For the last 15 years or so I have grown accustomed to dialing in my own mix on personal headphone mixers. Over time I have figured out what works the best for me, mix-wise. Panning is the key (in my opinion) to solving overlapping rhythmic reference problems in the phones. Having clarity and perspective between the many different instruments, the lead vocal, and the click is paramount to finding the groove. My solution is this: acoustic instruments panned to 8 o’clock and 5 o’clock, electric guitar panned to 11 o’clock, the piano panned to 9 and 3 o’clock in stereo (as well as the bgv’s), the aux keys panned hard left and right in stereo, the click panned to 2 o’clock, the hi-hat panned to 10 o’clock, the overheads hard left and right, the kick and snare are panned at 12 o’clock (the snare is set substantially lower in volume than the kick), and the bass at 12 o’clock. The kick, bass, and click are the loudest elements in my mix.
As you can see, everything has its place in my stereo spectrum. This allows me to be aware of who is rushing, who is dragging, and who’s right in the zone (what I want to hear the most). I never turn anyone else off (if I had to do that, they probably wouldn’t be in the band in the first place) but I do turn some more “drifting” elements down a little. Overall, my desire is to hear a wonderful, CD-sounding mix, with the bass, kick, hat, and click louder than everything else. Experimenting with the settings can make a big difference on how comfortably you play.
Now that we’ve gotten the mix dialed in, it’s time to focus on the things we need to focus on, by merely being aware of the musical elements. Here’s how I suggest that you accomplish this. First, you must tune in closely to the hi hat. The space between the drummer’s hi hat notes is generally where the drummer’s groove is. You want to get inside his head and his heart so that you can always find those subtle subdivisions in his groove. Typically, this resides within his hi hat pattern, ride cymbal, or tom groove (if applicable). Pay close attention to what bass drum pattern the drummer has chosen. If you decide not to play exactly what he plays, try not to play too many extra notes different from his pattern (unless you are playing a straight 1/8 note pattern). Listen closely to the click (metronome) from time to time (if there is one) and determine the relationship between it and all the different parts that the drummer is playing.
Consider your note duration as it relates to not only the style of the song, but also the different sections of the song. For example, if you are going to play a rock song with a big intro, play longer, more connecting notes on the intro, then change the duration of the note to a 1/16 note shorter (a 1/16 note rest at the end of every note) which will create space between the notes. When the chorus comes along, you might keep the same duration in the verse on the first chorus but dig in a little harder, dynamically. “Choke” it back down for the second verse, but then let the notes ring out to their full value on the second chorus, or you might want to wait until the bridge to play longer, sustained, connected notes. Whatever note durations you choose, use the same ones all the way through each section in a consistent pattern.
Always maintain a consistent note volume in each section. Try to play as evenly as possible, in the dynamic sense. Avoid letting notes jump out or drop drastically in volume in the middle of a pattern.
Experiment with “laying back” on certain sections to create a “fat-back” effect. You can easily achieve this by plucking the string with a little more “meat” of the finger rather than the tip. If you need speed for a difficult “lick” you can easily roll your hand toward the strings which will facilitate plucking with the tip of your fingers. Whatever you do, DON’T RUSH! You can play on the center or the beat (if the bass drum is) but no farther ahead than that.
On the gigs when you are not playing, listen to excellent bass players who have great feel and have been successful with their careers (remember that they’ve become who they are for a reason). Study them. Pick their parts apart. Examine what they repeat in their patterns. You will be amazed at what you find from section to section, player to player. May God truly bless the work of your hands!!