The bass guitar helps form the foundation of a track, and it’s placement in the mix is crucial to a big, professional sound. Here are some tips to get the bass right in your mixes.
Align and Conquer
Many times an engineer will be mixing a track that has a DI (direct inject) track, which is a recording of the bass directly from the bass itself, and an amp track (or tracks), recorded from mics placed at the bass amp.
If you are using a computer DAW (digital audio workstation), you can zoom in on the bass tracks so you can see both the DI bass track and the mic track(s) next to each other on the screen. You should zoom in so you can see a transient peak close up. (See figure 1). Then you physically slide the mic tracks, time-aligning them until the peaks line up with the DI track. (See figure 2).
You’ll notice the bass sounds fuller and more defined with the tracks lined up, possibly saving you a lot of work dialing in a bass tone. If you nudge the mic tracks while playing the track, and use your ‘undo’ button, you can hear the ‘before and after’ effect on your bass tone.
The Big Picture
The bass takes up a lot of space in the lower octaves of your mix. Take a big picture look at your mix, and use the concept of ‘spectral eq’ing’ to make room for it. The idea is to remove frequencies from instruments that are not needed, like low frequencies on a piccolo, thereby carving a space for instruments that do have necessary frequency content in that range.
See figure 3 for an example of how a high pass filter helps clean up unwanted lows on an acoustic guitar track, leaving more ‘room’ for the bass. I have put a spectrum analyzer before and after the eq on the track so you can visually see the reduction in energy in the lowest octave after the eq, which would otherwise have cluttered up the mix.
Many times, cleaning up other tracks by cutting errant low frequencies is all it takes to get the bass to sound better. Get used to the sound of your speakers in your room by listening to well produced music in there, and you’ll know what good bass should sound like in that room. Then A/B (listen back and forth) your mixes to pro mixes to learn how to make your mix sound more like theirs.
Get used to using high pass (low cut) filters on tracks that don’t need a huge bottom, then many times all you need to do is turn the bass up a bit, and it fits better in the mix.
figure 3 – click to enlarge
Why Size Matters
It’s a good idea to reference your mixes on a small set of speakers, like small computer speakers, Auratones, or other bandwidth-limited speakers. Listening on these speakers will give you the ‘myspace’ view of your mix. Many people listen to songs on their computers, their portable music players, clock radios, old crappy car stereos, etc, and the mix has to be able to stand up to the brutal reality of imperfect listening conditions.
One thing that happens when you listen on small speakers is that you get the midrange-only version of your mix. These speakers expose the basic mix balances, and without all the high end sizzle and low end thump from a larger speaker system, you are forced to focus on the midrange balance. It may take some work to get a big bass sound out of small speakers. It should sound big, but controlled.
One technique for clarity in a mix is to turn the mix up on tiny speakers, like your computer speakers, to the point of distortion. Don’t blow them, just take them to the level where they distort. They distort because they cannot handle the low end in the mix. (See my tiny speaker setup in figure 4).
figure 4 – click to enlarge
Start engaging high pass filters and/or eq’s to roll off the bottom end in all tracks that don’t need it, usually everything except bass and drums. Solo tracks to see if they are problematic, like tom fills that distort, or rhythm guitars, and cut the lows until those instruments don’t crap out the speakers any more.
Make sure to check drums, primarily kick and toms, and the bass track, for subsonic energy, then hone in on it and tame it on the tiny speakers. Now your mix should play at that level without distortion, and you have effectively made your mix cleaner.
You may want to start inching lows and low mids back into the mix (only on tracks that may have suffered from cutting the lows on the little speakers) until everything sounds full, the bass sounds big, but it is not distorting. Check the mix on bigger monitors, and you’ll see you have just cleared up your mix, and it holds up at higher volume levels now.
This exercise points out that getting a great bass sound is not always just about tweaking the bass. Spectral eq’ing and cleaning up the low end in all the other tracks goes a long way toward making the bass sound big.
The Magic Bass Frequency
If you want your bass to be clear on small speakers, 900 Hz is your best friend. Crank up 900 Hz on bass, and it will jump out of the mix on little speakers (like those on your laptop or earbuds).
Obviously, this is not a silver bullet approach to the best bass sound you’ve ever heard, it’s just a starting point for making the bass translate well in the real world. When listening on small speakers, use your ears and sweep through the mids with the boost turned up a bit, and you’ll find an area that works for that bass track.
The general rule of thumb when trying to find the right levels for the bass in relation to the drums is that the kick is the ‘attack’ of the bass, and the bass is the ‘sustain’ of the kick.
The blending of the kick and bass can be looked at just like that. If you try to marry the two, making them a single, pulsing force, it puts the bottom end of the mix in perspective. It means you must decide which of the two will carry more of the bottom octave of the frequency spectrum, and adjust accordingly so they don’t fight for space and clarity. For example, if the kick is a fast, busy part, the lows can be rolled off on the kicks, while the bass is allowed to fill that lower space.
Sometimes the kick and bass can be sent together to a compressor through a bus, with both kick and bass hitting the same compressor. This can really glue the drums and bass together, and the compressed bus track can then be eq’d as a whole for control of the overall bottom of the mix.
Last In Line
Another helpful tip for setting the level of the bass in a mix is to bring in the bass last. Get a good mix up of all the other tracks, balancing for a while without the bass on. Check the mix on a few different speakers if you can, and make sure that there isn’t a really big bottom, except maybe kick drum, by cleaning up the tracks for clarity.
Sometimes cutting the lows on a track, like our acoustic guitar example, makes it sound too thin when solo’d, but nobody is ever going to solo tracks in your mix, they will always hear it in the context of the mix. That’s why you should solo tracks just to sort out problem frequencies, noises, etc., but try to eq the tracks with the other tracks playing along.
When you bring in the bass, you will have already set up a clean mix, leaving room for the bass.
In the next installment of this series, we will cover eq, compression, studio tricks, and more tips for getting great bass sounds in your mix.
Here’s a checklist that sums up what we have covered in this segment of the series:
TIPS TO HELP MIX BASS:
Line up the DI track with the mics.
Clean up the lows in all the other tracks.
Marry the kick to the bass.
Balance the mix on small speakers.
Bring the bass in last.
A/B your mix against professional mixes you like.
Sean makes records, teaches mixing, and pounds the drums at MixMonsterz, Orlando, FL. He is also the drummer/writer/producer for the band “Outbound Road” (www.outboundroad.com) and others. Contact Sean at email@example.com, or visit www.mixmonsterz.com for more information.