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March 01, 2009

The Lowdown On Getting
Down Low

By Rich Tozzoli

The ability to create the ideal bass balance is an essential studio skill; these tips should help achieve a healthy bottom line.

Steve Pageot

"Once my drums and bass are sounding tight, that's when the rest of the faders go up." �Steve Pageot

Jay Messin

"I listen [to unfamiliar monitors] for at least 15 minutes before starting." -Jay Messina

Bob Power

"Truthfully, the bottom end is one of the most difficult things for many people [to master.]" -Bob Power

Whether your mission is to lend room-shaking thump to a hip-hop kick or set the foundation for a rock anthem, the craft of creating a great pop mix usually starts at the bottom. But while it's an essential part of a track's sonic success, delivering great low end can also be challenging, especially for those working at home.

How much bass is too much? And how can you create mixes that sound good in all listening environments? To do so, you must account for a host of variables, like speaker monitors, subwoofers, room acoustics, track compression, and even Internet delivery systems, which influence the way you–and your audience–hear low frequencies. We asked some of the industry's most respected producers for the lowdown.

Listen Up

One of the biggest factors influencing a bass mix is the choice of monitors in the studio. All speakers handle bass differently, and many models–even some designed for studio use–color the lows and low mids in some way, thereby presenting a less-than- accurate picture of what's going on "down there."

So whether you're using giant wall-mounted monsters, nearfields, a system with a subwoofer, or desktop computer speakers, it's vital that you understand how your system handles bass. Make sure you listen to plenty of well mixed records on your speakers; choose productions that you know have great low end. Many industry veterans have been using the same speakers for years, so they intimately know their sound and can compensate for deficiencies the speakers may have.

If you're checking a recording that's perfectly balanced on other systems, yet hear too much bass on your studio monitors, you can be sure your speakers are putting out too much bottom. The same applies if your speakers sound "light" in comparison to the others. You may need to adjust the speaker itself (many models offer controls that let you tweak bass response) or use a master EQ, plugged between the output of your recorder/mixer and the speaker monitors. (Note: this EQ should not be printed to the mix itself; it is for monitoring purposes only.)

When judging speakers, try not to listen to audio in MP3, AAC or other compressed formats. These files do not represent the full range of an audio recording and tend to color the low end.

As you listen, A/B the sound of the speakers in your room with that of your favorite headphones– assuming that you're familiar enough with the 'phones' sound to compare their bass handling to that of your speakers.

Room for More

The monitors themselves are not the only factor influencing the way you hear low frequencies. Your actual mixing/production environment may color the sound coming from the speakers, which can lead you to make improper choices with EQ and overall balancing. This is especially true in home and small project studios, where acoustics can be challenging.

Unfortunately, there is no one easy fix for acoustical problems. But you can improve your listening environment by "decoupling" your speakers from whatever they rest on, which prevents them from vibrating with the floor, stand, shelf, etc. There are plenty of inexpensive products available to help with this, such as isolation pads made of foam or Sorbathane (the same stuff used in sneaker insoles). You can also try cutting up a mouse pad and placing the pieces under each corner of the speakers. Isolating stands, such as Auralex SpeakerDudes, can also be effective.

Acoustically treating the room itself is a little more complex. Indiscriminately putting up some foam probably won't help bass response; actually, if it absorbs only high and upper midrange frequencies, cheap foam can make things worse! But such units such as bass traps and acoustic panels can improve the overall quality of room sound when used correctly. You'll find products and information from companies such as RealTraps (realtraps. com), Auralex (, Acoustical Solutions ( and Ready Acoustics ( There are even DIY bass-trap tutorials on YouTube (

How much treatment do you need? It varies from room to room. You can measure and analyze the sound of your space with products such as IK Multimedia's ( Advanced Room Correction system, or ARC. This package includes measurement software, a measurement microphone and a software plug-in that can adjust your monitor output to compensate for the room.

If possible, however, invest in some professional help. Think of it as you would a new computer or mixer; it's a necessary investment to help make your productions more competitive. If that's out of the budget, a little research and DIY effort can yield some great results.

Jump In

Once you've got your room and speakers set up properly, it's time to think about what's cooking inside your mixes. How you approach the low end of your recording can be a matter of personal taste, but it may also depend on the style of music you're producing. Some genres–especially dance and R&B–require a bigger bottom than others. This in turn will dictate how you mix the entire track.

In a typical recording that includes bass and drums underneath a full arrangement, a good starting point is to step back and think about how the individual low voices in the rhythm section relate to one another, both in terms of frequency and level. Many of today's productions not only include real acoustic kick and bass, may also feature sampled and electronically generated sounds in the low end. All these tracks combined can create a muddy bottom that lacks definition.

If you determine that the kick drum will sit below the bass guitar or synth, then set your EQs, levels, compression and filtering accordingly. For example, you may want to try cutting the frequencies of the bass where the kick resides–say in the 60-110Hz range. Then, make room for the bass relative to the kick by EQing some of the 110-150 Hz range out of the drum's track. If you boost a frequency range on one, try to cut the same range on the other. Adding some compression to the drums and bass will also help even out the peaks and create a smooth overall sound. At this point, you can adjust them both until each can be properly heard on even the smallest of monitoring systems.

Another way to make the kick and bass stand out is by filtering low end from other tracks. Using a hi-pass filter to cut frequencies below 150Hz or so on vocals, pianos, guitars, keyboards, etc. will leave more sonic space for the relevant low-end instruments to shine through. If you get too "light," simply adjust the frequency of the filter to bring back in more bottom. Remember to listen in context. For example, on its own, the filtered guitar track may sound thin. But mixed with the bass, it should sound punchy and present.

Some Words of Wisdom

The general guidelines above should help you get good results, but for more individualized advice, we asked three G RAMMY Award-winning and legendary engineer/producer/mixers about their experiences with the bottom end.

"I'm using Dynaudio BM5As without a sub [woofer]," says Jay Messina (Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Kiss) about his speaker choice. "I find using a sub in mixing is more confusing than helpful. When starting a project, particularly on a pair of monitors I'm not familiar with, I listen to something I know to be a good reference–something I know sounds good, and that I'm familiar with in terms of sonic properties. I'll listen for at least 15 minutes before starting. By that time, I believe your brain has become accustomed to what things are supposed to sound like."

Messina went on to note that listening to a mix on several different monitors (headphones included) is always a good test. He feels it shouldn't sound wrong anywhere, or at any volume level. He also listens at a very low level overall.

"The bass sound is usually a function of what the kick sounds like," he says. "I generally try to mix the two [as a unit], so they make a 'new' sound when they are played together. I usually use a combination of EQ and compression. If I'm adding bottom [with EQ], I like to have the compressor after the EQ [in the signal chain], so as to 'contain' the sound and not have the low end feel like it's spreading. When adding some top end on bass, I usually put the compressor before the EQ , so the [boosted] top end doesn't trigger the compressor."

Bob Power (Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, India.Aire) has strong opinions on the subject as well. "Number one, the issue of the private studio is something that's become not just relevant but necessary in today's paradigm," he says. "I have a loft in New York, and the hugest issue in bass is monitoring, particularly with mixing and the relative accuracy and stability of the monitoring environment. And that's a huge X factor–you can put $200,000 into a room and not get it right. You can put $20 into a room and put up a cheap rug and it will work. In some ways, it's the luck of the draw.

"Truthfully, the bottom end is one of the most difficult things for many people [to master], particularly in a mix environment," he continues. "It starts with the monitoring, but the second most important thing for me is genre. You have to remember exactly what type of music you're doing, what kind of low end is appropriate and on what particular elements. The genre is terrifically important.

"The third thing that's an issue with bottom is level and mastering." Power says. "Bass frequencies take up a lot of room in the mix bus, which can lower the RMS or 'average' level to the listener." If your goal is to produce a loud "rock radio" record, you have to be cautious with the bottom end. "It takes up a lot of gain," Power explains. "And it's not the thing that we hear first. That's why all the good really super loud rock radio mixes really work in the midrange–that's where all the really cool stuff goes on."

Steve Pageot (Aretha Franklin, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony) starts his low end by mixing his bass track in relation to the kick drum. "I'll make sure that the bass is brighter than the kick so the frequencies of each won't interfere with each other in the mix," he says "To achieve that, I'll compress the kick and the bass to make them punchy and then cut out some of the low end of the bass so that it sits right on top of the kick.

"Once my drums and bass are sounding tight, that's when the rest of the faders start going up," Pageot continues. "Also, I never stay in the main room when auditioning a bass track because the further you are from the monitors, the more apparent the low frequencies are going to be. That's my way of knowing if the bass is sitting perfectly in my mix. Finally, it's important to have a great pair of speakers. I do all my mixes on my Event Studio Precision 8s because they're so precise. I know them so well, I never even have to A/B my mixes with other speakers."

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