To create the perfect funk bass tone, you must have all of the necessary elements at hand—a funk playing style, good bass-miking technique, and a fat and funky approach to the mix. These elements all cascade together into one warm, mammoth funkosaurus bass sound that will bump speakers off their stands. Here’s how to get down with the low down. . . .
EQ tweaks are cool, but it’s all about the pocket if you want your tracks to be as funky as Bootsy’s.
This is crucial. Funk bass playing is its own beast, and it a has very playful, syncopated relationship to the kick drum. This is not to say that the bass and kick don’t hit together, but it’s a bit of a dance—sometimes on, sometimes off—but always interacting in a way that pushes the groove forward while remaining in the pocket. A sensitive producer will critically assess the player’s style to determine if the groove is working, rather than immediately ask that he or she play “tighter.”
Ask five funk musicians to define “pocket,” and you may get five different answers. But ask the same five musicians to play in the pocket, and you’ll get a groove so fat that you’ll put on ten pounds listening to it. I define the pocket as the space and distance between the kick hit and the snare hit within the same bar. These spaces are obviously governed by meter and tempo, but there is flexibility in there that a savvy player can push, delay, and otherwise funk-ify. Again, getting obsessed with metronome-like precision may destroy the funk. Let the groove breathe and flourish, and soon you’ll be in the house that Bootsy built.
For me, the optimum funk bass has a huge quantity of bottom (around 50Hz–200Hz) and top (between 6kHz and 9kHz) in order to allow the bass to bump up against your chest while still cutting through the mix. To get such a tone, I like to record a direct signal and a miked-amp signal simultaneously in a relatively dead space (no hardwood floors, big windows, or other bright, reflective surfaces). Remembering that bass frequencies take more physical space to roll out, I typically mic the amp with a large-diaphragm dynamic (such as an Electro-Voice RE20) positioned two or three feet from the speaker, and turned slightly off-axis. I also place a large-diaphragm condenser (such as an AKG C414) about seven feet away from the speaker cabinet at a height of two to four feet. This technique allows much of the bass waveform to interact with the room and develop maximum resonance as it’s captured by the mics. The direct signal provides clean, sharp, and present tones. Both the direct and mic signals are lightly compressed (a 2:1 ratio with a –10dB threshold) to deliver more punch.
To bring it all home during the mix, I blend the three separate bass tracks together. The dynamic-mic track is often the main sound, as it delivers warmth, bottom, and booty. A subtle boost at 100Hz can make the party even bigger. The direct track is mixed in for clarity, and I often help the snap a bit by boosting 4kHz to taste. Finally, the condenser, room-mic track is employed just to round out the bass tone and impart a sense of depth and hugeness. I assign all three tracks to a subgroup and compress them as a unit—usually at a 4:1 ratio with a –15dB threshold. The bass is now ready for the mother ship!
Here are two other mix tricks I’ve seen great funk players use:
• Add a light chorus effect to help the bass pop out of a busy mix. It also sounds kind of techno.
• Add a slapback delay set to eighth-notes, and mix it just below the dry bass sound. If you take care not to collapse the pocket, the subtle slap can add dimension and sonic interest to the bass line. Freaky!