Bass Management: How Pennywise Layers Its Punk Bass Sound

Pennywise, the punk rock band that has been thrashing across the world for the last 18 years, continues to annoy the status quo—this time, by releasing its new album as a free download via MySpace Records. Formed in 1988, in Hermosa Beach, California, the seminal punks seem to get more intense with age. Rather than letting the years turn the band into a punk nostalgia act, Pennywise had the energy and fire to headline last year’s Vans Warped Tour—which is typically the stomping grounds of young skaters and X-sports zealots. The as-yet-untitled “free” album explodes with the band’s furious attack, and Pennywise bassist Randy Bradbury and producer Cameron Webb revealed how they tracked an aggressive bass sound that can cut through raging guitars and speedy tempos to drive the groove.
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Randy, what kind of bass rig do you have?
I have a ’78 Fender Precision with a rosewood fretboard. I plug into an Ampeg SVT-2PRO head and Ampeg 8x10 cabinet. I like the SVT’s tube distortion. I also use Dunlop strings and picks.

What’s your typical approach to playing bass?
It’s very simple. At some point in my development as a player, I said, “I’m just gonna go with what I know, and make that sound good.” I do work on my right-hand technique because we play really fast music, and it’s really easy to just strum the strings with long strokes and get out of control. I try to find a place to rest my hand where I can be in control, and hit every note with consistency.

How did you record the bass in the studio?
Basically, we started with his Fender P-Bass and SVT head, and then we split the signal into three audio chains. The first chain was a Line 6 Bass PODxt Pro. We had no special settings—we just turned the knobs until it felt right. We used the PODxt for a direct signal, but we tweaked it until it sounded more like an amp, and less like a DI. We put an Empirical Labs Distressor at the end of this chain with a 6:1 compression ratio.

For the second audio chain, we miked Randy’s cabinet. I positioned a Sony C500 large-diaphram condenser, and an Audio-Technica ATM 25 dynamic very close to the grille near the bottom four speakers. The Sony gets more of the sub-low stuff, and the ATM captures the top-end grit. Then, I bused the two signals together, and sent them to the Distressor with about a 6:1 ratio. I liked the very natural sound and feel produced by this chain.

For the final chain, I set up a little Orange practice amp and a crazy compression pedal made by Little Labs PCP that I found in a pawnshop some years ago. I use it to drive the amp a little harder. The Orange doesn’t have a lot of bottom end, but it gives you a lot of growl. When I mix, I sit that track on top of the DI and amp tracks to make the bass sound more tight and present. At the end of the chain, I used a Geoff Daking compressor with a ratio setting of 10:1 to level everything out, and make sure the high end is controlled and focused. If you looked at the waveform, it would be straight across. I don’t want a lot of dynamics on the Orange track.

What was the recording gear available at the sessions?
We recorded at Maple Studios in Orange County, California, and they have an API board and Pro Tools HD. We monitored with Yamaha NS10 and Genelec speakers. People don’t realize how important monitoring is. The thing about the NS10s is that you can hear your mistakes. You can hear when the kick and bass are not locked in. The Genelecs tend to mask things like that, as well as make the sound spectrum prettier, so I have a tendency to be a bit lazier mixing with them.

Are there any major challenges producing a fat-sounding bass when the band rhythms are at such a frenetic style of music?
You must ensure the bottom end is full and even, but you also have to get the top end cutting through. It’s a real balancing act trying to find a tone that matches with the kick drum, and doesn’t overwhelm it. I scooped out some of the mids on the guitar tracks so the bass could sit right in between them. Then, I ran the tracks through either the Daking, the Distressor, or a McDSP CompressorBank—where I could select the attack and release of specific low-end frequencies. The CompressorBank allowed me to really level off the lows—every note, whether it’s an E or an A, is the same volume—and crank them up louder.