Do audio engineers/recorders/mixers hate bass guitarists? ;)

Discussion in 'Music' started by Carlo Medina, Aug 9, 2004.

  1. Carlo Medina

    Carlo Medina Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 1997
    Messages:
    10,451
    Likes Received:
    652
    Just was wondering: I have an upper-mid-fi system that is capable of reproducing the full range of music on a CD, DVD, DVD-A or SACD. I listen to a lot of rock, especially classic rock, grunge rock of the early 90s and some current rock.

    I've also attended a lot of concerts featuring these artists/bands. At concerts, the bass (and drums) are very prominent. In addition, I'm a musician and have played in a band setting, where I really need (and want) to hear the bass and drums. The very few times I've played live, the bass is well represented.

    But on CDs, most bass is relegated to an afterthought. It's not my equipment: well recorded CDs with ample bass come through loud and clear. But I'd say on 90%+ of rock CDs I own that should have good, clear, present bass, it is almost always lacking.

    I know that singers have LSD (Lead Singer Disease) and guitarists are always trying to take over Eddie Van Halen's mantle, but damn, most rock needs the bass guitar as a foundation (and as I said, they do in their concert gigs) but that sound seems to rarely make it over to their official recordings...

    What's up with that? Any thought from industry folk?

    Thanks!
     
  2. Brian L

    Brian L Cinematographer

    Joined:
    Jul 8, 1998
    Messages:
    2,904
    Likes Received:
    10
    As a former bassist (Ric 4003, Peavy T-40) I too feel your pain, and don't know why its so.

    I have so few rock CD's where the bass is to an appropriate level that it does make one wonder. It is truly a wonderful thing to go to a live show and feel the bass/kick drums thump your chest!

    BGL
     
  3. Jeff Ulmer

    Jeff Ulmer Producer

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 1998
    Messages:
    5,584
    Likes Received:
    0
    In the LP days, there was a very good reason for limiting the amount of low end content, that being the physics of reproducing low frequencies through mechanical means. It is quite easy to send a stylus flying with too much bass content.

    For radio broadcast, excessive low end is also detrimental, since all over the air content is heavily compressed, and the compressors are more sensitive to low end, which results is a undesireable pumping. Multiband compression/limiting can overcome this nowadays.

    For low to mid range audio systems, excessive low end can mean premature distortion, since linearly reproducing lower frequencies requires more power than high frequencies.

    The apparent lack of low end could also be a function of your listening environment. Even when the components are able to deliver flat frequncy response down to 30Hz or lower, in order to reproduce those frequencies, you require a large volume of space, since the soundwaves can not fully propogate otherwise. A 20Hz signal requires 57 feet to form a complete wavelength, 30Hz requires 38 feet. Even a 60Hz signal requires over 18 feet. Reproducing these frequencies in smaller spaces induces problems from nodal reinforcement and cancellation, which is specific to the room dimensions, types of wall finishes, objects/interference and the room shape. No amount of equalisation can overcome these issues.

    Mastering engineers need to factor in all of this in order to produce recordings that sound good in a wide range of venues, and the low end is the hardest to get right. Too little and things sound thin, too much and it can be boomy.

    But in answer to the question: yes. [​IMG]
     
  4. Carlo Medina

    Carlo Medina Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 1997
    Messages:
    10,451
    Likes Received:
    652
    I understand what you're saying Jeff. I don't expect a recreation of the bass I hear in a concert venue at home. But there are certain CDs that the bass is "right" - not overpowering, not boomy, not thin, but right. So it can be done. It just rarely ever is.

    They do hate bassists... [​IMG]
     
  5. Brian L

    Brian L Cinematographer

    Joined:
    Jul 8, 1998
    Messages:
    2,904
    Likes Received:
    10


    But we hate drummers (isn't there a volume control on that freakin' thing???) and guitar players (who gives a rip if it goes to 11?), so it all balances out, right[​IMG]

    BGL
     
  6. Keith Paynter

    Keith Paynter Screenwriter

    Joined:
    Mar 16, 1999
    Messages:
    1,833
    Likes Received:
    3
    Speaking as a bass player, a retailer of musical instruments, and a free-lance live technician, so much of it has to do with the type of tone generated by modern electric basses and their active electronics.

    For my money the best tone comes from classic passive models like original Fender Precision and Jazz basses, which where the defacto standard back in the the fifties and early sixties. The choices of woods, the winding of the pickups, and tube amplifiers made very rich tone that was easy to distinguish in recordings especially during the apex of recordings of the Stax and Atlantic artists of that time. (Listen to some of the work of Donald 'Duck' Dunn on some of those classics and see what I mean).

    So many basses today have electronics that all but destroy the actual definition, instead supplying low end rumble and high presence that may suit funk/slap players who use compression, but are terrible for rock. The type of character in an amplifier with 10" speakers has a much tighter sound than ones loaded with 15" speakers. They may look impressive, but make tone suffer.

    I also have little love for guitarists with multi-effect boxes who don't know how to program them, and use presets that have a smiley-face feel (all bass, no middle, all treble) and then complain they can't hear themselves in the mix...guitarists who use so much compression that their rhythm and lead volumes are indistinguishable. The best tone I ever heard is a guitar straight to a Marshall half stack, and a smart guitar player who listens to the rest of the band, and knows when to play soft (turn down) or play loud (turn up).

    When the Beatles were originally recording, they wanted to get that 'American sound' and British engineers told them they were daft - it would damage record cutting equipment and destroy styli. Compare 'Please Please Me' to 'Rubber Soul' and see how far they came with bass tone, then 'Revolver' with close-miking of drums.

    Anything beyond the original recording comes from dynamic compression (which as mention previously) does bad things to low end but keeps sound pressure levels more consistant, especially where commercial radio is concerned. Stations also perform additional compression and equalization so the recording sounds nothing like it does on your home stereo, but is necessary to be heard over the rumble of a car engine.
     
  7. Wayne A. Pflughaupt

    Joined:
    Aug 5, 1999
    Messages:
    6,100
    Likes Received:
    33
    Location:
    Katy, TX
    Real Name:
    Wayne
    This is one of my all-time favorite topics - and pet peeves!

    My background is similar to Keith’s a bass player who frequently mixes live shows, and occasionally some small-time studio stuff.

    Carlo, if most of the concerts you’ve attended had the bass “well represented,” your averages are better than mine. Oh, it’s not that there’s a shortage of low freq energy; you can certainly feel it. It’s just that it’s muddy and undefined. You can see the bass player running up and down the neck, but you can’t pick a single note out of the mush.
    This seems to be a problem specific to rock music. I’d have to say that of all the discs I have where the bass sounds like crap, 100% of them are in the rock category. Indeed, I have an RTA connected to my system that gives a real-time display of program sources, and you’d be surprised the number of rock CD’s where bass response falls like a brick at 125-100Hz!

    Except for the kick drum: That sucker is flat all the way out to 30-40Hz. Just like they are in real life (yeah, right!).

    One show I went to a few years ago, during a quiet segment with solo acoustic guitar and vocalist, you could hear low frequency artifacts coming out of the subs at tremendous levels. Wow, what a revelation! I had no idea an acoustic guitar generated such strong fundamentals, all the way down to 40Hz!

    I think you get the idea. A lot of live engineers just don’t know what these instruments sound like in their natural state, without the aid of a sound system. They don’t get the concept that the goal of high fidelity (elusive as it may be) is “natural, only louder.”

    A big part of the problem in live situations is the mics they use. For instance, at close proximity the popular Shure 57’s and 58’s have a substantial, 3-octave wide hump centered at 200Hz. This means there is an unnatural bass boost when micing guitar amps, as well as for singers who like the “eat” the mic.

    Then you have the sonic characteristic of the various instruments and vocals themselves: To wit, keyboards, guitars and drums all naturally extend down into the lower frequencies. For instance, the lowest fundamental of a guitar is 80Hz - that’s dead-center in the bass guitar’s operating range. Tom-toms, especially the floor toms, have a lot of energy down there, too. Keyboards extend a full octave below even a 5-string bass. Male vocals are culprits also, especially with the “assistance” of that microphone.

    Adding insult to injury, most popular guitar cabinets of the 4-12” variety exhibit an extreme spike at around 80-100Hz when they use distortion settings. That spike assures that they have excessive energy all the way down to 40Hz or below.

    Hopefully you’re beginning to get the picture: Potentially what you end up with is, every instrument on the stage is competing for the bottom end! That’s why it sounds like mush.

    (In smaller venues you also have the problem of the musicians playing their poorly EQ’d amps too loud and competing with the house system, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

    Here’s a little experiment you can do the next time you go to a show where everything sounds muddy: Take notice when you get a chance to hear any instrument by itself. When the singers talk between songs, are their voices boomy and bass-heavy? (Specifically, do you hear energy from the subs when they talk?) When a guitar leads off a song, is it boomy and bottom heavy? (If you can “feel” it - it is.) Do the drums, especially the toms, pound your chest when they hit? Do you “feel” the low notes of a keyboard to the extent that it could well have been the bass instrument all by itself??

    If so, there’s your reason why the show sounds like crap: Everything on the stage is operating in the bass guitar’s sonic “space” - competing with it.

    I’m less familiar with the mics they use in studios, but the concept is the same: Obviously many engineers, both live and studio, are foggy on the concept of “layering” a mix and correctly placing each instrument in the frequency spectrum.

    They don’t get the concept of “What is the big picture here?” You treat and EQ things differently when you’re dealing with say, a lone vocalist playing an acoustic guitar than you do a full band. When a solo guitar and singer are “the big picture” you want to give warmth to the performance, so both need some bottom. But you just can’t do that when you have a whole band. When the engineer equalizes every instrument and vocal like it’s the only thing on the stage, each one sounds great by itself, but “the big picture” is muddy.

    Basically, when you have a full band, the only way to get a clean-sounding mix is to roll the lows out of all instruments and vocals, and let the bass guitar and drums carry the bottom end all alone. What’s so complicated about that? Apparently it is, for many engineers.

    That’s something else you can check out when you’re fortunate enough to attend a show that sounds great: When you get a chance to hear the instruments individually, you will notice that they exhibit only moderate low frequency output. In fact, they might even sound a little thin. But when everything’s going all at once, it sounds great.

    Regarding the bass guitar specifically, I have to agree with Keith that the instrument makes a tremendous difference. I’ve had guys plug in those cheap Fender Squires - bottom-of-line, made in Mexico from low-grade plywood (I’m not kidding here) - that sounded amazing, while other guys with more sophisticated instruments I couldn’t make sound good for love nor money. Even with a dedicated 15-band EQ patched across the bass channel. I eventually started using a dedicated parametric EQ, but unfortunately the venue where I was working folded a couple of gigs into that, so I never got a chance to fully explore it.

    Virtually everyone who frequents this Forum knows what a parametric EQ can do for bass response. Studio engineers who know their stuff use them to make sure the bass has the appropriate presence in the upper register and fundamentals at the lower, but amazingly, you’ll hardly ever find one in a live situation – at least not dedicated to the bass channel. I use one in my bass rack to EQ my send to the house, so I can make sure every note from the lowest to highest is clear and clean. You just can’t do that with the meager three or four tone controls on a mixing console.

    Regards,
    Wayne A. Pflughaupt
     
  8. Carlo Medina

    Carlo Medina Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 1997
    Messages:
    10,451
    Likes Received:
    652
    Nice post!

    I think the reason I have good luck w/ bass in concerts is that I rarely attend "stadium" concerts where sound...basically sucks.

    For instance I saw Mutual Admiration Society at the House of Blues in Anaheim and The Roxy in Hollywood. Why do I mention this? Because John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin was helping the band out on bass guitar. And god DAMN if that wasn't the best sounding bass I've heard! He's a musical genius, and the audio engineer for the show clearly wanted his bass represented faithfully and fully.

    The only stadium act I generally see is The Dave Matthews Band, and they have a nice, balanced sound, with Stefan Lessard's playing coming through nice and clear.
     
  9. Brian L

    Brian L Cinematographer

    Joined:
    Jul 8, 1998
    Messages:
    2,904
    Likes Received:
    10
    Definitely enjoying this thread.

    Last summer, I saw two shows in particular. Both out doors. One had great sound. One absolutely sucked. The bands were Steely Dan and ZZ Top.

    Going in, I was expecting nothing special for Top (other than kick-ass blues music), and was expecting the world (sonically speaking) from The Dan.

    Shockingly, the opposite was true. Top had some of the best live sound I have heard. The drums where huge, but the bass had its own place in the mix. Everything was crystal clear. Loud to be sure, but even my wife, who detests typical loud concert sound was surprised.

    Now for Steely Dan. WTF where they thinking? Horrible, horrible sound. No top, no bottom. Utter crap. At the time, I found a bunch of posts at Hoffman's site, and it seemed that everywhere they played, the sound was crap.

    That was a shock. A band known for their recorded sound, and the live show sounded like it was amateur night at the mixing board.

    I like Dan, but I am going to carefully read reviews before I fork over cash to see them (assuming they ever tour again).

    Perhaps Wayne and Keith can find some work with Walt and Don?

    BGL
     
  10. Lee Scoggins

    Lee Scoggins Producer

    Joined:
    Aug 30, 2001
    Messages:
    6,394
    Likes Received:
    0
    Real Name:
    Lee
    I think there are several things going on here:

    1. Only audiophile engineers capture really low bass, with maybe the exception of the exaggerated and plasticy bass on most rap records.

    2. Engineers that do a better job of capturing bass often have a tendency in my experience to mix in too much of it.

    3. They may be recording to a radio playback ideal rather than a natural sound that is consistent with a live performance.

    I also find most pop engineers do an incredibly poor job of capturing cymbals and drums. Even on the excellent Paul Simon remasters Roy Halee has drums in places that sound like a 2 year old banging on hat boxes.
     
  11. Keith Paynter

    Keith Paynter Screenwriter

    Joined:
    Mar 16, 1999
    Messages:
    1,833
    Likes Received:
    3

    The synth/sample bass tones of the majority of modern pop and rap is easy to incorporate in recordings - they've already been designed by keyboard engineers to blend with other synth instruments relatively seemlessly.
     
  12. Vince Maskeeper

    Vince Maskeeper Producer

    Joined:
    Jan 18, 1999
    Messages:
    6,499
    Likes Received:
    0


    it's funny you notice that bass guitar is rolled off at 100ish, and yet you don't get that many engineers DO roll off exactly as you suggested so there isn't competition for low: they just chose to favor things other than bass guitar when doing so.

    as an engineer myself, making impacting rock record- if i have to choose between a throbbing kick and bass, i'll pick kick drum 99% of the time. Maybe I have a personal bias against bassplayers- but I would say in the majority of cases where you thought the bassist sounded really good- it had moe to do with his choice in what he was playing and when than anything an engineer or microphone could do.

    This conversation is a bit far along for me to join in and take on sme of the misconceptions here- but rest assured there are a few.


    -vince
     
  13. Wayne A. Pflughaupt

    Joined:
    Aug 5, 1999
    Messages:
    6,100
    Likes Received:
    33
    Location:
    Katy, TX
    Real Name:
    Wayne
    Vince, just because your experiences have led you to certain conclusions, observations and methodologies, that doesn’t mean everyone else’s are “misconceptions.”

    For instance:
    Next-to-last paragraph, Vince.

    Regards,
    Wayne A. Pflughaupt
     
  14. Carlo Medina

    Carlo Medina Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 1997
    Messages:
    10,451
    Likes Received:
    652
    Maybe I chose a bad thread title (I was just trying to be witty).

    I certainly didn't want to disparage all engineers. I just wondered why it seems like for every CD done right (well balanced bass--and by this I mean all bass, whether it be drums, bass guitar, etc.) there are a dozen that are done terribly.

    I have no doubt it is a shared blame here: the audio engineers, the studios demanding radio-friendly mixes, and bass players either not choosing equipment well or--let's face it--not being very good players. And I'm sure we still have other bandmembers jockeying for their instrument's place in the mix and pushing the other parts into the background.
     
  15. Brian L

    Brian L Cinematographer

    Joined:
    Jul 8, 1998
    Messages:
    2,904
    Likes Received:
    10
    No need to apologize Carlo. I consider it to be a somewhat light hearted topic, and although there are some serious replies, I don't think anyone should get their panties all wadded up.

    You point is well taken. The reasons why could be debated endlessly, but there are very few rock recordings that I own (and you too, it appears) with what I consider decent low end.

    And just to comment on something Vince said, rather than choose between a kick drum and a bass guitar, what I find I like the most in a rock recording is when a Bass Player and Drummer are locked together, such that the bass player and kick drum are in perfect sync, and the bass notes and kick hit at the same time. This adds tremendous impact to the bottom end.

    A couple good examples of that from my collection are Queensryche Empire, Thomas Dolby's Aliens Ate My Buick, and some of the early Kings X cee-dees. Wonderful bottom end impact on all three titles.

    BTW, did JPJ sign your guitar?

    BGL
     
  16. Carlo Medina

    Carlo Medina Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 1997
    Messages:
    10,451
    Likes Received:
    652
    Nope, unfortunately he wasn't able to make the small Hollywood gig, and the two big shows (House of Blues Anaheim and The Roxy) were filled with a lot of "autograph hounds" (vs. people who are there for the music) so they didn't come out afterwards. [​IMG]

    And I did want to mention something about the whole kick drum vs. bass thing. This choice may have to be made on the frequencies that the drum and bass share, but I'm talking about the full spectrum of bass playing--all up and down the neck. It's not that I think sub 100hz frequencies are lacking (though they are), it is that I think the whole bass instrument is lost in the mix, whether he's playing a low-E or 2 octaves higher (ala "Rain" by the Beatles). Man, if Rain were mixed today you would think that Paul really was dead! [​IMG]
     
  17. Carlo Medina

    Carlo Medina Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 1997
    Messages:
    10,451
    Likes Received:
    652
    By the way, Mutual Admiration Society was on Conan last night. If you want, catch the re-run on Comedy Central. JPJ played (Pete Thomas too).
     
  18. David_Bell

    David_Bell Auditioning

    Joined:
    Feb 20, 2004
    Messages:
    6
    Likes Received:
    0
    One of my favorite topics! A couple thoughts from another bass player--



    It's a worthy ideal to shoot for--the sound of a great bass player with a great live sound playing at full performance levels. But as much as it pains me to admit, this is impossible to fully capture on any practical recorded medium. The bass guitar is an incredibly dynamic instrument (at least the way I prefer it, without excessive compression and with a full range of overtones) requiring tons of power to amplify effectively. Consider the fact that bass players have to lug around 500-900 watt rigs while electric guitarists can get by with a 200 watt combo amp in a club setting. Even the best of us don't have speakers that can recreate the output of a 4x10 SWR cabinet reinforced by a club's PA system!

    Recording a bass you run up against limitations in frequency range and dynamic range (esp. in the digital audio realm), on top of the compromises of fitting the bass in the mix with other instruments as Wayne and others described. So accepting that recording a bass guitar involves inherent compromises, it becomes a matter of priorities (i.e. let's roll off some of the guitar's low-end because the bassline should be more prominent). And also a matter of conflicting ideas/tastes about what a bass should sound like.

    Years ago, after buying my first 4-track, I remember reading some instructional articles. I was shocked to see something like, "A good rule of thumb is to always apply plenty of compression so that the bass remains consistent and 'sits down' in the mix..." And here I was thinking the bass should be the MOST dynamic instrument in the mix! But obviously there are some practical concerns about eating up too much headroom and about what is appropriate for the song/style at hand.

    I've come to feel that a good bass sound, be it on record or live, comes out of a sort of alchemy between the bass player him/herself in relation to the rest of the band. There are bass players throughout history with great "thumpy" tones (James Jamerson, Paul McCartney) and great throaty/grindy tones (John Entwistle, Kim Deal...) showing there's no single "bass sound" that works in all situations. I feel like it's just one of those bits of magic of the "band" ideal, where the styles/sounds of each band member mesh so well that every instrument becomes essential to the overall sound.

    I guess bass players are just particularly dependent on a number of factors (sympathetic producers/live concert mixers/good arrangements) on top of their own responsibility to work well within their band. So it's no wonder these factors don't always come together. I remember John Entwistle complaining in interviews that he felt his true sound was never fully captured on record. I think "Live at Leeds" in the only one that gives it the prominence it deserves. But I could imagine drummers complaining, "Keith Moon is buried! You can barely hear the tom-toms!"


    --David
     
  19. Jeff Ulmer

    Jeff Ulmer Producer

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 1998
    Messages:
    5,584
    Likes Received:
    0
    There are very few mastering engineers that I would trust with the bottom end. Bob Ludwig is about my favorite, as he always seems to be able to deliver a nice, round bottom without being over hyped. I think a lot of mastering engineers are conservative with the bottom due to all the problems it can create (outside rap that is). Others have their favorite frequencies which I don't find personally satisfying.

    Mixing so as to feature all instruments well is an artform, but that is not always the mandate of the producer. Some engineers do try to carve niches for all the instruments, but that doesn't work in all scenarios, as it can leave some sounding thin if soloed. Getting that blend of a nice, stringy sounding bass and a chest thumping kick takes some work, especially if the instrments being used aren't optimal for that purpose.

    I would disagree that passive pickups are the answer, as I have active basses that can sound much better in the mix than my Fenders or Rickenbackers. That said, I also have a $200 active bass that blows the pants off many so-called elite basses for tone, its downside being more hum, which is something I can remedy.

    I would be interested in examples of what you feel are good bass references, I am always looking for more.

    Also, regarding King's X, I believe there is a lot of eight and possibly twelve string in there, which adds a lot of character to the bass sound.
     
  20. David_Bell

    David_Bell Auditioning

    Joined:
    Feb 20, 2004
    Messages:
    6
    Likes Received:
    0


    As far as examples that aren't widely known, I'm a longtime fan of the whole Chicago "post-rock" scene (for lack of a better term) not least because many of the bands are built around great melodic bass playing. Tortoise started out as a mostly guitar-less band with 2 basses and a Bass VI on many tracks. Their second album "Millions Now Living Will Never Die" covers a whole range of classic 4-string tones, twangy Bass VI, and subsonic dub manipulation.

    The main bassist in Tortoise, Doug McCombs, has a side project called Brokeback. Both Brokeback CDs (+ an EP) are excellently recorded and mixed by John McEntire. Much of it is essentially duets between six-string bass and upright bass. Lots of "air" and warmth.

    And one of my favorite bands from Chicago or otherwise is Dianogah. A trio with 2 basses and drums. Their albums (2 recorded by Steve Albini, 1 by John McEntire) IMO are textbook examples of two contrasting bass tones finding complementary spaces in the mix. Can't quite recreate their live sound of course, but a much more pleasant sound than a bunch of screechy guitars. [​IMG]


    --David

    p.s. maybe if there are a few thousand like-minded indie rock fans out there, we can push to have all the above released on SACD? I can dream...
     

Share This Page