I got a new toy last week for my bass rig and I spent so much time in the Ring of Deaf in my basement working with it, comparing my sound to bass sounds I love, that it really got me thinking hard about my sound and what I’ve learned over the years about bass.
So being the thoughtful dope that I am, I decided to share it with you! I can hear you now . . . oooh how interesting! Thanks so much Mark! You’re oh so generous!
In a previous blog, I mentioned that I took sound clips from a bunch of songs with sounds I really love (guitar, bass and drums, but I’ll only talk about bass here) analyzed them with a harmonic analyzer so I can “see” a graphical representation of a sound I like. It helps me learn what frequencies or lack of certain frequencies AND the magnitude of same, that makes something sound the way it sounds. So focusing on bass guitar, some of my favorite sounds are Geddy Lee, John Entwistle and Duff McKagan’s sound on the first GnR album. In fact, I saw some GnR video from the first album back when that shit was happening on MTV, that had Trace Elliot bass amps in the background. I immediately sold all my Hartke cabinets and bought a new Trace Elliot rig, which I still have. It’s not the same one I use live but I still have the amps and cabs. He’s a GK endorser now but Trace Elliot or GK, Duff’s sound on that first album is absolutely killer and one of my all time favs.
One of the things I confirmed with my software analyzer tool was what frequencies that I have learned by trial and error to pull out of my sound. It’s better to EQ by cutting bad sounding frequencies than boosting good ones. I see a lot of bass players in bands that warm up for FM, most all are decent players but I see some really goofy EQ settings which result in some plain old “just OK” bass sounds. A lot of players think they need all this high treble in their sound as I see in the way they have their EQ set on their amp and what I hear in their sound. A lot of guys think that’s where Geddy Lee gets all his treble from, like in the 4-6k range and sometimes even higher! Well unfortunately, that range is where a critical range of guitar frequencies will cancel out those frequencies on bass in a mix. So you can boost there all you want, nobody will hear that part of your sound unless there is no guitar! Invariably, when talking about bass sounds with other players, I say they don’t need that 5k boosted and they always say something like, “but I like that Geddy sound man, I need that 5k . . .” Not really, and let me show you.
Listen to the following clip of Geddy Lee’s bass sound on the intro to Cygnus X-1 on Rush – Different Stages Live.
It definitely sounds like he has a ton of treble right? Well he does but just not where most players think it is in the EQ spectrum. Here’s an analyzer display of a clip I made using JUST the first note of the clip you just heard pasted together over and over to create about a 10 second clip. I had to do that because the bell in the background was adding a lot of 300Hz that is not part of his sound so I did the best I could to eliminate that 300Hz drone from the bell by creating a repeating loop of just the first E note. I didn’t want to get too much of a false peak in the bass reading by letting the bell drone on, so I figured making a loop of the E would help a little. There’s still a bit of a rise in the graph around 300Hz, so take that with a grain of salt.
I’ll take you through the readout. It’s the classic Rickenbacker through a 70′s Ampeg SVT tube amp sound that we all love. The key is to pay attention to the dominant peaks and the obvious valleys, those are most likely deliberate boosts and cuts in those areas. The other smaller humps and troughs are likely 2nd, 3rd (and so on) harmonics of fundamentals lower in the spectrum. There’s some low rumble around 40Hz as you can see by the small peak there. Then there is a nice peak at 80Hz, that’s where alot of the very low presence is. The only other thing in a mix down in that area is the kick drum. It’s a good thing to have some stuff around 80Hz in your sound and since it’s the octave of 40Hz, that frequency will naturally come up just a bit as shown by the graph. Then we see a bit of a hole until about 130Hz, which seems to be a key frequency in his sound, it’s quite dominant here. We see another boost at about 170-180Hz, (also an approximate 2nd harmonic of the earlier dominant 80Hz) that’s a good one to really give your bass some low presence in a mix. It doesn’t conflict with guitars there and that’s one of my favorite low punch frequencies. Another peak at just over 210Hz, then our bell drone peak at 300Hz, ignore that! Adding that to your sound will make your bass sound muddy in the mix. There is another secondary peak at just over 400Hz, I’d say that’s a close second harmonic of the 210Hz peak. Then there is not a whole lot until about 750-800Hz. I always duck the 250-750Hz range on my amp a few dB with a nice smiley curve. That whole range sounds very boxy on bass. 750-800 or so will make the bass stand right up in the mix, you can see where Geddy’s is just a bit lower than 750. Then we have two key frequencies for his killer treble sound. 1.2K and 2.4k with 2.4 being the octave of 1.2k. I usually dip 1-1.2k a couple of decibels in the guitar tracks to allow this part of the bass sound to stand out. This is a critical area to NOT have any cancellation going on with the guitars. Then we see a small hump at 4k then a drastic drop. The 4k peak is most likely coming from the way he is slapping his E string for this particular song, it’s likely attack. After 4k? Drastic drop off to almost nothing – relative to the other peak frequencies anyhow. Notice the difference in decibels between the dominant frequencies and the drop off at 4k. It’s huge!
Let’s look at another great bass sound that makes me practically unable to speak when I hear it. It’s John Entwistle on Won’t Get Fooled Again around 1978-79 or so. I lifted it from The Who’s The Kids Are Alright Deluxe Edition DVD. On the bonus disk there are two special videos that have only John’s bass and what they call Ox Cam. You can just watch John and listen to only his bass. It’s absolutely amazing. A must see for any bass player. First time I saw it I was speechless for about two hours!
Here’s the same clip with the rest of the band mixed way back.
He’s using his Alembic Exploiter, nice fat soaring treble huh? It’s hard to say what his amps were at this time. In the video you can see a Marshall 4×12 guitar cabinet mic’d and angled up toward him – you gotta look hard but it’s there. You can see a ton of Sunn cabinets and I know at times he used Alembic preamps into Crown power amps too. He was the first bass player to split his signal high and low, and only apply distortion to his treble, amplifying the highs and lows very differently whilst leaving the lows tight and deep. Here’s an analyzer capture of the bass only clip.
Are you surprised to see some of the same peaks as in Geddy’s sound? Pretty cool huh? Check out 1.2k and 2.4k, almost the same as Geddy’s. Remarkably similar in the 100-250 range too. Apparently those two guys talked! Again, almost nothing above 3k – relative to the other dominant peaks. Entwistle has a little more magnitude in the muddy range between 300 and 750, that seems to be the only notable difference. I’ve read where Geddy was heavily influenced early on by Entwistle and Chris Squire from Yes, so it’s no surprise that two of the greatest bass players that ever lived seem to know what frequencies work and don’t work for a kickass bass sound. Even with both players using completely different equipment, there are some surprising similarities.
Just a note on how I used these analyzer graphs to play with my sound. If you take a graphic EQ and make it look like the picture above, your sound will not be very good. The idea is to look at the peaks and valleys, what frequencies are dominant, what ones are not there hardly at all, and try those same frequencies in your amp or EQ, pulling them up and down to see how it works for YOUR sound. It’s just something to try, it’s not a rule I use. My idea was to find out what’s there and not there by analyzing sounds I’m totally in love with, add and subtract frequencies then listen to it for myself and see how I like it for MY sound. I’m not trying to cop Geddy’s or Entwistle’s sound, I’m just seeing what their sound is made of and seeing if there’s anything there for my own taste. Get my drift??
I mentioned distortion when talking about Entwistle’s sound. Most musicians don’t realize what an important component of a great rock bass sound distortion is. So I want to talk about it and give you some examples of what I think is really good bass distortion. I had not been totally happy with my live bass sound for a little while, actually I take that back, my bass sound is kickass but I was not happy with some elements of it, most noteably the amount and type of distortion I use in my sound. For those who don’t know, and I know there are a lot of people who read this blog that might not know what that means, it would be the same type of distortion you hear in any rock guitar sound, just on bass guitar.
I had been lookin for a new distortion device for a long time, rather than playing through a fragile and very heavy tube bass amp, I would rather use some sort of tube emulator device either rack mount or stomp box to add a small amount of distortion to my sound. Anyway while I was playing with my new toy (A Gallien-Kreuger Diesel Dawg stomp box) trying to get a sound, I kept listening to my iPod one minute to the bass in parts of songs I’m shooting for, and my amp the next, comparing the two to see if I was getting close to what I want.
I’ll start with some early examples and take you right up to the modern day. Here’s a clip from My Generation going way back to The Who’s Live at Leeds Deluxe Edition (1970?), when Entwistle was using Hiwatt amps, great distorted bass sound. Although a little loose in the low end, it’s probably loose because of the limitations of the speakers of the time. He wasn’t splitting his signal and treating highs and lows differently just yet.
Here’s one of my favorite distorted bass sounds. We’ve all heard this one a zillion times as it was a big hit. Red Barchetta from Rush Moving Pictures c. 1980. This was the only track on the record where he used his Rickenbacker 4001, all other tracks he did with his ’72 Fender Jazz. The passage I picked really shows the nice smooth distortion he uses, especially when he hits the double note pattern in the middle.
Now a clip from the flip side of that album, track one side two for those of you who have it on vinyl. The Camera Eye he used his Fender Jazz on and it has a slightly different tone than the previous clip, and may even have just a tad more distortion on it. Unlike Entwistle, Geddy at this time distorted his entire range of sound, highs and lows. He still has that beautifully distorted treble and when he goes down low, it’s rock solid. It’s key not to use so much distortion that your low end turns to shit. Another thing you don’t want to hear is the “fizz” of the distortion as a contant along side of the bass sound. It should change dynamically like a tube amp would with the way you play. It’s a fine balance.
Let’s move to the real recent to a great bass player and a guy who spends a ton of time and energy thinking about his sound, experimenting and refining his tone. He’s a huge Rush fanatic too so he definitly has some elements in his sound that could be comapred to Geddy Lee’s tone. Tim Commerford from Audioslave. This is a passage from Drown Me Slowly off of their latest album Out of Exile. Tim also uses a Fender Jazz and a (very heavy) Ampeg SVT head/cabinets. You might not be able to hear the subtle details of Tim’s finely tuned tone behind Morello’s solo if you don’t crank it up – if not, get the CD, it’s worth the $10 on iTunes!
Killer sound huh? Again nice smooth distortion, not buzzy at all, great lows, great treble. One of the few modern rock bass players that truly has his own unique sound.
I used the Diesel Dawg last week live and it’s one of those devices that is very touchy and can go from just a nice dancing on the top smooth distortion to total fizz donkey buzz saw. It sounded great last week, but this is one of those subtle effects and changes that I sometimes make to my sound that takes me a while to make a decision on. I have to listen to it for a few weeks and get inside of it to really understand what it does to my sound and THEN I’ll get a feel for if I like it or if it goes on eBay.
I was worried when I first tried it that the amount of distortion was not going to be able to go down far enough for me but it works great. I’m just looking for subtlety in my distortion. My Trace Elliot amps also have a valve drive knob in the preamp circuit to I get a nice distortion on my full-range sound as well. My amps also have a high pass effects send which is where I tap my signal to apply the Deisel Dawg distortion to my high end only – a la Entwistle. I add just a touch of chorus to my highs as well, you can hardly hear it but when the chorus is bypassed, it’s like “what happened?” I’m looking forward to recording some tracks using my new setup and see how it sits in the mix.
In closing this edition, I hope those who stayed with me all the way to the bottom of the page and if any of you are players, maybe you can use a tip or two of mine to discover something about your own bass sound.
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