In my experience, upright bass can be one of the most challenging instruments to record, especially in an ensemble context. I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned over the years that may help you get good results when confronted with an upright bass.
The two most prevalent problems I’ve encountered recording upright bass are less-than-stellar quality instruments and fighting bleed of other instruments in an ensemble setting.
How good is the instrument?
It all starts with the sound of the real instrument in the room, and the quality of that sound depends very much on the quality of the instrument itself. Sure, it’s possible to enhance or complement the sound of an instrument with carefully chosen recording tools and techniques, but the better an instrument sounds in free air, the more likely it will sound good recorded.
Since a really good solid-wood upright bass can cost a lot of money, both to buy and maintain, and since solid-wood instruments are more fragile, many players use laminated instruments (think plywood...). In my experience, regardless of the instrument family, whether it’s guitar, mandolin or bass, laminated instruments just don’t have as complex and interesting a sound as their solid-wood counterparts.
Isolation or bleed?
Recording the upright bass in a room with other instruments calls for compromises. Since an upright bass is often the quietest instrument in a given ensemble, you may need to close-mike it, closer than you’d prefer, to avoid bleed from other instruments. You may also need to go for tighter polar patterns than you’d choose if the instrument were being recorded solo.
With an instrument as large as an upright bass, close mic placement can often result in unsatisfactory results, including unwanted resonances and dead spots. Finding a good compromise between decent isolation and good tone involves a well-thought-out strategy of listening to the instrument in the room.
Picking the spot
Before I mike the upright bass, I take a moment to think about the overall recording scheme at hand—what is the desired sound for the final production, how many instruments are being recorded simultaneously, how much isolation can I achieve, etc, etc.. Then I situate the player and I ask him (or her) to pick a passage from the selection about to be recorded and to play with as much intensity as they think they’ll play when recording will begin.
I listen to the instrument, up close, using one ear while covering up the other. I move my head around the sound field until I find a place or two where the sound of the instrument “speaks” to the part being played in conjunction with the room in which it is being played.
Mic selection will also depend on the musical style. For upright bass I frequently choose a large-capsule condenser and focus it about 8” to 12” away from the bridge, either directly in front of the instrument or slightly off-center, generally to the treble side (the side opposite the player’s plucking/bowing hand).
Often I use a second mic, placed about 6” to 12” away from joint where the neck meets the body. Lately I’ve really been liking the sound of a Coles STC 4038 in this position, but I also frequently like a small-capsule condenser in this position.
Many bass players have some sort of pickup system built into their instrument. Although I remain biased toward the sound of microphones, I’ll always give the pickup its own track. There’s almost always a place in the blend of signals to use this sound.
Recording the rockabilly technique of “slapping” the bass can be an even bigger challenge than recording the more usual pizzicato (plucked) or arco (bowing) techniques.
When I recorded The Wayback’s Burger After Church, bassist Joe Kyle, Jr. slapped on a few tunes. Since we recorded the basic bass track in the same room as drums and at least two other instruments, I had to mike the bass as closely as possible to minimize leakage, especially of drums. When it came to Joe’s slapping solos, they just sounded bad when I used the setup described earlier, the two mics plus pickup.
Joe remembered other occasions when he had gotten a better sound slapping, in a big room with distant mics. By this time, we were overdubbing in my relatively small studio where getting serious distance is impossible. It was time to get creative!
In addition to my setup with two mics plus pickup, I set up a pair of Royer R-121 ribbon mics. I placed each mic about three feet away from and in front of Joe, one to the left, the other to the right, forming an equilateral triangle. When we brought these two mics up hard left and hard right, Joe was (slap-)happy.
Write to Bruce Kaphan at firstname.lastname@example.org