It’s all about the music

I’m a computer guy. I know that doesn’t seem to align with me playing an upright bass in rock bands or for that matter my oil painting. But in my day job, I’m a designer with a focus on internet. So I can code bit and I know my way around a computer pretty well. Also half the art work I do is on my iPad. But this is a music blog, right? Yes, it is.

Technology and tech tools have been playing a big part in my musical life since the beginning. When I was a kid I thought I invented overdubbing. I had my dad’s boom-box and a little Sanyo cassette recorder. I would record myself playing a song on guitar, then pop out the cassette and put it in the boom box, get a new cassette in the Sanyo and hit play on the boom box and play my bass part. Lots of trial and mostly error to get the volume mix right. One that was done, I’d lay down some fake drum parts by tapping bottles and boxes to create some kind of rhythmic noise. This let me listen to my songs and write lyrics… I never recorded my own vocals as I was not a fan of my own voice back then.

A few years later, Foster X-15!!! I LOVED THIS THING. It could run on batteries so you could take it anywhere. 2 input channels, bounce tracks, air pressure punch-in remote! I wish I had some of the work I did on this thing. My band used it fo make demos for clubs… we would overdub vocals to make us sound a little more pro.  I was sure if the Beatles could make their masterpieces on 4 track, I could too!… never happened.

In my college years I was playing bass for everyone in town. There were three groups that had an 8-track machine back in the 80’s in Cincinnati (yes, I’m sure there were more) but in my little world it was Afgan Whigs, and my two bands, Bachelors of Art and the Rhapsodes. I ended up playing, touring and moving to Boston with Bachelors of Art. It was great, these guys were really studio geeks. There did all the work and the purchasing of mics, compressors, tapes and such. Together we heavily saturated a lot of tape. As the years went by we saw digital as the next big thing, so we bought Sony PCM encoders, then digital recorders that worked on VHS and so on.

Not to be honest, even though I was working in pro-audio at a few different stores in the Boston area, I didn’t really know much. But what I did do is to learn what made a great bass sound. I learned what compressed bass should sound like. I learned about mics for bass cabs. I learned how to set an Ampeg B-15 (just turn it on and dont touch the knobs… it already sounds great).

I got really lucky over the years to be able to work in great studios with great producers all of whom at one point said to me “you should try it on a P-bass.” UGH! I started really gigging and recording with my P-Bass in the 80’s and I was so done with the sound and feel of it. But I’m sure it probably would have been less hassle to just give in and use it. I think Pete Weiss (producer of Charlie Chesteman and so much more) convinced me that my Dan-o was just not working and to just give it a try… I did. I hated the sound coming out of the B-15 in the room, but back in the control room… he was right. I had no choice but to give up and start playing upright bass… This is a whole other blog post.

So, I got an Apple and eventually Garage Band, then Logic. I did a lot of recording, and I even did a soundtrack to a movie in my basement with Charlie Chesterman and the boys. I’ve gone back to the simplicity of GarageBand. When ever possible, even with my little demo songs, I mic as much as I can. I use an Apogee One as my interface and I even use the tiny built in mic it has. I use Apple loops and I make most of my own loops. For home recording I found the key is to NOT try to make it sound professional, just shoot for clean, and a good level. Get one good good mic (doesnt have to be great). Spend some time learning how compression, limiting, expanding work… really any of your dynamic processors, that’s the key to making instrument sit in a mix and really come to life.

Dynamics are everything

Anyway, over the years of recording and playing, what have I learned?

  1. Understand compression for recording to help you fit into the mix and not get lost.
  2. Understand compression for live to help you keep control of your dynamic spikes.
  3. A Rat pedal and a Boss T-wah pedal, and an Octave pedal with a Boss compressor and a volume pedal is all you should ever need for almost any gig. Sounds like a lot but that should cover every sound a 4 hour general business gig can throw at you
  4. Mic the amp when playing electric bass… you may never need it, but it adds so life to your tone. An SM-58 and a small powered amp (tube or solid). Pit it in a closet and then go direct.
  5. Do not compress while recording, add it on in post. I used to have the engineer run my bass thru compression before returning to my phones so that I would dig into the strings and feel more comfortable playing.
  6. Find headphones that dont distort at loud bass volume. I’ve played so many sessions where I could not hear what I was playing…amp in the closet and headphones full distorted. UGH
  7. Ask for another take! these days we have digital studios with infinite tracks. There are a few Albums that I’m on with obvious mistakes because we liked the feel of the band and we were recording to tape.

Well, there you have it. No really insight or even good stories.. Just what it was like for me.

“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.”