Case Study: Tracking Spontaneous Bass Grooves


Summery: Practice? Nope. Prior Listening? Nah. We tracked bass grooves for 10 songs in about 2 hours.

A producer I know wanted me to track some bass for an album he’s doing. I warned him, ” I’m no session guy”. My strength is in my ideas and musicality. If I came up with some ideas he liked I could always polish them later.

Below is my process and some audio clips.

Prep: I tried to eliminate anything that might slow down the flow of ideas. I literally wanted to record as I was hearing the song for the first time.

I tuned the bass, set recording levels, and opened a new session in Reaper before the producer got here. Then I imported all 10 songs into Reaper on one track. That way I wouldn’t have to open, name, save, and close 10 sessions.

Spontaneous Tracking:  Come what may, we hit record. If we made it to the end and I had more ideas we’d do another take.

We set the session up with songs on track 1 and bass ideas on track 2. Later we’d use track 3 to polish any gems and render out the loops.

reaper tracking

From a theory perspective things were pretty easy. The producer gave me the chord changes and I’d quickly figure out what key it was in. This gave me an idea of where to put my fingers.

More then half the time I’d vocalize bass ideas. Then I’d figure out where it should be played on the bass guitar. I started out as a singer. Vocalizing helps me get right to an idea bypassing theory or how to play it on the bass. Once I have the idea hopefully it’s short work translating it to an instrument. I suspect some 20 year session veteran can play ideas on the bass as they occur to him. Not me. Not yet.

We did some brief back and forth deciding on what ideas worked or what direction to try.  By the 5th song we realized talking about theory or using vague musical terms was of little help. Instead we both vocalized just about everything. “Oh, so you are saying boom, bit, bu-boom? Ok, let me try that.”  Sounds like lunatics but very effective.

Polishing the Grooves: I didn’t want to accidentally move any of the bass takes out of time with the songs so I quickly grouped them. 10 groups. One for each song and it’s bass takes.

To make editing easy and deliver perfect measures I needed to get everything on a grid. In the interest of time I imported the songs with no regard for BPM or grids. Luckily the BPM for each song was in the file name. And like much modern music there were no tempo changes in the songs. But each song did have it’s own tempo so I needed to insert several tempo markers. One at the beginning of each song. Then snap each song group to the top of a measure and hope they started on the “1”. Most did. Two songs needed to be offset by 1/8th note to get the click landing on the beat. With songs grouped and on a grid I locked up the tracks so nothing would be accidentally moved.

Tempo changes from 78, 112, 94,120, and 140.

reaper tracking tempo markers

Now I was ready to track some clean bass.

When dialing in tone I always start upstream. Far too much importance is given to things like preamp and converters. I’m not saying they don’t matter. If you have a great bassist and a great bass then start looking at the preamp. If you don’t focus on the first two things.

Getting a good bass tone probably needs it’s own post. I’ll just mention some things worth listening to.

What you play the bass with (pick, finger, thumb) will affect the tone a lot. Where you play the string matters. Playing near the bridge pickup will sound very different from playing between the body pickup and last fret. Tone and volume controls obviously matter. Old strings sound duller then new ones.  And the player makes a huge difference. A bad player will buzz strings, have uneven dynamics, jack timing, and product inconsistent tone. “Jack” is a technical term whose full definition is too broad to cover here.

No matter what you think you can do with editing and processing… getting it right upstream will make your life less tedious and deliver better results.

For recording the set up was straight forward. No processing. No fancy signal path. You really can get a good bass tone keeping it simple. I plugged into an instrument input on my Really Nice Preamp (FMR Audio). Instrument inputs are impedance matched for guitars. They make a difference you can hear. Use them.


Each project is different. One tone does not fit all. So be open to recording things a few ways, listening to the playback, and picking the one that works best.

This project was hip-hop based. For that I like a full “boomy” type of bass. I played with a finger between the body pickup and last fret. Playing soft resulted in better tone, less string slapping, buzzing, and more even dynamics.

Delivery: For delivery I wanted things to be hassle free for the producer.

All files were named in a useful way: song1_loop1, song1loop2, etc. All loops started and ended on measures. Basic stuff. What wasn’t basic was giving him the contextual information in the tracking session. For example where did we feel the loop should start in the song? Did I mute the first 1/4th note when it made it’s entrance? As a refresher I included the raw ideas as well. This I consolidated to one track. It’s start time the same as the song’s. All he has to do is snap it to the beginning of the song.

Some samples. Um…wish there was a way to make the soudcloud player loop.

If you’re going to try a spontaneous tracking session the player’s musicality is important. You aren’t handing the guy sheet music. You don’t have a bass part in mind. You are relying on his instincts. Just because someone can play well does not mean they are in tune with your personal taste. If you are booking someone make sure they share some of your musical impulses.

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2 Responses to Case Study: Tracking Spontaneous Bass Grooves

  1. Ken says:

    I used to really like the FMR RNP for DI bass. I think the ART Tube MP is also a good/cheap bass preamp, especially once you upgrade the tube.

  2. cporro says:

    i like it enough. but i’m in this “over preamps” phase where i just use a decent one and focus on the stuff upstream. i’ve had preamps that were super noisy. i don’t like that. and some that added distortion. but there are lots of ways to get distortion and i’m not convinced you can’t do the same job with outboard or plugins. It is nice not to run out of gain and the RNP does something like 60dbs for mics like the sm7.

    i have an art premap but it’s a different model. can’t recall. it’s both noisy and adds distortion. but i keep it around. nice to have options.

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