Bass Management: The Rascal Flatts Big Boom Method

Just like their previous releases, Rascal Flatts’ Still Feels Good sold like a record executive’s wet dream. They’re about as hot as a band can get, and no wonder: The songwriting is great, the performances are emotional, and the audio production— by Dann Huff with mixer Justin Niebank—is exquisite. The low end, in particular, is a thing of beauty, with a classic-meets-modern approach that allows the bass to be felt as much as heard. Recently, Rascal Flatts bassist and vocalist Jay DeMarcus took some time out of his touring schedule to reveal to EQ readers how Still Feels Good got such a big bottom.
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Did you plan such a massive bass sound from the beginning of the recording process, or did the sound develop during the mix?

I think that has always been a part of my sound. I use an Aphex Bass Xciter pedal, so I definitely hype up the low end, and have some of that subsonic thing in there. Also, Justin is a bass player himself, so the low end is very important to him. He really focuses on it when he mixes.

Did you track with an amp and a DI simultaneously?

Yes. I used both signals. I have got an Ampeg SVT with an 8x10 cabinet that we miked up, and we also took a direct line out of my rig.

What’s your direct signal chain?

I’m running through an Avalon 737 into an Empirical Labs Distressor, and then the engineer adds a little bit more compression with a Universal Audio 1176.

So you send the engineer a compressed signal?

Yes, but I try not to overdo it with the Distressor. If I’m playing live, I’ll hit it harder, but, in the studio, I lighten it up a bit. I use just enough to get some sustain and some squash. Over the years, it has become harder for me to play without compression. I need that squeeze.

Why is the Distressor your choice of compressor?

Justin turned me on to it. It has a nice sustain and release to it, but I really love the way it grabs the tone right at the beginning of the signal. Mine has the British modification, and I use a quick attack and a slow release.

Did you hit the Avalon preamp hard?

No. I’m going for very clean with the Avalon, so everything is set at zero. I’m going for a pure tone, so I don’t even use any of the onboard EQ—nothing.

During the mix, how much of the DI versus the amp was used?

It depended on the song. If it’s a rockin’ song, I’ll crank up my amp to get a little bit of growl and dirt, and we’ll use more of the mic signal. If it’s a ballad kind of thing where we need a cleaner bass tone, we’ll use more of the DI signal.

During the tracking process, are you in the same room with drummer Chris McHugh?

I’m in the room with Chris, Joe Don Rooney on guitar, and also our road guitarist, Tom Bukovac. We do very few overdubs, unless it’s a steel guitar or a fiddle or something. We play it down, and we might get a take on the first try or the tenth. It’s all about the energy.

What basses do you use?

My favorite is a ’63 Fender Jazz Bass, and I also have a ’59 Fender P-Bass. If I’m looking for that old-school rock and roll vibe, I grab the P-Bass. If I need something to speak a bit more and cut through the mix, I’ll use the Jazz. Lately, I’ve been tuning down a minor third, and using heavier-gauge strings, so I can grab some lower notes that you usually can’t get with standard E, A, D, G tuning.

Do you restring before a session?

I leave my strings on there a pretty good while, because I don’t like the clicky sound of new strings. I like mine to be broken in a bit—to have a little bit of that funk on them.

Do you subscribe to “the tone is all in the hands” approach?

Absolutely. I feel the way that you attack, bend, and mute strings has a lot to do with whether your tone sings. This is why one player can dig in and sound beautiful, and another player can use the exact same bass and signal chain, and just sound like an ass because he might not know how to hold the bass right [laughs]. Technique is definitely a lot of your sound.