How to Mic a Bass Guitar Amp for Live and Recording

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Bassists have thick skins. We have to. We know we are the most overlooked member of a typical band. Yet if the bass is removed, bands just sound- incomplete. Like the heart and body is missing. We bassists slave away in relative obscurity to serve the music.

Bass Guitar Close-UpWhat’s more, bass tone is just as overlooked as the role of bass itself. Considering the expansive worlds of keyboard sounds and guitar amps and pedals. We tend to just think of bass as having a basic, deep tone. Yet any good bassist can tell you just how deep the rabbithole goes. From James Jamerson’s warm, round motown tone, to McCartney’s mid-range melodic playing. From the massive low-end thump of dub and reggae, to the sharp stab of funk playing. Great bass tone can add so much to a recording, a certain element that you never knew you were missing.

So whether you are playing live, or recording in the studio. Give the bass the treatment it deserves. We bassists deserve that.

Direct Input

This article is mainly concerned with miking bass amps. But for studio playing as well as live, DI (direct input) has been common since the Beatles helped pioneer the technique. The advantages of DI are quite obvious. Bass frequencies are prone to bleed into other mics, because lower frequencies are less directional (and tend to spread evenly in all directions.) A DI signal can be processed later to your heart’s content, or even re-amped and recorded.

But a DI signal has its drawbacks as well. The tone tends to be quite bland, compared to the possibilities that amps can provide. Consider the tone of a DI electric guitar- you are losing so many tonal possibilities when you bypass the amp!

DI Hybrid

Ampeg Porta-FlexMany engineers like to employ a hybrid approach, particularly for studio recording. A DI box is used to record a DI signal, and the amp is miked and recorded simultaneously. This gives a complex, powerful bass tone, with the added flexibility that you can blend the signals to taste. Although, the advantages of sound isolation are lost.

If you plan to use this hybrid approach, make sure to align the phases of the two tracks (the amp track will experience a slight delay.) If you don’t, the phase cancellation issues can make tracks sound thin, or add strange textures to the sound. My favorite way to do this is visually- Simply zoom far into your DAW’s view, and drag the two tracks until the peaks are visually aligned. Some people like to use delay to do this too- Start with 2ms and adjust until the track sounds punchy and powerful.

With the preamble out of the way, read on for mic technique and suggestions!

Live Playing

I will begin with advice for miking bass amps in live settings, because it’s a more restricted task. The classic technique is to use a cardioid dynamic mic pointed at the amp’s speaker. Dynamic mics are a better choice than condensers, because they are less sensitive to dynamics in music. Bass playing can be very dynamic, yet bass tends to sound strongest in a mix when it is compressed. Dynamic mics will provide some natural compression.

Mic Choice

Realistically, in live settings, the bass amp tends to be lower on the priority list than, say, vocal or guitar amp mic. Often the bass amp is miked with “whatever is left.”

AKG d112

If you have your choice of mic, try a dedicated bass/kick mic, such as the AKG d112. These mics are specialized for the role of capturing bass instruments. Their frequency response includes a prominent boost for bass frequencies, and for frequencies in the 2000-5000Hz range. This higher register boost will capture more of the bass’s presence and overtones. The relatively depressed frequencies in the 250-2000 Hz range are usually cut to make room for vocals and rhythm instruments in mixes.

Electro-Voice RE20

These mics are less common in live settings than they are in studios, but if you have the option, the Electro-Voice RE20 is a fabulous mic for a number of applications, including miking bass amps. This mic was designed as a vocal broadcast mic, but has gradually earned a reputation as a unique and powerful dynamic mic. It is certainly on the expensive end of the dynamic mic scale, but its sound quality is very high-fidelity. The RE20 is known for a unique sonic character. It tends to smooth out harsher sound sources, which could be helpful for sharp or fuzzy bass tones.

Shure SM57, SM58, AKG D5

If your budget or mic selection is limited, then there is no shame in using a basic dynamic mic. The Shure SM57 and SM58 are ever-popular choices. Compared to those two, the popular SM58 competitor, the AKG D5, is a slightly better choice for bass amps. It has a moderately boosted bass response.

Mic Placement

When placing the mic, try placing it between 6-12 inches from the speaker. In a live setting, you are likely to run into bleed issues if you are any further than that. (Note that when miking guitar, you can get closer- but bass benefits from greater space between mic and amp.) For a punchier and brighter sound, aim the mic directly at the speaker cone’s center. Move the mic from the center of the speaker to its edge for a dark, smooth tone.

When placing the mic, remember that proximity effect could play a part. When mics are placed close to sound sources, they have higher bass response. If you are using a vocal mic such as the SM58 or AKG D5, this can be used to your advantage. The SM58 in particular has a diminished bass response, which can be made up by miking the amp more closely. Alternately, if the bass frequencies seem overpowering in the bass’s tone, try moving the mic back a bit.

Studio Playing

The tips I gave above are applicable to miking bass amps in the studio as well. Studios can provide further opportunities for creative engineering, however.

First of all, If you are recording with a dynamic mic, you may be able to move the mic further from the amp. This allows you to also capture more room tone, if you are playing in a good-sounding room. But room tone can be a tricky subject with bass-heavy instruments. Bass frequencies in reverb can be very problematic- they make mixes sound muddy and murky. When in doubt, record with less room tone.

Room Mic

Another approach is to use a room mic in conjunction with your amp mic. Use a dynamic mic close to the speaker for the amp mic, and a condenser mic for the room. By cutting the bass of the room mic track, you can maintain the feeling of space and power, without risking muddy recordings. Condenser mic choice is not crucial for the role of room miking. I would recommend using the best or most expensive mic you own. Some of my favorite mics for this role are the Lauten Audio LA-220 for smaller budgets, Avantone CV-12 for medium budgets, or the Neumann TLM-103 for bigger budgets. The Avantone CV-12 has selectable patterns, so you can experiment with cardioid or omnidirectional.

Room mic placement is a chance for creativity. The only hard-and-fast rule is the 3:1 rule, which should always be followed when miking a sound source using two mics. The room mic should be at least 3x as far from the dynamic mic, as the dynamic mic is from the speaker. Otherwise, use your ears and experiment with mic placement. It depends on your room! Keep in mind that bass frequencies tend to build up in corners, so placing the room mic too close to them can muddy your tone.

Close-Miking the Bass Itself

The studio provides another avenue for creative engineering. Try this technique if you want to add an extra layer of detail and depth to your bass recording. After miking up the amp with your choice of technique, place a condenser mic near the player’s right hand (or left hand if the bassist is a southpaw.) Whether the player is using a pick or fingers, this mic will pick up an excellent layer of texture. Process to taste (try compressing this track heavily and keeping it barely audible in the mix.) This “hand track” adds an extra dimension to the note articulation, particularly powerful with expressive or driving playing.

Don’t forget that many people are hearing music on small phone and laptop speakers and earbuds now. These speakers have virtually no bass response. So creative miking techniques such as room mics and hand mics can add mid and high frequencies to the bass recording. These frequencies give the bass presence on smaller speakers.

Conclusion

And there you have it, a starting guide to miking bass amps in the studio or live. For another angle, check out an article I wrote a while back about recording bass using a phone and mobile interfaces. If you are hitting a wall with the production side, don’t be afraid to reach out to professional mixing and mastering services. They can be more affordable than you would expect, and a great resource to learn by example. Good luck and feel the joy of the music!