Improve my home recording / jamming audio / headphone setup
February 15, 2023 3:51 AM   Subscribe

Listening to and playing music is my favorite pastime. Much of this is through my computer--both listening to streaming services, playing around in Ableton, and sometimes jamming along with music with my electric guitar or bass through the computer. Often with headphones, once everyone is asleep. Can you recommend changes in setup to improve sound, particularly through the headphones?

I am not looking for audiophile quality, but I'd like it to sound better. In particular, I am the bass player in my kick around band, and bass is generally pretty thin on my set up.

Here's the set up:
Generally it's guitar or bass direct into a Scarlett 6i6 audio interface. Sometimes, I run the guitar/bass through a Pod HX Stomp multi effect pedal. The guitar and bass are passive, and I don't think there is any amplification in the Pod processor. There's also a Novation keyboard hooked up via midi.

Most of the listening is through a pair of older Sennheiser 555s, an open back over the ear headphone. I have a pair of small Mackie monitors--50W with 4" cones. Both of these go through the Scarlett 6i6.

My computer is a 2018 MacBook Pro. I sometimes use Audio Hijack to EQ, because sometimes bass feels virtually inaudible through the headphones--very frustrating when I'm trying to learn the bass part I'm supposed to be playing. Of course, the Audio Hijack doesn't do anything to the instrument input.

It's a fair amount of gear, but I don't know what I'm missing to amend the sound. Different headphones? A headphone amp? Something to EQ the signal from the Scarlett 6i6? Amplification for the guitar/bass? All of the above?
posted by Admiral Haddock to Technology (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Everything you have is of decent quality and connected correctly. What about you sound do you want to improve? Your headphones could be an issue if they're older and not working correctly, but without hearing them or recordings of what you're doing it's pretty impossible to pinpoint an area for improvement.
posted by jonathanhughes at 4:24 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]

If you're listening to bass on headphones you're not getting a body feel, is that what you're missing? Maybe put a surface transducer on your chair (only half joking).
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:55 AM on February 15

The HX Stomp (there is no 'Pod HX Stomp') does have amplification in the form of simulated amp and cab models. Some of these are bass specific and should, in theory, give you a proper, full-sounding bass even over headphones. Without any form of amp modelling, even via the Line 6 unit or a plug-in on your Mac, the bass will sound quite weak and trebly, even through the monitors.
posted by srednivashtar at 5:07 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]

First thing I'd try is a set of closed back headphones, any of the ~$100 "studio headphones" from Sony, Sennheiser, Shure, Audio Technica. Very generally speaking open back headphones have "less bass" than closed back.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:07 AM on February 15 [4 favorites]

If you’re trying to make the sound from your instrument more audible, if you run it through a DAW can’t you bump up the gain of the bass and take an EQ scoop out of your backing track to make room for it?
posted by music for skeletons at 5:45 AM on February 15

"Without any form of amp modelling, even via the Line 6 unit or a plug-in on your Mac, the bass will sound quite weak and trebly, even through the monitors."

Huh, that's not been my experience. I like to turn on some amp modelling, but it's never been the case that my basses sound weak and trebly without it, and definitely not "virtually inaudible". Something's wrong.

As jonathanhughes says, a recording might help.

Maybe you can troubleshoot it one step at a time somehow: does the bass sound OK through other amplification? (If not, maybe it's the bass?) Both your interface and your mutieffect pedal have headphone outputs--does it sound OK if you plug your headhpones directly into one of those? (Actually I'm a little confused on the multieffect pedal--there's a "Pod GO" and an "HX Stomp" but I don't think there's a "Pod HX Stomp"?)

Looks like the 6i6 has some kind of instrument/line switch on the inputs, do you have that set to "inst", and have the gain turned up?
posted by bfields at 7:20 AM on February 15 [4 favorites]

I asked my musical boyfriend and he talked a lot, but what I picked up is that you might want a guitar amp for the bass and to turn up the treble and turn down the bass for the sound you want to hear. He also said something about using Ableton’s equalizers for recording rather than the Pod HX Stomp, but that seemed more like it comes down to taste.
posted by limbicdigest at 7:36 AM on February 15

So here’s what I would do to test out where the problem is, you may have already tried some of this:

First play a recording you’re familiar with (ideally one with a bass sound you’d like to emulate) through speakers then headphones. Does the bass ok on both? If so the problem is somewhere between your bass and the computer output. If not it’s somewhere between the computer and the speakers/headphones. And if it’s one and not the other you know which
to replace.

Either way, check your cables and connections. Unplug and replug everything back in. If you have extra cables swap them out, if not see if you can borrow some. Probably won’t work, but it’s a quick fix if that’s the problem, and is the usual place I start.

Then, if it wasn’t on the output side, check the computer by Running just your bass through the headphones and then through speakers to see if the sound is still lacking for both. If not there’s something going on with how the software is processing your bass mixed with the music.

If the bass still isn’t loud enough by itself, open up Garage Band on your Mac and set the scarlet as the input to see what the input level is. At this point we’re fixing the input into the system so leave the output volumes alone. If the level is low (you’re looking for around -10 dB average) add in the effects pedal and see if that brings up the level. I don’t know that one in particular but look for anything labeled gain and volume, do gain first then volume. The scarlet probably has a knob to adjust the level for each input coming from it from it as well.

Once you get the level to a good place you can adjust the EQ. Keep garage band open and pull up their bass amp modeler. If you can get a sound you like from that you know the issue is just with your bass signal, so I would look at either buying an external preamp to put between the bass and the scarlet (or see what you can do with your effects pedal, some of those multi pedals have a lot of hidden features, worth looking at the instructions) or an amp emulator you can run outside of a DAW. I’d favor the external one just because it’s useful outside of your home setup, but I know Rush uses software amp modelers in their live shows so… no shame there.
posted by Gygesringtone at 8:03 AM on February 15 [3 favorites]

By the way, I choose GarageBand because I know it comes with Macs is pretty quick to setup and has a few preset options for bass amps. If you're not familiar with it, when the program boots up you can create a new Audio guitar/bass track and on the left hand side there will be some options to select their amp modelers. Just click through the presets and see if something gets you just about there. We're looking for "better" not "good".
posted by Gygesringtone at 8:18 AM on February 15

Two things that should do the trick: a pair of in-ear monitors and a cab sim.

The in-ears will seal your ear cavity and produce excellent bass. I've used Shure SE215s at home, band practice, and onstage for over 10 years now. They should run you about $100.

The cab sim will emulate a speaker cabinet's frequency response and make your bass sound much more like what you expect to hear in a live setting. Ableton has a generic cabinet plugin built in that has a 410 bass cab option.

My practice setup at home is my bass amp effects send > pedalboard > Scarlett 4i4 > Ableton > Guitar Rig plugin w/ Ampeg 810 cab sim > Shure SE215 in ear monitors and it's remarkably similar to my live sound. I got tired of changes made at home not translating well in a live band setting and ended up here; I've been using it for several years now.
posted by tireme at 8:28 AM on February 15 [2 favorites]

Further thoughts:

I sometimes use Audio Hijack to EQ, because sometimes bass feels virtually inaudible through the headphones

OK, so this sounds like the bass is poor both listening to prerecorded music and hearing your bass guitar. Which is why I first suggested going to a different pair of closed back headphones.

But . . . are you 110% sure the audio output of the Mac is going through the Focusrite? (System Preferences > sound). I use an iMac desktop with an old Steinberg UR22 interface and M Audio BX5 speakers, and very occasionally after an update or restart the Mac will default back to "internal speakers" and I have to go reset the output device. (And with open back headphones you might well be hearing the built in speakers leaking through.)

Without any form of amp modelling, even via the Line 6 unit or a plug-in on your Mac, the bass will sound quite weak and trebly, even through the monitors."

Huh, that's not been my experience.

Yup, I'll second the idea that your bass should at least sound okay directly into the Focusrite. Is your Focusrite input set to "INST" (instrument), and you're using a regular guitar cable going into one of the combo inputs in the front of the Focusrite?

As far as hearing your bass better when playing along to music, I do think that using one of the bass amp & cab models in the HX stomp would likely help, and you could also try turning on one of the EQ functions in the HX (parametric would be my choice) and boosting a little bit between 100 and 400 Hz. (yes, these are not "bass" frequencies, but hearing a little more of this frequency range can help clarify the notes you're playing.)
posted by soundguy99 at 3:24 PM on February 15

You probably don't need a headphone amp. In my experience, the 6i6 has a pretty excellent headphone amp built in.

Why Audio Hijack to EQ? You should be able to run any number of EQ etc. plugins through whatever DAW software you're using. If you're not using a DAW, well that might be your problem. (Reaper is cheap/"free")
posted by neckro23 at 9:10 AM on February 16

Yeah, sorry if you already have more suggestions/information than you know what to do with, but here's what I do:

- Bass into Scarlett Solo. Scarlett Solo into Macbook.

- That goes into Reaper. I've actually got multiple tracks set up for it there, but you could get away with two. One is there mostly for an amp sim; I have a preamp plugin on it too, and probably some other stuff like EQ. Track 2 is for consistent low end. That first track feeds to it, and it's got a stock EQ plugin with a low-pass set up ... maybe around 250Hz? Season to taste, obviously. Then stomp on that signal with a compression plugin, ratio maxed out. It should sound preposterous, soloed.

- Both those tracks feed to the master buss, and I can adjust their levels relative to each other so that I feel the low end I'm getting from track 2 but not lose the amp sound from track 1.

- I mostly play along to mp3s from my collection, though occasionally I go to YouTube for something I don't have. I tend to just leave my Reaper volume where it is, lower the mp3 volume until the mix sounds right, and then lower or raise the volume on the Scarlett until the mix is the right level in my cans.
posted by troywestfield at 9:01 AM on February 17

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