By Justin Peacock
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, someone told a recording engineer that all of the good sound in an upright bass came from the f-hole, and that a microphone should be placed only inches away from this magic place. And that fabled recording engineer spread this new knowledge over hill and dale, to all who would listen, resulting in boomy and nasal sounding upright basses all throughout the land.
What really matters
Okay, well maybe this isn’t entirely true. But, as with all instruments, much of the quality depends on the source. Originally a classical instrument, upright bass migrated its way into jazz, bluegrass and occasionally even rock. All of these styles largely left the instrument’s bow behind, relying on pizzicato (plucking with fingers), rather than bowing horsehairs across the strings.
As a result, for recording, we are often challenged with many different bass sounds for many types of music. Warmth and fullness in the lower octaves might be of importance to one player, articulation and clarity taking precedence with another. Think about what sound supports the style, and most importantly talk to the musician: he or she can often describe exactly what sound will best drive the music.
My first roommate in college, a jazz bass player, was the first to open my eyes to bass sounds. Being very particular about his tone, he had experimented with every kind of string available, and refined his technique greatly to produce what I thought was one of the most clear and articulate bass sounds at the school. When we recorded his trio I soon discovered that his tonality really supported the music in a beautiful way. The bass was truly another voice in the ensemble, rather than an endless low-frequency rumble that varied in pitch with the chord changes, and I had to capture that.
Like my roommate there are of course many who aren’t guilty of “boomy” bass, though I do see and hear it with alarming frequency. Part of this is due to recording techniques, and part is due to the players and instruments themselves. Not all musicians have evolved their tone to such a mature level, so it’s our job to make it sound like they have.
Where does it come from?
It’s true that much of the sound in the resonant cavity of the bass makes its exit through the f-holes, but for recording purposes little of it is usable. Since there is more to an upright bass than bass, try placing the mic closer to the bridge. Use a nice condenser of some kind, moving it around until it achieves a nice tonal balance. Need more low end? Just move it a couple inches closer to the f-hole. Need less low end? Move towards the bridge. Articulation should be your priority.
Double up on the double bass…
Use two microphones—it’s a nice way to balance the instrument and provide additional control in mixing. I often use one mic low, near the bridge as before, with another small-diaphragm condenser higher up the neck where the strings are plucked. The two combined can be really beautiful: simply fold in the high mic to taste.
This is a good place to remember the 3:1 rule to prevent phasing. The distance between the two microphones should be at least 3 times the distance from the sound source. For example, if your lower mic is 8 inches away from the bass, then the upper microphone needs to be at least 24 inches above it.
Proximity to the situation
Most of us know that directional mics exhibit proximity effect: the buildup of additional low end as a mic moves closer to the sound source. Since we usually have an excess of low end, proximity effect is not our friend in this case. What else to do? Go omni, or go home.
Omnidirectional mics do not exhibit proximity effect, and are usually famed for their wonderfully extended low frequency response. In an isolated studio situation, an omni at close distance can reproduce the instrument with excellent accuracy and stunning detail. It will also pick up the entire room, which is why the previous sentence began with the phrase “In an isolated studio situation”.
To direct or not to direct: that is the question
I typically take a DI, just in case. Sometimes this will be a pickup or an actual mic that’s permanently attached to the bridge. Hope for the mic and not the pickup.
On their own, most upright DIs are truly awful, the kind of torture to which you wouldn’t even subject your worst enemy. But a helpful evil they can be, especially with live recording. If isolation is a problem, and the added boom of working your directional microphones at close distances is creating the dreaded “boomy bass,” then blending the DI in with the mic can bring back some articulation. But it never sounds quite natural, so I only suggest it be used sparingly or as a last resort.
A final bow
The bow is one last thing to consider in your upright bass recording foray. Returning back to their classical heritage, many players will get a bow out for long, sustained notes or other creative passages. You’ll see this in jazz, bluegrass, and even that rock band with the acoustic bass. No problem, right? We’ve set up our mic in such a way that the player’s bow won’t hit the mic, and all is well until rosin meets gut.
The funny thing about bowed acoustic bass is that almost everything you thought you knew gets thrown out the window. Suddenly this warm, woody beast of a stringed instrument becomes much brighter and potentially more strident. Your mic near the bridge, that once captured the subtle sound of plucking fingers across the strings, now resides in a place where the friction of horse hairs, pine tree resin and sheep’s guts all collide to make music—and a lot of high frequencies.
In this event, our mic is probably in the wrong place. Depending on how loud the musician is playing and where he places the bow on the strings, the sound near the bridge can be quite harsh and brittle. If it’s too much, then back towards the f-hole we go.
In this situation you have several options, limited only by your creativity. A third and separate mic can be used for bowed sections, placed further away from the bridge to get a warmer sound. Or some careful eq’ing of the bowed passage could keep things from getting too “hair-raising”.
I hope you enjoy recording the upright bass, it’s a personal favorite of mine, and to hear a truly fine player is remarkable. I spent a summer living with four very talented musicians, among them a cellist and a bassist living in the basement rooms. Often I would return home to hear movements of the Bach cello suites being played beautifully, the sound creeping up the stairs from the basement. It was a month before I figured out that Matt was learning the suites in their entirety—by himself, on the bass.
Justin Peacock is a producer, engineer and mixer at his studio in Boulder, Colorado.