Geddy Lee courtesy of Tina Davey.
One of the greatest advantages of being able to listen back to tracks in preproduction is that you can do the listening with the client. When I started live engineering lo those many years ago, I would hand the artist—or their assistant, more likely—a recording of the run-through on something called a cassette tape. The artist would listen to the cassette on their Walkman (who remembers those?), make some notes, maybe call in the middle of the night to talk about it, come in late the next day and give you the notes, and then start the run-through before you had any time to make any adjustments. Later, the audio was upgraded to CD-quality recordings—and then downgraded slightly to MP3—but the process remained essentially the same, and adjusting the mix to suit the singer/guitarist/drummer/keyboardist/bassist’s tastes was laborious.
More than occasionally, the artist would listen to the next day’s cassette and say, “No, that wasn’t what I meant… I said it was ‘blue and glassy sounding’—not ‘metallic.’ Please try again and this time add some more highs to the low midrange.” Then the engineer would try again to interpret this into something grounded in the real world of physics and electronics.
Fast-forward to today… now you can sit with the artist in a room listening to a live recording of them singing and playing and make a tweak and say, “You mean this?” They can say, “Yes!” If the singer wants more highs on the low midrange (I’ve had this request), you can boost a frequency and sweep around until he shouts, “STOP!” If you’re having an issue with an instrument, like it’s a little too overdriven, you can play it back for the artist and point it out to them, saying something like, “Are you sure this is what you’re going for?” Maybe it is.
Geddy Lee’s bass sound is a combination of five channels, which represent various aspects of an entire bass sound, and run from clean to distorted-beyond-all-reason. The two main components of his sound are an Avalon DI and a Palmer DI. The Avalon is warm with a punchy midrange, and the Palmer is super clear with an extended low end. The last three channels are all distorted to one degree or another. There’s an instantiation of Eleven dialed up to sound like an old Fender Bassman—slightly distorted, but not crazy. There’s a SansAmp, which is more distorted and further down in the mix. Then there’s an Orange amp, which we run off to a bass cab backstage and throw another Palmer PDI-03 on. It’s cranked wide open and is preposterously distorted. It sits in the back of the bass mix. All of this gets sub-grouped, compressed, and run into an instantiation of Waves API 550A EQ.
Geddy and I have discussed his bass sound on any number of occasions over the years, but Eleven and the API EQ are new to this last set of rehearsals, so we revisited his tone. He stopped by the room one morning before rehearsals and sat down in the chair with me while I soloed up the bass subgroup on the Genelecs. The first thing that showed up on the screen was the API EQ. When Geddy saw that, he remarked how much he loved those things, and that it was great that you could really “wang” something right up, and it sounded fantastic. One point for the engineer! The next thing we listened to was the instantiation of Eleven. I think we really nailed that old Bassman sound, personally. Geddy wanted a little more overdrive, and I brought the speaker breakup down a touch.
Then we started digging into the balance. I rode up the Avalon fader and brought up the Palmer next to it—about equal level. Geddy asked for a bit less of the Palmer, favoring the midrange point that the Avalon gives his bass. Next into the mix was the Eleven channel. This came up and instantly added realism to the bass tone. Then I added the more distorted elements to the mix. First up was the SansAmp channel, which I rode in slowly until Geddy said, “Stop.” Next, I added the Orange amp channel. When I reached the point where the Orange was even with the SansAmp, we both concluded that it was too much.
I pulled both of the distorted channel faders down to the bottom, stood up, looked at Geddy and said, “There’s the faders. Put ’em where you want ’em!” He sat down in the driver’s seat and brought both faders up until he heard what he wanted and told me, “There, that’s where I like it.” And that’s where they’ve been ever since. Total time elapsed—about 20 minutes. Try that with a cassette tape!