Bass Management: 4 Safeguards For Healthy Lows

Like a well-oiled horn section, bass players usually know exactly what to do to make a track magical. You can’t always trust guitarists or drummers to shred their egos and do the right thing—and vocalists are a whole ’nother encyclopedia of hurt—but bassists are solid senders, team players, and keepers of the deep groove.

But this doesn’t mean they are impervious to poor judgment.

And it’s those rare times when you’re hearing something suspect from the bass that your production chops, taste, and paranoia will be put to the test. But don’t freak out—simply use this short and handy checklist to evaluate the low end.

First, Always Assume You’re Wrong

Of course, you won’t be able to do this gig right if your ego crashes the studio party. A good bassist is a master at bridging the sonic, rhythmic, and musical gaps between the guitar and the drums, so it’s far from a sign of weakness to assume he or she is spot on. It would suck, however, if you opened your mouth simply because you wanted a perfectly excellent bass part done your way. If everything pops, freeze—the bass track is done. Go torment the drummer.

Define the Objective

I made a huge mistake on a recent production by letting the bassist play a fretless upright, when I knew a fretted electric was the best option for driving a straight-ahead rock song. Melodyne took care of the upright track’s out-of-tune bits (the guy was one of those self-professed “perfect pitch” wunderkinds who nonetheless play a slew of poorly intonated notes), but nothing could fix the distracting slaps and snaps or the wobbly low end. If I had a clear “groove goal,” this miscue might not have occurred. Before tracking, tell the bassist, “I want this to rock as hard as an ice-road trucker blasting through snow banks,” or “I need this to slip and slide like an old jazz cat three whiskeys into an all-night set.” You get the idea. Lay out the right scene, and the bassist won’t try to foist a fretless on you when a Fender Precision is obviously the ideal cast member.

Watch the Energy Meter

You’re listening to a playback, and everything is played well, but something isn’t right with the groove. In these instances, I find it helpful to forget about technical performance issues, and focus on energy concerns such as, “Is the rhythm track matching the vibe and vitality implied by the song?” A bassist may like to punch precisely with the kick-drum beats, for example, but that approach might be too uptight and segmented for a fast rocker or punk track. Perhaps it’s better to rock eighth notes. Try it and see. On the other hand, a pulsating part might sound too anxious for the plaintive energy of a ballad. Your “energy meter” should even chart the ramifications of the bassist using a pick or fingers to perform his or her parts. Different feels, right? You may need to overrule a player’s preference for fingertips and nails if the sharp and consistent attack of a pick serves up the intensity you’re looking for. These are obvious examples, of course, but the point is to zero in on the energy you’d like the track to unleash, and share that information with the bassist. Otherwise, the player may default to personal preferences that don’t deliver the vibe you wish to achieve, and, ultimately, it’ll be the song that loses out.

Hedge Your Bet

Unless your bassist is John Entwistle, Jaco, Paul McCartney, Stanley Clarke, or a similar genius, simple parts and tones are typically “best bets” when tracking songs. Then again, an intricately wild part on a very simple tune may turn out to be a brilliant musical dichotomy. So, if your bassist is committed to the complex, it might be smart to lay down two bass tracks: a butt-simple, dum-dum version, and a much more complicated part. Don’t listen to the track for a day or two, and then a few playbacks should tell you which version truly rocks the joint. Choices are good.