How do you get a bass sound that is FULL, CLEAR, POWERFUL, PUNCHY, but not "MUDDY" or "CLOUDY"? How do you make it "LIVELY" but not "INVASIVE"?
Good question. Thank you for asking.
Indeed, this is a problem that many people find really difficult when mixing music.
It doesn't have to be.
In this post I will give you some simple guidelines, in plain English and with audio examples, about how to mix bass very effectively (especially bass guitar, but not only). Let's go.
YES IT ALL DEPENDS, BUT ...
Most people will tell you that the way you mix bass (or any other instrument for that matter) essentially depends on the style of music, the role of bass in the song, your goals, yada yada yada.
So, when they tell you that "IT ALL DEPENDS", they tell you NOTHING.
It is true that all these things matter. Of course they do.
Context and goals matter. Of course.
But, can we establish some general guidelines that will ACTUALLY help you when mixing bass?
Yes we can (where did I hear this already??)
So, this is the goal of this post: to give you practical, helpful guidelines about how to improve your ability of mixing bass INDEPENDENTLY of your genre, goals and context.
All right? So here we go.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A VOCABULARY
In order to mix well, we need to understand what we are doing.
And in order to understand what we are doing, we need to give NAMES to things that are relevant to us.
Names? What to you mean, you may ask.
Well, I mean that you need to know exactly what consequences your mixing moves will have on your sound. And it's much easier to do that if you think in terms of a vocabulary that you establish yourself.
It's hard to think about options if we don't have words for them, right?
So, first adivce: LET'S ESTABLISH A VOCABULARY!
THIS IS HOW I THINK ABOUT BASS
So, here's how I do it.
I'll show you my vocabluary for bass sounds.
You can use different words, that's fine. I'm not suggesting to do EXACTLY how I do it.
I'm just suggesting to try this APPROACH.
I call it "Mixing in Plain English".
Please notice, in all the sound samples you will find an "original" bass track (not treated in any way) with a "treated" or "processed" track, usually the processing is exaggerated on purpose, just to make the effect evident.
1. GUTS: 40hz and below
This is an easy one.
Boosting your bass sound under 40-50hz or so will have consequences on what I call "SUB-BASS" or "GUTS". This is the sound we perceive with our stomach, with our guts. It will increase the "physicality" of your bass sound.
Let me give you an audio example.
The difference may not be so obvious to you, depending on your monitoring system. If you don't have a sub-woofer, you probably won't hear a lot of difference. But still, you should be able to hear a more "physical" bass in the treated audio sample.
2. BODY: around 80hz
Around 80hz I get the sound that I call "LOW BASS" or "BODY".
It's a sound I hear with ears, not with my guts, but it's still very low, dark and deep. If you need darkness and depth, this is where you should Eq your sound.
You should be able to hear an increased "dark thickness" in the sound.
So, if your bass sounds lacks depth or thickness, this is where you need to intervene.
3. DEFINITION: around 120 hz
At 120 you should get what I call "HI BASS" or "DEFINITION". It's still bass, it's still dark, but it's a tiny bit "lighter", you should hear a slightly more "defined" bass.
So, if you want a dark but better defined bass, this is the frequency area where you want to use your Eq.
4. FULLNESS: around 250hz
At 250hz is where your bass sound acquires "FULLNESS". It's where you get strength, not just darkness. You get power. Let's hear:
So, it's definitely more "full", but it's also a little bit more "pointy", which is very helpful to make your bass more intelligible in the context of a mix. It's a very useful frequency area.
5. NOSE: around 450hz
Did you know that bass sound have "noses"? Well, this is what I call this area, at about 450hz. If you increase this area, the sound becomes a bit ... nosy . In small doses, it can be very useful, especially if your bass sound is dull to begin with.
Of course, you can also do the opposite. If your sound is too "nosy" to begin with, by reducing this frequency area your bass sound will become less "nosy".
6. PRESENCE: around 1.5 khz
Here you start working on high frequencies. By "PRESENCE" I mean that the bass sound becomes more "present", more "obvious" in the context of a mix. The individual notes will become more clear. Some noises, like string buzz or finger noise, will become more evident. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
Notice how the attack of individual notes becomes more obvious as well. If you decrease this frequency area you get the opposite result, of course. Your sound will have less "presence". Sometimes, that's what you need.
7. AIR: around 3.5 khz
This is a frequency area (I call it "AIR") where you may or may not get interesting results, depending on the material you're working with. Not all bass sounds have some significant content in this area. If you don't have it, then forget it. But if you do, then you may apply some Eq and get something useful out of it. Let's hear it:
What you get here is a more "trebly" sound, more "open", more "airy", but without the "pointyness" that both "Nose" and "Presence" tend to generate. It's more gentle, and much more subtle. Depending on your source, it may be more or less useful. Worth experimenting with it.
8. SHARPNESS: use a Transient Processor to increase Attack
After Equalization, the next move is compression, right?
Wrong. At least for me.
Don't misunderstand me, compression is very, very important for bass.
I always use some compression, of course.
But to me, in order to make sure that my bass lines "cut through the mix", to make them "audible" without being too invasive, my first choice is transient shaping rather than compression.
Transient processors are fantastic tools that help you shape the wave form of a sound.
Now, one thing you can do with a transient processor is to increase the attack of your sound. If you want your bass to cut through, instead of using insane amount of Eq or Compression (which may damage the quality of your sound), just apply a little bit of enhancement to the attack of your bass. Be gentle. Be subtle. A little bit goes a long way.
Here's an example (exaggerated, on purpose).
Especially with busy, rhythmic arrangements, a little bit of "Sharpness" is like a magic touch for your bass. It makes your bass alive. Take it out, and it sounds dead. Of course, you can also do the opposite. If your source material is to "attacky", you can decrease the attack to tame the sharpness of your sound.
OK, NOW WHAT?
Ok. We established a vocabulary for our bass sound.
Guts, Body, Definition, Fullness, Nose, Presence, Air, Sharpenss.
Well, now it's about LISTENING to your source material and ask the right questions.
But now you know HOW to ask these question, and HOW to answer them.
Does my bass has enough Body? Do I want it more Defined? Do I want more Presence? Is it Sharp enough? Do I feel it in my Guts? Is it Full enough?
These are the questions.
Listen to your bass, solo and in context. Especially in the context of your mix.
Ask the questions. The answers will be obvious. And once you get the answers, you'll know exactly what to do. Grab your Eq, or your Transient Shaper, and act on the frequencies that we pointed out above (or in their vicinity).
Thinking in terms of frequencies is much more difficult.
Thinking in terms of descriptive, plain English terms about what each frequency (or processing) does to your sound is a much easier, effective way to make mixing decisions.
Use your own words.
Use words that make sense to you.
Establish your own vocabluary.
And mix in "Plain English".
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