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Mixing Bass
EastWest Hollywood Pop …

How To Craft The Perfect Bottom End


Production
By Mike Senior

Avoid all the low-frequency pitfalls and learn to achieve the perfect
foundation for any mix, with our bass-mixing masterclass...

How do I mix bass? It's a simple question, but compare


a dozen records picked at random and you'll see that there's
no simple answer. When it comes to instruments, 'bass' can
mean (at the very least) guitar, upright, drum or synth. Each
can perform many musical roles, and every genre has
di erent conventions for low-end sonics. In this article, I'll help
you make sense of all that, whatever instruments or genre
you're working with.

Cancellation Insurance
A bass 'sound' is often a combination of several similar signals:
for example, electric bass can be multi-miked; a DI signal may
be captured; and you might introduce MIDI-triggered layers to
ll things out further. Such shenanigans give you tremendous
power to re ne your sound, but also enough rope to hang
yourself, because the layers don't always reinforce each other
when mixed. In fact, they can cancel gruesomely at certain frequencies if there are polarity or
phase mismatches — so you need a clear understanding of phase and polarity! There's an in-
depth article on the SOS web site (/sos/apr08/articles/phasedemysti ed.htm) but I'll run
Matt Schaeffer Mixes 'All t…
t…
through the basics.

Phase di erences are caused by one signal being delayed relative to another; and polarity
di erences are caused by one waveform being inverted relative to another. If you're unlucky,
the phase/polarity relationship between a pair of similar signals can result in tonal carnage
when they're combined, and you must tackle such issues as early as possible.

With multi-mic/DI recordings, a good way to start is to zoom in on their waveforms and try to
match them up as closely as possible, so that phase and polarity di erences are minimised and
you get the strongest reinforcement. Sort out any obviously polarity-inverted waveform rst —
by either processing the audio region or hitting that channel's polarity-inversion switch — and
drag the audio regions to line up better. If judging things visually is tricky, hunt for transients,
which tend to be more easily identi able. Readers' Ads
Now to start re ning things by ear. Put the rst two tracks out of polarity with each other, fade VIEW ALL ADS CREATE FREE AD
them up to equal levels, and adjust the timing o set between them to achieve the strongest
cancellation. Returning to a matched polarity will then give you the fullest composite sound.
Repeat this process, adjusting the timing of each new layer in relation to those you've phase- On the same subject
matched. Inside Track: Chris Brown 'Heat'
September 2019
It's by no means 'wrong' to deliberately mismatch polarity and phase settings to radically How Engineers Get Vocals To 'Sit Right' In A Mix
transform what was captured (this is art, after all) but creative phase-cancellation is something September 2019
of a lottery, and there's a tendency for it to mess with the relative balance of di erent note Louis Bell: Songwriter & Producer
pitches, thus introducing musical irregularities. August 2019
Q. Should I use linear or constant-power

Phase Me Baby, Right Round... crossfades?


August 2019
Mix Rescue: Daniel Thompson
A specialist 'phase rotation' device allows you July 2019
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to delay di erent frequencies by di erent
amounts (for links to a ordable phase-rotation Latest Videos
plug-ins go to www.cambridge-mt.com/ms-
ch8.htm#links-phase.) Phase rotation won't
change a channel's frequency response in
isolation, but it will change the way one layer of
a multi-channel sound interacts with others.

I  nd it more time-e cient to grapple with


polarity and timing adjustments before fa ng It's often hard to judge the relative polarity and
with phase-rotation, and there's no point in timing o set of mic and DI bass signals by looking at
their waveforms, (upper pair). It's easier if you focus
trying to nesse exact phase relationships if
on transients, such as the note onset (lower pair).
they don't stay consistent (as in the case of Even then, though, you need to use your ears. Vintage Sound In The Modern Studio
most multi-miked acoustic bass parts, where 2 days 2 hours ago.
instrument movements will alter the relative
path-lengths to the mics, and hence the time-
o set). But I do use phase rotation a lot when
mixing processed and unprocessed versions of
the same bass sound — something called
'parallel processing'.

Most DAW systems auto-compensate for


a plug-in's processing latency, but some plug-
ins (equalisers and amp emulators in
particular) generate additional time/phase shifts, and a phase rotator or simple delay line can
help to compensate for this. Mark Linett - Remixing The Beach Boys
2 months 3 days ago.
There may also be hidden phase gremlins between the left and right channels of stereo bass-
synth patches, which you'll only hear when the channels are mixed to mono. The worst-case
scenario is that the low frequencies will cancel badly, and won't make it out of club and PA
systems, or single-subwoofer home/car systems. If the phase mismatch is static, adjusting the
polarity, timing, or phase response of one channel may help, but if the bass is seriously aky in
mono, you might as well lter it out and layer in a mono sub-bass synth.

EQ: The First Two Octaves


The 20-100Hz frequency region presents probably the most di cult challenge, as it includes
the fundamental frequency of most acoustic/electric bass notes, and maybe a harmonic or two
SOS visit the world-famous Capitol Studios in Los Angeles
besides for the most seismic of synths. Studio monitoring has a lot to answer for here (see the
3 months 2 days ago.
'Bass Under Pressure' box), but it's also a question of EQ technique.

Be cautious with low-shelving boosts if your monitoring system (including your room as well as
your speakers) struggles to convey information below 40-50Hz. Lots of rubbish like tra c SIGN UP TO SOS NEWSLETTERS
rumble and mechanical thuds can be lurking at the spectrum's low extremes, and you don't
want to boost this. If you must apply a shelving boost, also use a 20-30Hz high-pass lter for
safety. LF shelving lters also continue acting, to some degree well beyond their speci ed
frequency, so if you nd you've collected excess low mid-range baggage while trying to boost
the true low end, a compensatory peaking cut at 200-400Hz may be in order.

Beyond broad-brush decisions, the most common job is compensating for unhelpful
resonances. Acoustic bass tracks always seem to feature one or too fundamentals that boom
out awkwardly, but room resonances can also a ict miked amp recordings, aided and abetted
by the cab's resonant structure. Even the recording mic can play a role, especially if it's one with
a frequency response heavily tailored to rock kick-drum sounds.

The simplest remedy is to deploy well-targeted narrow-band peaking cuts. Find a pitch that
consistently booms undesirably, and loop a representative note. Then sweep around with
a narrow peaking lter in the sub-100Hz region to see if you can bring the errant frequency
back into a better balance. Boosting with the lter rst can assist with nding the right
frequency, as can a high-resolution spectrum analyser. A Q value of eight is a reasonable
starting point, but be prepared to adjust that by ear: some resonances may a ect several
adjacent pitches, requiring a wider bandwidth, but otherwise, try to increase the Q value as
much as you can (without making the cut ine ective!) to avoid messing with the spectral
balance of other notes.

Low-end Interactions
No matter how solid your subs in isolation,
Log
theyinwon't do you much good if the rest of your
arrangement clouds them over, or if they
interfere with the low end of other important
tracks. For a start, if there's more than one
bass part (perhaps a bass guitar layered with
a synth bass), I'd usually choose only one as Amp simulator plug-ins (those from Aradaz, Acme Bar
the main low-end source, and high-pass lter Gig, and IK Multimedia are shown) are often useful
the others around 100Hz, to avoid insidious for processing bass parts at mixdown, but be careful
that phase shifts incurred by the processing don't
phase-cancellation nasties between their long-
introduce unwanted phase-cancellation side-e ects,
waveform LF components, which would be especially when using them for parallel processing.
pretty much un xable with mix processing.

The low-end level modulation inherent in some


detuned multi-oscillator synth patches is
similarly undesirable if you want an absolutely
solid low end, so if you can't switch o the
patch's detune directly, I'd suggest ltering o
the synth's lower octaves and replacing them
with a more reliable static sub-bass synth.

With multi-mic or 'mic + DI' recordings, you'll


often nd that one signal provides a clearer
low-end than the other(s), and high-pass
ltering can again help add focus and de nition
to the nal product. The subjective timbre of
the combined sound is heavily dependent on
the mid-range, so as long as you don't move
your ltering too far above 100Hz, you shouldn't need to worry.

High-pass ltering is also handy for removing low-end junk from other instruments in your
arrangement, to help the low end of your bass part pop though more cleanly. Full-range
keyboard instruments such as synths, pianos and organs warrant special attention, as may
orchestral overdubs, found-sound snippets or sampled mix loops, any of which could conceal
a lot of unwanted rumble. Doing this has an extra bene t if you're working under less-than-
ideal monitoring conditions: if you dramatically undercook your mix's overall LF levels, it's then
easier to correct using mastering processes without dredging up a bunch of underlying sludge
at the same time.

Sub Warfare
The most critical sub-100Hz con ict in modern mixes is that between bass and kick drum: their
low frequencies are normally responsible for the lion's share of the mix bus's output level, and
therefore present the primary headroom bottleneck at mixdown and mastering. The engineer's
task is to divide the available headroom appropriately between these two main LF sources.

If your bass line needs to relieve people of their llings (think Nero's 'Guilt' or Pendulum's
'Watercolour'), you're unlikely to have the headroom to put much real low-end on the kick-
drum channel: you'll have to move up into the 100-200Hz zone to salvage any beef.
Alternatively, if your kick's threatening to wake Godzilla (as on Rihanna's 'Umbrella' or Pussy
Cat Dolls' 'When I Grow Up'), you'll have to be sparing with your bass channel's super-low
frequencies.

This doesn't mean to say that producers


haven't bust blood vessels trying to square this
circle! A time-honoured technique of the dance
fraternity, for instance, is to separate the kick
and bass parts in time, as epitomised in the
simple o -beat cliché of Kylie's 'Can't Get You
Out Of My Head' and, more recently, in 3/16th-
based syncopated club hits like Inna's 'Déjà Vu'
or Chris Brown's 'Yeah 3x'. Another idea you
can hear in urban and club-oriented
productions is to give the bass most of the sub-
bass energy, while ensuring that it's always Just a phase thing? If your main synth-bass part has
playing together with a less sub-heavy kick, a phase/polarity mismatch between its left and right
yielding a convincing illusion that the kick is channels, the part's bass levels will su er in level
better LF-endowed than it actually is. Some and/or consistency when those channels are mixed
together. You could, for example, be in for a nasty
producers also allow their kick parts to
overdrive the mix bus and/or nal mastering surprise if it's played over a club system, because
Log in factoring in the inevitable distortion side- many PAs sum low frequencies to mono.
chain,
e ects while mixing, in order to circumvent apparent kick + bass LF energy limitations — Fifty
Cent's 'In Da Club' springs to mind. If you decide on this contentious approach, make the kick-
drum sound fairly short and tight, not only as a way of minimising the distortion's audibility,
but also to keep the sub-40Hz energy in check; clipping super-low frequencies can easily make
a kick drum sound like it's 'folding' or amming.

In productions less xated on hyping the low


end, the clarity and separation of the bass and
kick becomes a greater goal, so that they
populate the sub-100Hz region in a satisfying
manner, whether separately or in combination.
EQ can help, by focusing each instrument into
di erent regions of the low spectrum, as well
as by cutting any obvious frequency 'hot-spots'
that may skew the overall mix tonality when
the instruments play together. The 41Hz
fundamental of a bass guitar's low 'E' plays into
your hands in this respect, as it frees the
bottom octave for the kick-drum. If depth of
bass tone is important to you (for something
smoochy like James Morrison's 'I Won't Let You Most LF shelving lters a ect the frequency balance
above the point speci ed by the frequency control,
Go'), you'll want to give the bass as much room
and can therefore add low mid-range mud as well as
in the 40-80Hz region as you can without bass. A small peaking- lter cut around 200-400Hz can
completely losing the weight of the kick. On the compensate for this, as you can see in this
other hand, for tracks where the groove needs screenshot of ToneBoosters' TB_Equalizer. The yellow
to really rocket along (as in the Foo Fighter's trace shows the combined e ects of band 1's
shelving- lter boost and band 2's peaking- lter cut.
'Rope', for example). the drums can't a ord too
much of the sluggishness that the lowest octave imparts, and driving the kick's 60-70Hz region
harder, at the expense of the bass, becomes a valid trade-o .

The same basic principles carry over into electronic styles, but with a greater likelihood of sub-
40Hz con icts. The opportunity to nudge your kick sample's pitch can save a good deal of EQ
work, by shifting its frequency peaks into the bass part's natural spectral troughs. Kick-drum
pitch adjustments can also help avoid the drum's low-pitched resonances sounding in unison
with bass-line harmonics, which once again carries the risk that phase-cancellation will
emasculate some hits.

Boosting What's Not There!


If your bass instrument produces no real
energy below 40Hz, there's no point boosting
down there with EQ. So what can you do
instead to underpin your bass with those kinds
of frequencies, or, indeed, to replace
unsalvageable low-octave dross you've ltered
out?

Many manufacturers provide processors that


promise to generate new low frequencies. They
range from simple octaver stomp-boxes to
fairly sophisticated subharmonic soft-synths,
such as Logic's SubBass, but I've always found
them disappointing on real-world bass parts,
giving vague, warbly pitching, and responding
rather unpredictably to things like guitar Multi-oscillator detuned bass synth patches can
distortion, mechanical noises and synth cause mono compatibility problems.
oscillator layering. Instead, I now almost always
just program a simple MIDI synth line for the purpose. It never seems to take longer than 15
minutes to tap in the MIDI notes for most chart-orientated productions, and once you've
settled the new synth into the mix, it makes light work of achieving dependable low-end power.

What synth sound should you use, though? Don't look for ashy presets: dull-sounding
waveforms like sines and triangles are well suited, and stick with a single oscillator, to avoid
unwanted level modulation. A simple on/o amplitude envelope is ne much of the time, but
be prepared to bring the sustain-level control down and introduce some decay time if your
production features only lightly compressed acoustic or electric bass. Fast attack and release
times can cause unwanted clicks and thuds, though, so listen carefully in solo mode to guard
Log in those.
against

A simple sine-wave sub-octave can be mixed in underneath the existing bass line, but if there's
any frequency overlap between the synth and the existing part, things get more complicated.
First, you have to decide how much of the sub-bass synth's upper spectrum reaches the mix,
and how much of the original part's lower spectrum will remain. For 'black ops' applications,
I low-pass lter any non-sine sub-bass waveform fairly severely to keep the more characterful
upper frequencies from blowing the 'sub' synth's cover. However, in many cases some low mid-
range frequencies from the sub synth do help add warmth to the combined bass tone, which is
why I more regularly reach for triangle waves rather than sines for remedial applications.

The other issue is that there's a potential for phase-cancellation at low frequencies if any of the
added synth's frequencies end up in unison with those on the main bass track. The tricky thing
about this is that it's usually sporadic — you might get a troublesome bass-dip for only one
note in a dozen, and that might vary with each playback pass if you're triggering the MIDI synth
live in the mix. My rst response is to bounce my sub-bass synth's output as audio once I've got
it mostly working the way I want, so I don't get live-triggering vagaries. Then I solo the
combined bass sound (with the sub-bass addition), check through the track for any low-end
holes from phase-cancellation, and shift the timing of any o ending sub-bass notes to e ect
a remedy.

Out Of The Depths

There's more to most basses than sub-100Hz welly: the mid-range determines the instrument's
timbral appeal, as well as its audibility under the narrow-bandwidth playback conditions that
are typical of the mass market. The di culty with the mid-range is that most things in a mix are
ghting for it! For bass instruments, the main battleground is the 'warmth' region below about
300Hz. Everyone likes the idea of things sounding warm, but if everything muscles in on those
frequencies, you'll end up with a 'Glastonbury pullover' (a muddy, woolly mess!).

If you can more aggressively high-pass lter some non-bass parts, do so. Make sure the whole
track is playing as you progressively elevate each lter's cuto point, and once you start
hearing an undesirable loss of warmth, ease the frequency back down a little and you should
be set. For mainstream chart productions, giving the bass a pretty free rein in the low mid-
range helps accentuate the part's melodic features, clari es the music's harmonies, and allows
punchy and uncluttered low-end rhythm. For examples, check out how the
bass dominates the 100-200Hz region of Pink's 'Feel Good Time' and Little
Boots' 'New In Town', as well as more rock-tinged stu like Maroon 5's
'Harder To Breathe' and Keane's 'Somewhere Only We Know'.

Low-mid EQ Tactics
Because such clear delineation of the spectrum makes life easier at mixdown,
it's tempting to rely on it universally, but more natural-sounding styles bene t
from more evenly spread warmth. Sweeping a narrow EQ peak through the
low-mids of each track in turn can help locate the main warmth components
for every main instrument, and once you know those, you're well equipped to
clear out less important frequencies on one track that are obscuring the
characteristic frequency features of another — and this is usually more
e ective than just boosting the bits you like!

This kind of EQ'ing can be tough work, and it's not uncommon to be making
half-dB adjustments in this range right up until shrink-wrap time. Comparing The left-hand
with relevant commercial productions can be a big help when trying to spectrogram
nalise your decisions, as can your mute buttons. Killing the bass part for shows a section
a while really highlights other tracks that are over-thickening the mix's mid- of a piano
recording, with
range tone, and muting a few suspects will swiftly identify the main culprits.
the lowest note's
fundamental at
Low mid-range EQ settings are often so nely balanced that they're the rst
around 130Hz.
things to go o the boil when the arrangement changes. In this situation, The energy below
multing (switching individual tracks between more than one mix channel) is this is mostly the
de nitely your friend, because it allows di erent EQ for each section. While ambience and
you may get away with lots of low-mids on your bass part during a sparser subsonic rumble
that's typical of
verse texture, a barrage of heavy guitars arriving in the chorus will give you
live recordings,
a mu ed-sounding frequency build-up if you don't scoop out the bass especially those
channel for that section. made on a tight
Log in budget
Indeed, in heavy-rock and metal genres, where
wide-panned guitars demand a good deal of
low beef, you're likely to nd yourself pulling
out a good deal of the bass part's low-mids. It
may leave no more than ap and zz on the
bass channel, but you'll never get the proper
stereo 'chug' out of the full mix if you low-cut
the guitars instead. In a similar vein, don't be
afraid to carve away that region of the bass
part where acoustic piano or acoustic guitar is
taking centre-stage in a more intimate folk or
singer-songwriter environment.

Bass Highs
One secret weapon at your disposal when
mixing any bass part is its higher frequencies
(pretty much anything above 300Hz), which
bring the bass's unique timbral character to the
fore, pushing beyond its functional role in
supporting the groove and harmonies to
demand more direct attention from the
listener — especially on smaller playback
devices.

The 1kHz zone is good value in this respect,


because a boost there neither upsets the mix's
warmth/mud compromise, nor sends too much
hiss, amp fuzz, pick noise or lter whistle into
a mix's 3-6kHz presence/harshness band. With
kick dominating at 60-100Hz and heavy guitars
above that, it shouldn't be much of a surprise
to nd that rock and metal bass sounds
frequently stake out the 1kHz neighbourhood.
"It's sometimes quite shocking to realise how
much top end you need to add to bass to make
sure it cuts through a track,” remarked
celebrated rock mix engineer Rich Costey back
in SOS March 2008, for example. "The bass
sound in isolation may sound pretty
uncomfortable, but in the midst of the swirling
din of a dense track, that amount of top end
usually works ne.”

With this kind of EQ, make a point of regularly checking your results on small speakers. Bass
will always be audible on a larger system as long as it has low-frequency content, but if you
hear a big audibility drop on the smalls, you probably need to nudge the mid-range. If you dial
in a lot of boost, adding a low-pass lter at around 2-3kHz may be wise, so that wide-band HF
noise doesn't throw a blanket over the delicate 'air' frequencies of lead instruments and vocals.

Adding Harmonics: Layering & Distortion


If EQ simply won't deliver the mid-range
de nition you're after, the recorded bass tone
probably has little energy in the spectral pocket
you want to ll. One tactic is to double the bass
line with a MIDI instrument or additional live
overdub, perhaps at the octave. I've done this
for a few Mix Rescue remixes (see SOS March
and October 2011) and as long as you bracket
the addition's spectrum fairly strictly with
ltering, you can usually fool the ear into
thinking the added instrument is actually an
integral part of the bass.

Distortion can also produce harmonics, but try out di erent processors, as they can have
widely contrasting characters, and decent freeware distortion plug-ins are ten-a-penny these
days: you can nd links to some favourites at
Log in
www.cambridge-mt.com/ms-ch12.htm#links-distortion. I
expect to EQ distortion quite heavily to extract only its
most pertinent frequencies, especially within an
ostensibly clean-sounding style, so I routinely use
parallel processing, rather than insert distortion on the
bass channel or group bus.

An alternative tool here is a dedicated bass-


enhancement processor, such as Waves Renaissance
Bass or Univeral Audio's Precision Hz. These also
generate mid-range harmonics from low bass
fundamentals, but in a more subtle and
psychoacoustically tailored manner than simple
distortion processing, and often with the deliberate aim
of making the bass instrument feel subjectively 'bassier'
without adding extra sub-bass energy. The
danger here, though, is that it's easy to over-
egg the woolliness frequencies of your mix, so
some compensatory equalisation of the bass-
enhanced signal is frequently necessary.

A nal point to make about EQ is that EQ'ing


one channel of a multi-mic/DI con guration, or the return from a parallel distortion e ect, will
introduce additional phase shift, and may produce an unexpected tonal change. It's not a total
no-no, but I  nd it's better to keep such EQ to a minimum if you've already re ned phase and
polarity matches, or else to revisit the phase and polarity settings after equalising. Restricting
yourself to EQ cuts in this scenario is sensible, since that tends to restrict the main phase-shifts
(which often seem to have the subjective e ect of making the timbre less 'solid') to areas of the
frequency spectrum you want less prominent anyway.

Bass Dynamics
Acoustic bass and clean electric bass recordings
inherently have a dynamic range that's
inappropriately wide for most chart contexts, so
compression is par for the course. Even expertly
programmed synth-bass parts often bene t from
some smoothing of unwanted level variations.
The goal is normally to place the instrument
solidly in a  xed mix position, so ratios of 4:1 or
higher are commonplace, as are assertive hard-
knee compression curves. However, in less
heavily marketed and/or acoustic genres, some of
the side-e ects of high-ratio compression (gain pumping, loss of note attack, distortion) may be
much less welcome than small uctuations in level, in which case lower ratios with soft-knee
transitions make sense — although the gentler action of parallel compression also nds favour
with many engineers.

Holding the bass's position in the balance mostly requires juggling the Threshold, Ratio, and
Make-up Gain controls (or their equivalents), but the attack time parameter can also be very
important, especially if you're piling on the gain reduction; too fast, and the compressor will
start rounding o individual LF waveform peaks, resulting in distortion; too slow, and the gain-
reduction won't catch short-term hot spots, or may over-emphasise note onsets or pick noise.
To be fair, both outcomes can be useful on occasion, but the most useful settings for modern
productions tend to lie between one and 30 ms.

Your release time setting, by contrast, is largely dependent on how prominent you want the
note decays, as well as how much gain-reduction you're applying. Set slower, the compressor
will retain more of each note's natural envelope, whereas faster settings will reset the gain-
reduction more smartly and increase sustain. Finding a good release time is normally pretty
straightforward once the attack character's been de ned, but if you're applying the processing
with a trowel in more intimate instrumental textures, care may be necessary to steer clear of
unmusical short-term gain-pumping, especially if there's spill on the recording or short gaps
between notes.

Tweaking a compressor's attack and release controls will usually a ect the amount of gain
reduction, so keep an eye on any available metering and plan to adjust the compressor's
threshold, ratio and output gain in response to what you see and hear. It's also worth trying out
any dedicated RMS level-detection mode
Log in your compressor have one), since this
(should
averages out the fastest level uctuations and
will usually control bass parts more musically.
Don't worry if RMS detection doesn't appear to
be available, though, because it's standard in
many compressor designs, and certainly don't
reject a simpler-looking compressor out of
hand on this account. (Indeed, some classic
compressors closely associated with bass, such
as the Gates Sta-Level or Teletronix LA2A, don't
exactly overburden the user with controls.)

When Compression Doesn't Work


No matter how much you sweat over your
compressor dials, some bass recordings will
refuse to submit to your balance demands
without unconscionable trade-o s in the tone
or musicality of the line. If the compression
only unks out at certain moments, some
audio editing might solve your problem, either
by patching over idiosyncrasies with some well-
behaved snippets copied from elsewhere, or by
multing o troublesome sections for tailor-
made remedial measures.

Another common problem is where a handful


of notes are considerably hotter than the rest,
but any compression sti enough to rebalance
them administers the kiss of death to the
bass's overall dynamics! A good workaround is
to automate a level-drop for those notes pre-compressor (perhaps with
a separate plug-in) such that a gentler squeeze can be used.

Also quite typical of budget productions is the relative level of sub-100Hz


information changing on a note-by-note basis, often on account of the
performance — the bass player's pick/ nger occasionally not quite connecting
with the string properly, say. Because this problem is both time-varying and
frequency-speci c, it foxes straightforward compression or EQ, and although editing patch-ups,
multing, or automated low shelving can all make useful headway, those approaches are
depressingly laborious if the malaise is chronic. That's when I fall back on multi-band
compression, using just the lowest band at a high ratio (perhaps 8:1) to salvage some
evenness.

If you want to try this, start with attack and release times of around 5 and 80ms, then lower the
threshold to just tickle the most bass-light notes. Normal notes may then be pounded with 8-
12dB gain reduction each, but if you now adjust the LF band's make-up gain to return the
previous low-end levels, the result should be a signi cant increase in the bass power of the
underplayed notes. The remainder of the job is massaging the threshold, ratio, make-up gain,
and attack/release parameters to achieve the best compromise between the low-end
rebalancing (which will probably demand high ratios and faster time constants) and the
musicality of the whole track (usually better served by lower ratios and slower time constants).

Where you put the multi-band compressor in your plug-in chain is not a trivial consideration.
Putting it before your main full-band bass compressor has the disadvantage that overall
uctuations in the level of the bass part will a ect how strongly your salvage processing reacts,
whereas putting it afterwards can cause your main bass compressor to respond rather
unmusically to the haphazard low end, because low frequencies tend to exert a heavy in uence
over any full-band compressor's level-detection mechanism.

There are a variety of workarounds available, but I favour putting the multi-band processing
before the main bass compressor, to encourage that to respond smoothly. Then I use an
automated gain plug-in (or region-speci c o -line gain edits on the audio track) to tackle any
notes that fall outside the comfort zone of my multi-band plug-in's settings.

Downstream Dynamics
An additional complication with bass is that it's
Log
notin
just its own processing you have to
consider, but also any additional dynamic-
range adjustments separating it from the main
mix bus. A well-known workhorse technique in
rock, for example, is to route the bass and kick-
drum channels to a compressed group bus, so
the bass is ducked slightly by each kick drum.
This allows you to feed more sub-100Hz power
from both instruments into the mix, so each
sound is weighty when heard on its own; but when the two instruments play together, the
compressor kicks in to stop their combined level chomping as much mix headroom. You can
rarely push the ducking further than about 2-3dB per hit without the bass line beginning to
sound odd, but this little bit of 'smoke and mirrors' is nonetheless slyly e ective.

So popular is this stunt that numerous ways have been dreamt up for doing it. For example, if
you insert a compressor onto the bass channel and then trigger its gain reduction from the kick
drum (by virtue of the processor's side-chain input), you get a similar action — a scheme
I prefer myself, because you retain independent control over the bass signal post-ducking.
Some people also use fast-response mix-bus compression to similar ends, ducking the whole
mix (including the bass line) in response to the kick drum, but I'm less enamoured of that
approach because of the increased probability that other level surges (from snares, toms, or
lead vocals, say) will trigger counter-productive bass-ducking.

Even if you're using mix-bus compression in a subtler (and typically slower-acting) 'glue'
application, there's a speci c bass pitfall to look out for. Consider an archetypal rock verse-
chorus transition, where the verse is sparser and tighter instrumentally, while the chorus
introduces more sustain generally, as well as some extra high-gain guitar overdubs. In this
situation, the mix-bus compressor detects that the average level increases signi cantly for the
chorus, even though the peak levels on your DAW's output meters may not change much. Most
well-known bus compressors use RMS level detection, which, you'll remember, responds better
to average levels than peaks, so our mix-bus compressor here turns the whole mix down for
the choruses — in e ect, the extra guitars duck the rest of the band.

On the face of it, this isn't a bad thing if that section's goal is to unleash a guitar apocalypse,
because making the other instruments sound smaller implies that the guitars must be huge. If
the bass guitar loses 2-3dB of level in this way, though, the chorus will lose much of its low-end
foundation, downgrading your musical End Of Days to something more like a Plague Of Flies!
Once you understand what's going on behind the scenes, it's usually fairly straightforward to
counteract the ducking e ect by automating the bass fader level or multing that section out to
a separate channel for new EQ settings.

The Role Of Automation


Often, in chart styles, so much compression is
applied to the bass that automation o ers little
bene t from a simple balance perspective. To
be fair, though, there are some instances in
which the vagaries of frequency masking
and/or master-bus compression can cause the
subjective levels of the bass to waver
undesirably, even if compression is nailing the bass levels to the ground, so you can't take it as
read that XXL compression settings will solve balance problems. There always seem to be a few
interesting melodic lls or counter-melodies that warrant a bit more of a push, in which case
a poke of the group-bus fader may be in order. However, that may not work well for big rides if
small-speaker translation is important and/or there's strong mid-range frequency masking
from other instruments — by the time you can hear the line on an iPad, the subs will blow the
rims o a pimped-out 4x4.

If you already have more than one mixer channel allocated to your bass, bumping the level of
just one may deliver a more Hummer-friendly alternative. Perhaps you've already high-passed
your bass guitar's miked amp signal, or the return channel of a parallel distortion e ect, so you
could ride either of those up without bloating the lower octaves. In the absence of such
options, you could automate a wide mid-frequency EQ boost.

In more lightly processed styles, automation takes on greater importance as a general-purpose


balance tool, because (assuming you're not on the Eurovision selection committee) your brain
is always more musically sensitive than a bunch of circuitry or DSP code. Whether you create
automation data with a physical control-surface or your mouse is immaterial, because the main
work of automation is listening. As such, my main advice is to monitor from a real image
Log in
(coming directly from a physical speaker driver rather than the phantom image that hangs in
the air between a stereo speaker pair) while you're doing such rides. Sum your mix to mono,
switch o one of your speakers, and you'll almost certainly progress with the task more quickly
and more con dently. Also, if widespread public appeal is vital, make sure you validate your
automation moves on a small consumer system.

Even if you're not concerned about the custom of the masses, small-speaker listening at the
automation stage can still be useful. For example, if you automate to make your bass
dependable on your main monitors, but then nd that levels are unreliable on a small speaker,
it can be a clue that your monitoring room's resonant modes are interfering with your balance
judgements, or that there may be untreated inconsistencies in your bass part's important sub-
100Hz region.

Mix E ects
Bass is rarely treated to heavy send e ects at mixdown, largely because
the solidity, clarity and power of its harmonic support can be adversely
a ected. Modulation e ects can smudge the tuning or introduce phase-
related timbral 'hollowing', for example, while delays and reverbs can
drown the groove and muddy the overall mix tonality.

If you choose to slather a bass part in e ects for creative reasons, I suggest
high-pass ltering the e ect returns to avoid technical problems. This will
keep the sub-100Hz region clear and solid, and prevent stereo modulation from compromising
the bass's mono compatibility. If you want the low-end of a reverb or delay to be a real feature
at certain key moments (where there's room in the arrangement for the lows to roll around
unchecked), then lower the lter's cuto with automation at those points.

Record buyers are so used to hearing bone-dry bass that there's usually very little need for
reverbs or delays. If the bass doesn't blend enough with the backing, try a short, natural-
sounding stereo reverb patch with carefully restricted low frequencies — not just rolling out
the sub-100Hz zone, but typically also recessing the region up to around 500Hz to combat
muddiness. I might also process the bass's high frequencies in some way, to prevent pick/fret
noises from spraying around the stereo image, especially if they've already been emphasised
by mid-range EQ boosts. Such reverb can also widen bass parts that feel underwhelming
amongst a wide panorama of heavy guitars or synths, but I usually turn to a simple stereo
chorus plug-in myself (often the old freeware Kjaerhus Classic Chorus), again with a high-pass
ltered return channel.

For more acoustic styles of music, or where you're mixing orchestral double basses, traditional
room or hall reverbs can begin to enter the frame, and the bass instruments can begin to be
treated in a much more egalitarian way as regards the e ects levels. A full overview of generic
reverb use is outside the scope of this article, so I'd recommend reading our two-part 'Using
Reverb Like A Pro' series from Sound On Sound July and August 2008 if you want more
pointers.

The Bass Race


Every generation of engineers seems to want to get better bass on their productions, so who
knows what new discoveries might be just around the corner? For now, though, these tried-
and-tested mixing methods should put you well on the way to rivalling the current state of the
art.  

Bass Under Pressure


If you're serious about your bass sound, you need speakers that tell you what's going on
below 100Hz, as well as acoustic treatment to prevent the room skewing that
information. But even without these, you can improve your LF decision-making. Make
a habit of judging the bass balance from a few di erent points in the room. The room's
resonance modes will a ect each location di erently, so they're easier to factor out
mentally. High-resolution spectrum analysis can also help you assess the sub-100Hz
region. Some people suggest resting a  nger on your woofer cone to gauge sub-bass
levels from the drive excursions (as pictured), but I don't recommend it, as a bass note's
woofer excursions are heavily dependent on its pitch and can often seem counter-
intuitive.

Most importantly, compare your mixes with commercial work you admire. Questions of
bass frequency balance, dynamic range, mix level and e ects use are highly era- and
genre-dependent, and commercial tracks are your best guide to your audience's
Log expectations,
in whether they be Radio 1's millions of listeners or the other member of the
Chris De Burgh fan club!

Panning Bass
Where should you pan the bass? Don't! By leaving it in the centre, you'll get the best low-
end projection from stereo speakers and retain good mono compatibility. That said, I've
noticed a few releases with bass panned very subtly to one side (Coldplay's 'Paradise', for
example, discussed in SOS February 2012's The Mix Review), presumably to achieve
a slightly better sense of separation in stereo. There's nothing to lose by experimenting
with that, as it doesn't have any signi cant trade-o s.

Reducing Unwanted Noises


Broadband hiss in bass recordings is usually easy to handle unless the arrangement is
very sparse, because what isn't masked by other instruments can normally be low-pass
ltered without any loss of tone. Where long note-decays reveal the noise unduly, try
using automation to close down the low-pass lter further as the overall level reduces.
Although specialist plug-ins such as ToneBoosters TB_HumRemover can zap mains hum
in an instant, you can't just 'set and forget' on bass, otherwise you'll also remove any
bass pitches that correspond to your local AC frequency! Again, automating the strength
of the plug-in's processing o ers a workaround.

Low-frequency thuds (perhaps from the musician tapping their foot, jogging the mic
stand, or hitting/slapping the instrument's body/strings) can't easily be removed with
high-pass lters, and I favour patching over each note using copy/paste audio edits
where possible. Where that's unfeasibly tedious, a multi-band dynamics processor swiftly
limiting the sub-200Hz region can bring some improvement. Pick noise and fret
buzz/squeak can be a pain too, and if low-pass ltering doesn't yield a solution,
I normally turn to multi-band limiting again, this time over the upper half of the
spectrum, hammering down the undesirable HF surges and spikes. Detailed fader
automation can dip out isolated fret squeaks, but can also punch holes in your low end if
used during sustained passages.

Where a synth bass's upper spectrum is garnished with high-resonance lter sweeping, it
can be di cult to maximise the bass's sense of power, warmth and textural thickness
without the lter peaks slicing your ears to ribbons. Normal compression and EQ are no
help whatsoever, because the lter peaks are always there and move their frequency the
whole time. Saturating the sound can help, by increasing the synth's general
'background' level of harmonics in relation to the lter peaks, but sometimes that's not
enough. In extremis, I'll split the synth's upper frequency response into half a dozen
bands using a multi-band dynamics engine, and set each band to skim the top o the
itinerant lter peak whenever it's in range. This way, I've always got one of the
compression bands ducking a small section of the frequency response, but the bands are
all fairly narrow, so the cure usually sounds better than the disease.

One-minute Cheat Sheet: Electric Bass Guitar


Check the polarity/phase relationships of mic and DI tracks.
Cut back over-eager sub-100Hz harmonics with EQ, using Q values as high as possible.
Treat further sub-100Hz inconsistencies with multi-band dynamics processing, or
replace those frequencies with a sub-bass synth line.
Heavy compression isn't unusual, but take care with attack and release times to avoid
unwanted distortion or lifeless dynamics.
Compare the mix with relevant commercial records. Use your main monitors to focus
on the bass's low end and warmth/mud frequencies, but switch to smaller speakers to
assess mid-range audibility.
Mute the bass while you tweak the low mid-range balance of other instruments.
To conserve mix headroom, try brie y ducking the bass 2-3dB in response to each
kick hit.
Boost at 1kHz for better mid-range cut-through, but add a low-pass lter if HF noises
become obtrusive. Parallel distortion can be even more e ective, but be careful of
phase cancellation.
Limiting above 1kHz with multi-band dynamics can reduce distracting picking or
Log in fretting noises.
Multing allows the bass sound to adapt to dramatic arrangement changes, and can
also combat any unwanted bass-ducking side-e ects of your mix-bus compression.
A touch of stereo chorus can connect the bass with wide-panned guitars, but be wary
of sub-100Hz energy from the e ects return.
Use fader automation to draw attention to nice lls or licks, so the listener doesn't
miss them. This is easier if listening to single-speaker mono playback. If level rides
overload the mix with low end, automate a wide 1kHz EQ boost instead.

One-minute Cheat Sheet: Acoustic Bass


Check the polarity/phase relationships between separate mic and DI tracks.
Cut back over-eager sub-100Hz harmonics with EQ, but keep Q values as high as
possible.
Tackle remaining sub-100Hz inconsistencies with multi-band dynamics processing, or
patch up individual notes using copy/paste editing.
Try not to push beyond 9dB of compression, because fader automation will sound
more natural. Set the attack time low enough to usefully control the dynamic range,
but high enough to leave some life in the note onsets. Parallel compression can
exaggerate note sustains more naturally, if necessary.
Compare the mix with some relevant commercial records. Use your main monitors to
focus on the bass's low end and warmth/mud frequencies, but switch to smaller
speakers to assess mid-range audibility.
Kick drum will naturally tend to dominate over acoustic bass in the bottom octave, so
try high-pass ltering the latter from around 35Hz.
Mute the bass while you tweak the low mid-range balance of other instruments.
Boost at 1kHz for better mid-range cut-through, but be mindful of HF noises or spill.
Subtle parallel distortion can be e ective too, if well matched for phase.
Limiting above 1kHz with multi-band dynamics can reduce string slap transients.
The global send e ects you use to blend together your drums and other instruments
should also work ne for the bass.
Use fader automation to draw attention to nice lls or licks so that the listener doesn't
miss them. It's easier to do this while listening to single-speaker mono. If level rides
overload the mix with low end, try automating a wide 1kHz EQ boost instead.

One-minute Cheat Sheet: Synth Bass


If there are multiple synth layers, avoid LF phase-cancellation di culties by choosing
only one layer to carry the sub-100Hz energy. High-pass lter the rest.
Check stereo synth patches for mono compatibility at the low end.
Adjust MIDI/synth programming to tackle dynamics concerns. If sub-100Hz
inconsistencies remain, address them with multi-band dynamics processing, or
replace the frequencies with a sub-bass synth.
For layered synth parts, solo all layers together and listen through the whole track
carefully. If you discover any LF loss from phase-cancellation, bounce the MIDI parts
as audio and adjust the inter-layer timing for o ending notes.
Compare the mix with relevant commercial records. Use your main monitors to focus
on the bass's low end and warmth/mud frequencies, but switch to smaller speakers to
assess mid-range audibility.
If your bass hogs the low end, your kick may need more energy than you expect at
100-200Hz.
To conserve mix headroom, try brie y ducking the bass 2-3dB in response to
each kick hit.
Where upper-spectrum lter sweeps are too abrasive, saturation can make them less
obvious. Multi-band limiting can go further, but works best with lots of narrow bands.
Use fader automation to draw attention to nice lls or licks, so that the listener
doesn't miss them. If possible, do this while listening to single-speaker mono
playback.

Listen & Learn!


I've put together a special page on the SOS web site with annotated audio examples
Log demonstrating
in many of the techniques discussed in the text. For those who'd like to put
some of these ideas into practice, there are also links to a selection of freely
downloadable multitracks containing acoustic, electric, and synth bass parts, with some
notes on the main bass-mixing challenges of each.

/sos/sep12/articles/mixingbassmedia.htm

Bass Tuning & Timing


If you make sure that bass instruments are tuned before recording, bass pitching
problems aren't usually a huge issue at mixdown. That's partly because synths and (to
a certain extent) fretted basses have pre-quantised pitches, but also because tuning is
a relative judgement: even an out-of-tune bass can sound ne if the other parts have
been recorded to t around it!

If you do detect some sour notes at the mixing stage, the monophonic nature of most
bass parts usually makes it easy to correct them adequately, even with a DAW's built-in
pitch-processing. The only time I've bothered to get something specialised like Auto-Tune
or Melodyne involved is where the performer of a fretless electric or acoustic upright
seems to have been on the bevvies!

Bear in mind that your pitch-processing judgements can be biased according to the way
you listen. For example, if a bass note's harmonics are slightly out of tune with its
fundamental and you adjust the tuning while working on headphones, you might end up
with something that sounds more out of tune on a full-range system. Listening level also
has an e ect on pitch perception, such that you may perceive bass instruments to be
shifting subtly atter the louder you listen.

Timing is usually a more pressing concern with home-brew bass tracks. The bass
contains so much of the audio power in a track, and is often mixed so loud in modern
styles, so it constitutes a powerful driver of the song's groove. It's thus rarely a good idea
for its timing to disagree with other important rhythmic elements in the track. It's
amazing how much tighter it can make a mix feel if you just ensure that the bass and kick
drum are fairly closely aligned, for instance. This doesn't mean just lining up the
waveforms by eye (which can get you to a good 'starter' position for each note), as things
that 'look' in time can sound out of time. There's also a good chance that the groove
might sound better with the bass notes slightly trailing or anticipating the drum hits —
so, as with all things mix-related, your ears should always be the nal arbiters. Don't just
concentrate on note onsets, either, as the end-point of a bass note can also make a big
di erence to the groove.

I've never felt the need for special software for doing bass edits, because crossfaded
audio edits always seem ne for the job. Periodically I've tried tangling with time-
stretching for bass timing corrections, but I've always ended up feeling that digital
chorusing and 'gargling' artifacts induced in the mid-range have been detrimental to the
mix tone, so have always reverted back to using simple edits.

Most of the time, in the case of bass edits, you can just snip in a gap between bass notes
or at a point just before one of the kick-drum beats, and no-one will notice a thing if you
apply a few milliseconds of crossfading. On occasion, though, you need to edit in a more
exposed location in the middle of a bass note, in which case the trick is to try to match
the waveform as closely as possible across the edit point, because any big discontinuity
will result in a click. But won't a crossfade just smooth that over? Nope, it'll turn it into
a thud, which may well interfere with your rhythmic groove even if it isn't clearly audible
in its own right. Even when you've matched the waveform across the edit, though, it's still
wise to put in a short crossfade (over a single waveform cycle or so), but try to select an
'equal gain' crossfade if you can, rather than an 'equal power' one, or else you'll get an
unwanted level bump at its centre.

Published September 2012

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