The Key to getting a good rockabilly bass track is making sure you get the best acoustic bass and slap tones, and mixing them to the desired thump-tastic effect. Unfortunately it ain’t that easy. Recording acoustic bass can make you want to rip your eardrums out with a plastic spoon. Hopefully, these fine tips can save you from ten hours or more of getting crappy sounds.
You are unlikely to find an expensive, 19th-century carved-top treasure in the hands of a rockabilly cat. This is because most greasers generally spend their money on beer, tattoos, old junk cars, or bail money. Plywood basses such as old Kays, eastern European monstrosities, and the odd high-end King bass are most likely to be brought through your studio door. Acoustically, these plywood beasts are rather dull sounding when compared to what your local jazzbo plucks, but who needs tone when you rock the pomp and tats so hard!
I recommend close-miking options, because there really isn’t a whole lot of volume being projected from the bass itself. You’ll also be able to grab a good portion of whatever tone the beast is putting out if you don’t let a lot of air stand between the instrument and the mic. In addition, most Rockabilly acts prefer to play all together for that authentic vibe of the Eisenhower era, so close miking may somewhat diminish the other instruments bleeding onto the bass track.
Place a large-diaphragm condenser set to its cardioid pattern about five inches from the f-hole, and a bit off center. This mic should cover the bass/body part of the sonic equation. To capture the slap, position a smalldiaphragm condenser five to six inches from the side of the fingerboard. This is the most basic setup for pulling together a quick sound, and it allows some freedom when mixing, as you can get a decent balance between the slap and body sounds.
Wrap It Up
Wrap a cheap condenser mic set to its omni pattern in foam rubber, and wedge it between the bridge and the body of the bass. The capsule should be pointing up towards the neck. If luck is with you, the sound should be detailed, yet still have plenty of body. I have found that inexpensive mics consistently perform better in this setup—which is good news to the mic-poor. If you don’t get enough slap from the jammed-in-the-bridge mic, add a small-diaphragm condenser in the fingerboard position as detailed above.
Omnidirectional clip-on mics offer great ways to pinpoint the sounds you are after. Cheaper models from Radio Shack are designed to be clipped to an article of clothing, while more expensive models from the likes of Sennheiser have more versatile clips and groovy little flexible goosenecks you can use to really dial in the mojo. The bridge, tailpiece, and f-holes are prime locations for the body sound, while clipping one to the end of the fingerboard will pick up the slap.
If you’ve achieved your sound with mic positioning alone—congratulations. For the rest of us unlucky geezers, some EQ may be in order. Here are some helpful hints: • Cut everything under 30Hz. You can’t hear it, so why record it? • If you want some low-end rumble, audition 3dB boosts in the 80Hz– 100Hz area. Take care not to add in flab and mud. • For even more real Rockabilly zest, boost 200kHz by a couple of dB. This is the bass you hear, rather than feel. • If your mids are sounding boxy, cut 1.25kHz by about 5db. This will also help the track sit better in the mix. • To dial in more slap, 5kHz is the magic number. Tweak it right, and your cheeks will sting for weeks.
Lastly, some light compression can help smooth things out when the bass player gets real fired up. A ratio of 2:1 is a great place to start for your body track. The slap may require more extreme limiting with ratios around 6:1 or 9:1. Play with the threshold until you feel good, and “Go Cat, Go!”