About recording bass and latency

Something that comes up often is how to deal with latency in recording bass. In the course of the 100 days of bass I came up with a few ways to deal with latency which did not require advanced engineering degrees.

You know you have “latency” when you are playing live and absolutely nailing it but then you play it back and you’re realllllly dragging or waaaaay back of the pocket.

If you aren’t confident that you’re nailing it, then it isn’t latency, it’s that you need to work a little harder on getting your timing down.

I’ll give some examples of things I’ve done that might help in both cases.

You have system latency, now what?

The truth is this: every digital system has latency. You can spend a long long time doing crazy freaky things to your computer system in the hopes of making latency go away and not have any positive results at all. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t bother with trying to improve the latency. But you will reach diminishing returns very quickly. And you might totally screw up your system along the way.

So hear are some things to do to help you manage latency (latency is like a chronic illness, it won’t go away you can only manage it):

Basic preparations for lowering latency

  • Don’t use any plugins at all when recording–you can add them later.
  • Close all applications that are not your recording system (no email or facebook or browsers or whatever).
  • If your system has a low latency mode (I only know Logic and it has a low latency mode, I assume all the others do too) use it.
  • Try recording at a higher sample rate–I know this sounds confusing because it might make a computer think more but it has to do with the size of the thinking blocks, the computer can process smaller blocks faster and a higher sample rate results in smaller blocks. For some of you, it will reduce your latency by half to record at 96khz instead of 44khz. You’ll have to experiment with this though because some computers can’t handle it and others can.
  • Get the most RAM you can put in your machine (pro tip: Apple computers can take twice as much RAM as their published specs).
  • Use an SSD or a RAID with many disks as your hard drive for recording (and back it up to a different physical drive!!!).

If you do these things (or even some of these things if you don’t want to buy RAM and hard drives) your latency will decrease. If you start doing things that aren’t on this list, you might be wasting your time, screwing up your system, or both. Or you might reach latency nirvana. Try these first though.

Use the direct-out of your audio interface to hear yourself when recording

Your audio interface (the thing you plug your bass/mic into that then plugs into your computer and also your speakers/headphones should be plugged into this thing if you want your life to be simple) does two things: 1) it takes audio signals and turns them into digital signals for recording into your DAW and 2) it takes digital signals and turns them into sound waves for your ears to hear via speakers or headphones.

Most contemporary audio interfaces have an option to set the headphones in the signal chain _before_ sending the sound to your computer. So the path looks like this:

bass –> interface —>headphones—>computer

Use this feature. When you play your bass, the sound should match up in the headphones with the exact moment you play the string. If you got this going on then life is good.

The sound coming back from the computer should also be in your headphones. So you can play along to your computer just fine, the notes aren’t strangely delayed or anything. In your ears, everything will match up.

Make sure you nail the timing of the first note or two

No matter what, have absolute confidence in your first note, or in a note that lines up with a part of whatever you’re playing along to (bass drum, snare drum, noseflute, doesn’t matter, just make sure you’re confident your timing is on).

If you aren’t absolutely confident in your first few notes, stop the recording and start again. Or do whatever your red light fever ritual is. But don’t accept a recording where your first note wasn’t something you believe in.

After recording, manually line stuff up

When you play back the recording, even though you totally nailed those first notes, everything is a little off! The bass is late! Light your hair on fire and run around. No, don’t do that.

Instead, look at the waveforms in your computer program. Find the first note of your bass line. Zoom in so you can really see it. I zoom in so far that I can see the actual wave forms.

Look at where your first bass note is. Now, look at the waveform of the part you were lined up with (bass drum, snare drum, noseflute, etc). Move your bass part until it lines up with that.

Voila, bass line is now de-latencified.

“That’s cheating!” No, that’s making a recording that matches your performance more closely than the crap the recording technology pumped out. And it didn’t take you a zillion years, it took you five minutes. Professional recording mixers will often have as among their first steps aligning all the instruments. This is to deal with latency, phasing, and performances that aren’t perfect. Check out an issue of Sound on Sound sometime and see what those guys and gals are saying about how they deal with this stuff. If you’re recording it’s your job to make the recording the best that you can, so do whatever you think needs to be done to make that recording the way you want it to be. If that includes shoving stuff around and editing it then by all means do that. It’s what the pros would do. You can do it too. If your technique is better you just spend less time in this editing process. The more time you spend in editing your bass parts, the more you will be inspired to perform better next time. 😉

You have timing that doesn’t make you happy, now what?

If your problem isn’t so much about latency, but is instead about your own timing then there are other things to do. A good way to know if this is you is that you never ever feel confident about that first note. If you’re not confident about the first few notes, then all the tips above won’t help you. You can try something else:

Record everything live at the same time.

Instead of running sound out of your computer to your headphones, run the sound out to a speaker. And record both your bass and that speaker at the same time. It’s important that you set your DAW so that it is not monitoring the recording or else you will get feedback (the sound coming from the DAW to your speaker and then to the microphone and then to the DAW and then to the speaker and getting louder and louder and louder each time).

Many digital audio interfaces have two inputs. Put your bass in one, and a mic on the speaker into the other one. Or put one mic on your bass cab and one on the speaker.

Will you get bleed from one mic to the other? Sure, but you’ll figure out how to deal with it (keep the mics pointed away from each other, a little rearranging things, turning something down a little, etc).

Will the sound be different because it came out of the speaker instead of remaining in pristine digital beauty? Yep! But it might sound awesome! Who knows?

The important thing is that your timing will be more honest and more accurate to what you are recording because both signals are going through the same process at the same moment.

Only have one input on your audio interface? Get a mic and figure out where to put it so that it picks up both your bass and the DAW speaker at the same time. Duke Ellington only had one mic and he had to balance a big band. You can do this. 😀

I hope these things help with recording so that you can spend more time playing and

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