Recording a Vintage Bass Track

The invention and marketing of the electric bass represents the dawn of modern recorded music. Giving the event the weight it deserves moves me to declare that we are now living in the year 59 F.E. or “Fender Era.” The amplified solid-body bass holds a special double-faceted place in modern music. First developed as a way for bassists to compete with amplified guitars, the increase in stage volume eventually caused guitar players to turn up their own amplifiers to the point of distortion thereby becoming the pivotal influence in creating a rich soundscape with equipment tortured beyond previously acceptable limits.

The electric bass is a mule combining the strength and firm footing of a donkey with the sleek lines of a thoroughbred. Recording this beast can be as challenging as you want to make it but keeping the function of the bass in mind will ensure that you don’t go astray. To put it into pugilistic terms, leave the jabs and uppercuts to the guitars. Bass notes are the “low blows” of any good track. All’s fair in love, war and rock and nothing says it better than a size 15 boot to the balls. The bass has such influence on a track that even a light tap to the right spot will get the listeners attention.

My Outboard Rig

My Outboard Rig

As to the proper equipment, simplicity is the key. After trying all of the amazing toys dedicated to bass amplification I’ve found that nothing will make a crap bass sound acceptable while there is an abundance of tinkertoys that can fuck up a great sounding instrument. So let’s begin at the beginning and make some decisions as to which instrument should get the gig. The vast majority of bass tracks we hold in special reverence were recorded on Fender basses. The Precision and later, the Jazz bass were so prevalent in recording studios that many professionally copied charts were designated “Fender Bass” in the upper left hand corner. The sound of the instrument was usually captured by direct injection (DI) to the recording console and if an amp was used it was usually a low wattage Ampeg B-15 or something equally as portable.

Ampeg B-15

Ampeg B-15

During the past 30 years I’ve had every bass imaginable in my hands and I recognize the attraction of having a lot of pretty things hanging on the studio wall. But it seems that the dominating feature most often associated with high end basses is that it “gets that old Fender sound.” I have a revelation for you, so do the new Fenders…even the cheap ones! I played a $200 Squire recently that sounded more like an “old Fender” than many basses with 10 times the price tag. Think about it, what is an electric bass? A flat piece of cheap wood bolted to a long piece of hardwood, some strings and a primitive magnetic coil like we used to make in science class out of wire and a 16 penny nail. Like the string bass before it, the electric bass is a physical instrument that responds best when man-handled and all the gizmos that make it easier to play can sometimes emasculate a track.

Bass tracks are not just low notes and there is a fine line between punch and definition. It can be difficult to make out precisely what notes James Jamerson was playing on his early electric recordings, but there was no lack of bottom end punch. Many modern basses and bass rigs offer much wider frequency ranges than were available to early electric players, but it was the physical act of pulling sound out of a primitive instrument that made recordings by guys like Jamerson, Tommy Cogbill, Joe Osborn and Donald “Duck” Dunn have the punch that made a generation dance. The tools to make that happen are still here and are not hard to find.

The first step for any aspiring bassist should always be to learn to play the damned thing. Find a decent bass and don’t plug it in. Play for hours until you can hear and feel the instrument with a minimum of non musical noises. See how long you can get low notes to last.  I remember my first lesson with Monty Budwig. He had me play a low ‘F’ and then pressed my finger down into the fingerboard with both of his thumbs and had me play it again. The sound was twice as big and he said, “That’s the way a bass sounds. Don’t ever forget that it’s a physical instrument.” Once you’ve got the physical aspect of the bass under your belt you can proceed to get your rig together. But always remember that the sound and feel must come from you and the plank, not the gear. Half-assed playing through great amplification is just louder half-assed playing.

A bit of sponge

A bit of sponge

Older basses were fitted with sponge mutes. I’m not a nazi about keeping every detail of an instrument intact and the bridge cover holding the mute was usually the first thing to end up lost in a drawer. But they do have a very useful purpose and I frequently wedge a piece of sponge under the strings at the bridge. Without the mute, the bass will have more high frequency ring and sustain. But these frequencies and overtones also have a way of smudging areas in the soundscape that may need to be left available for other instruments. While the un-muted sound may be more pleasing on its own, it may not work as well in the mix in combination with the kick drum. Much of what you hear without the mute will never be audible in the mix so experiment and don’t be afraid to sacrifice ring in the interests of more thud.

One of the iconic bass sounds is that made by the Höfner Beatle bass and Club bass. It is interesting to note that these are not fitted with mutes and the string saddles are actually bits of fret wire set into a wooden bridge. The classic sound has a full bottom end attack initially and does not sustain as much as one would think given the construction of the bass. I discovered the reason when I loosened the strings on an old Höfner to clean it. As soon as the strings were slack, they were drawn to the pick-up magnets with a great deal of force. These magnets were seriously powerful. When you attack the string, the powerful magnetic field is disturbed creating a huge initial impact. But because the magnets are so powerful, they actually stop the string vibration and don’t allow sustain. It is the power of the pick-up that gives the Höfner its Tuba-like characteristic punch and short sustain.

Playing a muted bass with the fingers is a great way to learn just how much you need to lean into the strings to get a good sound. Many early electric players were string bass converts and brought their right hand chops with them. Try stroking the string with the whole fingertip of the index finger or even the bone of the first joint and you will be surprised at how much bigger the sound can be. Then there is also the great sound of a muted bass played with a pick. The pick will give definition to the attack and as you move the picking hand from the bridge toward the neck you will find a wide range of usable sounds that no amount of knob twisting will give you.

Polytone Mini-brute

Polytone Mini-brute

When it comes to getting the bass on tape or, better said, into the hard drive, less is always more. Mic’ing an amp can be fun but not always possible. The most desirable recording amp I can think of is the old Ampeg B-15. Another great amp if you can find one is the Polytone Minibrute. It’s a little solid-state combo just big enough to hold a 15″ speaker. Yeah, I know…it’s not a tube amp. But it is one of the most versatile little bastards on the planet. It gives you exactly what you put into it so the only reason not to love it is if you have a shitty sounding bass. I’ve also used a Trace Elliot tube pre-amp and sent the signal direct from the XLR output with good results. I spent a lot of time convincing myself that the PODxt bass models were pretty good…and they are fine to a point. But 90% of the time I find that plugging the bass into a cheap passive direct box gives me the most cluck for my buck. I’m lucky to have great sounding basses and it seems that the less I put between my fingers and the screen tends to result in the most sincere playing. With no sound sculpting toys helping you along, you are forced to come up with a convincing part based on your playing. And a well played fat-assed track can always be diddled with later.

To summarize:

Don’t get hung up on a high end bass unless you have a specific reason (or you have loot to burn).

Go to the source. Plug into a small amp, set everything flat and try to play like the great players that you admire.

Get physical. Watch Ray Brown use his right index finger to pull the sound out of his instrument.

Experiment with a sponge mute and a pick…go ahead, nobody’s looking.

If you mic an amp, don’t think you need to go broke. A low wattage amp that lets your bass sound like your bass will do. If you are working in a home studio you’ll do fine with a relatively inexpensive Shure SM7 or even an SM57. An expensive condenser mic can sound great, but it might also hear things that have nothing to do with your song…like refrigerator motors, traffic noises and helicoptors. The SM7 will only hear what’s right in front of it.

Get a cheap passive direct box and leave all the toys for your live gigs where they might impress someone.

And most importantly, realize that the electric bass is a bastard instrument without a hard and fast pedagogy as to playing or recording the thing. Don’t become a disciple of one method to the exclusion of others. Play it with your fingers, a pick or a can opener…but play it with intent and record it as honestly as possible.

4 Responses to “Recording a Vintage Bass Track”

  • You should be selling this stuff to the press!
    great advice as usual!

  • Shawn

    Great stuff!

    One thing to consider, putting the sponge under the strings can move the intonation(not tuning) of the instrument off. So if you need to play any higher notes, they’ll probably be off.

    My solution is to just leave the sponge on one of my basses and adjust the intonation appropriately.

  • If you had to choose between an SM7 with a Behringer BX1800 or going direct with a tech 21 direct box what would you do for a quick recording for a friend?

  • admin

    If you have both available record a track with both and either compare or combine the two. I think that the Tech 21 box is great and passes signal nicely. The question is obviously how good does the bass sound? I’m not crazy about Behringer stuff, but again, the bottom line is how does it sound? A good bass shouldn’t need a lot of drastic eq…if anything, maybe dip the bottom below 50 cycles. I prefer to use more direct signal and use an amp more for size and “air.”

    Thanks for the question and have fun,