After years of touring clubs and festivals and making music that ends up in a wide variety of destinations like radio, retail, and even virtual reality – I’ve found that one of the hardest things to really nail is bass. Sound is bound by laws of physics – and you simply can’t escape them. You have to work with them. Powerful bass is essential to a well balanced, impactful mix. It is the foundation of the song, often providing the emotional glue that binds everything together. It requires sacrifice and attention to detail to get the results you want, and every mix presents unique challenges related to the key and tempo of the song. Let’s explore several techniques to achieve better bass, using raw materials, contrast, tuning, shaping and time, dynamics, and EQ to improve your mix.
Before even touching a plug-in, start with good samples that serve the song, and samples already proven out on the road. Find out the key of the samples using plugins like Fabfilter Q in keyboard mode and sweep the resonance with a narrow Q and large gain boost to find the fundamental (it’ll be the loudest sound ringing out). Rename the samples w/ the key information. Remember that most drums have a decaying pitch that resolves to the fundamental. That final note is the one to use. Also – be clear what sound is going to be the priority. Is the bass the lead? or just a supporting element? Live bass is a whole other beast, with many more harmonics. Just changing the playing style (fingered vs picked) makes an enormous difference in the bass sound itself.
Tune the drums so they are in key. In key doesn’t necessarily mean tune everything to the tonic (central key of the song). Try shifting the snare up a fifth, or move the kick up or down a fifth or third, especially if the song is in a difficult key for bass, like C or B (which will sound too low or too weak up high). If the tonic is C, try shifting the kick to G. It’s better to choose a sample already in key than pitch-shifting it, so listen carefully for artifacts. The important thing is to spread out those high impact drum and bass sounds so they occupy unique frequency ranges, with space or time between them. Make sure to layer two octaves for the bass: sub bass and low mid-bass. Remember that automation allows flexibility for tuning as the chords change. Try swapping 5th notes for root notes in bass lines (it doesn’t always work), to make things more interesting, or dialing in an EQ boost at the fifth note for fatness.
It’s easy to get carried away building super subby synth presets that won’t translate to any speaker systems. Most live sound systems were originally built to reproduce the bottom limits of live instruments and recordings of instruments that don’t go below a low E1 (41.20 Hz) on an electric bass guitar or kick. That synthetic kick drum in C1 (32.70 Hz) that sounds amazing on a big studio system will sound flabby on most big club systems. A few systems will flatter it, but the most reliable results will come from songs with the fundamental at F, F#, G, and G#.
Pair a long tonal kick, with a shorter more mid-range focused bass line. Or use a short quickly decaying kick, with a long sustained bass line. Then focus on sidechaining with the right elements. It’s very difficult to have both a long kick and bass work together. To really get that “thump,” layer a good mid transient kick sound with a boost from a transient designer, and contrast it with a long sub kick.
Shape & Time:
Use volume automation, manual fades, keyed compressors (triggered by audio from other tracks), or dedicated sidechain plugins (LFO Tool, Kickstart) to carve space into your bass with volume or filters. Try more drastic curves on the lowest octaves, and slightly less aggressive curves on mid-range bass. Try to use the inverse curve of the kick, and play around with the timing of the curve. Shaping ultimately determines the time when all the elements will hit, so allows the highs, mids, then lows to hit. Sonically the ear will hear all elements as one unit, even though they are arriving at different times. Many producers will often use a cascading series of sidechains to achieve this time and space effect. i.e. Top Kick->SubKick->SubBass
The more the mix is crushed by the limiter, the less bass will be present. I recommend keeping the subs clean, distorting the low mids with plugins like Fabfilter Saturn or Serum FX multi-band compressor, compressing and limiting the bass, and dialing in the sidechain curve carefully, automating the gain of each bass note, and achieving loudness before getting to the limiter. Then squeeze the dynamic range a bit more so it’s competitive with other tracks. Tools like Waves RBass and MaxxBasss can be very effective, but are probably best applied on specific bass tracks or busses. They can be used on the master, but will be harder to control. The beauty of these plugins is they apply an audio illusion of the missing fundamental. The ear thinks it’s hearing a super low bass, but it’s really just more present upper harmonics.
Use a highpass filter at 100-150 Hz to filter out junk from tracks that don’t need bass. The steeper the filter curve, the more phase delay can occur – so only go beyond a 24dB slope on the master if you must, and use a linear phase EQ (a 48 dB per octave slope high-pass filter at 20Hz would have over 70ms of filter delay!). Make sure to A/B the result and have delay compensation enabled, as EQs and their sonic character vary extensively. Also when using distortion, make sure to add a highpass filter afterwards, as most distortion plugins will generate sub-harmonics below the fundamental that take away room in the mix.
Creating big bass heavy mixes demands sacrifice – but by using these techniques and putting together a checklist every time, you’ll get more consistent results. Enjoy – and happy mixing!
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