Mixing Bass Part 1

If you asked me to single out one part of the mixing process that gives me the most trouble, it’s bass.

Dealing with bass frequencies in general is a frustrating task. Whether it’s bass guitar, or kick drum, or acoustic guitar, or even vocals, those low frequencies can cause all sorts of problems.

Over the next couple of days, I’m going to give you some tips for dealing with bass.

What’s up with the low end?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we get rid of all bass in all of our songs. A well-managed low end is one of the things that makes a mix great. While I do think you should get rid of any excess low end with a high-pass filter, I’m not advocating cutting out the low end entirely.

That said, the main reason the low end causes so many problems is that it’s hard to reproduce. Most of use aren’t sitting behind a $5,000 pair of studio monitors. We’re on smaller monitors or headphones.

Bass frequencies need a big speakers to accurately reproduce them. Headphones do not have big speakers in them.

So what ends up happening is we mix for hours, and it sounds good to us. In reality, though, our monitoring system isn’t letting us hear what’s going on in the lows.

You finish the mix, then take it over to your father-in-law’s house to listen on his surround sound system in his living room, the one with the subwoofer. You pop in the CD, and your head drops in shame.

It’s too boomy.

“But it didn’t sound like that in my studio!” you complain. True. It didn’t, because your studio simply couldn’t reproduce those lowest frequencies.

The truth is, the subwoofer didn’t add low end to your mix, it simply revealed the low end that had been there all along.

All is Not Lost

Please don’t think that I’m suggesting you need to immediately go out and buy the biggest studio monitors you can. Big monitors introduce their own set of problems.

You can create a GREAT mix on the system you have right now. You can, but you need to be aware that your system does not always accurately represent the audio. You must learn how to mix on your system.

This means you need to do a lot of listening. Take your mixes to other systems and listen to how they differ. Adjust your mixing technique accordingly.

If you have to crank the bass track in your mix to be able to hear it clearly through your monitors, but the bass is overwhelming in every other system, you need to compensate. The result? Your mix might sound a little thinner in your home studio, but it will translate well to other systems.

What does all this have to do with bass guitar?

Well, in a typical pop-rock mix, there will be two things holding down the low end – the kick drum and the bass guitar.

That’s it. If you don’t get these right, you’ve sabotaged your mix’s low end.

That’s why it’s so important to invest a lot of thought into how you’re going to handle the bass in your mix.

Has this been your experience? Lots of late nights wrangling your bass tracks into submission? Tell us about it in the comments section.

Tomorrow we’ll deal with how to EQ the bass. See you then.

[Photo by rodrigo senna]

  • max

    Hey Joe, I have a sub synth bass in my mix and I can hear it fine in headphones but when I’m playing back through my comp speakers it all but disappears. how can i got the sub sound to come through on regular everyday speakers?

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Really, there’s nothing you can do. If the speakers don’t produce low frequencies, you can’t make them. It’s a matter of physics. You could maybe add some higher-frequency information to your sub-bass part, so that the PART is still heard on smaller speakers, but you can’t make computer speakers reproduce an 80 Hz sound.

  • http://twitter.com/SinfoniaRecords Jennifer Lindsay

    Joe, how much of the information in this series is relevant to someone like me who does a lot of virtual orchestra arranging? I've had trouble in the past with boomy cellos and basses in my string parts.

    • http://twitter.com/SinfoniaRecords Jennifer Lindsay

      ..aaaaand I just read the 1st paragraph of Part 2, so nevermind. :-)

  • http://twitter.com/bcfortenberry B.C. Fortenberry

    It's important to note that bass frequencies require proportionally more energy to reproduce than mids and highs. That's why using high pass filters on non-bass producing tracks is crucial. You have to “make room” for bass guitar, kick drum, and left hand keys. Bass frequencies are omnidirectional, so I tend to avoid any type of stereo processing, keeping the bass panned dead center.

    It's been my observation that, the better the bass player, the less processing you'll have to do to get the track to sit in the mix. I usually use a mic and a DI simultaneously, correcting for the inherent latency by moving the mic track back into place in the DAW.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Billy, it's like you read my mind. More to come in tomorrow and Wednesday's post.

      • http://twitter.com/bcfortenberry B.C. Fortenberry

        Well, the easiest solution would be to pay me an exorbitant amount of money to play bass on your record, but most folks can't afford that…
        :)

  • http://www.TheRecordingRevolution.com/ Graham

    Definitely the big challenge for me is getting the low end right. And these days we have to mix for crappy computer speakers and iPod earbuds as well. Lot's to keep in mind! Looking forward to the next post!

  • Sparqee

    I have two sets of speakers set up on my 4 bus Mackie board: my Alesis Monitor 1 Mk2's and some JBL hifi Creature Speakers (with sub). The Alesis monitors are pretty detailed but don't go very low. The JBL's are pretty hyped in both the lows and the highs. It's funny because if I start listening on the JBLs they sound good until I switch over to the Alesis at which point the mids of the JBL's sound garbled in comparison. So the Alesis monitors are good for doing my balances but the JBL's give me a better sense of what the average stereo system is going to sound like. Best of all is if I can get the lows to sound good on the Monsoon stereo system in my car, then I feel pretty successful. :)

    Arrangement is another important factor with the bass. If you've got a really busy low end it's best to have a pretty short, punchy kick sound. Leave some space between the notes of the bass guitar also or you'll be fighting a tidal wave of boom during the mix. And if you really want to challenge yourself to get to know the low end of your monitors do a mix of a song that has cello, kick drum *and* an electric bass. If you can manage to get a legato cello line to sing without creating a muddy mess of the low end then you can feel proud! :)

    One last idea that I'm still experimenting with: for headphone mixing try putting a bass enhancement plugin on your low end instruments (e.g. the Waves MaxxBass or the Crsonic newB) which will cause you to turn down the bass in your headphone mix. Then when it's time to render your final mix disable the bass plugins. If you can find the right plugin settings to match your headphones' bass response you may be able to get a decent mix out of your headphones.

  • http://www.myspace.com/dirkreinking Dirk

    my kickdrum peaks at 55Hz (EZD-DFH) and my bassguitar at 77Hz.
    sometimes it helps to bring out the harmonics on bass
    with a slight boost around 900Hz.. but it all depends on
    your instruments used in the mix.
    cheers
    d

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Good call on the harmonics. I know a few “old school” engineers who get
      AMAZING sounds by messing around with boosting even or odd order harmonics.

  • http://www.myspace.com/dirkreinking Dirk

    i meant the bassguitar harmonics which are around 900Hz..
    just boost there a bit and listen.. :)