“BASS! How low can you go?”

Here is a little something for the bass players out there. The bass is usually not given the attention in print that the other instruments are, so as a result, there is not nearly as much information out there about how it is recorded and mixed. Since we have been laying-bare the process behind the recording of the Solamors project, here is a blog about how we will be treating the bass in the mix, both compositionally and tonally. This is by no means definitive, nor is it likely to work for everyone. It’s just the way I am handling it this time around, and the process is likely to change in-transit.

P-bass

In my opinion, getting the bass guitar just right in the mix is both the most important and most difficult part of getting the mix both balanced and full sounding. Unlike many modern metal recordings, I intend to make the bass guitar as prominent in the mix as I can without unbalancing it, rather than just blending it into the background under the main guitars. I’ll expound on the bass’ role and the unique challenges that it presents:

The role – Bass guitar wears a few different hats in a mix. It is both a percussive and a melodic instrument, it provides ‘thump’ to the kick drum and ‘girth’ to the guitars, as well as effecting the texture of the midrange of the mix and adding ‘impact/clang’ to the upper-mids. Fulfilling all of those roles simultaneously requires a great deal of attention to the part composition and technique as far as the music, as well as attention to the tone, levels and dynamics in the mix phase: there is no 100% ‘fix in the mix’ for poorly-composed/played parts, and likewise a killer player who writes great parts can be completely neutered by bad tone or mix balance.

The difficulties – One of the reasons for the difficulty is that bass guitar is inherently uneven in terms of dynamics, and has a pronounced attack with little sustain relative to the guitars. It is also more sensitive to player technique, pick attack (definition and even-ness) and pick angle (scrape), as well as having an annoying tendency for notes to bend sharp in pitch to varying degrees just after a string is plucked, which is dependent on the gauge of the string, scale length, tuning, position and finger pressure for the fretted note, etc.

J-bass

The role of bass guitar in the mix has changed over the years. A few decades back, the bass was very prevalent in the mixes of genres like thrash metal, punk, British heavy metal and early hardcore. This was nice to hear, but it made for a fairly raw and uneven sounding mix that was often a bit cluttered in the upper midrange… which is fine in those genres, but doesn’t necessarily translate well to other sub-genres. As a result, a common modern solution was to ignore the percussive and melodic roles of the bass in favor of distorting it heavily, rolling off the highs and mids and treating it almost exclusively as a support instrument for the guitars and kick drum. That made for a tight, fat mix with a lot of low-end punch, but many people (especially old-school metalheads) have complained about not being able to distinctly hear the bass in the mix. HOWEVER, just restoring the attack and bringing up the bass in the mix has the effect of alienating many newer metalheads, accustomed to the clinical cleanliness and tight/even sound of modern metal recordings, who will complain that it sounds cluttered and unpolished.

SO WHAT DO WE DOOO?!! You have the oldskooool guys that want to hear those distinct, Steve Harris bass triplets… the newskooool guys that want to hear those big, powerful ‘mix chords’ of kick, guitar, bass, cymbals all hitting together in one huge, clean crushing wall of sound… the prog-metal guys that want to hear the bass flying all over doing its own thing and ignoring the mix… and the extreme metal guys that want it all.

The Solamors philosophy:

We can’t make EVERYONE happy ALL the time, but like the our philosophy with the vocals: we will just give you pieces of everything, woven in and out of the fabric of the songs. That means that the tone has to be as flexible as possible to cover all basses, the playing has to be super-tight to be able to bring the bass up in the mix as needed, and the bass parts have to be written to shift their focus from rhythm support, to melodic support, to percussive support to solo instrument that can play polyrhythms and melodic lines off the other instruments. That won’t satisfy everyone throughout every part of the album, but as a whole it achieves our goal of keeping the overall sound fluid and unpredictable, while still stapling the songs in familiarity enough to make the songs easily listenable.

THE MIX:

I can’t go into details of the tone and techniques without using individual parts as a reference, so here are the details of the overall mix. To cover all the possible bases, there will be four separate tones using one of two different bass guitars. The ‘primary’ bass is a standard P-bass with passive pickups and a few modifications to the electronics and hardware, and the ‘secondary’ bass is a standard J-bass with active pickups. The P-bass will be used to handle the main rhythm tracks because of it’s strong midrange punch and low end thump, and the J-bass will be used for parts where the bass needs to stand out and be more clear and defined because of it’s natural scoop and even-ness, clearer lower-mids, sharper attack and ‘clang’.

Here is an FFT plot of the two different basses (yellow = P-bass, red = J-bass):

fft bass yel-P red-j

You can see from the picture that the P-bass has more ‘thump’ in the lows, more ‘grunt’ in the lower-mids and more subdued highs, while the J-bass has a more even response with tighter lows, more ‘clang’ in the higher mids and more high-end.

Here are the four different tones that will be mixed in and out depending on the role of the bass:

1) Medium distortion, DI – this is the main tone for the bass. tight guitar distortion (Tubescreamer, Super Overdrive, etc), Bass D.I. (Sansamp Bass Driver, etc), EQ scooping out a lot of lows and boosting the mids sharply in a few strategic places, compressor (fast attack med release), brickwall limiter (fast attack, program-dependent auto release), highs and lows are rolled off… this tone is for midrange ‘grunt’ and lower-midrange ‘punch’

2) Clean lows- drastic lowpass EQ, Compressor (super-fast, fast), compressor (fast, med), brickwall limiter (fast attack, program-dependent auto release), saturation… this tone is always on as it provides a nice clean low end to back up the kick drum and thicken the rhythm guitars.

3) Heavy distortion – guitar amp through small speaker (8″ Celestion Bulldog) with SM57, mic’d reeeal close (1.25″ from dust cap), no EQ but amp EQ and gradual high and low rolloff… this tone will be brought up in the mix to keep it from sounding weaker when the guitars are playing primarily single-note lines.

4) Raw/clean – raw DI track with gradual high and low EQ rolloff and some midrange EQ depending on the part… this tone will always be in the mix, but usually real low just to provide dynamics for the bass so that it doesn’t sound too processed… but not so loud that the mix sounds too raw on unpolished/uneven.

Here is the general EQ curve for the main bass tone (the mid peak, lower-mid scoop and high end cutoff vary from song to song as needed):

bass eq

You can see the lows are rolled off to leave room for the ‘clean lows’ tone. There is also that upper-lowend peak just below the guitars’ ‘beef’ to thicken the mix up, while the lower-mids are scooped out to leave room in that busy area for the guitars/vocals/snare. Then there is a peak in the midrange where there is not much going on in the other instruments, to bring out the note attack and make the bass audible in the middle of the mix, while the highs are rolled off to keep the fret rattle and pick noise from cluttering up the top of the mix.

Here is a picture of the mic position for the bass parts that are re-amped through the guitar rig:

bass mic closeup

The speaker is a nice-sounding 8″ Celestion from an open-backed practice amp enclosure with a pillow stuffed into it. I mic’d it with an SM57, set up in the middle of the cone and then angled slightly toward the seam of the dust cap until the weird ‘zippy’ highs go away, but not so far from the middle that the upper-midrange starts to sound honkey and nasal. Using such a small speaker keeps the low-end clean and tight so that it mixes well with the other bass-heavy tone.

That wraps it up. Sorry about the length, but like I said: the bass guitar often does not get the attention that it deserves, and engineers rarely go into much detail about the bass recording and mixing process.

One last parting picture before you go. This shows the frequency relationship between the rhythm guitars and the bass (with the guitars dropped down in level to show the midrange contours). The guitars are blue and the bass is yellow:

fft bass guit

Notice that they ‘peaks’ in one frequency graph correspond to the ‘dips’ in the other. That is a good sign that the sounds will compliment each other, as well as both being easy to hear individually in the mix. There are a few areas that are notched out in both instruments to make room for the rest of the mix. For example the 210-280Hz scoops are to make room for the snare drum’s meaty frequencies, while the 320-420Hz scoop correspond to the main area of acoustic energy of the dirty vocals, etc. One area of particular concern is 120-190Hz. This is an essential area to balance for the sake of clarity-vs-thickness/warmth in the mix… too much going on there and the mix will sound cluttered and woofy, too little and it will sound thin and sterile.

Areas where there is heavy frequency overlap in a mix get muddled and suffer from ‘frequency masking’ where two sounds fight for the same plot of space, and the one with the most energy wins out… or if they are similar in energy and timbre, they just turn that area into sonic mush. Since I am trying to make this recording as fat and loud as possible without losing definition… avoiding frequency masking is a big part of the tracking and mixing process. It is frustrating and time-consuming work, so the more time I have to spend on the mix precess, the better everything will sound in the end. Time is running out though so… fingers-crossed.

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About alexkenis

Guitarist, philosopher, tinkerer
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