The Inquirer: Studio Skills

While I don’t remember the specifics of my first real recording session at a proper studio, I do remember how I felt.
By Jonathan Herrera ,

While I don’t remember the specifics of my first real recording session at a proper studio, I do remember how I felt. I know I wanted to seem slick, like the session was just a another blip in my thriving music career, but in truth I spent the whole time trying desperately not to betray my intimidation, deep sense of inadequacy, and general bewilderment. There’s a big difference between making music in the warm embrace of a familiar room and entering the cloistered confines of a well-outfitted recording studio. The potential sources of anxiety are numerous, whether it’s the pressure to track fast and clean, the racks of esoteric knob-laden gear, the awareness that a good performance might weigh heavily on future opportunities, or the intrinsically permanent, tangible nature of record-making. While this anxiety may be inevitable initially, I hope this column helps a bit. Think of it as rhetorical Xanax.

It’s useful to roughly divide the recording process into two broad categories of equal importance: technical and social. I’ll talk tech in this column and dive into the softer side next month. Whether you’re recording to tape or to a computer, the studio is at its core a sort of sound laboratory, with all the attendant specialized equipment one might expect. Unlike most live gigs, the sound you get to tape (I’ll refer to all recording media as “tape” for convenience) will be the result of a collaboration between you and a recording engineer. Acquiescing control can seem initially unusual, but it’s for your benefit—engineers know their gear and room. Despite this, it’s still critical that you advocate for your vision in the studio, and that’s only possible if you have a basic working knowledge of the options.

Unlike most acoustic instruments, bass is surprisingly easy to record. There are essentially two ways. First, you’ll likely plug your bass into a direct box or “DI.” A DI is a simple device that performs a single function: It converts the high-impedance, unbalanced instrument-level output of your bass to a low-impedance balanced mic-level signal. The impedance and balance transformation is important to ensure the noise-free, high-fidelity integrity of your signal. Among other benefits, it allows a recording engineer to use long cable runs between your bass and the recorder without degradation. It may seem counterintuitive to convert the signal to mic level, given that it’s lower than instrument level, but consider that most recording consoles and other studio gear are designed to work with microphones. The DI tricks the signal chain’s next step into thinking it’s “seeing” the output of a mic, which is where the gear is optimized to work.

In addition to a DI, you may also be given the opportunity to mic an amp, resulting in two recorded bass signals that are later blended together at the mixing phase. The engineer will undoubtedly have a selection of preferred mics for this purpose, with the E-V RE-20, AKG D12, Sennheiser MD-421, or Neumann U-47 being especially popular options. While you’ll likely be given the chance to mic your own amp, don’t dismiss the in-house options too soon. The studio is a singular environment, and amps that you’d never use on a gig may surprise you when you listen back to their sound on tape. The undisputed king of studio amps is the all-tube Ampeg B-15, particularly if you’re after a fat and warm sound.

The engineer will likely apply a small amount of compression to your bass to help even out our instrument’s unusually broad dynamic range. I’ll leave the details of compression for another column, but suffice it to say that this is another practice that may differ from your habit on a gig. Stay open-minded and remember that the end result of your session is not a solo recording of your bass, but rather a mix that needs to balance the sound of multiple instruments. To that end, an engineer may further sculpt the sound “on the way in” with EQ. Allow this process to unfold before rushing to judgment; the engineer is likely envisioning what will work from the aggregate perspective. It’s weird, but good bass tone on record is often not as lovely alone.

Once your signal chain is set, be sure to consistently advocate for the tone you envision. Given how easy it is to record bass, it’s often the one instrument at a session that an engineer may under-think while contemplating which ten mics they’re going to use on the drum kit. The challenge of this advocacy is gracefully balancing your concept with the engineer’s experience. More on that next month.

Bass Player Senior Contributing Editor Jonathan Herrera is the magazine’s former Editor-in-Chief. An accomplished player, Jonathan has been a fulltime musician and producer since first leaving the magazine’s staff in 2010. His latest endeavor is Bay Area recording studio Airship Laboratories. Catch up with him at jonherrera.com and at airshiplaboratories.com.