April 2001 By Christopher Porter
I’m convinced my hearing is shot. It’s not because of one too many AC/DC concerts in my teen years. I saw them only once. It may be from listening to music (or sports-talk radio) on headphones 24-7, or because of my ongoing battles with, well, mucus. Sinusitis and I are good friends. I’m convinced my hearing is shot because I can almost never clearly make out the bass on CDs.
My home stereo is a mix-and-match assortment of off-the-rack pieces that collectively add up to a pile of crap. I can understand why I need to crank the low end at my pad to make out frequencies below 2k. But at work, where the JazzTimes offices are rigged with fancy PSB speakers and NAD receivers and CD players, try as I may, I rarely get a good earful of the bass. Convinced it must be my own failing ears, I turn to JT contributor and Library of Congress recording engineer Larry Appelbaum for solace. He smacks me on the back of my head and blurts, “Snap out of it!”
“First of all, few engineers outside the classical world really know how to record a bass violin, or any acoustic violin for that matter,” Larry tells me.
“Secondly, major studio time is expensive and most producers don’t have the budget to pay for the time and attention to detail often required to get a good bass sound. It’s one thing if the bassist is the leader of the session, but as a member of the rhythm section, the bassist is too often considered just another sideman. As long as the balance is OK, without too much distortion, no one seems to lose any sleep over the lack of nuance or subtlety in a sideman’s sound, especially when most consumers—not to mention record company executives—can’t hear the difference.”
So, what should engineers and producers do, then, to make the world a better place for bass?
“My suggestion for new engineers or producers is to go hear music in unamplified settings so you get the sound of the acoustic instrument in your ear,” says Larry. “Once you really know what a bass violin sounds like, seek out master players who have musical stories to tell and the technique to tell them—Ray Brown, George Mraz, Mark Dresser, William Parker, among others. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for some insights from the bassists themselves. Most of them have more than a clue.”
Thanks, Larry. I feel freed of my low-end self-loathing. Now, what do you make of this high-end ringing in my ears?
Originally published in April 2001