Bass Management: Jose Ferro on Low-End Definition

When The Screamin’ Lords bassist and producer Jose Ferro started tracking his group’s riff-rock album Long Live Me, he made sure to bring on the heavy guitars, courtesy of guest artists George Lynch, Chris Poland, Gus G, and Loren Molinare, and band mates Jason Gile and Dustin Boyer. But he also celebrated the importance of groove to the strut and swagger of the acts that influenced his sound—supercharged, super-loud party rockers such as AC/DC, Judas Priest, and Sweet.
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“The number one rule—at least as far as classic-rock grooves go—is that the bass has to lock in with the kick drum,” says Ferro, who is also vice president of ESP Guitars. “I’m always real anal about that, and the bass tone needs to have enough definition and clarity so that you can distinguish between the bass and the kick. A lot of guys lose that definition, and the tones blend so close together that you can’t tell which is which.”

To ensure the kick drum and bass lived in their own sonic spaces, Ferro employed a combination of recording techniques and arrangement chops. The project was tracked to Pro Tools LE, with drums, vocals, and some guitars laid down at Command Studios in Los Angeles, and the bass and a few rhythm tracks recorded at Ferro’s home studio. His bass was a custom ESP Vintage-5 with EMG pickups, and the amp was a ’70s Ampeg B-15 that delivered the ballsy, round sound Ferro was looking to achieve.

“We recorded three separate bass tracks, so I could decide at the mixdown whether it was best to use one track or the other, or to blend the different sounds together,” he says. “We used a Y-cable to route the Vintage-5 into a dbx 160X compressor—which was then sent direct to Pro Tools—and the B-15. Then, we miked the amp with a Sennheiser MD421 positioned right on the speaker cone, and a Shure Beta 52 moved a little off-center. The compression ratio on the 160X was a light 4:1, because I wanted the bass to breathe, rather than sound squashed. I also wanted to get as much of the sound as possible from point A—meaning the live performance from the instrument and the amp. We hardly used any plug-ins at all. I hate the phrase, but it was important to me that the sounds on Long Live Me were ‘old school.’”

With a somewhat strict “no plug-in” rule in effect, mix engineer Mudrock (Godsmack, Alice Cooper, Avenged Sevenfold) was challenged to find hardware solutions to processing needs. To pump up the bass, he resorted to an old re-amping trick.

“Andrew played back the direct bass track through a Genelec studio monitor, and miked the Genelec using the woofer of a Yamaha NS10M speaker,” explains Ferro. “It’s a trick that he usually does to capture more lows from a kick drum, and it added some nice subwoofer-type bottom end to the direct bass track. During the mix, we always used a blend of the direct tracks and the two miked tracks.”

Of course, this approach produced mammoth booty for the bass, which limited how much low-end wallop could be generated by the kick drum.

“The bass definitely had more low end than the kick drum,” says Ferro. “So we boosted the midrange on the kick a bit so that it had some bite. We also added a little high end so that the impact of the beater against the kick drum had a nice snap, but wasn’t too clicky in the mids. You need to ensure that the bass frequencies don’t get too muddy, but you still want the rhythm section to be thick and powerful.”

Keeping frequency ranges relatively separate wasn’t the only strategy Ferro employed to ensure his bass punched through the mix with authority. He also worked to craft arrangements that kept the musical parts from smacking sloppily into each other.

“I wrote the parts so that each instrument had a specific role,” he says. “For example, I was adamant that the two guitarists never played exactly the same parts, and I was just as adamant that the bass didn’t compete with what they were doing. I lock into [Lords drummer] Chris Collier’s kick drum, but I tend to be right on top of the beat, or a little bit in front of it, and I made sure the guitars played complementary parts that stayed out of my way. I was also careful that my parts didn’t interfere with the guitars. Most every song was played with a pick so that my attack was clean and clear enough to ensure people could hear these rhythmic distinctions [the lone exception was “Say What You Will,” which Ferro performed using his fingers].”

A final creative decision to mix to analog tape—and then run the mastering session completely from the analog mixes—really served to capture the classic-rock vibe that Ferro wanted for the album. Mudrock mixed the Pro Tools sessions to a Studer A80 2-track running 1/2" tape at 30ips. He also calibrated the deck at +6dB to slam some hot levels to tape for maximum warmth and coloration.

“I didn’t want a new-metal-type sound—all super clean and layered to death,” says Ferro. “This album is pretty much all room mics and direct mics, and the mixes are just saturated to tape to get all that wonderful bottom end and midrange grit. But, at the end of the day, whatever we did, we did to get the song across. That was the big concern—not how loud the bass was going to be.”