Recording Upright Bass, Part 2: Effects & Frequencies
By BILL “WBGO” LANPHIER
Fri, 9 Mar 2012
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LAST MONTH IN THIS COLUMN, WE took a look at the mics and pickups and their role in recording upright bass. Now let’s turn our attention to a few other key considerations.

RATTLES & EFFECTS

So, now your room is sounding good, your mic and DI are in place, you’re ready to starting recording and—oh no!—where’s that rattle coming from? If you’re in a small room, it could be coming from something in the room. My stationary bike really likes my low E.

But, rattles often come directly from the bass. “I start by removing the bow quiver,” says bassist/engineer Dan Feiszli, “because it’s often the culprit. Or, I might have to remove the pickup jack if it’s mounted on the strings below the bridge. Then I’ll tape the jack to the tailpiece. But, sometimes there’s a crack in the bass, or the seam isn’t totally sealed. You can’t do much about that, but the good news is that it usually doesn’t affect the sound of the bass, and a lot of the rattles won’t come through in a mix anyway.”

Now we get into effects. All effects should be added to the track during mixing, not tracking. Compression is the most common effect for bass, but both CAW and Evans suggest using it sparingly, if at all. “Engineers will immediately put a compressor on acoustic,” says bassist and engineer Jon Evans, “but it’s not always necessary. It can squash the dynamic range and dramatically change the sound by emphasizing a bad room, or unnaturally exaggerating the ratio of attack and duration. Plus, if used during tracking, it can lead a player to dig in too hard and overdrive the bass. I might add a little compression for something more contemporary, but the best advice is to be careful with it.”

Feiszli is more liberal with the use of compression and limiting and almost always uses it to some degree. “If I need to shave off some transients, like inadvertent string slapping, I’ll use a digital peak limiter with a relatively short attack time, and that limiter would be the first thing in the chain of effects. A four-band compressor would be next in the chain, set for a slower attack, and rarely with more than four or five dB of compression. A starting point for compressor settings might be a 4:1 ratio, 20–50ms attack time, and a 100– 250ms release time. But these are only starting points and can vary wildly depending on the plug- in, the tempo of the music, how much dynamic range is on the track, and how much dynamic range you want to end up with in the mix.”

REVERB, PANNING, EQ

Like with compression, most engineers use reverb sparingly on acoustic, in order to keep it more up front in the spectrum. Feiszli will use reverb about half the time, but only the tinniest bit and with no EQ on the reverb, “since so little reverb typically ends up in the final mix. In more exposed passages, I’ll sometimes add just a touch of reverb’s higher frequencies and keep the low end more upfront,” he says. Evans uses reverb only for bowed passages.

Other effects are used very infrequently and only for special effects. Feiszli will occasionally use a little chorusing, the Crane Song Phoenix analog tape emulator ($450), and even distortion.

Whatever reverb is used, the effect is often panned hard left and right, but the original signal is almost always kept dead center. The bass carries a lot of weight, and panning it left or right can make the mix feel lopsided. The only exception is in orchestral music, where the basses are always on the right side of the stage and they should be panned that way.

During tracking, the EQ settings are usually kept pretty flat. But, even with plenty of time for mic placement, it’s inevitable that the track will need some EQ during mixing. As more instruments are added, and the track becomes more dense, it might be necessary to roll off some of the low mids from the bass to keep the track from sounding too thick. It might also be necessary to add some upper mids and brightness.

MAKING FRIENDS WITH THE ENGINEER

Now that you’re more familiar with recording an acoustic, how do you deal with an engineer who’s recording your acoustic, and may know less about recording the instrument than you do? “Diplomacy is the key,” says Evans. On the subject of EQ, in order to communicate to an engineer what you’re looking for, it’s important to be in general agreement with him on what’s happening at different ranges. Granted, the ranges below are subjective, but at least they’ll give you a starting point for dialog.

Bass range, 80–120 Hz. This bottom end is critical if you want a nice fat sound. But too much and the track can quickly become boomy and too thick.

Low Mids, 250–400 Hz. This is really the meat of the bass sound. It’s what gives definition and punch to the lower registers.

Mids, 500 Hz–1.2 kHz. The lower part of this range is crucial for midrange attack. Toward the top of the range you’ll start hearing things like the strings clacking against the fingerboard (not a bad thing), and fingered harmonics; all this is important for a more contemporary sound.

Upper Mids, 1.2–3.5 kHz. Here you’ll start hearing more finger noise from both hands on the strings.

Treble, 3.5 kHz cycles and up. Gives a more airy quality to the instrument and keeps it from sounding too dull.

Now, what do you do if the engineer is doing things, like mic placement, that you know probably won’t work? Again, be diplomatic and explain that you’re willing to try anything and acknowledge that he probably knows his room better than you do. But also explain that you’ve been playing and recording your bass for a while and have a pretty good idea what works and what doesn’t. It there’s time, suggest doing a quick test recording of your bass. Then take your bass back to the control room and compare the acoustic sound to his recorded sound. A good engineer will be interested in getting a sound that both of you are happy with.

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