Mirrors don’t lie / A mirror won’t lie So don’t be lookin’ if you can’t stand to see Mirrors don’t lie / A mirror won’t lie I know it’s so ’cause one just told the truth on me.
—Merle Haggard, “Mirrors Don’t Lie”
Leave it to "The Hag" to tell it like it is. Just as a mirror reflects both the good and bad of whatever visual data it’s presented, tape—in either its literal or figurative (digital) format—is the most objective way to get outside yourself to see what your bass playing really sounds like. Minute- for-minute, recording and listening to yourself is one of the most fruitful practice exercises. And while recording used to involve shelling out for costly studio time, modern gadgets can put that power in the hands of even the most budget-conscious technophobe. Entrance to the world of DIY recording can be daunting; technology changes practically overnight, and there’s a bit of a learning curve to overcome. But it’s important to understand that there’s a wide range of available options, and that you don’t need to jump in right away with a full-range computer-based Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). In a moment we’ll look at a few of the possible paths. But first. . . .
A CAUTIONARY TALE
Though it has been a few years since I’ve played under the watchful eye of a well-paid producer in a top-notch studio, I’ll never forget the particular brand of anxiety I felt when, after playing through a take that I felt was downright groovy, I was subjected to listening to my solo’d bass tracks. “Is my rhythm really that unsteady?” I asked myself, perplexed. “Can people actually hear the squeak of my fingers every time I move up or down the neck?” To be fair, the answers were “no” and “no.” While far from perfect, the tracks tended to sound fine when placed back in the mix. But I found those fleeting moments of naked exposure to be profoundly illuminating of one fact: I hadn’t spent nearly enough time listening to myself on tape. I had always taken great pride in fulfilling what I saw as my central mission as a bass player—making my bandmates sound better—but I had taken for granted the fact that they in turn make me sound better.
Unless you are looking to launch a career as a solo bass player, odds are that few people—if any—will ever hear your bare bass without the cover of your bandmates. But any player with ambition to work in a recording environment should spend the time listening to his or her own solo bass tracks, if only to ensure that those solo moments in future studio experiences aren’t quite so jarring. Most importantly, the exercise will help turn you on to the peculiarities in your rhythm and technique that can use improvement.
Among gigging bassists, it’s getting to the point where handheld recorders are as de rigueur as extra strings and batteries. Sure, it’s a way to become the hero of your band if you make it your mission to record gigs and rehearsals, but let’s talk about you: Practicing with a metronome is well and good, but being able to keep time without one is far more important. Record your private practice sessions with a handheld recorder and put your tempo obedience to the test. Are you consistent in your plucking or picking? There’s only one way to know: record it.
There are dozens of worthy handheld recorders priced around $200. If you have a “smart phone,” odds are that you have some sort of recording app. Use it. The volume of a full band rehearsal might be more than it can take, but it’s no less valuable as a tool for personal practice. Knowing where to set the input levels (to avoid clipping) and where to place a handheld recorder in a live or rehearsal environment are skills that take a little time to develop, but not long. In practically no time even a novice can skillfully engineer his or her own recordings.
Okay, now we’re getting a bit more serious. Though I’m personally prone to opt for a handheld recorder for rehearsals and gigs and a full-on DAW for more serious recording projects, Multitrack recorders are a good option if you want a portable machine that will offer individual level controls for 4–24 tracks. Some operate on batteries and store the recordings on Compact Flash discs, while others have the ability to burn CDs of your mixes.
If you’re using the built-in microphone of a handheld recorder, you don’t need to worry about audio interfaces. And while your tone might benefit from the use of an outboard preamp (pedal or rackmount), if you plan to plug directly into your handheld device, you don’t need to worry about dealing with an audio interface. But if you plan to record by using your laptop or desktop computer, this is a necessary piece of hardware. More elaborate (and pricier) interfaces are capable of handling multiple inputs and outputs, but more basic interfaces are priced around $200.
DIGITAL AUDIO WORKSTATIONS
Now we’re beginning to talk about a more serious investment, both in terms of the necessary budget and the time it can take to get your rig dialed right. Most modern Mac computers come loaded with Garageband, a full-functioned DAW that can get you started. For Mac users looking to dig deeper, Apple Logic Express ($170) and Apple Logic Studio ($450) are available options. Of course, ProTools is something of an industry standard. The full version of ProToos 9 runs around $600, but you can pick up a more basic version of the software— complete with an M-Audio interface— for around $100. Considering the fact that audio files can eat up a fair share of space on your hard drive, you’ll likely want to add a decent-sized external hard drive to your budget (a 1TB hard drive runs about $100).
In all, a few hundred bucks is more than enough to get you set up with a serviceable recording rig—or rigs. Think of it as the most important lesson you’ll ever need to pay for.