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Bass recording tips

December 4, 2019

This is a bass-specific update to my previous article about recording bass and guitar for YouTube, as since then I’ve consolidated my mastering technique (even though probably far from perfect, please let me know if there’s better ways of doing this).

In this article, I’ll describe the 3 key adjustments that I’ve applied to my bass recording process that helped me to have a more phat sounding tone.

While I’ve tweaked the recording settings pretty much for all of my videos so far, I’ve applied the tips of that article mostly just for my last 3 videos to date and you can definitely make the difference (more on less noticeable depending on the video you compare to, but still systematically better in my opinion).

Here’s the ones that didn’t use those techniques:

And the last 3 ones that apply those tips:

While you can hear the bass clearly enough on all of them, I feel like the last ones have the bass cut through much more than the first ones (especially the last one). Here’s the things I did to achieve that.

Use a limiter

This is more likely the part that had the most significant impact on the perceived loudness of my bass tracks.

I used to rely solely on a compressor to boost the bass signal without peaking above 0 dB, however, maybe it’s because I suck at configuring a compressor, but not matter what settings I tried, I could never find a way to really boost the signal without having some kind of clipping or distortion. Seems like there’s very fast and high peaks in my signal that the compressor just can’t manage, and I end up either with a super tame bass sound, or some kind of distortion.

Instead, I’ve used a basic limiter plugin right after the bass amplifier, where I boost the signal by about 12 dB (that’s what sounds the best for my input sensitivity, see the next part below).

Unlike a compressor, the limiter is really dumb (and that’s a good thing for me in that context), it just cuts the peaks when they exceed 0 dB (or whatever configured level). This allow me to get rid of the super short and high peaks I somehow get (especially when I slap) and I can boost the actual part of the signal that I care about very close to 0 dB, where it actually sounds loud without any kind of distortion.

Don’t worry about clipping the input signal

To calibrate the input sensitivity, most interfaces feature a LED that indicates clipping. I usually try and play something louder that I will need, and make sure that the input sensitivity is at a point where only the “too loud” stuff results in clipping, meaning that when I play normally I’ll have optimal recording level.

I’ve found though that when slapping the bass, I had to turn the sensitivity very low to avoid clipping, which then made it harder for me to have the bass sound loud. It seems to me that the clipping happens on some kind of extra “noise” when I slap but that it’s not directly clipping the actual bass sound, so especially for slap, I allow the clipping LED to light up a lot, as long as the overall bass sound doesn’t sound distorted. Basically I end up turning up the sensitivity as much as possible regardless of the clipping LED as long as it still sounds good.

For me this point is about halfway through the input signal knob in Hi-Z (high impedance) mode.

Change the strings, or slap the shit out of them

There’s something with new strings that, to my opinion, just sound good, and that usually goes away pretty quickly. Recording bass shortly after changing the strings always made for a better quality recording, provided that you actually like the bright tone and “zing” of new strings.

However I’m not super down to buy new strings every week to record bass, and I’m also lazy to change the strings that often. The good news is I’ve found a surprisingly efficient technique that allow to get back some of that “new string” tone without changing the strings, as described in this video; slap the strings very hard before playing (not slapping as if you actually wanted to play slap, but just pulling hard on the strings), potentially loosening the strings before doing so (but I’ve found that it didn’t make that much difference whether the strings are loose or not when you slap the shit out of them).

After this exercise, you get a much brighter tone with some of the “zing” that new strings have, and this improved a lot my recording quality without having to change my strings all the time.

Next steps

While this gives me decent results, there’s likely many ways to improve that even more. For example, I’m thinking it could be a good idea to add a compressor after the limiter, so that I get the benefits from compression without it being confused by some fast and high peaks that I somehow get in my signal. I believe that would help reducing the gap between fingerstyle and slap loudness without bothering to put them on different tracks and mixing them separately. Stay tuned for my next cover to see if that makes a difference!

Last thoughts

Overall, while those tips helped me get a thicker bass tone, I’m looking at one of my first covers, Reciprok - Balance Toi, and the bass is pretty crisp on it, even though I didn’t bother doing anything special with it. Back then, all I did was running the bass directly through one of the Logic bass amps and I just turned up the volume fader of the bass track to +3 or +6 dB, and turned down the original track fader to -6 dB or even lower until it sounded good to me, regardless if this caused any clipping or not, and I would just let Logic’s audio normalization feature upon bouncing adjust the levels to reach or not exceed 0 dB.

At the end, this would give pretty decent results without any effort. Maybe the output track would overall sound less “loud” than my latest covers where I spent more time on mastering, but it would still sound great if you turn up the volume a bit more, with a pretty clear bass line.

Also it seems to me that YouTube applies some kind of audio loudness normalization as well, as the difference between my earlier videos compared to my latest ones isn’t remotely as clear as when I listen to them on YouTube as opposed to the raw audio output I bounced.