Newcomers to the low-end game will often wonder why the bass guitar is hard to hear and the thing is, even some advanced musicians are having a hard time providing a clear answer.
Whether you are trying to study a new song by ear, or jamming with friends by the campfire on an acoustic bass, distinguishing the notes on the lower register always seems to be a challenging affair. What’s more disappointing than failing to learn a bass line is the fact that ordinary music fans can’t determine what the bass is actually doing in songs, to the point that the instrument is being dismissed as a non-contributor in this auditory trip.
Professional bass players, as well as music teachers and studio producers, will tell you that the bass is one of the most important elements in music and they are absolutely correct. It may be difficult for casual listeners to make out the bass licks and riffs, but the groove can be so subtle at times that some party goers won’t even know that the bass was the one responsible for their uncontrollable desire to dance.
Why are bass guitars so quiet?
Low frequencies and our hearing limitations
Human ears aren’t very sensitive to the lowest of frequencies, making it difficult for us to perceive anything below 20 Hz. The low E string of a bass guitar is only about 40 Hz, which is very close to our minimum hearing capacity of 12 Hz and very far from our 20,000 Hz maximum.
Some speakers can’t handle the bass
Bigger, more powerful speakers are needed in order to bring out the full sound of a bass guitar. Which explains why the bass guitar is so hard to hear when listening to music on your phone’s speakers.
Other instruments might be too loud or not mixed properly
Mixing live onstage or inside a recording studio, requires a proper combination of frequencies to allow all elements to be heard. The bass can be easily overwhelmed by instruments that are either too deafening or mixed in a way that creates a muddy-sounding environment. A perfectly balanced mix can make all of the instruments work together well to sound more comprehensible.
Are you supposed to hear bass?
Since the bass plays a crucial role in music, it should be heard clearly on a decent sound system. However, some genres rely on the bass to make songs beefier, instead of using it to establish melodic lines.
When a song has a lot of things going on, like in a big band, low frequencies can get seemingly drowned out, making it hard for most listeners to hear the bass guitar. The same goes with some metal songs that feature very heavily distorted 7-string guitars. The belief however that the bass is non-existent in these kinds of situations, is not true at all.
You may not be hearing the melodic notes produced by the bass, but you can feel it pounding on your chest, rattling your bones or even uplifting your spirits. It is the reason you got out of your seat at a concert and jumped around to your favorite mosh pit classic, that is how important the bass is.
How can I hear bass guitar better?
Choose the right pickup configuration
Our tone defines our style and the pickup combinations available can help us nail a specific sound that matches the genre that we are playing. But the advantages of having multiple pickup options can go beyond that by providing us more flexibility in terms of dynamics.
You may use the bridge pickup whenever you are soloing to remove some excess low-end and make your notes sound more discernible. On the other hand, there are songs wherein the bass is the sole muscle provider and in these instances you can beef things up by using the neck pickups instead.
Proper equalization can do wonders
Whether you are mixing a recorded bass line, or performing live at a club, you can make your bass sound more apparent if you know how to mix the EQ properly. Use the frequencies to your advantage by tweaking them to compensate for whatever is lacking in your overall sound.
You may increase the mids if you want the notes to be more clear and add more bass if your tone is too thin. Also keep in mind that bass guitars should also blend well with other instruments and knowing when to add or subtract a frequency on the equalizer can help bring out more clarity to your instrument.
For example if the kick drum has too much boom in it, you can decrease the lower frequencies on your bass amp to make it sound more cohesive with the bass drum. You may do the exact opposite depending on your band’s style of music and if the drummer agrees with your suggested settings.
If you are trying to learn a song by ear and the bass guitar is too hard to hear, you may also use your EQing knowledge and mix the track in a way that the bass parts are more obvious. By reducing the low frequencies and adding some mids, the notes will become much clearer. Be wary however, that the song will lose some punch if you mix it this way.
Always use a bass amp, not a guitar amp
Guitar amplifiers are engineered specifically for guitars only and because of this, they don’t have the capacity to accommodate the rumbling frequencies of a bass.
When it comes to sound quality, guitar amps just don’t have the capability to bring out your full-bodied tone, no matter what bass you are using. Aside from the uninspiring sound quality, your guitar amplifier can also distort, or worse, the speakers can blow up if your bass exceeds the limits.
Always use a bass amp, especially when a louder volume is required. This way, you can maximize the potential of your instrument and avoid getting buried in the mix.
Use compressors on a record
In a studio setting, compressors can help bring up your recorded bass parts to make it sit better in the overall mix. Compression will even out the levels of your bass and control the louder notes so you won’t have to rely on increasing gain or volume. A bass guitar can be hard to hear at times, but with the right tools and techniques, you can make it shine without being too overwhelming.