I covered how to record guitar with Sonar in these pages a couple of years ago, but times change, software gets updated, and in any case bass guitar really needs its own treatment. There are, of course, similarities, and the standard cautions for recording bass directly into a computer are the same as for guitar.
First, if you're going direct into your interface, choose an 'instrument' input with a high impedance, to avoid loading down the bass pickups. If there's no instrument input, but only line-level or mic (don't use the mic input!), you need an impedance converter or buffer. Most effects units and processors can do this (for example, a compressor set for no compression), or you can use an active, high-impedance DI box between the guitar and the audio interface line input. Another option is the interface included with guitar-oriented products, like the optional USB audio interface for Native Instruments' Guitar Rig, the interface in IK Multimedia's Stomp I/O or Waves' preamp for their GTR software.
Another concern is latency, because if you're playing through plug-ins and want to monitor how they affect the sound, you'll be monitoring 'through' the computer. A fast computer and a quality interface with low-latency drivers should be able to deliver latencies well under 10ms. If not, lighten the load on your processor as much as possible when recording — for example, freeze instrument tracks, and archive tracks that aren't essential. (To archive a track, select it, then go Tracks / Archive.) Lower the latency temporarily while recording; when you're done, return it to a higher setting suitable for playback or mixing.
OK: we can start recording. But first we should probably get tuned up...
Sonar's Chromatic Tuner plug-in works with bass as well as guitar, although it seems to have a hard time with the low E and A strings. I tune by hitting the harmonic (12th fret) on these two strings, which works fine.
To tune the bass, feed it into a record-enabled track. Make sure input echo is on, or the tuner won't work. Right-click in the track's effects bin and, under Cakewalk effects, select Tuner. (Note that enabling the tuner mutes the track signal.)
Turn on the tuner (click the 'power' button above the Cakewalk logo; it turns orange when enabled). As you play, the display will show the note being played, with both a meter display and dual-LED (sharp or flat) display.
If you'd like to use effects on the bass part (many people don't), I find the best way is by 'parallel processing'. Effects on bass can thin out the sound and compromise low-end punch, but if you mix unprocessed and processed bass tracks you can use an effect but not eliminate the low end. A good example is using wah with bass (the Sonitus Wahwah works well for this). First, you need a parallel-processing setup. The easiest way is to clone the bass track and use the cloned track for effects. Alternatively, you can feed the bass track to a send (with an inserted effect) that terminates in the master bus.
Assuming you've simply cloned the track, insert the Wahwah into the 'effects' track. The screenshot above shows typical values. I recommend setting the Wahwah to Triggered mode, so that the filter frequency follows the dynamics of your playing.
Compression also works well in parallel, as you can 'squash' the bass signal as an effect, then bring up that track a bit to reinforce the main bass track. This seems to be most effective when used subtly, as it brings up the lower levels without negating the higher-level dynamics.
Distortion can also work when you want to add some grit, but be aware that Sonar's Amp Sim is not intended for bass. So this is another situation where parallel effects work well: you can create just the distortion component in the Amp Sim and mix it in support of the dry signal. We'll cover distortion in detail later.
I've mentioned the issue of time differences between amp and DI signals with guitar, but this is important enough to reiterate for bass guitar — particularly because so many engineers record a bass DI (Direct Injection) feed. The problem arises because while a DI input is clean, it lacks the character you get when recording through an amp. So you split the bass to feed the amp and the DI, record both signals, and then mix them together as appropriate. However, the miked signal will be delayed slightly compared to the DI'd signal: one millisecond for every foot of distance between the mic and the sound source (speaker grille). To trim the time difference:
1. Zoom way in, because you need to see very small time increments.
2. Move the miked signal forward in time. Click on the waveform and drag it, or use Nudge (Process / Nudge) to move the clip in samples or milliseconds. (To change the amount of Nudge triggered from keyboard commands, go Process / Nudge /Settings.) If the clip starts at the very beginning of the song, you'll need to trim an amount off the beginning equal to the amount you want to nudge.
Now you just need to continue nudging until there no comb filtering or phasing effects are audible when you play back both of the tracks together.
When recording any instrument, it's convenient to have a point of departure, and Sonar's track template function provides just that. In keeping with my usual 'less is more' philosophy, the bass template I use is pretty simple: Tuner (of course!), then a Sonitus Multiband compressor (see bottom screen, previous page).
I prefer using multi-band compression because it serves simultaneously as a compressor, EQ and limiter. Typically, I'll apply a lot of compression to the lowest band (crossover below 200Hz or so), very light compression to the low-mid bands (as well as reducing their levels in the overall mix), and medium compression to the high-mid band (from about 1.2kHz to 6kHz). I usually turn down everything above 6kHz or so (there's not a lot happening up there with bass), but sometimes will set a ratio below 1.0 so that the highest band turns into an expander. This can help bring down hiss if the very highest band is in play.
If you enable the Limiter under the Common tab, the Multiband compressor will also trap any transients, and you can 'push' the individual bands to get a bit more compression without having to adjust the band's compression parameter itself.
One advantage of using the Multiband compressor as described is that you can quickly tweak the high and low ends to fit well with the rest of the tracks. For more bottom, just bring up the level of the lowest band; if you need the bass to cut through the track and 'speak' a little more, increase the upper-mid band's level.
Doubling Bass Guitars With Synths
Sonar's V-Vocal pitch corrector can do pitch-to-MIDI conversion with monophonic melody lines. As bass parts tend to be monophonic, this makes it easy to double an electric bass part by translating it to MIDI data, then driving a synth bass. (You might want to do this to double the bass with a sub-bass synth patch that will pump up the LF content of the bass part, or with a sound that has more HF content to help the bass cut through in a mix. I tend to mix the synth lower than the original part, so that it doesn't sound like a doubled part, just a huge, cool-sounding electric bass.) However, play cleanly if you want to minimise editing; otherwise, you'll spend time editing MIDI notes to get them to match up with the audio. To create the doubled MIDI line for driving a bass synth:
2. Right-click on the bass audio clip and, from the context menu, go V-Vocal / Create V-Vocal Clip. The V-Vocal Editor opens.
3. Click on the 'Pitch-to-MIDI' button (the one with the note symbol, at the bottom of the mini-toolbar to the left of the V-Vocal display), then drag the note to the virtual instrument's accompanying MIDI track. If there isn't one, just drag it into the tracks pane and it will create a new MIDI track. However, in this case you'll also need to create an audio track to host the instrument.
4. Select PRV (Piano Roll View) mode for the MIDI track, so that you can edit MIDI data in the track, without having to open up a separate window.
5. Place the MIDI track immediately above or below the audio track.
6. If needed, edit the MIDI track so that it matches the audio track (ie. adjust note start times if they're off, and fix any notes with incorrect pitches, as the pitch-to-MIDI conversion process isn't flawless).
A little crunch on bass can be a good thing. The conventional approach is to distort the bass and reduce the highs to prevent it from sounding too buzzy, but (at least, to my ears) when processed in that way the sound seems somewhat 'disconnected' and layered — not like the crunch you get from a good amp. The following approach is a bit unconventional, but I feel it creates a more integrated distortion effect that sits better in a track.
1. Clone the bass audio track, and include the Multiband equaliser effect. This will become the distortion track.
2. Insert Cakewalk Amp Sim after the Multiband EQ.
3. On the Multiband, pull the level of the lowest and highest bands right down.
4. On Amp Sim, select 'British Overdrive' and 4 x 12 cabinet. Set Drive, Bass, and Treble to minimum. Set the Mid control about two-thirds of the way up and add a touch of Presence (see screen opposite).
5. The crucial parameters for adjustment are the levels of the three middle bands of the Multiband and, to a lesser extent, the tone controls in the amp sim. Alter band levels for different distortion sounds.
What's interesting about this approach is how much it sounds like an overdriven bass amp. For contrast, try bringing up Multiband's lowest band: the sound is now fuzz bass (not that there's anything wrong with that!), as opposed to 'pleasing amp overdrive'.
I'm not a big fan of quantising to a grid, but I often like quantising one part to another — in this case, bass to drums — to create an ultra-tight rhythm section.
My first-call drum loops are by Discrete Drums. This is mainly because (aside from being well-recorded) they're played by really good drummers, who add slight timing differences that really enhance the parts. Quantising the bass line to the drums thus enhances that human quality, as well as adding an exceptional degree of cohesiveness. AudioSnap is the tool we need.
1. AudioSnap does not work with 'Groove' clips, so if you're using an Acidised loop for the drums, roll it out for as many iterations as desired, then right-click on the clip and select Bounce to Clip(s). This converts it into a standard audio clip.
2. Click on the drum clip and hit F12 to convert it into an AudioSnap clip (or right-click on the clip and go AudioSnap / AudioSnap Enable).
3. Transient markers should appear at the drum transients. If not, type Shift-F12 or right-click on the clip and go AudioSnap / AudioSnap Show Transient Markers.
4. Establishing these transient markers as the standard to which we'll snap the bass part requires a pool of markers. Type Ctrl-F12 or right-click on the clip and go AudioSnap / AudioSnap Add Transients to Pool. The transients now extend vertically through all tracks.
5. Click on the bass clip and hit F12 to convert it into an AudioSnap clip (as with the drum clip, above).
6. In the AudioSnap dialogue, select Quantise to Pool. For a really tight snap, set Quantise Window and Strength to 100 percent (see screen below).
7. Click the Quantise to Pool button. The bass clip's note transients will snap to the drum transients. Listen to the bass and drum tracks; if you played the bass part with reasonably good timing in the first place, the bass part should now be locked with the drums. (If not, I'll make some suggestions shortly.)
The real-time stretching algorithm applied to the bass clip adds artifacts, and rendering the clip 'offline' using a different algorithm gives the highest possible quality. So right-click on the bass clip and select Clip Properties, then click on the Audio Stretching tab. Under Offline Rendering Algorithm, select iZotope Radius Solo (Bass), then click on OK. Now right-click on the clip and select Bounce to Clip(s). This applies the stretching algorithm to the bass part, and converts it from an AudioSnap clip to a standard hard disk audio track. This will take a little while, depending on the length of the track and your computer's speed.
If your timing in the bass part was off on some notes, it might have snapped to the wrong transient. For example, consider a drum part with a 16th-note hi-hat pattern, where there's a transient on every 16th note. If the bass note is supposed to snap to a snare hit but the bass note hits more than one 32nd-note late, it will snap to the next hi-hat hit instead of the snare. To fix this kind of problem, undo the Quantise to Pool operation. In the AudioSnap drum clip, right-click on the incorrect transient to which the bass note snapped, then select Disable. In fact, disable any transient that's closer to the bass note than the desired one. Redo Quantise to Pool and the bass should snap to the desired transient.