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September 11, 2012

Tips and Tricks for a Proper Bass Mix

Bass can be challenging to get just right in a mix, but the following tips, tricks, and tools can help you harness that thunder down under

By Rick Tozzoli

Whether it be electric, acoustic, sampled, or synthesizer-generated, bass information can take up a lot of energy in a mix. Yet somehow, it can also get lost as other instruments-especially guitar and keyboards-compete for sonic territory.

Whether it be electric, acoustic, sampled, or synthesizer-generated, bass information can take up a lot of energy in a mix. Yet somehow, it can also get lost as other instruments-especially guitar and keyboards-compete for sonic territory.

Often, people try to cut through a crowd of instruments by pushing the bass up louder. By doing that, however, mixes can get muddy and loud, and the entire low end becomes undefined.

So before reaching for the bass fader, think about which frequencies compete with the bass. The kick drum from a drum kit or loop comes to mind first. The bass and kick need to work together in that 50-120Hz range. This balance can be even trickier to achieve in modern productions where multiple kicks and bass parts may be layered together.

You can solve this by giving each its own emphasis on the frequency spectrum. Try to determine which one will sit below or above the other (frequency wise). Will you let the bass punch through around 110-120Hz and sit the kicks at around 80Hz? Or do you want the kicks to be more prominent in that 120Hz range? Once that production decision has been made, you can get to work.

The hi-pass filter on this UAD Cambridge EQ is set to remove unneeded low end from a track that was competing with the bass

The hi-pass filter on this UAD Cambridge EQ is set to remove unneeded low end from a track that was competing with the bass

Cut the Competition
One of the first things I do when mixing the bottom of a track is cut frequencies of instruments in that range that don't need to be there. For example, electric guitar parts can often have a lot of information below 120Hz that you may not need to hear. Using a good EQ's hi-pass filter, you can carve out those frequencies pretty easily.

Cutting out unwanted frequencies also applies to keyboards, pads, and even tom-toms. On a tom track, for example, you may just be getting bleed from the rest of the kit. While that is sometimes good to use, it might create a muddy sound. If you don't need that low information from a track, cut it out. You're now making room in the mix for the important low-end instruments such as bass.

We're not pushing up that bass fader yet. Another thing you can try is to build up the rhythm section first. Mute all other tracks except for the drums and bass. Take the time to listen to how they sit with each other, making sure the kick can be heard with the attack of each bass note. Then, one at a time, bring in the other tracks of the mix, making sure they don't mask the bass and kick. When I say masking, I mean that the low end of these newly introduced tracks covers up the clarity of the bass and kick. If they do, then try cutting those offending frequencies out with an EQ.

Compressors can tame peaks in the bass, allowing you to boost overall level. 

Compressors can tame peaks in the bass, allowing you to boost overall level.

Make Space for Bass
Aside from EQ, another trick is to experiment with the panning of the other instruments. Since kick and bass are most often panned dead center, experiment with pan positions to the left and right to see if you can clear up the middle of the mix-leaving the center for bass, kick, and the all important vocal. Also, try simply lowering the volume of tracks around the rhythm section to see if they can still cut through without being louder.

If you've gotten this far and the mix is sounding good, you're off to a good start. You've only used EQ to cut frequencies, the pan control to find the sweet spot of the various instruments in the stereo field, and the faders to create an overall balance. Now you can dig in even further and really define your bottom line.

If you've gotten this far and the mix is sounding good, you're off to a good start. You've only used EQ to cut frequencies, the pan control to find the sweet spot of the various instruments in the stereo field, and the faders to create an overall balance. Now you can dig in even further and really define your bottom line.

Using either hardware or software, applying compression to a bass instrument can help tame any stray peaks and thicken the sound. Compression reduces the dynamic range of an instrument by lowering the peaks when they performpush above a defined threshold. So if you have a few loud notes on a bass that peak out, you can set a compressor to catch them and reduce them accordingly.

There are many excellent compressors available to do the job (both in hardware and software form), and they primarily only have a few important controls: threshold, ratio, attack, and release.

The threshold is the control we already mentioned: Once a signal goes above it, the compression will actually kick in. If it doesn't go above the threshold, the signal will remain untouched. The ratio is the degree to which the compressor will reduce those signals that go above the threshold. A 4:1 ratio means that it would take a signal going 4dB above the threshold to have the compressor increase the output 1dB. I've found that 3:1 and 4:1 are often good compression ratios to use on bass; they don't squash the signal too much when it peaks.

Release determines how fast the compressor will return to normal after the level drops below the threshold, and attack is the amount of time it takes the compressor to start working after the signal goes above the threshold.

A good way to start with a compressor plug-in is to try its presets. Most of them have presets made specifically for bass, and they can help give you an idea of how the various settings and parameters work. But remember, you need to make adjustments depending on how your track was recorded. The big picture: Use a compressor to hold down the bass peaks and keep the level at a consistent volume throughout the track.

The Transmod transient modulator plug-in can make the bass stand out. 

The Transmod transient modulator plug-in can make the bass stand out.

Shaping the Bass
Once you have a decent compression level set, you can also think about some EQ boosting (versus cutting). If you've determined you want to sit your bass above the kick at around 120 Hz, and it needs to cut through a bit more, try boosting that frequency with a tight bandwidth (or "Q"), meaning it will narrowly boost the frequencies around 120Hz, but do very little to anything very far above or below that point. When boosting with EQ, be wary of the overall volume of the bass in the mix, and the amount of energy the low end is taking up

Sometimes it helps to push the low mids of a bass into, say, the 300Hz range. That can drive it above the kicks and help sit it in just right. However, since every bass is different, it must be done on a case-by-case basis. Overall though, if the EQ boost/cut is working and the mix isn't getting muddy, move on.

IK Multimedia’s Ampeg SVX amp plug-in can add amp-like realism to tracks that were recorded directly. 

IK Multimedia’s Ampeg SVX amp plug-in can add amp-like realism to tracks that were recorded directly.

Bass Helpers
There are a few cool software products available to help cut bass through a mix as well.

Applied to bass, Sonnox TransMod (or transient modulator) can exaggerate the transients and attack of each note, helping it to cut through a track. I've found it to work great on acoustic bass, as the finger noise and definition of the notes really pops with this plug-in.

Another is the Universal Audio Little Labs VOG (or Voice of God). This is called a bass resonance plug-in and it only has a few knobs and buttons. All you need to do is choose the center of the frequency (40Hz/100Hz or 200 Hz), sweep the frequency knob and push up the amplitude knob. All frequencies below the targeted area are rolled off smoothly. This plug in is amazing when applied directly to synth bass parts, but it can also be used across a master fader to help define all of the bass in a mix.

If you need some grit on a bass, you can try the SansAmp PSA-1. With a range of controls including Preamp, Buzz, Punch, Crunch, Drive, Low, High and Level, it can make a bass growl hard. Also, SansAmp makes a Bass Driver D.I. hardware pedal that can act as a direct input for recording, and provide your bass with some edge before it even hits the recorder.

Another excellent plug-in to use on bass is SoundToys Decapitator. This combines analog simulation with Tone and Drive knobs to create a great tool for shaping bass sounds. I use it to brighten up my old 1970 Fender Precision bass and add some analog distortion.

If you want to simulate the sound of a bass amp rig with software, IK Multimedia's Ampeg SVX plug-in (or Native Instruments' Guitar Rig) will do the job. Ampeg bass amps are legendary for their thick, warm tone, and this plug in features four amp models and six cabinets. It also includes eight stomp effects, a tuner, and more. It's a great way to bring an amp sound to a dry bass sound and it even works great on synth bass sounds.

Bass is a critical component of any production. By taking the time to listen closely to its interaction with the rest of the rhythm section, carefully cutting and boosting frequencies, and applying some extra processing, you can get it to punch through even the toughest mix.

 ASCAP Music Advocacy Project
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