Our setup for bass recording is basic and we do not experiment much. This said, we definitely know that we want the bass to be heard and its melody understood. I would be happy with a song that takes only the bass, the vocals, one guitar, and some drums. That should be good enough if the bass can carry its weight. I like a bass that carries a complex melody throughout the song. I like when this melody is different than the melody of the rest of the instruments and when it complements the song without hindering other instruments.
Thus, the bass sound that I like has certain characteristics. It should be melodic and thick. It should not be a hollow "flat" bass, but should cover well the lower frequency spectrum. It should have dynamics. I do not care about initial accent, but I do not want a quick fade away either.
To get to all this I have a simple general strategy: I finger-pick; I play close to the neck and I use the neck pickup; I use minimal compression, if any; I avoid much drive. Although this general strategy is simple, recording the bass in my experience is pretty complicated. We have not yet found the sound that we like, but, to be fair, we do not spend much money on bass recording equipment (as opposed to guitars). I would be curious to see what other people are doing and I know that there is definitely much room for experimentation.
We use a Kramer Striker 700ST bass. It is comfortable. Its action is low and so it buzzes sometimes, but not often. Recently we changed the pickups on that bass from the original ones to Seymour Duncan Basslines. I think we are using the SPB-1 vintage for p-bass, which are not very hot and are quite warm. Even though I usually go for neck pickup with tone knobs off, my friends usually go for the bridge pick up with the tone knobs up there somewhere. There is a big difference between the two sounds and so our bass is fairly versatile.
We recorded a lot of bass tracks through the Line 6 Bass POD Pro, but that was before. The POD has many options and controls and we had trouble deciding on the bass sound. We spent too much time turning knobs rather than recording. And at the end of the day I liked only two of the basic amp models on the POD: Adam & Eve and Eighties. Adam & Eve, equalized with the bass knob all the way up, gave us a thick mellow sound that we used on a few classic old blues songs (I wanted to replicate the sound of an upright, but that proved impossible). Eighties gave us a more accented sound for the rest of our songs. In both cases we used minimal compression and drive, sometimes equalized the lower frequencies up, and did nothing else.
We switched to recording the bass through a cheap ($45 nowadays) mike tube preamp called TubePre by PreSonus, with the hope of getting a "warmer" tube bass sound. And so we did. We used this setup for a lot of songs. The TubePre is simple – it has a one input (1/4" or XLR), one output (same), one gain knob, one drive knob, phantom power (not that you need it for your bass). It does not allow for much variety, but at least the bass sound through our last album was consistent. We always used some drive, but as the TubePre is a mike preamp the drive does not really distort the sound much. We demoed some songs to various musicians recently and they liked our bass sound – it was clean and thick.
And then everything got complicated. Epiphone now makes the Epiphone Valve Junior Tube Amplifier Head. This is a guitar amp through which the bass actually comes wonderfully. My friend purchased it to record guitar, but it works well for the bass. In my opinion, it works out better than on the guitar, but then I also use a Fender bass cabined for my guitar sound. The best thing about this preamp is that it is only a 5W preamp, which means that you do not have blow out your windows or ears just to get a good tube sound. It has 4, 8, and 16 ohm speaker outs, which is good if you want to mike various speakers. We used an attenuator to get a line out and record the bass direct. The Valve Junior is a tube amplifier and needs a load with the proper impedance, so that it does not burn the tubes. You should use an attenuator if you do not plan to use a speaker. The attenuator we use is the Weber MiniMASS, which is a speaker motor model attenuator: it has a volume knob, a speaker impedance switch (4, 8, and 16 ohm), a bypass switch, amp input, line output, and speaker output. The nice thing about it is that at zero volume level it basically serves as dummy load for the amp. The other nice thing about it is that since it uses a speaker motor it does not affect the sound quality much. The bass sound that we get with the Valve Junior Head is a lot warmer and more melodic than anything that we got through the Line 6 POD and the TubePre. This has made our bass very pronounced, which is very important in our blues songs (but maybe too much for contemporary rock songs).
We also own a Kustom bass speaker cabinet. I wish I can tell you exactly what it is, but so far I have not been able to figure out much. It is old. It looks very much like the Kustom model 304 – the one which was supposed to carry Altec speakers. Someone stripped the foam from the bass cabinet and put a Fender 15" speaker inside, so I think right now we have ourselves a mongrel. This said I like very much the way it sounds. The more I experiment with equipment the more I have to admit that you should really mike amplifiers than record direct. Most bass players I talk to do not seem to think so. They would rather record the bass direct, but I am of the opinion that nothing can replicate the sound of a good speaker designed to reproduce a specific instrument. The problem with this speaker cabinet is that it rattles when playing the bass. So far we have not used it to record the bass, but we did some guitar work with it –it produces a really nice clean guitar.
I am still surprised how difficult it is to find and record a good bass sound. Perhaps the problem is that my ear is not trained well to listen to and adjust bass sound. After all bass is not normally what I pay attention to in a song. I am guessing there is a lot more to a bass than what I have mentioned here.