Recording the double bass — aka upright bass — takes more than throwing up the nearest mic in front of an f-hole. On its own, the bass isn’t overwhelmingly loud, particularly when compared with amped guitars and drum kits.
In the early days of rock and roll, when the primary playback system was an AM car radio, it didn’t matter much, as long as you caught some sort of low-frequency, rhythmic thump. The fundamentals of the bass were below the ability of a tinny car speaker to reproduce anyway.
Of course, in those days, electric basses were in their earliest evolutions, so the engineers of the day may have been stuck with uprights simply because there wasn’t a Fender Precision in the neighborhood. Today, if a double bass shows up on a session, it’s a deliberate choice and you owe it to the instrument to record with care.
Recommended Reading: Learning Double Bass Excerpts – online videos that can help
The Recording Context
The first point to consider when faced with this behemoth stringed instrument is its place in the recording project. Here’s why — the upright bass is capable of deep, rich, warm sounds as well as articulated, clear and melodic tones. These characteristics depend on the instrument, the strings, the player, and the musical style.
In other words, a jazz trio that features the bass as a solo instrument is an entirely different recording challenge to the bass that’s an accompanist to a bluegrass or rockabilly ensemble. If the bassist plays arco — with a bow — rather than pizzicato — with their fingers — you have completely different tonal palettes. It’s fantastic for the listener, but a challenge for the engineer.
Another aspect of context is how the bass will be recorded. Do you have perfect isolation? If the bass is in its own space, with zero bleed from other sound sources, then you have lots of room to experiment. When the same bass is in a room with other instruments, spillover between microphones is a very real challenge.
For purposes of this article, let’s consider the bass, played pizzicato in its own space, as the the only consideration. If you’re recording a combo in one room, read up on how to maximize separation in shared space. This generally requires an understanding of microphone polar patterns and placement, as well as the use of baffles, and adapt the information presented here as required.
Mic It Up
This is make-or-break point, part one. Unless you have access to a high-end ribbon microphone, stay away from dynamic mic designs, unless there’s nothing else available. Though dynamics are often the go-to choice for low-frequency sources like bass amps and bass drums, those instruments have, or can have, lots of middle and upper frequency definition, plenty for a dynamic mic to capture.
The upright bass, however, does not have a lot of audio information in those regions, and what there is can often be overpowered by the low frequency content.
As an acoustic instrument, the double bass usually has an intimate relationship with its player, particularly jazz soloists, so you’ll have happier clients if you’re reproducing the sound of their instrument faithfully.
These aspects point to condenser mics as your first choice for recording the bass. But that’s just the first consideration, of course.
Polar patterns are particularly useful in fulfilling a great recording of a double bass. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here. Let’s look at the options, their strengths and drawbacks:
- Omnidirectional mics — a pencil condenser with an omnidirectional capsule typically offers faithful reproduction with excellent low-frequency response, and it has no bass proximity effect, so those subtle higher frequencies aren’t masked by over-hyped low end. On the flip side, the omni captures sound from all directions, so room reflections can potentially ruin the sound of the instrument itself.
- Cardioid mics — this is probably the most common polar pattern used on upright basses and, truth be told, it’s my first choice, even though I’d prefer a good omni mic. The reality is that acoustically great-sounding rooms are few and far between. Direct the main lobe of a cardioid mic in a direction, and that’s largely the sound it will feature. Some room reflections do sneak in the sides, but a little bit of an average sounding room is often just fine. There’s the suggestion of space without overwhelming the bass.
- Figure-8 mics — When a room sounds good, but not great, a figure-8 may permit a way to add space. As you move the mic closer to the bass, the proportion of room sounds, reflected from behind the mic only, reduce. Want to add more ambience? Move the mic back a bit from the bass. It’s an almost-infinitely adjustable way to dial in the feeling of a double bass playing in a real acoustic environment, and when you nail the balance, you can close your eyes, yet “see” the instrument when you play back your tracks.
Many bassists will have pickups or microphones installed on their instruments for live performance. If you have the tracks, by all means, run a cable or DI box to capture its output, but remember, just because you record it, doesn’t mean you have to use it. That said, a touch of the onboard sound source often adds definition that’s lacking from the other mics.
There are an assortment of recorders available that will do a wonderful job. Our advice advice is to pick one that best suits your needs and budget.
Location, Location, Location
This is make-or-break point, part two. If you set up a mic, listen to the sound and think to yourself, “it sounds great as it is,” you’re wrong. Mic placement is, simply put, the most important, sonically pure way to equalize anything you record. If you’re satisfied with the sound of a mic in the first place you put it, you’re lazy.
All of this is doubly true for upright bass. Those subtleties in the mids and highs are difficult to capture, and tiny changes in mic position often produce mega changes to the proportions and definition of the bass’s sound. Sure, the mic may end up back in the same place you started, but now you know with certainty it’s the best sound you can get.
When playing with placement, don’t forget the mic characteristic of off-axis frequency response changes. Generally, if you’re using a small capsule pencil condenser, you’ll only lose volume, but if you have a large diaphragm cardioid mic on the upright, rotating the microphone in its mount can also introduce subtle response changes. Usually, this tends to be a loss of brightness, which may be perfect if you’re trying to tame finger noise or slap sounds.
As a starting point, I usually begin with a cardioid mic between 12 and 18 inches away from and pointing directly at the bridge. Imagine a straight line coming up the bridge into the center of the mic, which is aligned with the imaginary line, on axis. There’s no secret formula to this alignment, only that it’s a known place to start.
Adjust the mic in and out to balance room sounds. Tip it toward the fingerboard for more definition and clarity, or turn it away for less. Move side-to-side to balance individual string volumes or to fight boomy resonance.
Avoid the f-holes. Like the plague. Trust me on this, but unless you’re aiming for a special effects sound, you’ll end up with a nasal, mushy mess.
Again in the if-you-have-the-tracks department, setting up a second mic is a great idea on upright bass. Observe the 3-to-1 rule of mic placement, and think strategically. Need a way to add more finger sounds under careful control? Go high with the second mic, pointing down.
Want to capture those deep lows that take space to develop? Place the mic several feet back. Be prepared to aggressively cut room frequencies out of that signal, but the second mic is just there for the lows, so no harm, no foul, you’re only using a portion of the audio spectrum in this case.
Keep It Natural
It’s almost reflex action to patch a compressor or compressor plug-in into an electric bass recording path. Though the double bass is a wildly dynamic instrument, I advise against compression at the recording stage.
If it’s possible, record at 24 bits and aim for an average level between -12 and -6 dB. You can accomplish a lot with compression and EQ, but do that at the mix stage. Get the best, purest sound off the studio floor, and you’ll have a much easier time when you get to your mix. This is true of absolutely every sound you will ever record, but it’s — pardon the pun — doubly important for the double bass.
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