Get Your Signal Path Together!

Most people believe that tracking bass, especially in “standard” forms of pop music, is simple — “DI it.” But those people are only partially right. As with all instruments, there are a ton of variables — and possibilities — involved in recording bass, depending upon your artistic intent. Sure, if you want a straightforward track, cutting bass can be super-easy. But if you want to experiment with how a bass can sound, the map everyone tends to use isn’t always going to help you navigate the terrain.
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That may sound vague, but you don’t need to drive cross-country in the Mystery Mobile to unmask the secret of getting cool bass tones. You just need to consider what makes a bass track suck, and what makes a bass track awesome, and then apply that knowledge to your own sessions.

The first step to recording a good sound is to make a good sound. Set your rig up right, change those crusty old strings, put a tuner in line (and use it after every take), and write a good song. Do all those things, and you’re 75 percent of the way there.

But you have to look at signal paths, too, and one basic setup I use is bass > direct box > mic preamp > compressor > DAW. This simple chain provides a fast and accurate idea of what kind of bass sound you’re bringing to the table.

Now, you may wonder, “Why does he route the DI into a mic pre?” Well, direct boxes operate at mic level, so a preamp is often necessary to boost the signal to the line level your compressor likes to see.

Another question: “Why a DI first? Why not use your amp sound?”

Using a DI is good way to gain forward momentum when tracking. It’s a lot simpler than miking an amp, and it also makes it easy to suss out any potential issues — such as grounding — with the bass itself. The DI offers a less-complicated signal path than what you’ll have when recording through an amp, so if any ground hum or noise issues arise when you add a cabinet signal, you’ll know the source of the problem.

Use a clean, honest, and quiet preamp (I swear by APIs) so that you have a transparent sound without that pesky 60Hz hum. Then, compress the signal so there’s about 3dB to 5dB of gain reduction. Don’t use too much compression. Apply just a little to trap peaks and ensure consistency — you can always compress more in the mix. Listen carefully to the results you obtain from using this setup, and if you don’t like the sound, look back to the instrument. Adjust your tone knob, think about throwing that pick out and playing with your fingers if you are getting too much attack, and set your action a bit higher if you hear any fret noise.

You should now have a workable tone, but if you’re not 100 percent happy with the results so far, start swapping out preamps, and making other changes in search of a better sound. This is trial and error, but it’s better to get a good bass sound first, than to try to fix it in the mix. For example, a few weeks ago, I was using my trusty API 512 on a session, and I found its sound was a bit too aggressive for the song. Switching to a Drawmer 1960 mellowed the tone out perfectly, as it had a built-in tube compressor that slowed the slew rate down a good bit. (A fast slew rate — meaning the maximum amount of change imposed on a signal — produces a punchy sound, while a slow slew rate is associated with a warm sound.) So, play around a bit, and see what you can get out of your DI-to-preamp signal before you go off in a different direction.

You could stop right here, but getting a good bass-amp sound to complement your DI track can often be the secret ingredient to success. So, break out that bad boy Ampeg SVT, set your EQ on the amp head, and mic the cabinet. Most DIs have an instrument input, as well as a send for your amp, so plug the bass output into the instrument input, and then patch the amp send into the bass head’s input. Next, run the bass head’s speaker output into the cabinet, and mic that puppy up with a mic that can handle a lot of sound-pressure levels and low frequency information. I like using an AKG D112, an AKG D12, or a Sennheiser MD421. These mics have natural EQ curves that just work well for bass. Figure 1 illustrates this, if you need a visual evidence.

If you run into grounding issues that result in hum or other problems, flip the DI’s ground switch. If there’s still some buzz, you may have to use a 1/4" Y-adaptor (one male to two female 1/4") to split the bass signal to the DI and amp simultaneously).

Now, record your parts, but assign the DI and amp signal to different tracks, as there will be some inherent phase issues. (You’ll have to nudge the amp signal ahead in time to match your DI signal, because the amp signal takes longer to reach your DAW.) For best results, match compression settings for both the amp and DI signals, as drastically different settings may exacerbate any existing phasing issues.

Regarding compression settings, I try to keep the release time “in sync” with the tempo of the bass line, so that the processor has stopped compressing by the time the next note hits. To achieve this, use a semi-fast attack, set a ratio of 1.5:1 to 3:1, play with the threshold to get 3dB to 5dB of gain reduction, and then tweak the release until it meshes just right with the bass. If this doesn’t work, try the opposite approach of cranking down, so the compressor never stops compressing fully from note to note. You can do this by increasing the ratio up to 4:1, then dropping the threshold for more compression (about 5dB to 10dB of gain reduction). Adjust the release time to maintain a consistent level.

I usually end up using more DI signal in the mix than amp signal, as the amp signal is most useful to round out the bass tone from the DI. It adds a healthy, low, pillow-y veneer to your track. But don’t take my word for it — experiment to see what works best for you. Just keep in mind that it all starts with the instrument and you — the player.