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The Doghouse NYC

Recording Studio and music production case study about recording the upright bass

Case Study

Technique for Recording Acoustic Bass

On its own, the upright bass is no more challenging an instrument to record than any other. But its tone is delicate and it is not a loud instrument. When forced to compete with other instruments, clarity is the first thing to go, followed by the low end. Because the bass is relatively quiet, bass mics also pick up other instruments. This phenomenon, known as “bleed” not only effects the quality of the bass, but the overall quality of the instruments that bleed into the bass mics.

Two common solutions are to isolate the bass or to use an electric pickup. Although isolating the bass solves the acoustic “bleed” problem, as a player I hate working this way. As a producer, I find that it often results in a lackluster performance. And while there are a few decent kinds of electric pickups (David Gage, here in New York makes one), most don't sound very good. There is nothing quite like the sound of the bass the way it is heard through the air. . . naturally.

Most jazz bass players play with an amp. The amplified sound gives them just a bit of extra volume. But in the studio, it is commonplace to forgo the amp, using instead the electric output of the bass for a direct track; sometimes used as a “safety” track and sometimes used to supplement the microphone signal.

For a recent recording of one of my compositions, Ciara, I used a different approach. I set up a few microphones on the bass, including an Electrovoice RE-20 over the bridge, angled slightly down. In addition to recording this signal, I sent the RE-20's output into one of the giant Ed Long speakers that we use for mastering. Each of these speakers house seven drivers. They are enormous, standing about five feet tall and weighing about 200 lbs.

At our 34th street location, these speakers were housed in the live room, the only place big enough to hold them. I adjusted the tone and the level going to the speaker. These world-class monitors effectively became an exquisitely natural and lifelike bass amp, providing tone, volume, and a full presence as we recorded.

Now, instead of the drums and piano bleeding into the bass mics, the bass had enough level to bleed into the piano and drum mics. Instrument bleed is not a bad thing, especially when it isn't one-sided. When it works, it provides a kind of acoustic “glue” which allows the listener to feel that all the instruments are playing together. Using a quality microphone and a monitor system capable of capturing the power and nuance of the acoustic bass, we provided volume, while avoiding the artifacts that accompany electric pickups. This technique allowed the issue of bleed to be an asset instead of a liability.

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