Recording Four- and Six-String Electric Twangers
By Mitchell Sigman
Last week in the Zero and Ones blog, I broke down the tracking and mixing of the drums in my cheerful little ditty “Intermission”. In this post I’ll go over the how (and what I used) to track the bass and guitar parts.If you didn’t grab it last time ’round, you can download the entire “Intermission” Mixcraft 6 project below (same disclaimer as before: certain plug-ins may be disabled depending upon which edition of Mixcraft you’re using. But hey, it’s Christmas time and you’ve been nice, so why not upgrade?).
Let’s start with the bass guitar. Like lots of things, tracking bass is simple in theory, but the devil is in the details (I don’t actually know the location of the devil). I used my Ibanez SRX505 five-string bass, which looks like this:I bought it because it’s their take on the classic Music Man Stingray bass: big humbucking pickups, beefy bridge and active electronics, adding up to a fat bass tone that records really well. I typically record using a pick with the neck pickup only, and use a little bass and treble boost from the onboard electronics (the four knobs are volume, pickup balance, bass, and treble).
Which brings me to Mitch Bass Recording Secret #1: thou shalt play the bass lightly. I can’t tell you how many bassists I’ve recorded over the years who pound on the thing like savages; especially finger players. I suspect it’s because they’re used to playing live gigs where everyone is trying to be louder than everyone else, but madly smashing the strings into the pickups makes a horrible racket and is painful to hear in isolation. The racket tends to get subterfuged behind the drum kit, but it’s still far from ideal. Regardless of whether you’re playing with a pick or fingers, the idea is to get the cleanest and most consistent tone possible. Many finger players actually record using just one finger for this reason (Geddy Lee comes to mind, and he knows his way around a bass decently well…). Whether using pick or fingers, move your right hand around a bit to find where the nicest tone lives; it may not be where your hand naturally falls.
Moving along, I recorded the bass directly into my Langevin Dual Vocal Combo. They don’t make these anymore, but Langevin was the discrete solid-state product line of Manley Labs (i.e. fancypants tube-based mic preamps, compressors, etc.), hand-built with extra snob appeal. This is the primary input device in my studio, and as its name implies, it has dual mic pres, dual electro-optical compressors and a dual basic EQ. It was by no means cheap, but given the fidelity and feature set, it was still a screamin’ deal. In addition to its rear-panel XLR mic ins, it has unbalanced 1/4″ mic ins in front for recording guitars and bass. It’s pretty hard to get a bad sound out of it, so you can set the input gain and compressor relatively haphazardly. I usually set the compressor to knock down a couple of db’s, which looks something like this little movie on the analog reduction meter:
If you recall from my last post, compressor controls typically work in the reverse of how you might expect, so cranking up the reduction knob squashes more, which makes our bass become quieter. But while it’s getting quieter, in a way, it’s getting louder because it’s removing dynamic range. In other words, the loudest peaks are getting quieter, but the lower volume parts aren’t getting quieter. See the gain knob right next door? When we turn it up, the entire audio signal now has a louder perceived volume. More importantly, this evens outs the dynamics of my (not all that) awesome bass playing.
I didn’t add any additional effects, but often I’ll insert another compressor at the channel strip if the bass still doesn’t sound consistent enough in the mix. It’s better to go easy on the compression during tracking, because too much compression tracked through a hardware unit can add unpleasant “pumping” artifacts that can’t be removed, and it’s easy to add more compression later but hard to remove. And since effects added in Mixcraft are always non-destructive, you can easily readjust or get rid of them altogether.
Depending on the song, I’ll usually EQ bass parts, but I didn’t do anything in this case. I find that using a bass with active electronics helps, because I’m already giving a bit of boost at the very bottom of the frequency spectrum (overall fatness) and at the top (which emphasizes the pick attack). Passive basses (i.e. standard Fender Precision or Jazz Bass) usually need a little more compression and EQ help in the mix; I find myself using more compression and usually pump up around 100 Hz and scoop out somewhere between 300-700 Hz (these settings can all vary depending on the instrument, the sound of the kick drum and musical style – sometimes I actually EQ low bass frequencies out if the bass is crowding the kick drum).
Finally, there’s an aggressive Minimogue VA synth bass part that sneaks in during the outro (where I’m singing “the more it changes, the more it stays the same”), but I’ll cover that in my upcoming “synths” post.
Moving on to the guitar, I used my super-sweet (and somewhat uncommon) 90’s Epiphone Sorrento. Unlike most slim F-hole electrics, it’s fully hollow (not “semi” hollow) which gives it a uniquely woody tone that combines beautifully with its bitey single-coil P-90 pickups. Looks like this:
There are just two guitar tracks in “Intermission,” one panned slightly left and one slightly right. I tracked them both the same way as the bass: plugged straight into my Langevin mic pre/compressor. The only difference is that the Langevin’s compression was bypassed. I used Mixcraft’s “Shred” guitar amp simulator as an insert effect with software monitoring enabled (when the track is armed, click the speaker icon left of the mute button) during tracking so that it would sound like an actual distorted guitar. The important thing to remember is that even though you’re hearing the amp simulator while recording, Mixcraft is recording the guitar with no effects – in other words, the guitar audio files are actually clean. This non-destructive approach is handy because it allows tone tweaking after recording. (Check out my Mixcraft Minitips video “Recording Rock Guitar with Shred Amp Simulator” for a step-by-step guide.)
I used the “Marvel” setting, which emulates a Marshall-style guitar amp head. Here are the settings for the first guitar I tracked, panned slightly left in the mix:
The built-in effects are disabled and there’s nothing too crazy about the settings. The only important detail is that I have the initial gain control set pretty low, so my distorted guitar isn’t all that distorted. Looking at the channel strip for guitar 1, you can see I’ve got a bit of low-frequency roll off dialed in. This could be accomplished using Shred’s built-in EQ, but I probably heard a little woofiness during the mix process, so using the channel EQ was a quick fix.
I also created a submix track in order to run both guitars to a single Kjaerhus Classic Reverb, set to a small room setting to give the guitars a specific “tonal footprint” (as opposed to a big, honkin’ reverb). Knowing I wanted a small-ish space, I used the “Room” preset, then tweaked the size and hi damp settings to my liking.
To make a send channel for the reverb, select Track>Insert Track>Send Track in the Track menu at the top, then insert the reverb into the channel by clicking on the FX button in the arrange or mixer window. Once the reverb is inserted, you can adjust the send level with the red knob at the top of the mixer window- in this case I set it to 100. If you’re using multiple send tracks, make sure you’ve selected the correct Send Track in the pop-up menu at the top left in the mixer. As mentioned in my last post, make sure the reverb’s mix knob is set to 100% effect otherwise wet/dry levels can get confusing. Finally, check the level of the send channel in the mixer to make sure it’s set to something reasonable; my fader is set to -4.7 db, but it’s not critical, just dial ’til your like what you hear. That said, make sure to set it with the entire mix playing, because reverb can get lost in the context of an entire mix. Here’s the reverb mixer send channel:
I got a little crazier with guitar 2 (panned right in the mix). It was sounding too similar to the other track (that’s what I get for using the same guitar with the same amp simulator model…duh!) so I threw a couple wrenches into the effects stew. First, here are my Shred settings:
A little more gain, but otherwise the same. Later, during the mix process I added a some channel insert effects including a compressor to “pop” the guitar out of the mix a bit:
To be clear, the above reverb was inserted directly into the channel (note the 50/50 position of the mix knob) and I used the send channel to send signal to the Send Track guitar reverb. I know, “why?!?”, to which I answer, “because I can!”. Seriously, sometimes you end up futzing around with controls in the mix, and if it sounds good, do it. In actuality, many big-shot mixing guys will set up three or four different reverb units and send instruments and vocals in various combinations to all of them, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
That covers the bass and guitar tracks; next time we’ll talk about synth parts, because hey, who doesn’t love synths?!?