This article is meant to be an overview of recording, not a definitive guide!
Recording bass can be tough. Low frequencies like those produced by a bass guitar and speaker need a good recording environment for us to be able to capture them in a way that will be good for our recordings. As we have talked about in a previous blog post (http://yorkshirebassplayer.co.uk/blog/what-is-the-role-of-the-bass-player/) the bass player will generally provide the foundation of the sound, the LOW END.
Let`s get the hard truth out of the way..
When it comes to getting a great recording, the most important thing is the player. If you have a good bass player who plays with confidence, consistency and with good technique then everything else should fall in to place. A great player can make any bass or amp sound good. How often have you tried to emulate the sound of one of your favourite bassists? You have the right bass, amp, eq settings and you know the part really well but it’s just not right. The answer is in the fingers. Like a performance car, that small area where the fingers (or tyres) hit the strings (or road) is the most essential thing. Other things like preamp type, microphone placement, pickups are all important too, but it is essential to start with a great performance if you want good results.
How is bass recorded?
Recording techniques for all instruments have changed over the years and the bass is no exception. In the 1950s and 60s it was common to use a fender precision bass armed with flatwound strings and played with fingers for that solid thumping sound. For more attack the player might have used roundwound strings with a pick and some palm muting. Studios would typically use a 3 or 4 track tape machine to record the band as a whole with microphones recording directly down to tape. The players would have to make sure they played all their parts correctly as there was no possibility of going back to overdub! For examples of this kind of recording check out legendary bassist Carol Kaye: https://www.carolkaye.com/
In following years it became increasingly common to use a transformer in the form of a D.I (Direct Injection) box that would allow the player to plug the bass directly into the mixing desk. Tape machines became capable of recording more tracks and this direct sound was often mixed in with the sound of a microphone on the bass cabinet.
Today we generally use computers for most of our recording. They are cheap to the point that we can have the functionality of a professional studio available in your living room at home and at less than £1000. A typical audio interface such as the SPL Crimson will allow you to connect microphones and instruments directly to the computer and record to your favorite software.
What do I need to record bass guitar today?
1. Your bass and amp
2. An audio interface
3. A microphone (if you want)
5. Some recording software (reaper is a good, cheap option)
There are 2 main routes you can go down here. If you like the sound of your amp and you have a decent room for recording then you can use a microphone to capture the sound of your cab. Once your amp is set up as you would like, simply place the mic on a stand and place it next to one of the speakers. There is an art to microphone placement which I will go in to on a later blog post but generally you want to experiment until you find the place where the recorded sound is the fullest. With the mic connected to the interface and computer you will then be able to record your parts in. Take a couple of test runs to see what sounds best and then get it down.
If your interface has a dedicated high impedance instrument input (Hi Z) then you can literally plug your bass in there, adjust levels and hit record. If you interface only has line or mic level inputs then you should find a D.I box, connect your bass to that and then connect the output of the box to your computer interface. The D.I box will take the instruments high impedance output and convert it, giving an output at around 100 to 200 ohms which is similar to a microphone. You can then plug the D.I box via a balanced xlr cable in to one of your microphone inputs. If you plug your guitar directly in to the line level inputs then you will experience a recorded tone lacking in clarity – specifically it will be like adding a low pass filter to your sound.
What can I do with my direct signal?
Well, often you might not want to do much at all. A direct bass signal is clear and consistent but will probably still require a little compression and eq to make it sit with the rest of the track.
If you have recorded your direct bass signal and later down the line decide that you really wanted an amp sound, you can get involved in re-amping. This is when you send your recorded bass signal back the other way from your interface through your D.I box and in to your physical amp. You can then record the amp with a microphone in the usual way but you have the benefit of being able to stand and tweak your amp whilst a virtual you is playing the bass!
There are some amazing bits of software today that quite accurately emulate amplifiers, speakers, effects and environments. With your direct recorded bass signal you can effectively generate the sound of you playing through your favorite amp/speaker in your favorite studio. Some examples of software that allow you to do this are native instruments guitar rig, amplitude and waves gtr. If you have a less than ideal recording environment then the software option is probably the safest and definitely will be the most flexible.
You can record bass (and other instruments) on an inexpensive pc, mac or even tablet. You need to get an audio interface but the actual process of recording is quite straightforward. If you want, you can use digital amp modelling technology on the way in as you record or you can use it as a plug in once your parts are recorded. You should spend time making sure that your playing is solid as there is no substitute for a great player!