How to improve bass sound pt. 1

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There are many blog posts about drums, guitar and vocals, but an important member is most of the time neglected. At rehearsals bass is in most cases unreadable low-end noise and you cannot hear the exact notes. Unfortunately bass sound is usually one of the things that gets the least attention. Let’s dive into the world of low notes and how we think not only the sound but the whole process of recording can be improved. This post is all about how to improve bass sound.

…to me bass sound is pretty much all about the emotion. Bass should make your legs shake, while keeping all notes readable.
–Lauri Talikka / Yllätysesiintyjä

Read our other post about the topic:

The usual scenario

It used to be on nearly every session that during guitar recording we found there were bass notes that didn’t quite fit in. That usually resulted as a debate if the correct part was shown, by whom and why expensive studio time was wasted on re-recording those parts. This made us recommend bands to rehearse not only all together but also to have separate rehearsals with guitar player(s) and bass player. They should go thru the songs note-by-note before entering studio to make sure every part was totally correct. The earlier this was done, the more time there would be to rehearse and memorise the parts.

As guitar players were now paying more attention to what bass was playing at rehearsals, this significantly reduced the amount of re-recording. Bands also started sounding tighter as they played more solid together. Read more tips on our Prepare for a session post.

Recording bass and drums together makes them more like one solid instrument, a band. Live recording is much more natural and easier compared to recording alone when all audio is coming from the headphones only. Music is all about playing together.
–Jari Kärkkäinen / Kärkäs

Different sound on every part

We’ve had bass players with strong opinions on how bass sound should be different on every part of the song. That may feel like a great idea, but unfortunately it works on the idea-level only. The more you change the bass sound during a song, the bigger the risk there is that on some parts the low end gets cancelled out. This means some part might lack the low-end making it sound more thin. Most of the time it sounds best when bass has solid low-end. Changing the sound all the time can alter the overall sound too much.

Let’s take a couple of classic examples. Mr Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead wasn’t pressing pedals all the time. He had a pretty solid sound thru-out the song and album. Iron Maiden’s mr Steve Harris might have a chorus pedal on some parts but mostly it is just one sound. Steve can easily change his sound by altering the level he hits the strings and that is something many mistakenly think is coming from using pedals.

We recommend a solid sound thru-out the song. Using chorus on the soft part can sometimes be great but not always. Learn to play with dynamics and you will find that distorted sound when played softly can sound pretty clean.

Anssi Kippo, Rami & Pekka Johansson at Astia-studio.

If you have parts where you push the pedals on and off, I recommend considering again. Effect pedals can eat out all low-end or boost it too much. That affects the over-all sound of the whole band.
–Pekka Johansson / Faulty Messenger, ex-Amoral

Pick or fingers

Some bass players ask if they should play with fingers or use a pick. There is no ultimate answer as it always depends on several factors. Someone can be great with pick and loose all groove when trying to play with fingers and vice versa. We always recommend to play how you feel the best. No-one wants to play the way that feels wrong. Music should be all about enjoying and having a good time!

We recommend testing with both the pick and fingers at rehearsal place. Maybe some song needs finger style and some other should only be played using a pick. Try and if still in doubt ask your bandmates what suits the song the best. Avoid the mistake of changing from pick to fingers in studio without proper rehearsing.

If it sounds good in the room, it is good

When recording it’s surprising how often bass players ask to hear the bass sound in control room. We at Astia-studio think that the source is one of the most important factors in sound. If the bass amp sounds crappy in the recording room, it will not magically sound awesome in control room. Rule of thumb is to have the sound coming from the amp to be nothing short of amazing!

When mixing live shows, I always ask the band to play together on stage without monitors and PA to check their stage balance and amp sound first. If the sound is not good, it’s better to tweak the amp rather than use eq on mixing console. Same applies in studio. I cannot remember when I’ve had to use eq during bass recording or even during mixing! If the sound isn’t right we’ll adjust the source rather than leave the problem solving for mixing.

Anssi has a really great recording method, in that he wants to find the best possible sound and tone for drums, bass, guitars, vocals etcetera at the start, so that as you finish the individual tracks it’s close to what you want the final sound of the album to be. That way, you don’t have to ponder over what you can do in the mixing.
Sami Hinkka / Ensiferum

When you record as final sound as possible, you will hear thru-out the recording session how your song will sound in the end. Recording a crappy sound thinking it will turn out great after mixing is not the road to success.

Lauri Talikka from Yllätysesiintyjä in Astia-studio

…I’ve always rooted to playing instruments separately. Our latest experience in Astia-studio proved the opposite with no questions. Endless aim for perfection was overblown by emotion.
–Lauri Talikka / Yllätysesiintyjä

Bass recording at Astia-studio

We did our good share of album sessions recording every instrument separately. Since we started recording on tape we encourage bands to track live. Our goal is to capture at least drums and bass and if we also have a keeper guitar track that’s a nice bonus. Bass player should play near the drummer and be as relaxed with as empty mind as possible. We have found this to be the most successful method to make the instruments “lock-in” to each other.

When recording you need to play pretty accurate, yet for some reason in tape recording it’s different and much more relaxed. There’s a lot more groove and the music sounds more alive.
–Jari Kärkkäinen / Kärkäs

For many years we recorded both the direct and microphone signal. We also experimented with a handful of microphones in front and all over the bass amp. Several years ago I quit recording the direct signal as I always ended up using only the microphone track captured with one mic. We do not recommend re-amping to anyone as too much information is lost.

Bass should not play to a click track only. If click track is used, it should only be on for the parts where drums have a pause. We recommend every band to use metronome only on the two bars before the song starts. That will greatly improve the groove making your music sound natural and more alive. Read more click-related info from our post To metronome or not.

I have a long history with Anssi from the past 15 years and I like his relaxed way of making music along with the fact that his current way of recording is very convincing.
Lasse Hietala / Oliver

Recording bass in small parts can be tempting as well as copy pasting parts. Still, we recommend every band to record basic tracks live, no small piece, no copy-pasta and no re-amping. If that causes problems, then you should re-consider your parts as they might be too difficult for your skills. You should be able to perform all that live too. Simple is always better!

For years I recorded bass alone in studio or at home watching the computer screen tired and frustrated. In fact I started hating the recording process as it wasn’t going anywhere and all playing sounded like crap.

I found the joy of recording when for the first time I tracked bass along with drums on tape. All self-criticism and over-analyzing was gone just like that. Everything just sounded better – the playing, the sound, emotion and groove were back! Small mistakes here and there no longer sounded like a mistake as I had come to the realisation what “a good take” meant. This lead me from now on to only make sessions where I can record together with the drummer.
–Pekka Johansson / Faulty Messenger, ex-Amoral

To improve the tuning of your instrument and save money on strings, read our Coolest tuning tip post. During the years we often encoutered the problem where a correctly intonated and adjusted bass or guitar simply refused to get in tune. We now have a simple solution that is guaranteed to solve the problem for good.

Live trick for sound engineers on bigger venues

In live situation especially on larger venues I always have both the direct and microphone signal from bass on mixing console. I cut all highs from the direct channel and compress to taste. This will be the solid low-end. The microphone channel will have low cut even up to 800Hz and then compress to taste. This will be the “readability” of bass.

When I was mixing FOH for Children Of Bodom shows some four years all around the world, this method made a huge difference as there were parts where the bass needed to stand out. At first when I had just one channel for bass, raising the level  several dB’s made the low-end simply too loud and the overall sound unreadable to say the least. So I started using two channels and only raised the microphone channel to add readability while keeping the low-end solid. This was and still is one of my favorite live tricks when it comes to bass and it sometimes has worked great in studio too.

Lasse Hietala's instruments in Astia-studio A

On our latest Oliver band session with Anssi we tested the Vovox cables and the difference was pretty obvious. Sound became clear and a lot more detailed. I would never have thought that a cable would have such a radical effect on bass sound.
Lasse Hietala / Oliver

The importance of cables

If few years ago I was told instrument cable would make a difference in sound I would have laughed. Now I like to amaze the bass players among others by demonstrating the importance of quality cables. As for most things in life an A/B comparison is the best way to spot the difference. We highly recommend Vovox cables and use them on every session. So far after the A/B comparison not a single musician has declined to use them. They all love how Vovox improves their sound and some have gotten rid off their old cables replacing them with Vovox. We sell Vovox cables and are more than happy to demonstrate the sound difference with their instrument, speaker and power cable as we do on every session. The difference is much bigger than the you, my dear reader would imagine.

After updating all the cables and PSU’s on my pedalboard to optimise the sound I was sure that I’d never ever have to buy another cable. I was skeptical to say the least when Anssi in the beginning of the session started demonstrating the Vovox cables. I was blown away how huge a difference in clarity just one Vovox cable made in my signal chain.
–Pekka Johansson / Faulty Messenger, ex-Amoral

The Vovox cable doesn’t add anything to sound. Exactly as it is when comparing tape recording to computer recording; it’s not about what is added but what is lost! With cables too it is surprising how much is lost when using “regular” cables. Every single person will hear the difference so this is not just ear-candy for the sound engineers. The difference has a lot to do with capacitance along with several other factors. We are planning a separate post about this highly important topic.

Jari Kärkkäinen from Kärkäs in Astia-studio

I could not have believed how much electricity affects the amp. How much power cable affects the sound is remarkable. One could say that you shouldn’t even consider tweaking the sound before removing all the external factors that disturb the sound.
–Jari Kärkkäinen / Kärkäs

To recap our tips:

#1 Band members should know what the bass player is playing
#2 Fingers or pick depends on your taste and what the song needs
#3 One good sound is better than 10 different ones in a song
#4 Great sound always starts with the source
#5 The importance of cables is a lot bigger than you might think
#6 Play to drums not to a click
#7 Learn to “lock-in” with the drummer to maximise the groove
#8 Simplify your parts
#9 Instead of many mics in front of the amp try only one
#10 Be real; avoid re-amping, copy paste and editing

Bass sound is as good as the weakest link in the chain.
–Pekka Johansson / Faulty Messenger, ex-Amoral

Read more from: How to improve bass sound pt. 2

End of part one

Thank you for reading our tips for better bass sound and not only sound but also how to improve things related to bass in general. We hope these tips will inspire and help you find the joy in music and improve not only the recordings but also your live playing. Music should be fun and about enjoying cool stuff with the best of friends! On part two you can enjoy the full comments from the commenteers.

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I cannot wait to reply your questions and comments so please do leave them below. Reserve a full analog tape recording session with me by clicking here. Thank you very much and all the very best!

Astia-studio is a full analog recording studio located in eastern Finland with 25 years of experience. Bands and artists from all over the world including USA and the furthest corner of Russia, Vladivostok have arrived to us for tape recording sessions.

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