Engineers that spend a lot of time focused on their electric guitar tone often neglect bass guitars in their mixes. Whether this comes from inexperience or because of their interest in other parts of the mix may vary, but most of the time these engineers know they need bass in their mixes, they just don’t understand exactly how important good bass tone is.
I think a lot of the time this happens to guitarists that become mixers – they’ve trained themselves to chase great sounding guitars their entire life, but if they haven’t played bass in a band, they might not truly understand the struggle or nuances of a great sounding bass that can cut through a mix without muddying everything else up.
It’s also probably why some of the engineers I know that seem to get the most killer sounding bass riffs time and time again are the ones who have played bass themselves at one point or another. There’s a lot of insight we can gain from bass-focused engineers and producers, as well as professional bassists, when it comes to getting an awesome bass sound both in the studio and in a live mix situation.
Start With The Bass Preamp
If you’ve ever stopped to check out a band’s pedalboards at a show (and what self-respecting gear nut hasn’t), you’ve probably noticed how minimal a bassist’s pedalboard is compared to a guitarist’s. While that’s not going to be the case every time, many bass players pride themselves on quality over quantity. They need a few select pedals to get a great sound and they’ll often spend a bit more on one that makes the most sense for their tone.
If you’re only going to spend the money on a single pedal in your setup – it needs to be a great preamp. A preamp will give you tons of tone-shaping options before your signal reaches your amp with many featuring built-in EQ circuitry and the ability to balance your high & low frequency mix. Several models even come with a Drive control – adding to the grittiness of your tone before the amp. Bass preamps are widely available with some of the best tube & solid-state models coming from brands like Darkglass & Tech 21.
Think of a great bass preamp just like a high-end mic preamp – it conditions your sound to accentuate the best parts of your source, adding a bit of color in the process.
Bass Amps With Plenty of Headroom
Bass frequencies require a ton of energy to push out of a speaker, which is why you so often see bass amp heads reaching as high as 2000W – more power than any guitar amp you’ll find. It’s also the reason so many venues have house systems with massive subwoofers and power amps – even if they’re not turning them all the way up.
You want to take the same approach with a bass amp. If you’re going with a physical amp, choose something that has more power than you’ll need for the sound you’re after. For those in the digital realm, go with something like Bassforge Rex Brown for maximum headroom. It’s modeled based on Rex’s signature sound, which I’ve always admired as far as classic metal bass tones go. Check out this walkthrough of how you can get the most out of Bassforge Rex Brown, courtesy of Rodney McG:
Your bass rig doesn’t need to be complex – especially if you’ve got post-processing set up for dynamic control in-the-box anyway. There are hundreds of combinations of gear that will inevitably get you a great tone, but if you can’t get something useable from a simple preamp and amp setup, none of the other tricks for great bass tone matter. You’ll always be starting from less than what your rig should be capable of.
How Bass Fits In The Mix
Getting a great bass tone alone isn’t going to give you great mixes, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. To get a truly great sounding mix, you need to understand how your low end all fits together and how the bass really operates as a two-part instrument thanks to its upper and lower frequency makeup.
To help JST VIP members get there, we’ve included some must-have courses and eBooks with membership. Come try a month of JST VIP and check out Virtual Signal Chain Secrets for more on multi-band processing & dynamic control, plus Toneforge Bootcamp for the critical listening skills you need to get any guitar sound you’re after. We’re constantly building up our content library and introducing new resources each month.