Bass Management: The Roy Mitchell-Cardenas Method

The bouyant indie-rock cavalcade that is Mute Math ricochets between synth-pop, grunge, ambient, dance, jazz, prog, and snippets of at least 56 other stylistic nuances. The musical diversity of the heady New Orleans foursome puts a fair amount of heat on bassist Roy Mitchell-Cardenas, who must glue everything together while simultaneously pushing his mate’s sonic and melodic excursions. Here’s how Mitchell-Cardenas—whose band is still touring behind 2006’s Mute Math [Warner Bros.]—crafts a bass sound that serves many masters.

What are your main studio instruments?
I have two Fender Precisions—a ’78 and a ’70s model—a ’73 Fender Telecaster Bass, and a ’50s Kay upright outfitted with an EMG pickup at the end of the fretboard. The Tele Bass is almost like a synthesizer. It’s really fat sounding.

How do you conceptualize your fundamental bass tone for each song?
It does depend on the specific song, of course, but my rule of thumb is that I want articulation. I’m a melodic player, so I want people to not only feel my notes, but to hear them clearly, as well. Ultimately, Mute Math is a pop-rock band that plays hooks, so from a sonic—and even a stylistic—standpoint, I stay pretty close to the Beatles and the early Police. But I’m also not into being too pure. We’ve used a Roland Juno-60 to put down some synth bass under the P-Bass, and I’m totally down with that.

Specifically, then, how do you construct your sound?
I like to hit it all at once, and get the tone I’m going for straight off, because the tone will affect how I play. In other words, I’d rather not layer an electric-bass tone on separate passes. I typically take a hybrid approach using a ’60s Maverick 2x12 guitar combo and a passive direct box. I don’t like active direct boxes because they tend to color the sound too much. I’ve found passive models are more transparent. I don’t want to know the DI is even in the signal path, if you know what I mean. The DI signal should be the sound of the bass—fat, round, and warm. Then, I drive the Maverick until it starts to break up, in order to add some punch and character to the tone. Remember—it’s all about boom and articulation. The amp is usually miked close with an Electro-Voice RE20. At times, I’ll also use a Boss DD-5 Digital Delay to bring in some different textures. It’s a bit of a strange effect for bass, but as long as you don’t set the feedback too high, you can get a cool chorusing thing happening with notes flowing on top of each other.

How do you set the controls on your bass?
The volume knob is all the way up, and the tone control is at around half. I like a warmer sound from the instrument, so I back off the high end. I don’t like the “clank.”

Do you submix the amp and DI tracks to mono, or keep them as separate tracks?
It’s usually mono—even when we add the Juno texture underneath. Like I said, I’m more comfortable hearing the final sound as it goes down. Then, I know I’m hitting something that will support the melody, as well as the overall sonic vibe of the track.

What’s the blend like when—and if—you add the Juno to the mix?
I like starting with just ten percent synth bass, and then adjusting the amount to suit the song. On “Pictures” [from Mute Math], the Juno is pretty apparent.

Do you have a preference for recording live or overdubbing parts in the control room?
Each situation has pluses and minuses. I guess I’d prefer being in the room with Darren [King, drummer], just going for it. A lot of ideas come to life when we’re just jamming. On the other hand, it also works great when I track in the control room with Paul [Meany, keyboardist/ vocalist] directing things. He’s the guy driving the train, after all. He’s a creative guy, and he’s very open.

So you don’t miss the roar and boom of tracking live in those situations?
Well, I sit pretty close to the monitor speakers, and everything is up real loud. I still like to feel it [laughs]. I can even get feedback in there by holding the bass up to the speakers.

When you’re overdubbing your parts, what exactly are you listening to?
The song may not be completely finished, of course, but there are usually some guitars, a scratch vocal, and even a bunch of parts that might not make the final mix. Sometimes, there’s just a click track—although my preference is to have the final drum performance comped before I track. I try to hold out until as much of the final music is down as possible. The more music that’s down, the more I can react to it, and either play along with it, or against it. The bassist’s main gig is to drive and support the groove, but it’s hard to get a good vibe going if you’re tracking to a scratch vocal and a click track!