Bass guitars often get buried in the mix if for no other reason than they aren’t gritty enough. It’s understandable that many engineers prefer to get the cleanest possible bass DI tone on their way into their DAW – a clean DI is more pliable when you need to add plugins to get it sitting right in your mix.
The problem is in the use of that DI when the session is dense with hard & heavy drums, thick rhythm guitars & massive vocal stacks. Where is your bass supposed to go? How is it supposed to cut through the mix without becoming overpowering and knocking your low end out of balance?
Today, we’ll look at how grittier bass tones accomplish this, plus so much more.
Recording a Gritty Bass
The first thing you need to understand is that a bass DI doesn’t have to be your only bass track. There are plenty of engineers out there today who prefer live-tracking bass that only use the DI as a backup in case something goes wrong.
A bass DI is the perfect starting point for a reamp, but you shouldn’t wait until then to start thinking about your tone. If you’re able to, try recording your bass DI in parallel in your next session. By recording a live, dialed-in amp right alongside your DI, you can start fleshing out a bass tone early on. Even if that live track doesn’t make it through to the final mix, it’ll get you in the right mindset right from the start.
Don’t Skip the Pedals
Regardless of whether you're recording live or capturing a DI, pedals can be a huge part of your bass tone that you shouldn’t ignore.
There are plenty of tools available to dirty up your tone from overdrive to full-on distortions. But for the biggest bang for your buck, I’d recommend using tube preamps on your bass. A tube preamp adds warmth and dimension to your track without taking away from the core bass tone like overdrives and distortions can. Tube DI boxes also exist that perform a similar role in the studio.
Check out how much the tube preamp in Bassforge Rex Brown adds to the bass tone in this demo from Kenny Lenehan:
As you can see in Kenny’s demo, there’s plenty more than can go into a dirty bass tone, but it all starts with that first effect pedal.
Sometimes you don’t have nearly the flexibility with your bass track as you might hope. Either there wasn’t a bass DI recorded, you don’t have the tools to reamp, or you don’t have a virtual bass rig that’s going to help you sculpt your sound.
When you find yourself in this situation, it’s time to turn to the same plugins you use to mix your session – specifically the dynamics processors.
A lot of the time, these are going to be the most transparent forms of grit that can be applied, but transparent doesn’t have to be stale and boring! Basic tools like limiters and compressors can be pushed to their mix to get a crushed, gritty bass tone. One of the oldest tricks in the book is taking an over-processed signal like that and blending it with a raw, unprocessed copy of the track. This is called parallel processing and it gives you the best of both worlds – the dynamics of the unprocessed signal and the dirt of the over-processed signal.
Your in-the-box grit doesn’t need to stop with the stock tools though. You’ve got plenty of other dynamic plugins to choose from. A personal favorite of mine is JST Clip – our signature peak clipper that’s usually used on drums for more aggressive hits. If you’ve got it, try it out on your next bass track. You might be pleasantly surprised by the results!
Bass Tone Basics
As much as a gritty bass tone might be the perfect fit for your song, a poorly recorded bass track isn’t going to be saved by a few plugins or pedals. It all starts at the source – good gear, good performances, and a good ear.
If you haven’t yet developed your skills to the point where you can identify a good bass tone from a bad one just yet, don’t try to go too far too fast. Start with the basics… How to dial in an amp. How to set levels as you record. Where your bass levels should fall in the balance of the mix.
To get started, check out Basscrusher: An Unholy Guide to Bass Tone – our eBook geared to get you the best possible sound for any rock or metal mix!