Many potential recording challenges can be beaten before they beat you if you just take the time to listen to the track. If you know what’s coming, and when it’s coming, you can plan ahead and record without angst. This practice is especially valuable when tracking true bassists (meaning musicians who consider the bass their primary instrument, rather than multi-instrumentalists or blatant hacks), because, unlike, say, many guitarists who can’t be trusted to play a song the same way twice, most bassists take pride in crafting solid parts that move the groove and seldom change. In short, if the player slaps, it’s likely gonna happen in the same spot each and every take. After you have the performance’s chronology down, recording a fab slap part usually involves little more than choosing your signal-chain options (direct, amped, blend, EQ tweaks, effects or dry, and so on). Another tip: Keep your hands off the reverb.
Sly Stone Style
In his May 2007 Bass Player cover story, Graham remembered that recording his bass during Sly Stone sessions didn’t involve anything fancy. “A lot of stuff was cut live,” he said, “so we miked the amp, and ran a direct line, as well. The most important thing was capturing what was coming out of the instrument—like a concert.”
So if you want a slap sound that celebrates the tight boom and snap on Sly’s “Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Again),” don’t overdo the processing. You can go direct, or blend a miked amp with a direct line, but keep the signal clean with no grit, overdrive, or distortion. Graham’s tone on the song is fat and natural, so try to get the tone from the source, rather than messing with EQ. Compression should be just enough to keep the boom and pop at relatively equal volumes, but not so heavy that the bass sounds squashed. You want this puppy to dance.
Les Claypool often takes a more aggro approach to slap, one with a nice helping of gronk. To get a “Tommy the Cat” style tone, plug into an amp, tweak the gain to get some overdrive spittle, boost the mids to taste (reference a few Primus tunes to get into the ballpark), and compress the signal rather hard (start at around a 4:1 ratio at a –10dB threshold, and fool with the parameters until you adore the skank). If you’re amp-less, go direct and bring on the sizzle with an overdrive pedal or plug-in.
P-Nut, bassist for 311, also employed overdrive for his massive groove on “Solar Flare” (from 2005’s Don’t Tread on Me), but he didn’t use an amp to get the grit. Instead, he went direct, and overdrove the signal by cranking the preamp gain on a Neve console. You probably don’t have a vintage Neve at your disposal, but you can simulate the sound of preamp gain by brutalizing the input of a mixer-channel plug-in, or cranking the input gain on a hardware mixer (some consoles do a better job at this than others, so listen carefully). Try to find a point where the distortion is appropriately heavy, but doesn’t blur the attack of the slaps. Also take care with EQ, as boosting the mids to clarify the snaps will likely bring up the spitty frequencies of the distortion, as well.
Stanley Clarke’s pristine, crystalline tone on “Lopsy Lu” from his 1974 solo album, Stanley Clarke, is absolutely beautiful—it’s almost as if he’s slapping the bass strings on a grand piano. Clarke’s iconic Alembic bass was certainly a factor in the tone, but you can pay homage to this sound by taking the bass direct, cutting some low end slightly at around 100Hz, boosting the mids carefully between 3kHz and 5kHz, boosting 8kHz to 10kHz a bit for some air, and compressing the whole thing lightly (just enough to keep the pops in place).
King of Slap
Level 42’s Mark King is an acknowledged slap master, but, man, it must have been tough crafting a tone that busted out of his band’s ’80s synth addiction, as keyboards certainly devoured a lot of the available sonic space. But his sonic strategy is very apparent on “I Sleep On My Heart” from 2005’s Level 42: Live at the Apollo. Here, King’s bass is rich with beefy lows that push aside the synth-bass punctuations, and his mids are as sharp and bell-like as Clarke’s in order to poke through the tinkle-tinkle key bits. To grab this vibe, start with Clarke’s recipe above, but boost the lows (and low mids), rather than cutting them.