The Root Note Of The Roots: Owen Biddle

You don’t see a lot of musicians asking for smaller amps—but then there’s Philly-based bassist/producer Owen Biddle. “Backline companies never seem to have the smaller, inexpensive amps I like—the big rig thing is cool, but I prefer the sound of a smaller amp distressing itself.”

Going with what sounds best, rather that what you should be doing, is all trademark Owen—and is what brought him to the attention of Al Green, Taylor Dayne, Corinne Bailey- Rae, and his current band, The Roots. With typical self-deprecation, he adds he just “sort of slid into producing and writing” for the hip-hop demigods. The result: 2006’s Grammy-nominated Game Theory. And when bass player ‘Hub’ departed after a 17-year tenure, Owen was the natural choice to step up.

“Most of the music came together in Philadelphia, where we have a studio at the back of Larry Gold’s place.” Larry was in Woody’s Truck Stop, the seminal Philadelphia band that also launched Todd Rundgren’s career. “Most of it was done on Pro Tools|HD, but all the early jam sessions were tracked on a laptop with Pro Tools LE. Lately I’ve been using Logic more—mainly because it has more toys to keep me interested!”

Toys aside, Owen’s approach is actually refreshingly no-nonsense— especially with bass. “I like to record with the B100R, a solid-state Ampeg amp that’s similar in design to the flip-top tube amp. It has a really focused sound with good projection in the lower mids—all my favorite bass recordings have that throttle in the low end. It’s more intelligible and you get a good sense of it on laptop speakers, but it also works as well on something more hi-fi.”

Owen likes the classic bass sounds of McCartney, Jaco Pastorius, and Jeff Berlin—“anything with that definition in the low end but breaks up a little at the higher end of the spectrum.” Miking is also a back-to-basics affair: a medium-sized amp, not necessarily expensive or vintage, miked with a sympathetic ear. “We’ve been using an AKG D112 or something similar within a foot of the speaker. Live, our sound guy has also been using a clip-on snare mic actually clipped onto the speaker—which seems to give good definition.”

Isn’t he ever tempted to DI the bass? “I don’t believe in right and wrong, but I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to mic an amp. Some people can DI and sound amazing but I’m never really satisfied, even if the DI unit has a great integrated EQ. You just aren’t getting the whole story. If you compare the transients and sustain on a DI track and a miked amp, there’s no comparison— the amped sound has a much smoother envelope.” Yet Owen concedes that DI boxes have come a long way. “The SansAmp—that’s the best I’ve used. It’s a close second to a miked amp when it comes to capturing that earthy bass sound.” Concerning compression, “I don’t use any outboard compression on bass. I do have an Empirical Labs GL7 Fatso. It’s a great device because it has that subtlety, like the SansAmp. It’s nice, but miking a good amp properly will also give you that leveling off.” So how about production? “There’s a reason why so many bass players get into production: The bass inhabits certain domains frequency-wise, and other things can encroach on that.” Whether it’s a badly EQ’d kick drum or rhythm guitar that butts up against the bass line, Owen emphasizes the importance of listening to the other players, both in mixing and the playing itself. “The way I honed my skills was playing with some great gospel guys in Philadelphia, like Harold Robinson— one of my big inspirations. He has this talent to get to the core of the music, but in a way that didn’t impose on anyone else.”

As to the bass itself, “I have a few, but the one I use the most is the Callowhill, that’s made by [Tim Cloonan] in Philadelphia. He makes an amazing instrument.” Even on tour, he never stops tinkering and honing his craft. “My laptop has these recordings I did recently in a friend’s studio—he has this great API desk and a good drum set, and I just ‘harvested’ a bunch of drums.” These tracks have been chopped up, and now serve as inspiration for Owen when he’s on the road.

As you might expect, Owen has definite opinions on the other half of the rhythm section: “Drums are my muse. Nice organic, warm drums always give me ideas. They make me happy in life!”