(First published by Global Bass in November 1999)


I have always been struck by preponderance of poor live bass sound. Bassists show up at gigs with thousands of dollars worth of rig and bass yet the results are often dismal. The bass sound seems clouded with extraneous noise. The sound person's best efforts are usually for naught so the sound person takes the bass down in the mix, inevitably filling in the mix with extra kick drum. Many bassists are oblivious to their predicament, having long since relegated such responsibility to others.

The challenges to getting good live bass sound are many. First is the source, the bass itself. Most players imagine their sound in a vacuum. Unfortunately what sounds good solo in their bedroom has little in common with what is needed at the concert hall. When bands practice there is seldom enough thought given to how the instruments blend, who will fit in where in the sound spectrum. Guitarist thrill with extended bass in their sound, while bassists think that every sibilant nuance of their new strings must be broadcast to the masses. Drummers rightfully cover the spectrum from bass drum to high hat. The result is that no one is heard correctly, a volume race ensues in the practice room and on stage. Bassist must compete with their best foot forward; clear, fat fundamental tone enriched with some clean midrange and not much else.

We could start by taking our cues from the electric bass pioneers of the 50s and 60s who, with modest equipment were able to propel their music in a most effective and memorable way, often using short scale basses or hollow bodies and flat wound strings of prehistoric vintage that they played with felt picks. Few of us today would stand for dead strings but we should consider that much of a new string's sound is high frequency clutter. On stage most of those highs will be masked by the guitar, cymbals and other high frequency sources. Trying to poke through the mix by boosting mids and highs won't clear up the bass part since the upper content is mostly finger noise, sympathetic ringing from adjacent strings and buzz or hiss.

Much can be gained by filtering the sound before it is amplified. Bass intelligibility is determined by wave shape. Certain wave forms can cut through better than others. Of course it's best to fit the song with an appropriate tone and then strive for intelligibility from there by cutting out the parts of the signal that aren't essential. In practice this might mean having a couple of different basses. In general it means playing cleanly and staying away from effects. Many times the culprit is too much low end in a misguided attempt to fatten the bass. It is better to get a solid 60 or 80Hz center and cut out everything below 50Hz than to pile up standing waves at 40 or 30 Hz.

If you play several styles during a set you will need to sound check each permutation from reggae to smooth jazz to see how the room will respond. If you are touring a regular circuit, you should take written notes on each venue. Always talk to the local sound person to find out what works. They in turn will appreciate your concern and do their best on your behalf.

If you own a big rig and are playing in a small venue, stay out of the house mix entirely. A single point source is better at avoiding wave cancellations around the room. For a deeper sound, set your rig against a back wall or in a corner to enhance the "boundary effect". If the low end is overpowering move the rig up towards the middle of the room. 10" drivers tend to focus sound in a narrow beam and aren't as good for filling big rooms. You can try bouncing the sound off a back wall to get better propagation though you will loose some highs in the process.

If you mic your amp for the house feed, make sure you aren't distorting your amp unintentionally on stage. A D.I. (Direct Inject) is a much better way to go and you should probably buy one that you like, it's a small investment that can make a big difference. Most bass pre-amps and amps now come with built in D.I.s that work well but you might want to experiment. Some of the best bass players I know simply use a D.I. and the house monitors for their signal and leave their rigs at home. They sound better because they avoid interference between their rig and the house mains while they are more conscious of what their bass sounds in the house. These lucky guys save their backs too.

Some of my favorite DIs:
Reichenbach DB- 1:12
Little Labs

Keep your stage volume at an absolute minimum if you are going through the house mains. Smaller enclosures are better suited for monitoring, set them up at ear level or angle them up from the stage. Use them for side fill rather than aiming them indiscriminately out at the audience. This will let the mains sound their best and won't confuse the sound person with a hot bass signal beamed right at the mixing board from the stage. The latest trend is in-ear monitors for the whole band with Plexiglas baffles around the drummer. These in-ear systems are still expensive but can be built up slowly starting with the vocalists who seem to love them. You will probably love not hearing the vocalists in your mix. Drummers seem to be the most monitor-needy after vocalists. Consider a "shaker" throne for the drummer so that she can feel her kick drum and your bass meshing rather than blasting her with 2 monitors and side-fill.

Tell the front of house engineer that you want less overall house volume. A house system running at 100dB will have headroom and will sound far better than a system that is maxed out at 129dB. Sound engineers often believe their job is to wring as much volume as possible out of the house system. Bass requires most of the power in a house system but if all the power is used up with kick drum reverb and vocals, your low frequencies will never get a chance and your audience will go home with their ears ringing and won't have benefited from a note you played. I just heard about a club that uses a low power FM broadcast instead of house sound, each patron gets their own FM headset and can adjust their volume as they wish. Now that's utopian.



Copywrite 1999 David King