How to Record Electric Bass Guitar
It might seem pretty straight-forward but recording bass guitar may not be as easy as you may think. Sure, it's not rocket science, and it requires a lot less hardware than recording a drum kit usually takes, but it is often overlooked or underestimated. As an instrument itself, the bass guitar is underrated! The bass is the meat that thickens up the whole band. It is the sack and the pulse that thumps and drives that rhythm into your chest. This aspect is incredibly important.
I am going to focus mostly on the variables, preparation, and techniques that are often overlooked with the Bass instead of which hardware to use. These are basic tried and true techniques that can get you a good bass sound no matter what kind of system or hardware you have. This is for the electric bass guitar specifically, but I will add a follow up on acoustic instruments, including the upright bass, shortly.
Before You Begin...
TUNE!!!! I shouldn't need to say this but I always have to. Make sure you are in tune before you start, and keep checking to make sure you stay in tune. Seriously.
Sooo do I plug this thing in?
There are really two ways to record an electric bass, and that means you can either plug it right in to your recording equipment using a DI box, or you can send it to a bass amp of your choice, and mic that amp. Want more options? Why not both?!?
Recording the bass direct (DI = Direct Injection or Direct Input) is the cleanest and often easiest ways to record. This consists of plugging your bass into a "direct box" and then into a preamp. What happens after the preamp is, of course, dependent on your specific recording set up. This technique is just the pure sound of the bass, affected only by the DI box and the preamp - no microphones or room sounds.
The DI you choose can make a big difference on the tone. At my studio, we are fortunate enough to be able to use a REDDI direct box from A-Designs. This is a giant, all tube, big red tone monster. This thing sounds fat and heavy and has tons of gain on tap, should you need it. However, it'll run you about $700, which is a chunk of change for just a DI box. Fortunately, there are many much more affordable options in terms of good solid state DI boxes, that can still sound pretty good. We also use the Countryman Type 85 which is a classic DI that can be had for around $200. Radial also has great DI's starting from $100. They may not give you quite the fat round bottom of a REDDI, but your bottom won't hurt from the purchase either.
Recording direct is simple, easy, and generally sounds pretty good. By not using anything like an amp that will introduce higher harmonics, a direct bass sound is generally very easy to work with and mix. Over 95% of the bass guitar that we record at the Studio is direct. Even if we record a bass amp, we will generally also record the DI signal anyway.
Just because it is less common, is no reason to not record a bass amp. Especially on songs that are driven by a bass guitar, some really great tones can be achieved by recording the sound of the bass through an amp.
It is common to use moving coil microphones up close to the speaker of the bass cab or a large diaphragm condenser farther back.
A Shure SM57 is used to grab the high end of the bass and some of the bite. If you are using distortion on your bass, the 57 is a great way to capture the hair and snarl to help it cut through the mix. If you want to capture more low end than a 57 will give you, try an RE20 or any kick drum mic like a Beta 52. Place it in between the center and the edge of the speaker, and a couple of inches away from it.
A warmer or old-school-sounding technique is to use a large diaphragm condenser (especially a tube mic) a foot or more away from the cab. A ribbon mic can also be nice and warm, just be careful as most ribbon mics can be sensitive and bass frequencies can be quite powerful.
Where do I put this thing?
Paul McCartney and Geoff Emerick used to run Paul's bass through an amp -sometimes a guitar amp - and place an AKG C12 anywhere from 3 to 10 feet away to get a big roomy bass sound. This works best in a large room. Also, keep in mind that this type of tone is not for everyone. If you are working on a dense mix, the tightness of a DI bass signal will be a lot easier to work with than the muddiness that can come from a mic'd signal.
Listen to this weird old cowboy talk about bass guitar...
As I said before, if we are recording a bass amp, we almost always take the direct signal too. Be careful though, as the different processing that these two signals go through can put them out of phase with each other. Invert the phase on one of the signals, and see which way sounds best when you blend them together. If they are out of phase, you will get a really weak sound with no low end.
Another way to get both signals, if you are unable to split the signal, or record both at the same time, is to record the bass DI, and then "re-amp" the signal by sending the performance through a bass amp and recording it then. This works great if you recorded the DI signal and then realize you want an amp signal to flavor it or spice it up later. Having the clean DI signal and the amp signal gives you a lot of flexibility when mixing.
If you have outboard gear, whether it is the studio's rack processors or the bass player's pedals, you'll have to decide if you want to record with any of that processing, or if you would rather add it later. At my studio, we tend to record the bass using some subtle compression and sometimes EQ from the board. Our console is a Trident 80B and we almost always use one of the channels from that as our preamp for bass. If we want to EQ the signal, we will do it there with the EQ on the channel strip. Then it will go to compression. This is usually an LA2A, but sometimes our Retro Instruments Sta-Level is called in to beef up the sound and give it some balls. They are usually set so they are just barely moving, only clamping down on spikes, or when the bass player really digs in. This is a good way to save yourself some processing later, and make the bass sound great along the way, but it can be dangerous - I have done processing that sounded great at the time, but really backed me in to a corner when I went to mix it later. Sometimes it is better to play it safe and save that stuff for the mix.
As far as effect pedals the bass player is using, that always depends. If it is something they consider vital to their sound, let them keep it in. However, some time based effects like delay or a synced chorus can be added later for best results, to make sure that the timing works out right for the song. If pedals are involved, I like to have a dry signal as well as a backup. Just split it to record one chain with the effects and one without any. This works well with distortion. By blending a clean track with a heavily distorted one, you can easily adjust the tone buy just varying the volumes on the two tracks. The clean track will add definition to the distorted one.
While in the studio, I find that the bass parts in the song are the most common thing to change from practice to the studio. While a band is practicing, the bass is, once again, often overlooked. It can be difficult to pick out when a bass part is not quite right while it is live in a room, but once that bass part is being laid down under the microscope of the studio, it can become very clear that something needs to change. More often than not, it is that the bass player is over complicating things. I have been a bass player in a band before and I know the feeling - it is very easy to think that you are spicing up a song by playing crazy fills or playing high up on the neck, but sometimes that is not the bass player's job. There are times when the best thing that the bass player can do, for the good of the song, is to just sit back and lay down the groove. Sometimes that is pulsing quarter notes, sometimes it is a pretty melody. A well written bass part is generally much more valuable than a showy one. Keep this in mind while recording your bass parts. The bass player should be serving the good of the song, not their ego. Listen and think about what is being played before you just lay it down and move on to spending 18 hours recording guitar solos. Good luck giving that ego advice to your guitarist...