Mixing the low-end of your songs can prove to be especially challenging. I constantly receive mixes from clients in which their bass is sticking out of their mix like a sore thumb. In many situations, this is something that can be fixed relatively easily. Many of the best solutions are also the simplest.
Whether you’re synthesizing basslines in your DAW, using analog synths, or recording bass guitar, there are plenty of ways that you can conquer your low-end. Many of these methods have less to do with processing, and more to do with the construction of songs and sounds at a fundamental level. I’ll be providing you with 4 simple low-end mixing strategies that you can use to create powerful basslines.
1. Control Your Arrangement
Perhaps one of the most important, and equally overlooked mixing tools is arrangement. Traditionally, people use the word "arrangement" to refer to a musical reconceptualization of a previously composed work. For example, the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen has been composed in a way that makes use of a main vocal, background vocals, piano, guitar, etc.
If you want an orchestra to play “Bohemian Rhapsody," it has to be re-arranged in a way that allows for a brass, string, woodwind, and percussion section to play it. This might mean transposing notes into the playable range of a flute, creating alternate harmonies to take advantage of trombones, or replacing the lead vocal with an instrument like a violin.
You now know what arrangement refers to in the traditional sense, but what does it refer to when producing music? If someone says “your arrangement could use some work,” they typically mean that the composition of your song has the potential to be improved. Perhaps you have a tuba, a low piano part, and a double bass all playing at the same time; this would result in a lot of bass frequency build up.
There’s not as much room to squish instruments into the low-end of your mix as there is in the top-end; space fills up quickly down there. A good rule of thumb is to arrange your song in a way that only makes use of one bass element, like an 808 or bass guitar, at a time. This also helps to reduce the possibility of phase issues in your low-end.
In the same way that a trumpet wouldn’t be able to play notes as low as a tuba, a double bass may not necessarily be able to play notes as high as a cello. Instruments have a specific frequency range in which they sound the best. If you open up your go-to synth and try to play “Lead Patch #7” as a bass, instead of a lead, it may “rumble” or “sputter.” The reason for the playback issue is that the patch wasn’t constructed to sound its best as a bass instrument; synth patches aren’t so different from real-world instruments in this sense.
Basslines are quite fickle because if you play them too low, they lose their integrity, and if you play them too high, they lose their impact. To achieve basslines that are tight, powerful, and controlled, you want to ensure that they’re dynamically compact. Figure 1 contains a bassline that may have trouble playing back appropriately.
By moving the A up an octave, and the F down an octave (Figure 2), the notes remain the same, but the bass doesn’t have to jump around to play them. There’s even some flow, and form now; the bassline steadily descends, and then ascends. Figure 2 demonstrates an arrangement that will sound much more fluid than Figure 1, but that uses the same notes, only voiced more appropriately.
2. Shape ADSR at the Source
You’ve written a song with some filler instruments, and now you want to dive into the project and customize the sounds. I recommend that you scan through patches until you find something that sounds reminiscent of what you’re looking for. Using patches isn’t cheating, I promise. Once you’re able to re-create the majority of sounds that you hear on the radio, using a synth, relying on patches is just an excellent way to save time.
From here, you’re going to want to shape the attack, decay, sustain, and release (ADSR) of the amp envelope within the synth you’re using; these controls affect the volume of your synth’s oscillators over time. I know these seem like basic settings to start tweaking, but getting thick and rick low-end doesn’t require much work. It’s best to avoid over-processing your bass and ensure that its fundamental structure is solid.
If full, powerful bass is what you’re after, you’ll want to make sure that your sustain level isn’t too low, and your decay time isn’t too long; you’re looking to create a somewhat brick-like shape with the envelope. By keeping a healthy sustain level, you close the gap between the sound’s transient (peak of the attack phase) and where the sound comes to rest as the note is held. Instead of reaching for a compressor to reduce dynamic range, increase the sustain level of the amp envelope within your synth.
The amp envelope displayed in Figure 3 isn’t the best fit for songs that require big, powerful basslines. Pop is one genre that can benefit quite substantially from basses that maintain themselves over time. Figure 3 will produce a bass that performs somewhat of a pluck, decays to a moderate sustain level, and then slowly releases as you let go of the note. It’s the sustain level and release time that you’re going to want to address here.
Synths like Serum allow you to visually sculpt the amp envelope of a patch using curved lines, but many synths don't. Figures 3-5 contain the visual representation of amp envelopes over time, along with how you can recreate them using the amp envelope sliders in your synth of choice. Bolt is a harmonics synthesizer from Nektar that work exceptionally well for basslines, and it's this synth's amp envelope sliders that have been included in the following images. Analog synths like the Moog Subsequent 37 (pictured at the beginning of this article) frequently use knobs in place of sliders to control signal amplitude over time.
By cranking the sustain level all the way up, the bass will remain at its peak amplitude level as the note is held (Figure 4).
Shortening the release time will ensure that as you press down another note, the tail end of the previous note doesn’t overlap with it. Overlapping bass notes can create a fair bit of mucky low-end (Figure 5). Since sustain is set to its maximum value, decay time now has no affect on the sound.
Enabling mono mode in the voicing section of your synth can also prevent note overlap; this will ensure that only one note will be played at a time. Even if your release time is set rather high, there will be no overlap with the previous note played, allowing you to maintain a longer tail on the bass patch if desired.
3. Tame Transient Bass Recordings
A synth bass doesn’t make sense for every song, so what do you do if you need to work with audio recordings? You don’t necessarily have the luxury to shape an audio file in the same way you do a synth patch. This is where you get to bust out the big guns and call in the heavy hitting plugins.
While a lot of people will reach for a compressor to tame transients, my first choice tool is usually a transient shaper. A compressor is threshold level dependent, whereas a transient shaper is not. The benefit of using a transient shaper, instead of a compressor, is that you’re able to apply consistent processing to transients of different amplitudes over time.
Plugins like Smack Attack by Waves or Transient Shaper by Schaack Audio Technologies will allow you to attenuate transients, and shape them to your liking using an Attack and Sustain control. There’s only a couple knobs and sliders on these devices, making them quite simple to use. A transient designer plugin is perfect for messy bass guitar recordings, in which each note’s transient may not necessarily be playing back with the same amplitude as the last note’s transient.
Once you’ve dealt with the transient information, it’s time to move on to adjusting the general levels of the bass recording. You could do this by drawing in volume automation, but that takes time, and there’s an easier way. Using Waves' Bass Rider, you’re able to emulate an old recording trick used by audio engineers. Back in the day, engineer’s would “ride” the level of the fader on a mixing console with their finger when they recorded bass guitar to tape. This allowed them to achieve recordings with a tight overall dynamic range; Bass Rider mimics this effect.
4. Sculpt the Bass' Tone Using Saturation and EQ
At this point, and with minimal effort, your bass track should sound pretty good. It may still require some tastemaker processing, but you want it to sound about 80% finished at this point. Using saturation and EQ, you can thicken your bass some more, and shape its frequency response. You’re also able to darken or brighten the sound to your liking.
Tape machine plugin emulations work exceptionally well on bass. They typically provide a subtle distortion and compression effect that helps to warm up your low-end. The J37 Tape and Kramer Master Tape by Waves are both excellent tape emulations, and yes, you can use the Kramer Master Tape for purposes other than mastering. Another great option is Virtual Tape Machines by SlateDigital. Setting up a tape machine emulation is a relatively straightforward process; you flip knobs and press buttons until you achieve the sound you’re looking for. Most tape machine plugins tend to act in rather unique ways, so experimenting with them is the best way to go about finding the sound you’re after.
Once you’ve beefed up your bass with saturation, you may want to sculpt the sound further using an EQ. For a transparent sound, the FabFilter Pro-Q 3 will work well, but if you're looking for a bit more flavor, check out an analog-modeled EQ like the Waves PuigTec EQP-1A. Universal Audio also makes a great emulation called the Pultec EQP-1A, which is part of their Pultec Passive EQ Collection. Imagine building up a mound of clay (saturation) and then trimming away the excess to reveal a sculpture within the clay (EQ). Saturation can make your bass more noticeable in the mid range, as well as the top end of your mix. To let other instruments in your mix shine, it may be a good idea to cut away some of this upper frequency content.
The trick to creating powerful basslines is to start with a quality arrangement and ensure that you tackle as many problems at the sound source as possible. Whether it’s modifying the amp envelope of a synth, or getting a bassist to perform their part more consistently, it’s often best to refrain from adding processing to your sound unless it’s necessary. When you do need to use a specialized tool, make sure that you’re able to clearly identify the problem that you’re trying to solve, and pick the appropriate plugin for the job.