Bass Management: 9 Essential Elements of a Vibrant Bass Sound

Hal Cragin has played with everyone from Iggy Pop to They Might Be Giants, and from Frank Black to Sarah McLachlan. He’s also an accomplished producer, and his most recent project is A Fine Frenzy’s One Cell In the Sea [Virgin] with vocalist Alison Sudol.
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My Favorite Gear

I really love the API 312 preamp—it’s the perfect bass DI. Another great choice is the preamp section of the Ampeg SVT head. The XLR output lets you send a line to the recording engineer, but still have control of your sound. I can’t recommend the Crane Song Phoenix TDM plug-in suite enough. It emulates the second- and third-order harmonic distortion and coloration of analog tape machines. I’ll often start with the Dark Essence plug-in, choose the bright Sapphire coloration, and set the input trim to -4.0. If you put that on the bass track, it’ll give the bass more power without increasing its volume. It won’t be louder, but it will feel louder.

EQ and Compression

I love boosting around 100Hz, and then boosting at 7kHz to get some string attack in there. It’s nice to know it’s a bass guitar when you hear it. I also suck out a bit of 500Hz to clear things up. Compression is more variable. I’ve found a good starting point is a ratio of 4:1 with a medium attack and release.

Go For It

If you’re running two tracks of the bass signal, try something really extreme with one track—with EQ or compression—and tuck it under the other track. This type of thing is more common with drum subgroups to get some snap and glue into the instrument, but it’s also fun with bass.

Distortion

It’s nice to have some kind of distortion. An Ibanez Tube Screamer—or any distortion pedal with a Tone or Blend control—is great. Just be sure to track a direct [unaffected] signal, as well, so that you don’t lose your low end.

Envelope Filters

The DOD FX-25 Envelope Filter is great if you set it up to where the envelope doesn’t open. This goes against what the pedal is for, but it produces a beautiful, keyboard-like dub sound. This is an easy trick that I’ve used on many records with success.

Boutique Effects

Nobody is going to ask for an effect on your bass. If you can force it on them, great, but if you show up to the studio without the latest $500 boutique pedal, you won’t get fired, because they won’t ask for it.

Right-Hand Man

Be aware of where you’re playing with your right hand, as moving it around will significantly change the tone of the bass. The only way, for example, to get that Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” sound is to play closer to the neck. And if you move your right hand throughout a song, the changing shades of tone can really perk up a track.

Listen to the Guitar

Even if the bass is playing something basic, learn the melody line of the guitar. If you add a note or two that matches up with the guitar, it’ll help punch up the melody line. 

Follow Your Bliss

My band A Fine Frenzy is very bass-guitar driven. The emphasis is less on the all-mighty kick drum, and more into letting the vocals and the bass intertwine. So much modern rock is about the kick, and having the bass follow the guitarist’s barre chords, which, to me, is not really “bass guitar” in the full glory of Leo Fender’s brainchild.