Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Great Guitar and Bass Sound - John J. DiModica

How do you get that quality sound in the studio? Producer John J. DiModica explains how...

Ever listen to some of your favorite recordings, including those produced by Integrity Music, and wonder why the bass and guitar sound so good? There are a number of factors involved. Many reasons for a great tone are found in the player. Obviously, you can't have a great sounding part if the player is not doing his/her job. One of the most important skills to develop to prepare to play in the studio (or live, for that matter) is to learn to play consistently with a metronome! Beyond that, assuming you have a measure of ability on your instrument, the following should be helpful in getting that much desired "studio sound."

Let's look at your instrument first. Recording reveals any flaws you or your instrument may have. Instruments of less quality will have buzzes and poor tone which degrade the sound. If you want a professional sound, you must start with a professional instrument. Once you have secured one, here is a checklist to follow before recording:

1. Put on a fresh set of strings (I prefer nickel for my basses).
2. Adjust each string height so that you eliminate all buzzes and fret noise.
3. Make sure your instrument is intonated meaning that it is in tune with itself. This often requires making subtle adjustments at the bridge. If you are unsure of how to do this, call your local music store and either consult with their guitar/bass tech or have them do it. It is not that difficult or expensive and it should be done every time you change strings. Using the same type and gauge of strings will minimize the adjustments you may have to make every time you change strings.
4. Install a fresh battery if you have active electronics.
5. Use an electronic tuner and check your tuning during every stoppage of recording (between takes).

Audio Engineers can have a great deal of influence over the sound of a recorded instrument, too. There exists a number of tools usually found in the recording studio to enhance and change the sound of a bass and guitar. Some of the most basic tools are compressors, equalizers and preamps. These tools are available to bass players and guitars players as well as audio engineers.

Without getting into a lengthy explanation of each, I will touch on the use of each one when recording a bass and/or guitar. Simply put, compressors even out the sound of an instrument eliminating notes from "popping out" and becoming a distraction in the mix. Ratio, attack time and release time are the main variables in a compressor. With the proper adjustments, a compressor can be a great asset in getting a smooth track. Start experimenting with a ratio between 2:1-4:1, attack time of 1-10ms and release time of 100ms-500ms. These are just a starting point. Your ears are always the best judge!

Equalization is another tool available. By getting rid of unwanted frequencies and/or accentuating desired ones, you can help get a great sound out of your instrument. For example, getting rid of "thump" in the bass track can be attained by lowering (rolling off) frequencies below 50Hz. If too "boomy" try cutting frequencies between 125-200Hz. Experienced engineers should both have a good idea of a musical bass sound and the know how to achieve it using compression and EQ.

Also, you can employ a preamp to help shape your sound. Some of the new amp modelers are very good in imitating the sound of vintage and contemporary bass and guitar amplifiers. There are many to choose from. Many people including myself like the Line 6 bass pod and guitar pod.

Many preamps include effects to add "spice" to the sound. Often, the bass sound is hampered rather than helped with an effect. Sometimes a chorus can work in a slower (fretless) part and a little distortion can be appropriate for more aggressive "alternative or pop" kinds of tracks. Remember, however, what happens to food when too much spice is added!

There are a couple of factors to consider when placing a mic on an amp to record rather than taking a signal direct into the mixing board. Here are some very basic steps:

1. Put the bass amp in the biggest room. Avoid putting it next to a wall. Moving an amp 6"-12" can change its sound in a room so experiment.
2. Isolate the amp as much as possible to avoid issues when fixing mistakes (Punch-ins).
3. Place mix 1'-2' from the speaker on axis. Move the mic 45 degrees to the side to eliminate buzzes, fret noise, etc.

When striving for great tone recording (and live playing), ultimately, it starts with the player... then the instrument. The sound engineer is a factor, too. When all three of these components are optimized, there is no reason not to have a great sounding bass and/or guitar track that compliments both the song and the mix.
For more detailed information about getting a great bass sound please refer to Electronic Musician Magazine, August 2000, "The Bottom Line" article by Michael Cooper.

John J. DiModica served as Worship Leader and Assistant Pastor at a thriving church in Miami, Florida for nine years. Now living in Tennessee, he has been touring and teaching with Integrity Music since 1995 including performing with Don Moen, Paul Wilbur, Lenny leBlanc, Ron Kenoly and Alvin Slaughter. John has a music degree from the University of Miami (FL), and additional studies at the Eastman School of Music (NY) and Berklee College of Music (MA). Currently, his activities include composing, music production, session musician and private bass instructor. For help in producing a recording or to schedule John to speak, visit his website. www.InFocusMusic.com

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