Summery: Here I cover the basics of direct bass tone. Many simple things are commonly overlooked imo. You don’t need $1,000 preamps, an expensive bass, or even a cab to get a very useable tone.
Start at the Very Beginning: A very good place to start.
You may have heard people say “upstream”. If you haven’t it means up the signal chain. First is the source, for example, a drum. Next comes the acoustic environment or room. Then a mic, a cable, a preamp, converter…
Fixing things upstream is the most efficient way to make improvements. I realize not everyone has access to a great instrument, great room, or great mic. But with a bit of listening and skill you can get a lot more out of what you already have. This will minimize tedious digital fixes later.
With What: Take a listen to this. It’s 8 bars of bass. About half way through you should hear a pretty dramatic change in tone. What’s happening? EQ? Compression? It’s just the difference between a pick and a finger. I took care not to change any other variable.
Don’t be fooled into thinking you can EQ this in. Playing a string with different things (finger, pick, thumb) changes more then the frequency balance. If you don’t believe that download this file and try to make them sound the same.
Too lazy? I hear ya. I did it for you. Samplitude has a cool FFT filter analyzer. It analyzes a sound source for it’s frequency curve. After you save the curve you can apply it to any other sound source. It’s a linear EQ and it allows crazy cuts of up to -110dbs if I’m to believe the GUI. Dang! Samplitude calls it sound cloning.
I ran the analysis and came up with this curve for the picked bass. Vertical is decibels. horizontal is frequency.
Now let’s hear what that sounds like applied to the finger bass.
It sounds a lot closer but no cigar.
Here is how different a bass can sound just my changing what you play with. This is: 4 bars of thin pick, 4 bars of thick pick, 4 bars of thumb, 4 bars of finger.
Where: Try this one. What’s happening midway through at bar 5?
A lot of mid-range disappears and a lot of bass appears. The first 4 bars are played at the bridge pickup. The rest is played between the body pickup and last frets. Again, let’s do a FFT analysis and see if we can match them with EQ.
Here is the FFT curve from the first 4 bars (bridge pickup).
Here is the same file with the curve applied to the second 4 bars (playing between body pickup and last fret)
Again, it’s closer but not really there. I’m not saying EQ isn’t a great tool. I personally think it’s in the top 2 for mixing. My point is it has it’s limits. If you think you can transform one sound into another (as I’ve tried to here) you can’t.
The Player: It goes without saying the player makes a huge difference. A bad player will have uneven dynamics, bad timing, and buzz strings. There is a lot more they may or may not do but let’s focus on those for now.
The first 4 bars is a sloppy performance. The next 4 are me really trying to do a decent one.
The sloppy one needs dynamic and timing fixes. Even after that it won’t sound quite as smooth and mixable as the decent one.
Tone knobs: The typical knobs on a bass allow you to mix the pickups and change the tone of the resulting mix. I have a cheap-ish Fender Jazz Bass and like everything turned full clockwise. That’s the setting I use in the second 4 bars here. For the first 4 bars I just dialed in something on the other side of the spectrum, kinda honky. Most people are aware these knobs change the tone and quality of the bass. I just wanted to demonstrate the range. When it comes mixing time these differences can sound even bigger.
Strings: I wanted to demonstrate the difference between some totally dead and beaten strings and a new pair. Unfortunately I don’t have either handy, perhaps because I play bass so little. But strings can make a big difference. New strings have more high end. They have more elasticity to them. Did that $20 go to good use? Record your bass before and after you change stings and have a listen.
There are also flat wound strings for bass. See the ridges on the string below? A flat wound string doesn’t have those. Instead it’s wound with flat wire. Flat wound strings definitely sound different. You could say duller. You could say smoother. Most rock-ish players do not use them (myself included). If you are looking for a duller sound with less left hand squeaking they are worth a try. Sorry no audio samples.