Is that it then? Next song?”
“No, we’ve only done two takes so far… I noticed it wasn’t quite meshing in the middle 8”
Alex does not like recording. He doesn’t understand it. He doesn’t know why it’s happening to him. Alex turns up, sets up his rig exactly as if it’s a gig, and gets confused that no one applauds him after each take. I feel for him. He’s just not excited by it. Don’t get me wrong, the songs excite him, the performances excite him, the finished mixes excite him, and the idea that we’re going to release them on an unsuspecting world excites him. But the in between stages hold no allure for Alex. I play him half finished mixes, saying things like “listen to the drums here! Can you feel that compression!?” and he to date has only ever had the following suggestion:
“I think the bass part in (insert song section) is (too loud/ too quiet/ not powerful enough).”
I think there’s one in every band, I have to believe it’s not just us. He doesn’t listen to the whole mix. If he did, he’d find out there’s a guitarist in the band too. He only knows if the bass is too loud, or the bass is too quiet. Alex doesn’t want to embark down the road towards understanding what makes a production good, he keeps his head down and hopes his playing isn’t going to ruin everything. He is the ugly hidden face of recording a band. In his world, there would be no recording and everyone would be compelled by law to attend massive concerts in which he, the bass player, was the star of the show and amplified so loud that it caused anyone within 10 miles to be sick, and anyone within 300 yards of the stage to get what doctors would call “gooey eyeball caused by liquefaction of innards”.
I might have digressed a bit here. You get the idea.
The bass and vocals are probably the constants in this bunch of recordings – as is the case on many records, I think. We change the drum mics, tuning and at times the drums themselves around depending on the mood of the songs. Like many guitarists, I change my tones depending on the part I’m playing. I’ll talk about that next week. In a mix, guitars are multitracked, drums and percussion get lots of different tracks, panning, treatments… but bass? There’s one bass track per song. I think it’s the unifying thread that runs through our songs and makes the recordings work together. Musically, it’s the bridge between rhythm and melody, the anchor pin, the keystone that holds the whole band together.
Some people think that a bass guitar is like a bigger, deeper electric guitar but it’s not, it’s completely different. Electric guitars sound absolutely dreadful – if you can, try plugging a guitar into a hi-fi or a PA system. They sound thin, clicky, choked, lifeless… just bad. You need to plug them into something else that distorts terribly (namely a guitar amp) to make them useable at all. Bass, not so. Plug a bass guitar into anything at all and it comes across pretty much like the sound we all know and recognise as “bass guitar”. Sure, different amps and recording styles can colour what you hear, but they can’t fundamentally change what is being played on the instrument. Unlike a guitar, where some fantastic sounds can come from terrible performances (this fact has saved my bacon many times).
Whether or not it sounds good, therefore, is literally in the hands of the bass player. How consistently they play each note. Which bit of the string they pluck. Whether they mute a note before playing the next. It all counts. Like Mez, Alex can deliver the goods when he needs to. We recorded the bass parts over a couple of days, mostly using Alex’s trusty Ampeg stack.
It’s a general rule when recording bass guitar that people take a direct recording of the bass to process later. That is, the electrical signal is split straight into the recorder as well as going through the bass amp. That’s a safe thing to do, because it gives you an uncoloured recording of the bass which you can mess around with later. I didn’t do that, because I like Alex’s bass amp. It’s the sound I want everyone to hear. He plays an Ampeg stack which is about as tall as a person. I like the Ampeg because it adds authority to the tone, and filters the sound in a nice way that sits well in a mix – the high end of a bass can be clacky and clicky in a bad way, the Ampeg makes it aggressive, twangy and defined. The bass can be boomy, the Ampeg makes it growl and rumble without overpowering the mix.
At one stage, we did split the signal. But not to go straight into the recorder: We split the signal between the Ampeg stack and one of my AC30 guitar amps, for a blend of clear bass and fuzzy distorted goodness. That was fun, and quite loud.
I’ve not told you about the bass guitar being used, yet. It’s made of Cocobolo wood, which is so strong and dense that when they make these basses, they have to make them at the end of a production run because it destroys the tools used to shape it. That makes it very resonant – even if you play it unplugged, it seems to sing to you, otherworldly harmonics wafting out of the body. And that’s good.
Alex was genuinely worried having heard the drum tracks that he was going to ruin what we’d done so far, but he did no such thing. He played the tracks with precision and punch, just like he always does. Maybe in his head, the recording session was a gig after all, his audience just displaced a little in space and time.