Home / From The Bottom Up: From The Fender Bass To The Software Synthesizer

From The Bottom Up: From The Fender Bass To The Software Synthesizer

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Based on today’s aesthetics, Leo Fender would probably rate as one of the un-hippest looking guys around; and yet he gave the music world three of its most important electric instruments: the Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster, and the Precision Bass, the first mass-produced bass guitar. Leo Fender’s name is so synonymous with that last instrument that to this day, many simply refer to the electric bass as the Fender Bass, even though many manufacturers now produce an electric bass guitar.

Leo Fender didn’t actually invent the electric bass, but he was the first to build the instrument in quantity, beginning with the P-Bass in late 1951. This was only about a year and a half after the first Telecaster solidbody electric guitars started rolling off his Fullerton California assembly line. And while Fender’s guitars certainly led to the birth of rock and roll, as Jim Roberts explains in his terrific book, How The Fender Bass Changed The World, the P-Bass (as it eventually became popularly known as) influenced all sorts of music besides rock: Motown, R&B, and especially funk would all be virtually unthinkable without the instrument.

While Fender’s instruments were born in the early 1950s, it took the following decade for their true virtuosos to appear. The first electric bassists played the instrument like the acoustic bass, whose four-to-the-bar style derives from the instrument that it replaced in the rhythm section, the tuba.

The First Electric Bass Virtuoso

To get out of that rut, all it took was one man to really use the new instrument’s flexibility.

Just as Jimi Hendrix invented a whole new vocabulary for guitarists with his Fender Stratocaster, James Jamerson, Motown’s chief session bassist in the 1960s invented a new way of playing that was tailored to the P-Bass. As Alan Slutsky, the author of Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, and the producer of its 2002 film version told me:

Jamerson comes out of nowhere, and then starts do [hums fast staccato pulsing Motown lick] do ba doopa doopa doopa do ba doopa da do do do. He completely invented the vocabulary of this new instrument, and made it a virtuoso position, instead of just a foundation position, with all those syncopations, and all this incredible feel that none of these other converted upright bassists had. He opened up the possibility of what the instrument could do to the rest of the world, and then all of a sudden, everybody’s copying his lines, making hits, and they have no idea who this guy is.

British rock owes quite a debt to Jamerson: the melodic bass lines of Paul McCartney, the metallic twang lead bass style of John Entwistle, and the chromatic style of John Paul Jones all trace their roots to Jamerson–as each man has said in numerous interviews–many unfortunately after Jamerson died in 1983.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the bass world proceeded down two parallel tracks. While the electric bass continued to grow in popularity, as men like Bootsy Collins dominated the funk world, and Chris Squire and Geddy Lee rock; in dance music, the synth bass began to become a popular element. Once MIDI and sampling became integral parts of pop music in the 1980s, synthesized bass would begin to play an even more crucial role in music.

Today, between soft synths, hardware synths, the electric bass, and even the traditional acoustic “dog house” bass, there are all sorts of ways to put some bottom into a tune. So let’s look at getting the best bass sounds, starting with Leo Fender’s world changing invention.

Forty Years At The Bottom

There have been so many changes in the sound of the bass over the past forty years that to document them all would fill a book–and indeed, has. But painted in the broadest brushstrokes, here are some of the highlights.

In the 1960s, John Entwistle of The Who worked directly with Rotosound Manufacturing Ltd. to develop their roundwound Swing Bass line of strings for the bass guitar. At the same time that Jamerson, McCartney and Entwistle himself were transforming the bass from a purely rhythmic instrument to one that could combine rhythm and melody, these strings helped to bring a new piano-like bright tone very different from the thump of the flatwound strings they supplanted. Entwistle, and later Chris Squire of Yes combined these strings with distorted amplification to produce the definitive rock lead bass sounds.

While there had been other fretless electric bass players before him, the emergence of Jaco Pastorious gave the fretless its first true virtuoso. Other players followed Jaco’s lead, such as British session musician Pino Palidino. As Jim Roberts says, “He did some phenomenal sessions with an R&B singer named Paul Young. If you listen to Pino’s work in that setting, his ability to be in sync with the vocalist is amazing.”

Around the same time in the mid-1980s that Palidino was recording with Paul Young, the five string bass began to become increasingly popular, which extends the low-end of the bass from E down to B. Roberts says, “It was originally created essentially because in the early days of synthesizers, particularly when the DX-7 synthesizer came around, keyboard players were playing notes that bassists couldn’t play. Bass players didn’t like that!”

Recording Electric Bass

There are several ways that the electric bass can be recorded, and each of these can be valuable for both variety and experimentation sake.

The simplest option is direct injection, and in a hard disc-based recording system, that can allow the most options later. Cakewalk’s Sonar program has an EQ with a plug-in that simulates the EQ curve of a traditional recording studio direct box. It’s possible to plug a Fender Bass straight through something as simple as a Soundblaster soundcard’s Live Drive breakout box, or M-Audio’s Omni I/O breakout box and get a fat, terrific tone using this method.

However, noted British session musician Huw Price, the author of Recording the Guitar and Bass, would argue that using a small, valve-powered bass amp such as the Ampeg Portaflex and miking it with an Neumann U-47 microphone produces the best result. In his book, Price stresses the importance of capturing the low-mid and upper-mid frequencies of the electric bass:

because most domestic hi-fi speakers are incapable of producing the lowest frequencies. If the listener can hear the upper harmonics of a low bass note, the ear can be fooled into believing that it can hear the fundamental. If upper harmonics are absent, the bass line might disappear on small speakers.

Jim Roberts says that recording a bass amp has its drawbacks, though:

Nine times out of ten, if you go into the studio, they’ll ask you to plug-in direct to the board, just because that’s easier for the engineer to control, rather than using an amp and to mic the amp, because bass amps make so much noise in the studio that they leak into all the other amps, and they cause problems.

Roberts believes that a combination of direct and an amp produces the best tone. “You take a really good studio amp (and for many, many years, a really good studio amp was the Ampeg B-15, a small tube amp, that has a nice round sound), you mic that, and you take it direct off the bass, and then you can combine the two.”

Ultimately though, as Craig Anderton, long time musician and author says, “Frankly, to me the most important aspect of the bass involves the notes and rhythms. I don’t agonize all that much over the timbre as long as it fits the song”. And in terms of how people hear music, he’s probably right.

Comping Down a Track

Paul McCartney once said that when recording during the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper era, he’d frequently put the bass on last. While the band was recording its basic tracks, he would either do a simple bass part, or play a different instrument, such as piano or guitar. But waiting until the track was near completion allowed him to compose the most appropriate bass part for the completed song.

It isn’t always possible to record the bass that far along into the recording process. But because the bassist is performing a simultaneously rhythmic and melodic part, it definitely helps to at least have some sort of guide vocal and basic instrumentation in place when recording bass parts. Even if it’s a vocal performance you wouldn’t think of releasing, the phrasing alone can help the bassist compose a part that won’t clash with the singer.

Speaking of which, just as lead vocals are frequently constructed via comping of multiple takes down to a single track, the same technique works great for the bass–and other primarily single note instruments as well.

With synthesized bass recorded as a MIDI track, it’s easy to take a riff or passage and alter a note here or there to produce some variation. Obviously, that’s much more difficult to do with recorded bass, although it can certainly be done with judicious editing, splicing and using pitch-changing plug-ins like the Antares Auto-Tune. But by having the bassist perform multiple takes of the same part, enough variety should be recorded to build up a world-class bass track.

One way of doing this is for the bassist’s first take be played relatively conservatively, so that the melodic and harmonic foundation of the track is taken care of. Then a couple of tracks of improvisation–from slight variations maybe even up to some wild experimental playing if the tune seems to call for it–can be recorded.

Finally, the whole thing can be comped down into one complete killer track.

Soft Synths and Loops

Electric bass ultimately is rooted in relatively simple physics and engineering: one player, one physical instrument, and possibly, one amplifier. But when it comes to synthesized bass, anything goes. A track could be a 15-year-old Peavey DPM-3 or even older Yamaha DX-7 with a bass patch that’s been physically played a crack session musician.

Or, it could be a soft synth like Cakewalk’s Project5 or Propellerhead’s Reason.

Kurt Kurasaki is the author of Power Tools For Reason 2.5. In an interview, he told me that “In some styles of electronic music, the bass riff carries the entire track, and one of the things that you lose when sequencing is performance value. Most times you end up recording eight or sixteen measures of a bass line, then duplicate it for the entire song.”

To break up this monotony, Kurasaki recommends adding parameter automation or small modulations to the timbre of the bass. “I personally prefer the automation track where filter and dynamic changes are applied in real time over the duration of the track. The live automation adds life back to sequenced melody and keeps the track interesting.”

While Kurasaki frequently uses Reason’s Maelstrom synthesizer for his bass parts, he doesn’t mind using loops of bass if the song he’s working on calls for it. “A really catchy bass loop has the power to inspire one to create a whole track around the riff. Once the bass loop is loaded and set, I’ll try to double it with a synth bass or even just a sine wave bass”.

Typically, Kurasaki processes bass riffs in Propellerhead’s ReCycle program, “so that I have some flexibility with the groove and tempo. I then load the bass loop into the Dr. Rex loop player or NN-XT Sampler. With the bass riff segmented, I can nudge notes around in the sequencer or adjust the pitch of a single note to make it fit with the track.” Cakewalk’s Project5 and Sonar also have a good loop editor, their Cyclone applet.

When working with Acid loops, Craig Anderton, the author of Sonar 3: Mixing & Mastering, says, “I think most loops are worthless unless you slice then up and move them around! Otherwise they can sound pretty boring–I want a loop to be hypnotic, not put people to sleep.”

Much of the slicing that Anderton performs involves dropping out a measure or half-measure while the drums do their thing, or with loops of two to four bars or longer, isolating the first measure and repeating that before going into the rest of the loop. Slicing the loops to get “stuttering” eighth or 16th notes can also be a great effect if used sparingly.

If a slice occurs on a zero-crossing, there can be a click or pop. “You might not notice this if other parts are happening, but they have a detrimental effect on a mix. As a result, prior to mixing I solo each track and listen all the way through.” If Anderton hears any clicks or pops, he uses fades, such as Sonar’s clip-by-clip fade-ins and fade-outs to clean them up.

Many commercially available loops are not Acidized or Rexed very well and have missed transients and misplaced slice markers, etc. So Anderton recommends optimizing the loops before doing any cutting or copying, “because I want to make sure I cut or copy the optimized version. If you copy the original, then you have to go back and re-tweak every single copy”, which can end up being a tremendous waste of time.

Get Into The Mix

Getting a good bass mix is all about experimentation, but there are certain tips that come in handy.

First, it helps to listen to the material on a variety of speakers, and to balance the sound of the bass with the instruments. When you’ve got a mix with a clean, audible bass part that doesn’t blow out the vocalist, and works on a variety of speakers, you’re obviously in the ballpark.

Session bassist Keith Rosier, the author of Jump ‘n’ Blues Bass, has some tips for EQ’ing the bass. “The frequencies that work for the low-end would be anywhere from 40 to 100 hertz. If your bass isn’t sounding deep enough, I would sparingly raise those maybe three db.

“If your bass is just not cutting through, surprisingly, the best frequencies for that are from 250 to 700 hertz. That’s the midrange; the human ear hears midrange easier than other frequencies. So if your bass is just not popping out, just scroll through a parametric EQ from 200 to 700 with your boost maybe at plus-three or plus-six dbs, until you find the frequency that really makes the bass pop out, and then when you do, back it down to plus-three or so.”

Rosier says that if the bass you’ve recorded is an electric, “If it isn’t bright enough, that means you either need to put new strings on your bass, or you need to boost around three, four or five k. Sparingly–because if you boost a lot of high-end on bass, you’ll start getting in the way of the guitar and the vocal”.

Craig Anderton adds, “The important thing to a lot of my music is the kick drum rather than the bass, so I don’t want them to argue in the same frequency range. I’ll often add a fairly narrow midrange EQ peak to bring out “snap” or pick noise. Usually the EQ in Sonar’s Producer Edition is more than sufficient. I do use the Steinberg Quadrafuzz plug-in sometimes to add some ‘edge’; of course that brings out the highs without EQ due to the added harmonics.”

“But as to specific settings”, Anderton says, “it’s impossible to generalize…every song is different. It’s like assuming that the same dress would look good on all women.”

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About Ed Driscoll

  • Speaking as a working bassist, your kung fu is the best. Thanks Ed, for a fantastic article and reverent homage to the Low End.

  • What a great article. I’d often wondered why so many women played bass in rock bands, and asked one who was replaced in a studio session by Will Lee, and she said it was because there were fewer strings than a guitar.

    Drums and bass are the two sections most replaced by machines, but I think that really opens up the field for awesome players, since machines can’t do awesome yet.

  • Eric Olsen

    Really exceptional Ed: informative, interesting, enduring. Thanks as always!

  • Great post; very informative.

    Just a small quibble, though. I’d point to Anthony Jackson for the revolution of creating the contrabass (5 strings and more).

  • Casper,

    That’s a great point–Jackson is featured in both Jim Roberts’ and Alan Slutsky’s books, though. I also sort of kicked myself after writing this for not including Carol Kaye. But there are so many great players, it’s tough to know when to stop.


  • Guys,

    Thanks for the kind words–most appreciated!


  • SFC SKi

    As a bass player whio really wishes he’d deployed with at least one guitar to play, this clumn made me really eager to get back home and rebuild my calussed fingers. I am going to be buying a few of those books as well, thanks for the tip!

    You should have mentioned the advent of affordable acoustic guitar-bodied 4 strings. I have a Sonata acoustic, only $275. but full sounding with great action, with the portability that many of us long-envied acoustic guitarists for haiving at beach parties or just sittin out back woodshedding.

    once again, great column!