Bass is a core component of every modern recording and mix. While vocals drive the narrative forward and drums push the rhythm of a song, bass acts as a foundation from which the rest of the instrumentation can build from. Without good bass, songs sound thin and frail.
Recording bass isn’t an insanely complex process – it takes the right equipment, a talented bassist, fresh strings, and good levels (ideally through a good DI). Everything beyond that comes down to how the bass gets played, then how it gets mixed.
We’ve covered the second half of that pretty in depth on the blog in the past – tips for mixing your bass DI and ways to get it to sit right in the mix, so today we wanted to change things up a bit and look at one of the biggest decisions a bassist needs to make ahead of their performance: should they use their fingers or a pick?
Recording Fingerstyle Bass
Out of the two options, fingerstyle seems to be the most prevalent option for bassists across all genres with just a few exceptions. It makes a lot of sense for an instrument that’s meant to be felt rather than heard, and it all comes down to the transients.
Every new bassist or guitarist trying to record bass for their own project has likely experienced what a wide variety of transient shapes are available when playing a bass fingerstyle. When your finger plays each string, there’s a velocity and direction to it. Lightly plucking a string with your finger will have a softer transient, which is great for calmer songs. You control exactly how much energy goes into each note.
Slapping a bass string results in a loud pop, as will pulling the string away from the bass with more force. These techniques can be great for helping certain notes jump out in front, but by design this isn’t what bass is meant to add to a session. The more inconsistent a player is, the harder their bass signal is going to be to mix. More compression and limiting will be needed.
Because of this, fingerstyle bass is a bit of a double-edged sword. For those who are experienced bassists, they’ve likely fine-tuned their technique to make the dynamics work for them. It makes a lot of sense to record fingerstyle when that’s the case. Otherwise, some practice and consideration about what technique is best for you may be needed first.
Let’s look at why some bassists (including pros) opt for picks instead.
Recording Bass with a Pick
Just like picks add more bite and attack to each note on a guitar, they give bass guitars a well-defined transient and plenty of energy to ring out. For this reason, they’re extremely popular in styles where that extra articulation comes in handy. We see this most often in thrash and other aggressive metal genres where the notes are played hard and fast. Pick attack is as much an element of the bass tone as the notes themselves.
And if fingerstyle is known from its dynamic range, playing a bass with a pick should be known for its consistency. Each note ends up with a similar attack based on the plastic on string sound, though it’s still possible to mix things up with both hard and soft notes to an extent.
For musicians recording bass for the first time (especially guitarists), picks can be a good way to learn the other components of their signal chain without having an inconsistent performance impacting their evaluation. It provides a simple and familiar starting point that generally requires less technique and practice than fingerstyle.
Don’t read that as “it’s easy” though – a great bass tone takes tons of work regardless of if you’re using a pick or your fingers.
Just check out this playthrough from Juan Ramirez using Bassforge Rex Brown:
As you can see/hear, Juan has incredibly precise fingerstyle technique that’s only amplified by the tools he’s using to record and mix his music. I’d be willing to venture a guess that he's just as talented with a pick – great bassists take advantage of all the tools at their disposal to find a sound that fits the song.
Getting a Better Bass Tone
If you’ve practiced bass for years and you’re still struggling to get a recorded tone that works for your sessions, it’s likely that the problem isn’t with your playing but rather the process you’re using to capture and mix it.
Basscrusher: An Unholy Guide to Bass Tone was created to address these exact scenarios by walking you through the equipment you need, the processes of recording, editing, and mixing bass, and all the techniques used by the pros to get fuller, punchier bass guitar.