Shaping Your Bass Tone
Bass is one of the most important elements in a song. It has the potential to glue all the elements of a song together. Recording and mixing it well thus becomes an essential part of building the character of the song. Whether you decide to record an acoustic bass or program a synth bass, figuring out the ways to shape the tone according to the track is a skill worth honing. A few ways of shaping your bass tone are mentioned below.
1. Source Sound
Make sure that your source sound is captured well. Bass can either be recorded live or generated on a synth. The key is to start with a good sound. If you’re recording your bass, make sure that
The tone of the bass guitar is good
The microphone(s) are placed properly
The cables are of high quality
The DI box doesn’t distort the signal in any way
If you have a grounding issue, use a DI box with a ground lift switch
If you think that the tone isn’t right before recording, don’t record it. Spend a little time until you get the sound right. Listen to the tone and try changing the microphones or the positions, etc. till the time it starts sounding right for the track. The same goes for a synthesized bass. Figure out what part of the low end you want the bass to take care of and tweak your synth accordingly. The scale of the song and octave of the bass make a big difference on how the bass sounds. If it is too high, it makes the bass sound thin, and vice versa.
Recording a live bass:
Before recording, it's a good idea to check the tuning and tone of the bass. Many bass guitars (and amps) have tone control options which will help you find the right tone right from the beginning. This will reduce a lot of time spent in trying to find the right tone later on in the mix stage. Live basses are usually recorded by the following two methods:
Input via DI box
Connecting bass to a DI box is useful if you're looking for a clean bass sound. This tone is common across several genres of music which has smooth, soft basses. The DI box itself may contain additional parameters to modify the sound before it goes into the audio interface. Make sure to check for hum or other noises before recording the bass. Since there is no microphone involved in the recording process, no external noise will leak into the recorded files.
Miking an amp
Amps are used in many genres of music which needs aggressive tones and textures. Sending the bass signal to an amp adds grit and weight to the bass. The audio from these amps can be recorded with various microphones using various techniques and positions, based on the sound you're looking for. The simplest way to mic an amp would be to use a dynamic microphone and point it straight towards the centre of the amp at a very short distance (~3 inches away from the amp). You can also try pointing the microphone in different angles at different spots of the amp, changing the distance from the amp, or even use multiple microphones. If you're planning on using a condenser microphone, make sure to switch on the instrument pad on your interface to protect the diaphragm.
If the bass line moves across more than half an octave in the bass line, tight basses with bright textures such as a slap bass will do the job well. On the other hand, many electronic and hip hop genres typically use a booming sub bass which usually plays 2-3 notes. These basses do not have as much harmonic content in the high end, and are used as a supporting role in the back. Sometimes, changing the scale of the song even by 1 semitone can drastically change the tone of the bass. Try to keep your bass clean and simple to make it more effective. If you have to layer the synths for a complex sound, assign frequency bands for each one of them to avoid clashes.
2. Equalization (EQ)
EQing the bass adds definition and gives it a specific role in the song. Almost all bass sounds can be split into three key frequency zones; body, tone and edge. The body of the bass is prominent at the low fundamental frequency of the bass. It adds energy and weight to the song, and acts as a base for all the other elements to sit on top of. Usually this can be around 60 – 100 Hz, depending on the bass. Too much of this will drown all the other sounds, and too less may make your song lose weight. These frequencies may not play back properly on small speakers, so keep this in mind when you’re sculpting the texture.
The tone of the bass is what lets us distinguish one musical note from the other. These frequencies harmonize well with the rest of the elements in the song to provide a melodic backing for the lead element, such as vocals. These frequencies can be anywhere between 250 – 1000 Hz, so it is important to EQ them properly. If the EQ is not right, it will clash with many other layers such as vocals, keys, guitars, etc.
Edge basically refers to the higher frequency content of the bass. If highlighted, this frequency band cuts through the mix and makes the bass sit in the front. It brings out the attack and gritty textures which can make your bass sound tighter. It depends on the style of music, too. Many ambient forms of music have a soothing low bass without any harshness. This can be achieved by taking the edge off the sound by an EQ.
Many times, basses tend to sound boomy, muddy or honky. This may end up spoiling the whole mix because all the other elements are using the bass as the foundation. The right use of EQ can fix these issues. Linear phase EQ works best on bass elements.
Boominess comes from the buildup of low frequencies, anywhere between 50 – 80 Hz. Muddiness arises from a buildup around the 200 Hz area. Bass honk can be anywhere between 500 – 1000 Hz. All these issues can be fixed most of the time by filtering them out with an EQ. Use your ears to figure out how much to cut. If fixing these issues takes a lot of time, it’s probably a better idea to change the bass entirely.
Compressing the bass is very important for making your track sound tight. Proper compression using a good compressor makes the bass maintain a steady level. This helps all the other elements to come together and start sounding cohesive.
Bass can be compressed in several different ways using various techniques. It is important to know what you’re looking for before you actually start compressing, or you may end up spending a lot of time to no effect. Whichever style of bass you’re working on, be sure to use the best tools that you can use.
For acoustic basses, it is a good idea to start compressing it with a ratio anywhere between 2:1 and 5:1 with around 3-6 dB of gain reduction. Since most acoustic basses are plucky in nature, letting the signal through with a slow attack will add punch. This works especially well with high energy slap basses. In general, VCA compressors work well on bass, but it highly depends on what compressor unit you use. Make sure to gain stage the compressors to avoid pumping and other artefacts.
Electronic basses can take a lot more compression without sounding too dull. Aggressive ratios and low thresholds help in keeping the bass steady at a controlled level. Usually, ratios between 6:1 and 12:1 and around 6 dB of gain reduction are good starting points. Since electronic basses can either be very plucky or very drone-like in nature, the attack and release settings should be set accordingly. If you are planning to add a side chain compressor to the bass, it’s a good idea to insert it after a normal compressor to precisely control the amount of side chain. Many compressors have in-built distortion and soft clipping features which can work well in these cases.
For making your bass sound even fatter, you can try sending it to a parallel compression unit which basically squeezes the bass, and the control the send amount to balance it with the main bass. This may or may not work for all kinds of basses, but it is something worth trying if your bass is sounding thin in the mix. Very high ratios and very low thresholds are commonplace for parallel compression units. Attack times are usually set very fast to avoid letting the transients pop out. Parallel compression is mainly focused on adding more body to the sound. This technique also works well on drums. To glue your drums and bass together, you could try sending your drums to the same parallel compressor.
You could even try adding some top end grit to your bass by sending it to a distortion / saturation unit. This helps in blending it with the rest of the elements of the song and makes it sit better in the mix. You may have to add an EQ with a low cut filter on the distortion channel if you don’t want it to affect the low end of your bass. It also helps in better playback quality on small speakers.