big bad bassIt’s been said that the low end of your mix is “what separates the men from the boys.” But it can be really hard to get right, right?

Every mix poses its own unique challenges, and I never mix two songs the same way. However, here are 6 tips for getting a handle on the low end in your mix. Some of these may seem odd or strange. Give ’em a shot. They seem to work for me.

Here we go…

1. Mix Before You Record

Wait a second…mix before you record? That’s just silly. Well, hear me out.

Whenever somebody sends me a question about the low end in their mixes, their focus is almost 100% on mixing. There’s this subtle underlying assumption — that the source shouldn’t matter, that the real tone in a mix comes from mixing.

Bzzzzz!! Wrong!

For example, I’m working on a song right now that is sounding amazing. Drums, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitars, percussion. All of it has been recorded and doesn’t have a single plugin on it…and yet it sounds incredible. What happened?

I mixed before I recorded.

It’s not simply “getting it right at the source.” It’s a bit more than that. It’s making the recorded signal sound like you want it to sound in the mix. Who cares if you can get a huge acoustic guitar sound if it really needs to be fairly thin and bright in the mix? Exactly.

Try mixing before you record. While you’re setting up mics and getting levels, focus on capturing the sound you want for that song. Every time I make an effort to make the recorded tracks sound really close to how I want them to sound in the mix, I have so much more fun mixing. Not only that, my mixes turn out better.

Yes, there are plenty of things to to in the mixing phase, but don’t assume that good mixes happen during mixes. They started long before that.

2. Use a HPF for More Bass

Okay, that one sounds a little stupid, too. I’m not talking about using a high-pass filter on all your non-bass tracks (although I highly recommend doing that). I’m talking about using a HPF on your bass and kick drum tracks.

Don’t you just love the sound of 40 Hz? Yeah, me neither. And chances are your mixes doesn’t need information THAT low. Some genres call for it, but most of us don’t need that much sub bass.

I’ve recently started putting a HPF on my bass and kick drum tracks, rolling off everything below 40 Hz or so. And? Suddenly the bass feels bigger and has more punch and thump. Hmm…Getting rid of the unnecessary bass seems to make the bass sound better. Very interesting.

3. Compression Attack Times are HUGE

Chances are you’re going to compress your kick drum and bass guitar. I do, almost every time. But how much compression you use is only a part of the equation. The attack time of that compressor makes an immense difference in the sound of the bass.

If you’re in the habit of always adjusting the threshold, ratio, and output gain knobs, but you never touch the attack knob, you’re hurting yourself. Raising the attack can allow that bass to really thump. Turning down the attack can really help emphasize the “click” on the kick drum.

Finding that sweet spot with attack will improve your low end by leaps and bounds.

4. Play With Faders Before EQ Knobs

Of course you need to use EQ on your bass and kick drum tracks. Carve out some low mids, let those bass frequencies shine through. But before you get all slap-happy with EQ, make sure you’ve spent some time with the faders.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent 10 minutes wrestling with a bass track, trying a bunch of different EQ and compression tricks, only to realize that turning it down in the mix by 3 dB fixed all the problems I was having.

Having the right balance between your kick and bass can get you much closer to the sound you want, long before your reach for that EQ.

5. Figure out Who’s the Man

There really can only be one boss down below 150 Hz. Who’s the man in the mix? Who’s holding down the low end? Is it kick? Is it the bass? Is it some other instrument?

Figure that out, then make the other one “work around” the man.

In other words, if the kick drum really has the bass sound that you want, then EQ the bass guitar to “sit” nicely alongside the kick. This may mean that you remove some more bass frequencies from the bass to make sure the kick sounds great. That’s okay.

It can work the other way, too. Sometimes the kick drum doesn’t sound super deep. It may be rocking around 120 Hz, but there’s not much information down below that. In that instance, maybe the bass guitar should be the man, holding down the low end, and you shape the kick drum around that.

It’s all about compromise.

6. Don’t Forget Good Ol’ Fletcher-Munson

Your monitoring level can make or break the low end in your mix. If you went to school for recording, you probably learned about the Fletcher-Munson Curves. It’s a pretty dorky topic, and it doesn’t really matter if you understand it. But what you need to know is this:

Bass frequencies behave differently at different volumes. The louder you listen to music, the more bass it seems to have. Think about it. When you crank up your studio monitors, you can hear a nice, big bass sound, right? What happens when you turn ’em down really low? You only hear the high-frequency stuff. The bass frequencies mostly disappear.

I was listening to a CD the other day. It was really good music, but the bass was simply too loud, consistently loud throughout the entire CD. When I turned it down to a nice, low volume, the bass was STILL loud. The bass balance at low volumes was pretty good, but at normal listening volumes it was overwhelming.

The take-away point? If you’re mixing at lower volumes, don’t try to crank the bass up so you can hear it. When you listen at louder volumes it will be too loud. I’m not saying mix with really loud levels; just be careful. Bass does different things at different volumes. Make sure your mix works at different volumes.

You can do it.

You can get great-sounding recordings and mixing from a home studio. It just takes a lot of work, a lot of practice. Got any bass tips for the rest of us? Questions? Leave a comment below.

  • Chuck Wettish

    Great article, thanks!

    • You’re welcome! Thanks for reading.

  • Dan Perez

    Derrrr I forgot all about the Fletcher Munson curve. Been forever since I worked on a track. Now I realize why I cranked up the track I made last night and the bass is way too hot! Thanks.

  • Peter

    Grab a cheap one 3″ speaker kitchen radio with an aux in. Monitor your reference track through that and notice when it distorts as you crank it up. Now try your mix – it should distort at the same volume if your bass weight is right

  • James Bryant

    I use pre-mixed rhythm tracks and compose around them.Without adding any processing how loud should the rhythm track be, and how loud should the bass track be. Answer in the simpless form please.

    • Sorry James, there’s no single answer. Listen to your favorite albums to find out what other folks are doing, then try to imitate that sound.

  • Snotticus

    Reining.
    Or is your bass that regal?

    • Bahahahaha. I like the regal bass sounds

  • B-Ray Pennington

    I recently did a recording with my band. We have an 8-track demo we’ve been working on & have been doing so for about a year. We had a recording session where we all recorded together in real time so that the person recording to figure out tempos & set click tracks for when we break it down. Well before any mixing was all the band (except me) got together & listened to it & decided the bass sounded awful. just ungodly awful. 

    I eventually heard the recording & it did. but what it sounded like to me was an issue with the recording itsself, but all fingers were pointed at the bassist (me). The bass sounded fuzzy & maxed & clipped a lot. I’ve been trying to research what could have caused these things & ask other who know anything about recording & everyone pretty well agrees, that the problem lies with the one playing producer. 

    I play a Traben Array 5, 5-string bass with active pickups. I model my style similarly to progressive bassists like Geddy Lee of Rush, John Myung of Dream Theater & Marko Heitala of Nightwish. So I really attack when I play & do a lot of “fills” & triplets.

    Anyone else’s thoughts? Much needed & appreciated! 

    • Hey B-Ray. It’s hard to really know what the right answer is without being there. I would say this. Don’t write off the fact that you and your playing COULD be a part of the problem. I’m not saying it definitely is, but you should consider all possibilities.
      A great performance can oftentimes out-shine a mediocre recording. But obviously you want to get the best performance AND the best recording.
      It seems like the obvious answer is to re-record the bass.

  • I don’t believe any piece of gear will solve your problems in mixing, no matte what the problems are. If you’re having muddy mixes, then you need to work on your mixing skills, not focus on different gear.
    I don’t mean that to be mean. It’s just the truth. It’s how I got better mixes, by simply getting better myself, not getting better gear.

  • no.1, 5, and 6 were the most helpful for me.

  • Bill

    Coincidentally, just yesterday I stumbled upon the idea of using HPF on kick/bass tracks .. and it helped out a whole bunch. I got the idea from another one of Joe’s articles about running some wide sweeps of certain frequencies. I figured, why not try cutting out the high or low frequencies entirely up to/down to a certain point. Couldn’t believe how the sound of certain tracks wasn’t affected at all through almost the entire high and/or low ranges of the EQ. It really helps to free up some space in the mix for other tracks that actually need to be in the highs or lows.

  • pick6

    I eat, sleep and breath 40Hz.

    • dankman

      !!!!!!

  • Amazing article, Joe. Really well written and some absolutely solid tips.

    Particularly mixing before you record – what a brilliant idea. One day I had some time to spare – rare, I know – so I pulled out an old TASCAM Midistudio tape recorder I’d bought long ago at an auction. While setting up the microphones and pickup, I began correcting mix issues using the EQ, signal flow and mic placement. When I was ready to record, it sounded like it was already finished. There’s something very organic about addressing the mix while setting up to record. I haven’t tweaked the recording since because I was already happy with it.

    This tip definitely doesn’t apply to all situations, but I found myself with a lovely sounding deep cello and an equally lovely sounding piano – but somehow amidst the other instruments, the piano just wasn’t cutting through the mix like I wanted it to. I had them both sounding perfect, so I didn’t want to change the sound. Here’s what I did: Since it only played a few notes to a cue, I subtly sidechained it to the cello. Instant clarity, without having to carve out any frequencies for just one moment in the song.

  • Nice read: “ADDING BASS CLARITY”
    By Bob Dennis

    http://www.alexandermagazine.com/recordingeq/eq/req0104/bass.htm

  • Lauro

    What SPL level do you consider to deliver the most flat response feeling?

    • SJBMusic

      I’m far from an expert here, but since nobody else has responded –

      My understanding is that F-M is most nearly flat at around 83dB.

      So mix everything else at whatever volume you want (lower is less fatiguing, so tends to work pretty well ime), then go to 83dB to get a good bass balance with the whole.

  • Xan

    Good article Joe, as this has always been the bane ov my mixings, especially back in the analogue days..!

    And the solutions I have come up with myself over time are pretty much the same as what you have said and a bit ov what others have said too.

    Because the guts is that lower frequencies use up more ov the HEADROOM ov a system, there is a lot more energy & therefore voltage down that end. So you don’t want to be wasting that on frequencies that people simply aren’t gonna hear because the speakers cannot produce them. (Unless ov course you are deliberately trying to create sub-harmonic sonic art! heh)

    Therefore by rolling off those extreme lows you are freeing up headroom to produce the slightly higher bass notes that people can hear and speakers can produce cleanly.

    A lot ov the problem seems to stem from the fact that near field studio monitors simply don’t have much low end, so you make a mix that sounds great and then you try it on a conventional stereo and it sounds boomy and/or “flubby”. And compounding this problem is that many consumers have systems which they set to exaggerated bass responses.

    One thing to try is to make an EQ preset that deliberately exaggerates the response ov your studio monitors. Play a CD you know well on a stereo with lots ov bass, then take it into your studio, put a simple EQ plugin into the master buss then boost the low-end to sound similar to the stereo. Save this preset.

    Now, whenever you are concerned about the low-end in a mix put this preset into your master bus while mixing just to check what is happening. If the bass range is too strong, you certainly hear it. Just don’t forget to remove the plugin when you render. And I also suggest not leaving it in for long periods, just as short term checks ov the bass otherwise you’ll lose perspective on the mix.

    Another this I have is an old Yamaha Graphic EQ from a domestic rack stereo system (proly ’80s!) that has a nice vacuum florescent Spectrum Analyzer display on it. I don’t use the EQ but I always have the S.A. on. That way I can see what is happening in the low end at all time.

    Ov course you can get plugins to do this and more, but it is rather convenient having the hardware unit there all the time. My monitor sits on it, so it’s quite convenient & looks cool too..! 🙂

    So, for quite a while I have managed to control my low-end to the point where I am happy with it not being too great, but it does seem to make the mixes just a little bit on the thin side, although one can well get away with that when mixing Black Metal…! haha My next challenge is to get everything sounding great on top (which it is) but still having a strong lo-end presence like most commerical mixed metal. And I think I have nearly cracked that. The secret seems to be in the mastering stage. 🙂

  • Steve

    As a bass player I always HPF my bass. I hit the strings hard to generate higher harmonics, but I also generate a lot of low end rumble.

    Another tip for bottom end clarity is the “less is more” approach when writing a bass part. Punchy, simple and clean bass when you record makes mixing easier.

  • One thing I found that works really well is to route all your channels EXCEPT the bass and drums thru an Aux Send and then put and EQ on it and roll off everything below 120hz and leave the rest of the curve pretty flat. It cleans out the bottom end so the drums and bass have a nice home…actually makes the guitars FEEL thicker too since they arent fighting for bass space with the bass. Then roll everything below 40hz off the drums and bass and give the bass a slightly higher EQing then the kick and it really opens up the whole bottom. Gives them space which makes then ‘feel’ thicker even though there a bit less bass involved…dont know if it’s just my place, but thats always worked for me…
    J.T.

  • One of the best written articles you’ve ever posted. Great tips! And excellently stated.
    I don’t get the math, but “Fletcher Munson curve” and other such dorky topics are fun to me, so go on all you want about them.

  • Hi Joe

    another two suggestions
    1: Your only as good as your sounds. So the trick is to match the bass and kick together . Not all bass sounds and kicks work together. change one or both of them until they work well together .

    2 : Sidechaining can solve a million bass problems . If you sidechain the compression of the bass with the kick you can create little holes for the kick to sit in . If you do it right it can be inaudibly different but powerful and clean . Some house and pop producers even use it in an audible way as a style or sound .

  • Jac Mandel

    Mixing before (or as) you record – that is how we used to do it. We had no choice. Recording to tape and mixing with a console gave us limited track count, limited (analogue) processing, all mix moves done in real time (no automation) which required pre mixing/bouncing etc. It can actually help a mix when you are forced to commit to mix decisions as you record, plus it helps you mix faster and not get trapped by endless mixing rabbit-trails. Many great albums were produced this way. Great reminder.

  • Scott

    In trying to make the kick and bass sit nicely I’ll sometimes put a freq analyzer on the main and solo the two, switching back and forth to visually get an idea of what’s going on. Sometimes the analyzer bounces around so much that it’s not much help, but sometimes it is.

  • Pierre

    Well here’s a maybe strange suggestion: when i edited and mixed audiotracks (for television) i got this tip: try out listening to it through different speaker setups. Even through only tv speakers. It can be very helpfull. Worked for me! You have any ideas on that?

  • Jim

    Hey Joe,
    As a musician I have always thought about the overall sound of the song as I was laying it down, thus mixing as I go….it’s good to know others thing the same way!

    But there is one part I don’t get from your article….

    “In other words, if the kick drum really has the bass sound that you want, then EQ the kick drum to “sit” nicely alongside the kick.”

    ??? 😉

    We hope you & yours have a great Christmas & a Safe & Happy New Year!

  • Rasmus

    I think the HPF on the 40hz makes the rest of the bass sound bigger because of the headroom cleared from the lower subs. Possibly even resonance spooking out?

    • Max

      which steep do you prefer using hpf like this? i often do this, and noticed the lower you go the softer you need, to do it the gentle way without cutting too much energy and making it dull (like 6 db/oct @20-30 hz, 12-18 db/oct @ 30-40 hz, 24 @ higher… etc).