You may think that recording the bass guitar in the home studio is one of the easier recording tasks. But there are plenty of questions it can throw at you.
Can you record the bass directly into the interface? Do you need a DI box? What even is a DI box? Should you use a bass amp? If so do you use a microphone or a line output? Well, I’m hoping this guide will cover all of this, I’m planning on not leaving any stone unturned so you can get great sounding bass recorded on your computer at home. I’ll also include some handy tips and tricks at the end too.
Can I record bass guitar directly into the computer?
With the help of an audio interface (such as this one which I use) and the right type of bass guitar you are able to simply plug the bass guitar into the interface using a standard instrument cable. Follow the instructions in this article but just replace the synth with a bass guitar.
But before you start celebrating and go off to record, just double check if your bass is active or passive. If it is active then you are fine to record directly via the interface. You can usually tell that your bass is active if it requires an extra battery within the body, this provides the guitar with the extra power to be ‘active’ and allow you to record directly.
If on the other hand your bass is what is known as a ‘passive’ bass, it will not have the required power to do this and you will need an extra bit of equipment to help you out. This extra piece of equipment is known as a Direct Injection (DI) box.
Put simply, a DI box takes an unbalanced signal from the bass guitar (or other instrument) and converts it into a balanced signal (if you want to learn more check out this article I did on cables which attempts to explain). This will give a nice clean boosted sound with minimal noise interference.
Do I need an active or passive DI box?
This depends on your other equipment. It is all about getting a nice strong balanced signal into the computer at the end of the signal chain for recording. If you use an old-fashioned passive bass with a single pickup, running through a long length of cables then the signal may lack strength and punch by the time it gets to the computer. In this case, an active DI box may be a good idea.
There are also tone differences between active and passive DI boxes so again it really depends what sound you want. In general, an active DI box will give you more high-frequency tones with a passive box giving a more bass-rich tone. An active DI box can be a good compromise to get a better sound with more ‘life’ without using an amplifier and microphone (which takes up much more space and costs a lot more money).
You don’t want to go for the cheapest DI box on the market as inferior transformer quality can affect the sound quality so be careful. Something like the Behringer Ultra-DI DI100 should do a good job for the price.
If you have an active bass then a passive DI box may be all you require to get enough power. Passive boxes are often cheaper too and don’t require external power which is always a bonus. The Hosa DIB-443 or similar will be a good choice here.
Remember for most DI boxes you will need an XLR cable (or microphone cable as they are sometimes known) to connect the box to your interface, rather than the instrument cable with 1/4inch jack you may be used to. For more information on types of cable check out this article.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of recording bass directly?
Sound-wise, recording the bass directly gives you a nice consistent clean sound, free of the worries of background noises and other interferences that come from recording the sound from an amplifier and microphone for example. This is particularly handy if you are recording multiple instruments at once. Many musicians like to record the bass guitar and drums together, or even the whole band at once. In this situation using a mic’ed up amp isn’t really going to work as you will get the sounds of other instruments creeping onto your bass track.
You’ve then got the arguably more important issues in the home studio of cost and space. Recording direct saves you from buying a bass amp and all the possible questions that arise from that (see below), what size, make, model etc. They can also be pretty sizeable and if you are short on space in your home studio from all the other equipment you’ve been buying, then saving some space may be a good idea.
Finally, if you have a habit like me of getting carried away and recording music late into the night then you can keep recording your bass directly, using headphones and not worry about angering the neighbors.
Of course, it couldn’t all be advantages and there are some disadvantages to recording your bass in this way. The main disadvantage being in the sound. I said how you get a nice clean and consistent sound recording directly, but you don’t get what many people in ‘the recording biz’ call ‘life’ in the sound. This is more important for some genres than others, I would argue that sometimes a cleaner tone is desired, but a lot of the time you want it to sound like it was composed by a human being rather than by some sort of robot. Using an amplifier and microphone will help you achieve this.
How to record bass using an amp and microphone
So if the above is true and you just can’t get enough ‘life’ into your bass sound when recording it directly then you may want to test out recording using an amplifier and microphone.
What type of bass amp in the home studio?
This is again a question of personal taste, how much you are willing to spend and how much space you have to spare. There was once a day where all bass amps were huge and weighed a tonne which wasn’t ideal for most home studio situations but this has improved a lot and there is now a lot more choice, with some great sounding small amps suitable for the home studio.
When shopping for bass amps you will be greeted by lots of variety and it can be confusing. Some have the speaker and amplifier built into one stand-alone unit, whereas some amps require a separate speaker ‘cabinet’ in order to produce the sound.
You then have the choice between solid state amps and valve amps. Without getting too technical, the sound from valve amps is often preferred by a lot of musicians for sounding warmer. That said, a lot of solid state amps almost match up in sound quality these days so test out a few first and see what you think.
What size and wattage is required? It is probably not a surprise that the higher the wattage the louder the amp will be. But unless you are planning to gig with the amp then don’t worry too much. As it will be mic’ed up in the studio the need for a huge volume is not that great and even lower wattage amps should do the job.
I would say even something as low as 40 watts should be fine. I am currently using the Fender Rumble 40 in my studio and it is one of the best small bass amps for recording I have tried out. Having a smaller sized amp with just one speaker makes it nice and easier to figure out microphone placement too which I like.
As with any of these things, go test a few out and see if you like the sound, they all vary quite a lot.
What type of microphone do I need?
Once you have your amp you will need a microphone suitable for recording the low frequencies you will want to get in your mix. I wrote an article explaining the different types of microphones available here if you want more detail on how they work. As that article will tell you, a dynamic microphone will pick up a wider range of frequencies and are probably best as long as it has good response at low frequencies. You could get fancy and buy a ribbon microphone which can sound amazing but they are expensive and very delicate so I wouldn’t recommend.
A good option is to go for a bass drum microphone. These are specifically designed to pick up those lower frequency sounds. Something like this AKG D112 will get you a really nice tone and make sure you capture all that low end.
I personally haven’t bothered getting that niche with my array of microphones yet and still just use my Shure SM57. Which is a very popular (and awesome) dynamic microphone designed for recording instruments.
This will depend on your amplifier type, microphone type, and the sound you desire. A good place to start is by placing the microphone a foot or two away and level with the middle of the speaker. In this position, you will get more high-end frequencies and if you are getting too many of those frequencies try moving the microphone back or to the side slightly to get a deeper tone.
Your room also has a big impact on the sound. Do you have hard floors or carpets, is the room big or small? All these things will affect the tone of the sound when recording through a microphone and the further the microphone is away from the speaker the more of these external sounds will be picked up. Which may not be a bad thing, just experiment and see what sounds good.
When you’re playing around with the sound make sure you use a good quality pair of headphones to see how it comes through in you DAW. I personally use Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO headphones which aren’t the cheapest available…..but they are amazing! Unlike many headphones that are meant for listening to music rather than recording it, they don’t ‘over-hype’ the bass frequencies and so you get a realistic sound. This is what you want when recording as there is nothing worse than the bass sounding great when you are recording but then when you listen back through laptop speakers or smaller headphones the bass can’t be heard at all.
Should I record the bass using DI and a microphone at the same time?
If you have the equipment and want to get the best sound possible in your home studio then this is my favorite option.
Your audio interface should have more than one input channel so run a direct line from the DI box into input channel 1 and record the direct sound but also record a mic’ed amp track into channel 2. This gives you loads of flexibility when it comes to mixing and will leave you with a much more complete sound. There will always be frequencies that for one reason or another don’t get picked up by the microphone and so having this coming through on the DI track helps fill that gap when you are mixing.
One thing to be aware of is the ‘phasing’ effect that can occur if you have two tracks playing the same thing simultaneously. This is even more obvious in bass tracks than for other instruments due to the lower frequencies. Phasing occurs when the two waveforms aren’t identical, which may not be obvious at first but even the slightest difference will be noticeable in the sound, the slight difference is the time it takes for the sound to reach the microphone on the mic’ed up track which doesn’t occur on the DI track. So instead of getting a nice beefy doubled up sound you end up with them canceling each other out slightly and you lose things.
How do you avoid this then? Listen back carefully, play around with microphone positions (closer or further away). See how the wavelengths match up in the DAW.
A Few Handy Tips and Tricks
Use EQ to bring the bass out in the mix.
I won’t go into detail here but I used to get really frustrated when recording at home because the basslines in my songs were getting lost in the mix. I would try turning the volume up on the bass track but that didn’t really work. The key here is to carve out some space at the bass frequencies to allow the bass to shine through. For a detailed guide on how to do this and other EQ things check out this article.
Don’t put the DI box on top of the amp
Another lesson I learned through trial and error (and frustration) so you don’t have to! If you put a passive DI box on top of you amp (which is a fairly logical place to put it in a small studio!) then the magnets in the amp will interfere with the DI transformer and give you unwanted noises.
Don’t use brand new strings
You may have just got your bass restrung ready to do some recording. However, before you do I would advise ‘breaking the strings in’ a bit first. New strings are noisy and twangy and just sound a bit rubbish, so make sure you give them a few days playing time before recording. New strings also tend to slip out of tune more easily which can be a pain.
So there you have it the basics of recording your bass guitar into your computer in the home recording studio. As I mention in most sections of the article it really is a matter of personal taste a lost of the time. Different guitars, amps, microphones, rooms and other pieces of equipment all affect that final sound and so experiment away and see what you like, that is half the fun of recording at home after all as you are not constrained to the limits of equipment and time in a professional studio.