This is the final post in this Mixing Bass Series.

In part 1 of this series, I talked about common bass problems. In part 2, I gave you some tips for EQ-ing bass. Today we need to take a look at how to use compressors and limiters to properly handle bass.

I’m writing this with the assumption that we all have a good basic understanding of what compression does. I want to look specifically at how we can utilize compression to make our bass parts better.

Does the bass need dynamics?

This is a question worth asking. Do we need the bass to have a huge volume range? Or do we want to tighten down and make it very one-dimensional, with every note being the same volume?

If you’ve hung around HSC for very long, you probably think I’m going to pick the first option. But I actually think that the less dynamic range the bass has the better.

When mixing a pop/rock song, where you’ve got the typical bass, drums, guitars, etc., there’s one thing you want to be constant – your bass tone. If each note the bass player plays is at a dramatically different level than the next, you’ll end up with sections of the song where the bass just seems to disappear. In other sections, though, it will be overwhelmingly loud.

What to do?! Compression to the rescue.

Let me just say that this doesn’t apply to every bass part ever recorded. If you’re doing a jazz tune, you probably don’t want to slam the upright bass with a ton of compression. (Heck, you’re probably not gonna use much compression at all on a jazz track.)

However, if you’re mixing a pop/rock song (or if you think you’ll ever mix one in your life), read on.

The Purpose of Compression

For most instruments, I use compression to change the tone. I’ll use it to make a vocal more “up-front,” or I’ll use it to bring up the sound of the room on drum overheads.

With bass, though, it’s different. While compression does have its tonal effects on bass (like bringing out pick noise and increasing sustain), I primarily use compression to even out all the notes.

Ideally, every bass note in the song will sound exactly the same, perfect consistency from note to note. That’s one of the things we look for in a bass player, right? They play consistently.

We want our bass part to be heard and felt on every beat of the song. Therefore, we need to employ compression and limiting to make the notes as consistent as possible.

How I Set Up Compression/Limiting on Bass

Rather than go on and on writing about the various implications of using compressors and limiters on bass, let me walk you through how I set things up for my sessions.

After EQ-ing the bass, I’ll add a compressor. (I EQ the bass first because I want to get rid of any unwanted frequencies. A compressor will make these frequencies louder, so you want them to be gone before you compress.)

Here’s a screenshot of one compressor setting for a mix:

There’s not a ton of compression going on here. I try to use a longer attack time, so the transients still come through. The purpose of the compressor in this example is to bring up the overall volume of the bass, particularly the sustained notes.

After compressing, I’ll put a limiter on the track. The limiters job in this instance is to completely squash the bass, preventing it from getting any louder.

You’ll notice that the threshold is about 6 dB below the ceiling. That difference is bring up the overall volume of the bass. The ceiling, though, is preventing that volume from going past -7.6 dB.

This makes every bass note almost exactly the same volume. Bringing that output ceiling down allows me to control the output volume of the bass. Bringing the threshold down throws everything that comes through the limiter up to the ceiling, where it is prevented from getting any louder.

If you’ve never used a limiter before, this can be a bit confusing. However, once you understand what’s going on here, you’ll realize that a limiter can be a useful tool for more than just squashing your entire mix.

I don’t use this technique on every song I mix, but hopefully I’ve given you something to think about and experiment with next time you’re in the studio.

What compression/limiting tips do you have? Leave a comment!

[Photo by peff]

  • Smili

    Every sound (snare, drum, bass, kick, lead) you hear is more complex that you might think. In fact, every sound is composed of many sounds that play at once at different volumes. For example, you might select a kick sample thinking that it is only one sound. The fact is that this many sounds at different volumes constitutes that kick. If you understand that, you’ll understand why compression and limiting are important and how they work. We use compression to bring up the volume of some softer sounds and/or bring down sounds with higher volumes.

    In other words, when you compress a sound (ex: kick), you just regulate the volumes of all the set of sounds that constitutes this sound (kick).

    Example: When you watch TV, you don’t have to turn the volume up/or down when someone is screaming/or whispering. That’s because there is compression applied.

  • mike

    I record smooth jazz. And i’ve been finding comps are making my bass lines worse. I play pretty evenly as i’ve practiced many years with a metronome. Am i compressing the wrong way? Or should i leave it off?

    • One thing you might want to do is use a really slow attack time. like 45 ms or longer. That’ll keep the bass punchy. Or the answer might simply be “this sounds great and doesn’t need compression at all.”
      That’s a legit answer.

      • mike

        Thanks joe. I will try that. I’m still learning about compression. Attack times and such. I’m still a bit confused. Guess i’ll keep at it.

        • Keep at it man. Hit me up if you have other questions.

          • mike

            Not to impose but can i send a song of mine to you. Just for brief critique. If your to busy i understand

  • rick

    Example of the dsp described in this article for ableton live. Does this look correct? https://filetea.me/t1svV5LR7NCQuxXWTVsx2GgZQ

  • FerZ Franco

    Man you are great I just did that and my bass is awesomeeeeeee. You see I had trouble doing this so I search on the web and read your tutorial, my songs sound much more solid, almost pro, turns out I bought a waves bundle but the truth is that I didn’t use the dynamics effects. Thanks for helping the community. God bless guys like you

  • Evan

    As a bassist, I totally disagree with a strictly limited dynamic range. I understand the desire for consistency but a strong compressor can provide that without stripping me of my ability to be creative through dynamic expression. I actually set up the compressor in my pedal chain, when we play live, to have a 30 ms delay to give me some attack at the front of my note, and then bat the sound down a bit to give me some sustain without overwhelming my compatriots. Pop and rock are genres of cliches, but players of these genres can still break those restraints and play artistically.

    • Great points.

    • Michelle Black

      Thanks for that tip..

    • Nic

      It depends on genre and the role of the bass in THE MIX.

  • Nelson

    This compression idea is a bit personal, everyone has a preference.
    For me, bass compression is vital because I tend to play some notes louder than others, I don’t have much control over my hand. Besides, I use a guitar compressor in my bass and it doesn’t sound “hummy”, it has a lot to do with equalization too.

    • Definitely personal preference, for sure.

  • Rich

    Sorry, this article doesn’t have very good advice.
    ” But I actually think that the less dynamic range the bass has the better.”
    This is a terrible notion. Wanna make the bass guitar all hummy and indistinct and rob it of its attack and  characteristic sound? Head this direction and squish it flat.
    “f you’re doing a jazz tune, you probably don’t want to slam the upright
    bass with a ton of compression. (Heck, you’re probably not gonna use
    much compression at all on a jazz track.)”
    Novices voice this idea all the time: Jazz = No compression. Who made that up? I’ve not seen it, myself. A pizzicato contrabass is extremely dynamic and can have lots of transients that need treatment to fit better in a mix.

    • Hey Rich, thanks for the comment. Guess I’m not following you. At first you say compression makes the bass “hummy and indistinct,” then you tell me how much an upright bass could use compression.
      I can only speak from MY experience. And in my experience, squashing the bass usually makes it sound GREAT.

  • Ramm

    Nice tip man. Anyway, do you balance the level of kick drum to the bass guitar?

    • It starts with the faders, then use EQ and compression to balance them against each other.

      • Ramm

        But it starts overpowering the mix. How to avoid it?

        • amagras

          You could try sidechain compression form the bd track

  • Pingback: Mixing Bass in Pro Tools Part 3 – Compression and Limiting | VST instruments Plugins Mag()

  • Wow man, awesome Joe. This is the only place with the answer I was looking for with a real nice description all the way through!

    I was having trouble getting 2 of my notes on my bass line to be even, I tried compressing, EQ, and limiting and wasn’t sure if I was doing it right cause it wasn’t working out.

    Thank-you for the info Joe!

    • Glad I could help! Thanks Riley.

      • Ya Joe, honestly, it really fixed my problem! The bassline is very solid, clean, and pretty even through out. Reminds me of a bassline from Third Day :P.

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  • Brothmaker

    I use a tube pedal compressor for my electric bass.  I try to keep it as subtle as possible, but don’t get me wrong I agree with you completely.  Thanks for the article.

  • I love dbx compressors. Good stuff. I rarely use much (if any) EQ when I’m tracking. I’ve got a 3-band EQ on my Presonus Eureka. I’ll usually cut some low-mids when tracking bass, but that’s about it. At this point I wouldn’t buy an outboard EQ, just because I would so rarely use it.

  • martin

    why cant u just use the limiter avoiding the compressor?? or push the compressor to the limit??

    • Because each of them serves a purpose. A compressor isn’t a limiter, and a limiter isn’t a compressor.

  • I rarely use a multi-band compressor during mixing, mainly because it can get so complex and can potentially be a waste of time. I’m not against using it, but I try my best to keep things as simple as possible. EQ, compression, done.

  • alan stewart

    Joe… thank you very much for these Bass tips. I have never been able to get a good solid bass tone on any mix I have done.. I was the guy tweaking this knob, and tweaking that knob, then ending up and put a chorus on the track. Just to give it some color.
    I just did these tips on a song I am redoing, and man… the bass is sooooooo solid sounding. It is amazing. I think with the eq and the compression and the one thing I never used the limiter, is what did it. I still have to tweak some, and I might do the clone and add some dirt trick to it, but this has helped tremendously.

  • Anonymous

    I generally do the compressing first, then do my EQing.My reason for doing this is that putting a compressor after the EQ will then cause any boosts.In a higher headroom environment, such as Protools LE’s 48 bit fixed, or most other DAWs 32 bit floating mixers,this isn’t nearly as much of an issue, though you still need to pay attention to gain staging.

    bass guitar

  • Nat Himself

    Just a minor bass-specific thing to be wary of at this stage, is if, and where, uneven ‘spots’ exist at different points on the neck of the instrument; most basses will not be completely even in volume across all notes on the neck, some frets can be a little ‘boomy’- take some time to listen for these. If any of these are evident on the particular instrument, it will usually sound better if you can cut those little giblets of frequency buildup before you even consider dynamics processing. Reason being; these hotspots are often a huge contributor to the ‘unevenness’ of a bass track, and ‘DESTROYING (lol)’ them can reduce the amount by which you need to crush the track.

  • hellsgate

    Thanks for this Joe, especially the part on using the limiter after compression.
    I'm not sure I agree with you about the order to put your compression and EQing in the chain. I generally do the compressing first, then do my EQing. My reason for doing this is that putting a compressor after the EQ will then cause any boosts I've applied through EQ to be compressed, effectively nullifying the boost. I can't remember where I first picked up this tip (it could well have been on your site!). However, I can also see the sense in your reason for doing the other way around. I guess I'm just going to have to use the oldest rule in the mixing book – use my ears! 🙂

    • I can see your point, but I typically try to use EQ to do CUTS rather than
      boosts, so it makes sense to cut them before compression, so the compressor
      doesn't boost the offending frequencies even more.

      • hellsgate

        I generally have a cut and a boost on my bass EQ, so i s'pose that whatever order I do my EQ and compression in, something is going to get slightly compromised

        • Frogs

          Hello,

          Great post. Up til now I used the following:

          Bass in ==> Light EQ (to cut unwanted frequencies) ==> Comp ==> proper EQ

          Thanks for the limiter tip. I'll try that asap

          • jwashburn

            Yes. A common order is: corrective EQ -> compression -> tonal EQ

            • CamBam

              So you have two eq plugins, the first one for cuts and the second one for boosts/more cuts?

              1st eq -> compression -> 2nd eq

              • I’ve done that before, especially in mastering.

      • jwashburn

        Regarding prioritizing cuts over boosts, that practice makes a lot of sense with low headroom mixers (such as what your typical home studio might have… eg: Mackie, A&H, Soundcraft) because, in addition to introducing phase shifting, you're likely to overload the next stage or even the buss (especially if you're boosting across multiple channels) which, in those designs, is often very unmusical.

        In a higher headroom environment, such as Protools LE's 48 bit fixed, or most other DAWs 32 bit floating mixers, this isn't nearly as much of an issue, though you still need to pay attention to gain staging. If you clip a succeeding stage, boosting will sound bad, but if you don't it's really not the bugaboo that internet conventional wisdom has made it out to be.

        • Sparqee

          Music recording forums & magazine articles have certainly over simplified the cut vs. boost consideration. Lots of times boosting is the way to go, but I think it's useful to consider the strengths of the cut vs. boost philosophy. Beginner tend to simply boost what they want to hear more of and they quickly end up with a lot of competing tracks. If on the other hand they develop the discipline to listen critically and discern which sounds are competing for the same freq range they can make better informed choices about when and what to cut or boost. The philosophy of cutting over boosting leads you to listen more critically and to pay more attention to the actual problems.

          As so often happens the story has become over simplified and the true value of the story has been lost.

          • I agree. I approach mixing like creating a statue. You start with a huge block of marble (or 24 audio tracks). You don't ADD more stone to make it look like a man. Instead you carve out big chunks of marble until it looks like a man.

        • Noob here. Can you clarify what you mean by “higher headroom”, its relation to the bit capacity of your DAW, and how that helps prevent clipping at a later stage?

          If this is this just a buffer overflow problem, as I suspect it is, would the problem be ameliorated by a 64-bit system, or would you need a DAW that can operate in 64-bit mode as well?

          (Also if you could relate any of this to Logic Studio I'd be grateful, since that's the DAW I use.)

          • CamBam

            Headroom is the amount of dynamic range your recordings have. In a 16-bit recording, you will have less headroom than in a 24-bit recording. The only way to get more headroom is to have an interface that can record and higher bits and then make absolute sure to set it to that higher bit rate. You can’t get a computer that is 64-bit to increase your headroom.

            • Nope, that’s not true.

              Headroom is NOT the same thing as dynamic range. Headroom is how much space you have between your peaks and clipping. Dynamic range is how much difference there is between the loudest and softest parts of the mix, or more specifically, the difference between the peaks of your mix and the RMS level of the mix.

              So, you could have a mix with 20 dB of headroom and still only 8 dB of dynamic range, if you compressed it too much.

              I wrote more about this here:

              http://www.homestudiocorner.com/headroom-vs-dynamic-range/

    • Sparqee

      For the sake of noobies that might misunderstand your post; saying that post EQ compression will “effectively nullifying the boost” is a bit misleading (unless you're using a multiband compressor). It is true that a pre-compressions EQ boost will effect the compressor's behavior but a standard single band compressor is still acting upon the entire frequency spectrum of the sound. This can actually be used to your advantage. If you want your compressor to react to a particular part of the sound you can accentuate that with a boost to key your compresssor. Of course to make things more interesting there's also the issue of compressors reacting more strongly to low frequencies but that's another story.

      There are fine reason for EQ'ing either before or after compression and in some cases *both* before and after. All depends on what your after. 🙂

      • Good thought. Thanks for the clarification.

      • hellsgate

        Thanks for the replies everyone, especially Sparqee. I've been mixing, as a hobby, for less than a year and I still find compression to be a bit of a 'black art' some of the time. I have to say that Joe's 'Intro to Compression' video has helped me enormously and discussions like this can only be more helpful still.
        I think I've got to the stage where I agree that, in general, cutting is better than boosting but, as Sparqee has pointed out, sometimes a boost is what is needed (eg bringing out the 'click' on the kick drum or, as Joe mentioned in part 2 of this series, bringing out the pick / finger noise on the bass guitar). In either case, deciding in what order to use the EQ and compression is going to take some careful listening each time 🙂

        • “In either case, deciding in what order to use the EQ and compression is
          going to take some careful listening each time :)”

          Precisely!! 🙂

    • The reason you disagree with me is because you’re boosting in your EQ. I
      almost always cut problematic frequencies rather than boosting favorable
      ones.