, the soundcheck took literally 1/2 of the minute and he only adjusted the bass according to the venue between 11.00 and 01.00 o’clock. Before I worked with the Bassdriver DI and the sound of the unit made me buy the RBI.

    13. I prefer a mic.
      I think if you’re sticking with a very clean sound then a DI is a surefire way to get a good sound in most situations.
      I use a ZVEX Mastotron for some pretty horrific fuzz, this sounds great through my amp/cab (Genz Streamliner/Barefaced 1×15 no tweeter) but turns into a synth pedal through a DI because there isn’t the same high frequency attenuation.
      It all depends on the venue really though, if a DI serves the music better and the band as a whole sounds better that way then I’m happy to drop the beautifully textured fuzz I’ve spent so long tweaking. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to moan about it all the way in the van though…

    14. I also use my Tech21 RBI as both preamp and DI. Best pc of gear I have ever purchased.

    15. I have been using DI only for years and have, for the most part, been satisfied but I love the sound of my cabinet and felt like it needed to be in the mix. I’ve added an Audix D4 to my Avalon DI and have been very happy with the two. I’m using an Aguilar DB750 and an Epifani UL 410 cab.

    16. I love my Boss GT-6B. Direct out for the house built in! I don’t know how “clean” it is, but it has come in handy more than once.

    17. Excellent article. I use a clean sound and after trying over a dozen DIs I have fallen in love with the REDDI. I prefer never to use a mic unless im using a overdrive pedal then i will opt for a mic however im trying to find the perfect pedal that will give me a great overdriven sound with a DI. Thoughts?

    18. You forgot the Butterfly! Radial’s Lamp DI : BIG SOUND!
      The U5 Avalon, and, sometimes, SM57 with a cheap DI works great !

    19. Depends on how much gear I want to carry and what rig I’m using. The DI out of my Eden is incredible. Throw in a subkick and no window is safe. Other times my Beta 52 is where its at. I haven’t had the chance to mix all 3 on my 410XLT but DI plus subkick on my no-name 15 was indescribable. Takes time to get good placement/angle/distance on a mic. Take a look a pro rigs. They have a square of tape where the mic goes. Same sound every show.

    20. I like my Ampeg SVTDI. Most of us bass players like to scoop certain mid frequencies on stage but its hard to hear the whole room from where we are playing. Send your signal before your eq so the sound guy has plenty of mids to work with.

    21. I prefer a mic, but usually go direct to keep it simple. The reason I prefer a mic is beause I consider the bass, processor, amp, and cabinet as one unit. I work hard to get the sound I want, and the sound that comes out of the speaker is the sound I want. DI removes one or two elements of my sound and leaves it up to someone who probably has no idea how I want to sound.

    22. I like using DI if it is part of the amp system. I can feed my mix into the board. I don’t like DI boxes because it takes away the sound you have setup on your amp. Back in the day, my rig was always miked.

    23. What do you people think of the MXR M80 D.I.+? I love the mid boost preset on this pedal.

    24. I have largely been a take the DI out from my head proponent. I feel since I spent the money on a piece of equipment and the time with it to get my sound that taking it from the head will represent what I want to project best.

      That being said, I just recently picked up the Darkglass Microtubes B7K Analog Bass Preamp and I have to say it is very clean sounding. When you want to add some grit to your sound, the drive doesn’t seem to affect your tone. You can also blend your clean with you drive if you want to add a little bite to your sound. I’m very impressed with it.

      I was talking with another bass player recently about how he runs his signal path and he has a DI pedal in front of his effects then runs that through the REDDI and sends that signal to the board. I like that approach and am considering doing something similar as I like the tone from my preamp in front of my effects instead of after.

    25. I have largely been a take the DI out from my head proponent. I feel since I spent the money on a piece of equipment and the time with it to get my sound that taking it from the head will represent what I want to project best.

      That being said, I just recently picked up the Darkglass Microtubes B7K Analog Bass Preamp and I have to say it is very clean sounding. When you want to add some grit to your sound, the drive doesn’t seem to affect your tone. You can also blend your clean with you drive if you want to add a little bite to your sound. I’m very impressed with it.

      I was talking with another bass player recently about how he runs his signal path and he has a DI pedal in front of his effects then runs that through the REDDI and sends that signal to the board. I like that approach and am considering doing something similar as I like the tone from my preamp in front of my effects instead of after.