The sounds you get from the bottom end can take you to the top

WHETHER IT’S HIP-HOP OR HEAVY metal, jazz or country, the right bass sounds can make your music boom with hip-shaking power—while the wrong choices can make it flop with a thud. How do musicians, engineers and producers steer their sounds into that elusive deep-end comfort zone?

Even the simplest of standout bass parts have more going on than meets the ear. To help pull back the curtain, we spoke with two experts with extensive experience on both sides of the studio glass—as producers, engineers and in-demand bass players themselves. Michael Winger has worked with Keane, Regina Spektor and Feist, among others, and recently teamed with drummer Jake Wood to form the duo Super Adventure Club. Jon Evans has worked with acts like Linda Perry, Charlie Hunter, Vanessa Carlton and Third Eye Blind, and has held down the bass position in Tori Amos’ band since 1998. We spoke with both men about the high art of the low end.

What’s the most important element of capturing great bass sounds in the studio?

MICHAEL WINGER: Bass tones are mostly about the players, and a good player makes for good bass sounds.

JON EVANS: The player is number one, then the instrument. If you have a great player in the studio, he or she can make almost anything sound good. Match that up with the right instrument and you can’t go wrong. If someone, however, doesn’t understand how to create an appropriate tone with their hands, it’s a sonic battle all the way through the final mix.

How can you get great bass performances?

WINGER: If the bassist and drummer really know a song well and have a tight groove, there’s nothing better than getting a great take with everybody playing in the same room together. It’s great to have the kick drum and bass lock, especially when you’re recording pop music, so they can sometimes act as one instrument. To help with that, it’s great to have an amp in the room with the drummer—but if there’s too much bleed, I like having the bass player in the control room. He or she can see everybody and feel the notes while still having the sound isolated.

EVANS: To capture a performance, I like to make a roadmap of the song, get a sound together that works for the track, then record it. I like first and second takes. There’s a magic period when you’re still learning and listening, before you “know” the song, where there’s still some energy, but you haven’t resorted to old licks and ideas. When I’m working with Tori Amos, the process is pretty unique. Typically, she’ll play the song at the piano and give me and [drummer] Matt Chamberlain a run-through. Then we’ll talk about where she’d like it to go. After that, she’ll usually give us both some space to come up with appropriate sounds for the track. Then we track it live. Most of the time there’s very little editing of the rhythm tracks. It’s a very inspiring, seat-of-the-pants, get-what-you-get kind of setting.

Do you record bass direct or mic the amp?

EVANS: Most of the time, I record electric bass direct. Using an amp is great in some situations, particularly for recording effects.

WINGER: I often record bass tones direct to avoid bleed. Some mics are directional, but not for bass. Bass frequencies can spill into any mic and, especially for sensitive tracks like piano, the bass can cause some really bad bleed. Then I usually re-amp the bass—send the recorded signal out to an amp and re-record it during the mixdown process or when I’m editing.

Do you tweak the sound with software?

WINGER: I sometimes use plug-ins. Bass is very sensitive to the way it’s processed. You can lose lots of depth with certain types of processing, and it’s often worse with software than running it through a hardware box. In a pinch, if the bass really sounds boring or isn’t cutting through the mix, I’ll run it through SoundToys Decapitator, a plug-in that mimics console distortion. With bass, a little bit of second-order harmonic distortion can help it pop in a way that doesn’t make it scream. Another good plug-in is Phoenix by Crane Song, which adds second and third harmonics. It has a lot of different flavors.

What’s your approach when recording live?

WINGER: Much of the time when you’re recording live, the direct signal off the bass is where you’ll get a lot of your tone—not because you’ll want to, but because that’s what they do on stage. Sometimes they’ll mic an amp, which is what I prefer sound-wise, but that can lead to sound leakage problems. You have to be quick and adaptable when you’re recording live, because sometimes you have to deal with things you don’t expect. Keane didn’t actually have a bass player, or at least didn’t when I recorded them. At the time, they were using sequenced bass lines and then had a guitarist and a keyboardist who occasionally played bass lines. That’s not totally common.

What are valuable pieces of gear for recording bass?

WINGER: Good preamps and a good signal path. The preamp has a good deal to do with the tone of any signal, particularly bass. Sometimes cheaper preamps just can’t get the bass right. My preferred bass preamp is the Universal Audio 610. That’s what I track with in the studio.

EVANS: I’ve been using Eden gear for quite some time, especially live. Their amps and speakers really speak through the full spectrum, which is important to me. But in the studio, having access to different preamps is paramount. Some of my favorites are Millennia preamps and the Neve 1073. Empirical Labs Distressor and Universal Audio 1176 are instant go-tos for compression.

How do you know you’ve got the right tone?

WINGER: The part is everything, and the part determines the tone. If you’re playing lots of sixteenth notes in a punk band with a pick, that requires a particular tonal approach. But if you’re playing big, heavy dub things with the amp cranked so that you barely have to touch the instrument to make a sound, that’s another. If you’re just playing one quarter-note for each measure, for example, you can do a lot of different things to the tone, since you’re occupying much less space.

EVANS: One of the biggest mistakes you see bass players making is overplaying. Not just playing too much, but playing too hard and too much. The essence of what groove means is wrapped up almost entirely in attack and duration. Learning how to get different tones, durations, attacks and releases is paramount to being able to move a song forward or back, or to plant it. Bass players should spend lots of time figuring out how long a note should be and how it should be attacked.

WINGER: One of my favorite producers, Daniel Lanois, says that some bass players are awesome because they know when to end their notes. Some bass players just play notes and more notes with no rests. That tends to fatigue your ear. It goes back to space, paying attention to a note’s beginning and its ending. Rests are very important. Many musicians forget that a rest is a note.

–Michael Gallant

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