Bass can be quite a bit easier to capture than other instruments, especially if you’re not having to use (and mic) an amp. Usually, a DI (direct injection) box is employed for this task. A DI box essentially converts your Â¼” high impedance signal to low impedance, allowing your signal to travel via standard XLR microphone cables. This type of cable can travel farther distances with less noise introduced into the signal and also maintains higher signal fidelity overall.
I prefer to run the bass into a tube-stage of some sort, because I feel that a very slight bit of harmonic distortion helps the sound to cut through the mix slightly and “speaks” more throughout its upper registers. An all-in-one studio channel with a tube or FET preamplifier, as well as a compressor and an equalizer goes a long way toward capturing a tone that you may not have to do much else to after tracking.
Driving the preamp’s tube ever so slightly will give you that previously described edge and compressing the signal at 3:1 for 3-6 dB of compression will keep its level reliably present. You may want to engage a high pass filter to remove any excess boom and rumble below 50 Hz. The upper register can benefit from a slight rise around 200 Hz and the sound can be brought further forward with a little taste of 1KHz.
This may well be your best recording scenario, because once this is dialed in, you’re only hearing it in the headphones and not all over your drum tracks, even though the bassist is often standing right near the drummer! However, if an amp is absolutely required, try to use the smallest cabinet available, situated as far from the other instruments as possible (preferably in another room).
Finding Your Keys
Another instrument that definitely benefits from the use of a DI box is keyboards like synths or samplers. Unlike the bass, their sound usually tastes great “right out of the can,” so the mic cable(s) can often go straight into the interface or mixer, without the need for additional signal processing. Keep in mind that if you want the full-fidelity stereo sound inherent in most modern patches, you’ll be needing two inputs to accurately capture it, unless you’re satisfied with the sound of the keyboard’s mono output.
When straining for available inputs, this is one place you might be able to work around your limitations by using MIDI, as opposed to audio cables. This would require loading a software instrument into a track on your DAW and then controlling it via the keyboard. A band set on recording a Hammond B3 sound for instance, could do so in this fashion without the space, weight, and potentially deafening volume that accompanies that particular instrument. You also have the additional benefit of being able to experiment with different sounds and patches at any time in the process, all the way up to the final mix phase.
Those bands that include acoustic keyboards like piano and organ, or vintage ones like Wurlitzers, Clavinets, and Fender Rhodes might do well to track with “modern” keys as described above and subsequently overdub their acoustic counterparts at a later session.
Guitars can be the proverbial pebble in your recording shoe, because they are often so integral not only to the groove, but the song’s initial inspiration as well. I know several artists, for instance, that can’t sing the song without simultaneously playing it, because they can easily lose their place within the arrangement and become confused.
Problems arise from not only the sound of an amp bleeding into the tracks, but even the sound of the pick on the strings if the guitarist is standing too close to the mics! This can be further compounded by the use of an acoustic guitar, which is of course designed to command its own acoustic space. You can try tracking with an electric guitar into a DI, but this yields a sound that is not only weak, but uninspiring. You may be able to turn this negative into a positive by employing software guitar amp simulators (digital multitrack recorders often offer these too). As with MIDI keys, you are afforded the additional benefit of getting exactly the sound you’re looking for, at a later stage in the process.
Electric guitar can be tracked with great results by placing the amp into another room. I prefer bedrooms, because the bed offers sound absorbent qualities, helping to reduce some of the acoustic anomalies inherent in smaller rooms and even a bit of soundproofing. Cord length can be an issue here, depending upon how far away the room is. Again a DI box can be utilized, because they usually come with two Â¼” inputs, which can allow you to “daisy chain” two instrument cables to the desired length. Or you can run a long cable to your tuner or other effects and another long cable to the amp in the other room. Be sure to face the amp away from the door, as it will bleed out from under it anyway. In extreme cases, you can stuff towels or blankets along the underside of the door. Keep in mind, also, that volume is the enemy of live tracking. If your guitarist needs to have his Marshall amplifier turned to 11 to get “his tone,” you may need to consider re-tracking his parts later as well.
Acoustic guitars with integrated pickups can also be DI’d, although that sound is generally less preferable to its natural acoustic tone, so again you may be re-tracking these parts later.
Whether recording electric or acoustic guitar, you’ll usually want to situate the musician as far from open microphones as possible, although some of my favorite guitar tones came as a result of hearing the pick and strings in the room along with the amplified guitar signal!
Sven-Erik Seaholm (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an award-winning independent record producer, singer and songwriter (www.kaspro.com). Portions of this article originally appeared in Recording magazine. Special thanks to Mike Metlay. www.recordingmag.com