“Dead Strings, Oh No!”
How many times has this happened to you? A band comes in, they’re all ready to record and you’re eager to being. The bass player takes out his instrument, plugs it in and…*plump, plump*. His strings are completely worn out!
I chose the bass player as our victim because they’re notorious for it. Their strings don’t snap as often as guitar strings and new ones cost a lot more. Still, that’s no excuse for having zero tone to speak of.
This actually happened to me very recently. I was tracking a young metal band, so at first, I thought it wasn’t going to be a problem since the heavy guitars will make up for the flimsy bass, but guess what? The guy has a short solo part just before the verse. Great. This is what it sounded like:
That’s definitely not going to work, is it? I threw out all my rules about being gentle to preserve the original sound (because there was no original sound to preserve) and went extreme, to end up with this:
I didn’t exactly discover the cure for cancer, but it gets the job done. So, how did I do and how can you do it for your music? Simple enough – make the sound. The hard part – don’t make it worse. Sit down and let me tell you my approach.
NOTE: While it is possible to turn the bass audio into MIDI information and add a VST, it’s not a good idea. You may get away with it on drums, but MIDI destroys the feel of a live performance on string instruments. It also doesn’t recognize dead notes or slides.
Step 1: What do you want from the bass?
Because there is no sound, we have to make one. First, you must consider what the role of the instrument is in the given song and what kind of sound will work well. You don’t want to create more problems by making a sound that will fight with other instruments (especially the kick!).
In my case, it’s metal with lots of heavy guitars and a deep kick. So I need lows and highs and the lows should sit between the kick and guitars. If it were pop I might just want a nice fat low end, while for hip-hop I might need more sub-content. Having an idea will spare you from a headache later.
Step 2: Copy The Track
You will definitely need at least two tracks so copy the first one before you do any processing. No, don’t double it, we need the exact same track. Why? Because we are going to stack two different bad sounds to make one good one. In my case, I’m going to make a low bass and a high bass track.
Why two tracks instead of giving the original both highs and lows, i.e. scooping the mids?
Because we’re not really going to make an only low and only high track. We’re just going to focus on different parts of the sound and make them blend well. Plugins that help the low end, usually won’t be doing favors for the higher frequencies and vice-versa.
Also, having identical takes with two different sounds can make the instrument seem bigger than it really is. It’s why some engineers combine both a direct signal and mic’s amp for their bass.
Step 3: The Low-End
It’s bass, so the most important thing is to get those low frequencies right. Your best friend for this is any frequency generator plugin. Luckily, they make these specially tailored for putting on a bass track. You know MaxxBass, Renaissance Bass and such? You can really use any plugin that generates a frequency, but it might be a bit more complicated to set up than one that’s already tailored for the job.
Use what you got, but I always liked the sound of Waves’ R plugins.
I have Renaissance Bass, so I’m using that. I gave it as high as 142Hz, but only because it has that solo part where it really needs to stand on its own. Otherwise, I probably would’ve gone with 90-100Hz or whatever sounds good.
How do you choose a frequency, though? There are two ways. You can either play the rest of the instruments and drag that slider until you find what fits best – my preferred method and that’s how I got to this value – or you can consider the fact that the bass does have its own tone, solo it and then move the slider until you find what sounds the prettiest.
It depends on whether you want to be true to the player’s sound (it didn’t matter to him in my case) or if you want to serve the other instruments better. My reasoning is that I’ll be shaping it with EQ anyway and if the tone was important to him, he would’ve bought fresh strings before coming to the studio.
You might be tempted to low pass all the high frequencies, but don’t.
If you do, you will separate the two tracks so much that they won’t sound like one instrument anymore. However, some EQ is still called for.
I need sub-content! It’s metal for crying out loud! So I gave it a huge boost at 30Hz until I got some rumble, but then dialed up the Attenuation to keep it clean. That Attenuation at 10k is to remove the “plastic” sound in the high frequencies, so it won’t ruin what I do in the other track.
Step 4: The High-End
He played with a pick, so you know what that needs to sound like, right? The same principle as the low, only now we’re targeting high frequencies.
Another one from Waves (Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter Plugin), but pick anything that adds high harmonic content.
No Renaissance Bass here, but I went overkill with an exciter plugin until the plucks started to come out nice and chunky. Now that I had some actual high-end to work with, I need to shape it.
The effects rack of IK Multimedia’s Ampeg SVX. You can also adjust amp settings, mics, cabs, etc.
Instead of using an EQ, I opted for amp emulation. Why? Because amps do wonders for the upper range of a bass guitar. I went through the presets until I found one that was close to what I needed. Overdrive was a must obviously (METAL! \m/). Then I tweaked the sound until it blended well with the other track.
Again, I stress, don’t high pass this one. You’ll be separating the two. We want these two tracks to overlap as much as possible because they’re the same instrument.
Step 5: Bring Them Together
It’s as simple as making a group called…let’s say “bass” (wow, I’m really creative today) and sending both tracks to it. Then, put a compressor on it to glue them together. It’s the same principle as a mix buss compressor.
Yet ANOTHER Waves plugin (Waves API 2500 Compressor Plugin)… Any compressor will do, but I like what the tone section does for the sound.
Also See: Best Free Compressor Plugins
The settings are a matter of style. I just used the default bass preset and tweaked until I was happy. Oh, you don’t need to add another compressor to glue the tracks together, you just need one that’s hitting both across the entire spectrum. If you already have one in place that you’re using to bring out the bass in the mix, it should be just fine.
There you go. The suggestions here are very open to interpretation depending on the song, the style, the other instruments, etc. Just take the approach, tailor it to your situation, and hopefully you won’t get so frustrated the next time a musician shows up with strings from ancient Egypt.