I ponder the grammatical nuances of recording bass - I make fun of your guitar player to build trust - I tell you to eschew YouTube wisdom for whatever personal truth/microphone you have laying around - I show you more pictures than usual and some are even relevant - I put the DI in DIY
So is it “miking” a cabinet or “mic’ing” a cabinet?
Or “microphoning” a cabinet?
Maybe "‘phoning" a cabinet?
No. Probably not that last one. 5 ways to ‘phone a cabinet just doesn’t sound….sane enough.
That’s the conversation I just had in my head when deciding on a title for this post. I thought it would be best to just tell you the truth.
OK, let’s get to it!
You’ve written some tasty bass riffs and you’re ready to record. Congratulations friend! The great news is that getting a great tone that your mix engineer can crush a mix with is easy. Here are some tips:
1. Get your tone sounding good coming out of the amp
This is important. It’s your sound and it needs to sound good to you. That said, keep a few things in mind. If you’re recording hard rock, prog metal, math rock or anything else with some aggressive edge, the mids and upper mids may actually be very important to “your sound”.
Bad news. That’s exactly where your flamboyantly loud guitarist (with his v-neck t-shirt and bad haircut) will be obscuring your tasteful bass licks in the mix. It’s just easier for guitars to cut through in that frequency range.
You have two choices. Either preemptively add distortion to your tone to help the bass cut through or, just get your tone the way you like and let your mix engineer deal with it. Honestly, these are both fine answers. A seasoned mix engineer will make sure the guitars play nicely with the bass and will add some distortion in the mix if the bass needs to cut through a little more.
2. Choose a microphone
There a number of options here but my favorite is to use a dynamic microphone close to the speaker grill. You can make just about any dynamic microphone work but a good ol' Shure SM57 is probably the cheapest and most reliable way to get a usable sound. Another option is to use a large diaphragm condenser microphone. Honestly, you can spend 10,000 hours on YouTube hearing peoples’ opinions on this and listening to shoot-outs. I’m not sure that this is the best use of your time – although I’ve done it more times than I care to admit.
Yes, different mics will color or EQ the tone differently. Yes, this can be a not-so-subtle difference. The bottom line is that EQ and color will be adjusted in the mix anyway. I know this is blasphemy but it's true. Don't use some exotic ribbon mic but don't worry too much about it. Your goal is to get a tone you like (see number 1) and then set up the mic you already have in such a way that your recorded tone sounds similar to what you were hearing in the room. The good news is that we can do a LOT to manipulate tone with mic position.
3. Choose a radial mic position
Close your eyes. Oh, right. You’re reading this. Um, open your eyes. Imagine you’re looking directly at the face of a speaker cone. Picture that speaker with a radially shaded gradient starting from a very bright spot in the very center and getting progressively darker as you move outward radially (who remembers cylindrical coordinates?). I know friend, it’s confusing. Here, let me put the “image” into “imagine” for you – you lazy bastards.
The different shades of gray represent how “bright” or how “dark” a tone will sound. So, for example, pick a spot (any spot) on your speaker cone and record a tasty bass riff. Listen back to the riff and compare it to what you were hearing in the room. If the recorded sound is too “dark”, move your microphone slightly closer towards the center of the speaker – and vice versa.
If you went down the YouTube rabbit hole, you will hear terms like “on-axis” and “off-axis”. On-axis just means that your microphone is looking at the center of the circle. Off-axis means it’s looking somewhere else.
If you’re using a dynamic microphone, I would recommend starting with the microphone pointing at the red circle in the image and then adjusting from there using the method just described.
4. Adjusting the distance of the microphone to the speaker cabinet
Directional microphones (yours probably is one) have something called “proximity effect”. This means that as a sound source gets very close to the microphone, there can be a pretty significant boost of low end.
Comedians use this effect on stage all the time. They bring the mic close to their mouths to get a “low end” boost. It's very funny.
You can do the same thing here. If your sound is too “thin” or lacking some boominess, nudge the mic a little closer to the speaker. If it’s too boomy, nudge it a little farther away. For a dynamic microphone, I would recommend starting with the mic one fist-width away from the speaker grill cloth.
You like that caption? I got some jokes, so what?
Make a fist and put your fist against the grill cloth. Set the mic on the other end of your fist. Adjust from there using the method mentioned above.
5. Use a DI
This one is actually super important. If I had a time machine, I would go back and make it #1 on this list.
DI stands for Direct Injection. It’s basically the raw sound coming directly out of your bass guitar. The reason you want to record a DI signal along with the rest of the signal is because this is the raw performance. If you’re unhappy with your signal chain or can’t get a decent sound off a mic, having this signal will still allow a mix engineer to “re-amp” your sound (i.e., run it through a different signal chain to get something that works well for the mix) or to process the raw sound in a way that compliments the full mix.
Also, the DI signal is undistorted – which can be very useful for blending in with the processed sound to keep the low end tight.
“How can I record two things at the same time?” you may ask. You need some kind of device that will split your signal. Radial Engineering makes several DI devices. I use the Little Labs STD signal extender – which also lets you split the signal.
Basically (bassically?) you plug your bass into this device and the device lets you turn one input into two outputs. One output is routed to your pedal board or amp and the second output will be plugged directly into your interface. This way, when you press record, you are recording both the amped and DI’d signal.
Alright, now that you have a DI signal and your signal chain signal recorded, you should be ready for mixing! If you want to work with an engineer who will make sure no one asks “where’s the bass?” in your mix, reach out to me. I’d love to talk to you about your music and project goals.