In a club environment, there's nothing that satisfies like a rich, meaty kick and a big fat bass line. That nose-tickling sensation of loud, room-filling bass wraps itself around you and feels like a warm blanket of audio bliss, and when it's coupled with a solid and punchy kick, the two unite to create an irresistible primal energy that moves mountains. Even at lower volumes, bass still performs a critical function, providing a solid foundation for higher-frequency instruments and gluing together the overall mix.
Bass frequencies are key to modern music, yet composing, arranging and mixing bass can be difficult because it's so hard to hear with true accuracy. Further compounding this problem is the wide variety of playback systems out in the wild — who knows if listeners will be enjoying your music on a 100,000W nightclub system or a $20 clock radio? It's a safe bet that most alarm clocks won't rock the house, but you still want your mix to shine through without losing so much low-end information that the kick and bass line vanish entirely. Big speakers and club systems present a whole different set of problems for bass frequencies, so knowing how to mix for speakers both big and small is paramount. This article will arm you with some techniques for creating, performing and mixing bass lines and bass frequencies so your music can shine on any speaker in any environment.
Clearly, you can't mix what you can't hear, so the most crucial element in getting that perfect bass tone is a proper monitoring system that accurately represents low-end frequencies. This is much easier said than done — bass waves are gargantuan beasts that can be measured in feet, and the 4 to 7-inch woofers found on average near-field monitors are ill-equipped to move that kind of air. Big waves need big speakers.
The best answer for most project studios is to add a subwoofer. Getting a little extra low-end support in your studio isn't a bank-breaking proposition — good subs such as the M-Audio BX10s ($499; www.m-audio.com) and the Tannoy TS8 ($459; www.tannoy.com) are small-footprint boxes that can be tucked away behind desks and cabinets, yet still provide enough boom for a small home studio. However, larger units with more power like the Dynaudio BM 14S ($2,195; www.dynaudioacoustics.com), the Adam Sub 12 ($1,749; www.adam-audio.com) and the Bag End Infrasub 18 ($1,860; www.bagend.com) are all well worth the premium price tag if you plan to monitor at high levels or have your rig set up in a large room. Kicking out thunderous bass with power and authority takes real juice. Don't be afraid to pony up as much cash as you can to avoid skimping where it counts.
Once you've unboxed that big bad boy and jacked it into your system, you'll need to adjust its volume and crossover point to mesh properly with your main speakers. Listen to some of your favorite records, tweak the sub's crossover until the frequency range sounds uniform and then reduce the volume until it blends seamlessly into the soundstage of your main monitors. You shouldn't have any sense of bass coming from the subwoofer; it should sound as though your main monitors grew larger and are projecting deeper bass by themselves. If your sub starts to sound like a third speaker, then turn down the crossover point or reduce the volume until it disappears back into the soundstage. More accurate blending can be achieved with a real-time analyzer like the Behringer Ultra Curve Pro ($379; www.behringer.com), a good stereo microphone and a pink-noise generator.
If all that seems like way too much trouble, then consider investing in a self-tuning sub like the JBL LSR4312SP ($1,100; www.jblpro.com) or the Velodyne DD-10 ($2,499; www.velodyne.com). Both feature microphone inputs to help automatically configure their own crossover points and volume settings for optimum fidelity in your studio.
Anyone who has recorded in a pro studio knows that working with good monitors is only half the battle. Really hearing what those monitors have to say is the balance of that equation, and mixing in an acoustically treated room is the best way to make sure you're not missing the story your speakers are trying to tell you.
The massive physical size of bass waves makes it rough to keep them under control. Have you ever noticed how standing in a corner in your studio seems to amplify bass? Or how moving around the room seems to reveal “dead” and “hot” bass spots? You're hearing the effects of standing waves, which are points within the room where bass reflected off side walls and the ceiling is interacting (adversely) with the bass coming directly out of your monitors. If the portion of the reflected wave is in phase with the wave projected from the speakers, you hear an increase in volume. If the reflection is inverse, there's a dip in volume. Both will trick your ears and cause you to kill your mix without even realizing it.
Most of us don't have the cash to custom-build control rooms that are acoustically pristine, but fortunately there are effective treatments out there that don't involve a second mortgage and a bonded contractor. Bass traps from companies including GIK Acoustics (www.gikacoustics.com), RealTraps (www.realtraps.com) and Auralex (www.auralex.com) are movable and relatively affordable bass-management systems that fit snugly into corners and soak up copious amounts of low-end frequencies, keeping rogue waves from manhandling your mixes. Dropping a few in your studio will tighten the low end and give you a far more accurate representation of what's actually happening down below 200 Hz in your mixes.
Most bass traps are reasonably priced, but if your idea of a balanced meal is ramen noodles and a multivitamin, check out Ethan Winer's great do-it-yourself guide at www.ethanwiner.com/basstrap.html. You'll find a wealth of information on acoustic treatment along with detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to build your own bass traps for a fraction of what you'd pay at retail.
With the basics of accurate monitoring out of the way, you can finally fire up your gear and turn your attention toward finding that ideal bass sound. On average, bass patches — at least, those of the electronic variety — are simpler than your typical synth sound, and more often than not, building your own from scratch is quicker and easier than digging through a mountain of prefab synth patches. Don't let the prospect of home-brewing a bass sound scare you; they're a breeze to cobble together on your own even if you don't have much programming experience, and you'll find that cooking to order gives you an increased level of fine control that's handy during mixdown.
To get started, sit down with your favorite synth and dial up a basic waveform. A good place to begin is with a single oscillator and a waveform that's rich in harmonics, like a simple sawtooth or square wave. Turn up your monitors and play a few notes in the bass registers; a naked oscillator like that will likely sound harsh and buzzy, but set aside first impressions for a moment and see if you can hear a good fundamental bass tone in there. Generally, you'll find that the simplest waveforms like those make the best building blocks for solid, no-nonsense bass patches. Layering two or more is a good way to further fatten the tone, particularly if the extra oscillators are detuned a couple of cents from the base frequency.
Next, work on taming the higher frequencies by strapping a lowpass filter across those raw oscillators. Try a 12 dB filter for a warmer feel or 24 dB for a sharper bite. Hit a low note on your keyboard and ratchet down the filter's cutoff frequency until you've stripped out the harsh higher frequencies and are left with a rich, meaty bass tone. Turn the synth's envelope sustain all the way up, turn the attack all the way down and set the release to a short but slightly audible decay. Nudging up the filter envelope modulation just a tad will give you a “pluckier” sound, and a bump in filter resonance will give the patch more attack and tonal presence.
At this point, you should have a solid — if somewhat vanilla — bass tone. This is a good thing. Bass needs to be firm, punchy and decisive, not floppy or mushy. A simple, focused bass sound with a strong fundamental frequency and a few higher-order harmonics will stay tight and provide a robust foundation for other instruments in the mix.
PUT IT IN PLAY
Now that you've developed (or selected) a universally useful bass tone, the next big hurdle is laying down a worthwhile riff. There's really no hard-and-fast rule for that. Club music is heavily layered and lends itself to a “ground-up” approach; bass lines and drums play a central role in dance tunes, so crafting these two core elements first can provide an ideal and inspirational foundation for getting block-rocking jams off the ground. In contrast, rock and pop music is often driven primarily by melody and vocals, with bass picking up a supporting role that emphasizes the fundamental tones of other main instruments.
Regardless of whether you're composing for the dancefloor or for the armchair, a key element to keep in mind when working with bass lines is that less is more. Complex riffs can sound irresistibly groovy under the right circumstances, but more often than not, as additional instruments are layered into the mix, things begin to get muddy. The last thing you want is for your low end to sound like a miasmic swamp of boomy and indistinct bass. So keep things simple — try sticking with bass lines comprising primarily eighth notes or longer — and your chances of tightening it up down there will be improved. Exercising a little restraint will help you create a final mix with a distinct and focused bass line that propels the song forward while allowing other instruments to shine through loud and clear.
Of course, none of this is intended to suggest that you shouldn't be creative, and if 16th or 32nd notes feel right to you, then by all means give them a fair shot in your sequence. The key is to make sure that no matter how busy your bass line gets, there's still plenty of sonic space in the mix for everything else to breathe. Keep in mind one simple litmus test: If you can remove a note or mute a part without missing it in the mix, then do it. It's just extraneous fluff that's getting in the way.
So you've laid down a solid bass groove that's a perfect foundation for a tune, and now it's time to flesh out the rhythm and start sprinkling in bits of melody. But wait — why is it so hard to find a kick that sounds good? And what's up with that low synth pad that's muddying up the bass line? Why does everything start to sound so blurry and unfocused as more and more musical elements are added to the mix?
The human ear is notoriously insensitive to bass frequencies. Bass is a sensation that we feel more than we hear; it's easy to start loading up low-end registers with extra bass energy without even realizing it, and every overlapping frequency robs power from your bass line and is a potential source of phase issues. Large synth chords, low strings on guitars and full-range percussion such as congas and bongos all have rich high-frequency content, which our ears naturally latch onto while missing lower-frequency energy. The key to achieving tight and solid bass is realizing where these extra low-end frequencies occur and minimizing overlap as much as possible.
The easiest way to visualize your mix is with a real-time analyzer. The aforementioned Behringer Ultra Curve Pro can also act as a sort of “audio microscope” to see exactly which frequencies an instrument occupies. Many sequencers and audio-editing programs already have RTA meters built in, but I'm partial to Roger Nichols Inspector XL ($249; www.rogernicholsdigital.com). As a VST plug-in, it can be instantiated multiple times in the same signal path — a handy capability that makes it easy to visually measure the before and after results of effects such as compression and EQ. There's even a stripped-down but still very useful version available for free on the company's Website.
Solo each of your sounds and examine the readout on the RTA. Then add in the bass line and compare it to the upper-frequency instrument. Can you see significant overlap in peak frequencies? If so, strap an EQ across one or both sounds to filter out the conflicting frequencies with high- and low-shelf filters until they both occupy completely independent spaces on the RTA's readout. Keep in mind that a little overlap is inevitable — the goal here is to minimize the bleed between peak frequencies so that both instruments can carve out their own spot in the mix. If your song starts to sound disjointed and compartmentalized, then relax the EQs a little and allow some bleed to tie things together again. A good RTA will arm you with the information you need to make educated decisions about your mixes.
Sometimes it just isn't feasible to cut frequencies; for example, in dance music, the big kick drums and thick, rolling bass lines frequently get in each other's way. Both are key elements, so sacrificing some of the tone from either is an unsatisfying compromise.
When EQ won't cut it, the best solution is a technique called ducking. For this you'll need a compressor with a sidechain input. Apple Logic features built-in compressors with sidechain inputs, but other DAWs require third-party plug-ins such as OtiumFX Compadre ($49; www.otiumfx.com) or Kjaerhus Audio Golden Uni-Pressor ($118; www.kjaerhusaudio.com). (For more on ducking and how to set up a sidechain, see “Phantom Power,” page 58.) When set up correctly, each time the kick hits, the bass line's volume will be automatically attenuated, “ducking” it out of the way and preventing the conflicting frequencies from clashing. Don't be afraid to branch out with this concept and apply it to any two instruments that are competing for space in the mix. It's a powerful tool that should stay sharpened.
CHECK YOUR EFFECTS
One thing that you shouldn't worry about too much with bass is stereo imaging. Because low-frequency waves are omnidirectional by nature, panning and most stereo effects generally don't have a significant audible effect and just muddy up the mix. Under the right circumstances, a little chorus and delay can sound great, but don't forget that bass is highly sensitive to phase cancellation and amplification. Too much stereo spread or overlap from delay echoes can cause more of those nasty standing-waves problems, so be cautious. Experimentation is key. Work from a conservative standpoint, and if adding an effect doesn't make the patch sound 100 percent better, consider nixing it in favor of keeping it dry, tight and focused.
If you're writing music intended for club play, then it's imperative to pay close attention to bass levels and keep low frequencies under strict control. Clubs heavily compress and limit their systems, and with good reason — unprotected audio systems blow speakers at a breakneck pace thanks to poorly mixed tracks and DJs who don't know the meaning of red LEDs.
Bass-heavy mixes, to be frank, sound terrible on a loud system. Most club systems are already tilted bass-heavy by nature, and heaping more on the pile with a bad mix just makes things sound floppy and directionless. The club's limiting and compression further compound the problem by turning down the overall volume when loud musical passages occur. Ever heard a nice melodic breakdown in a track on a big club system disappear into the background once the bass kicked in? That's limiting at work, and if you want every element of your track to shine through in the club, you'll need to finesse your bass to minimize the limiter's effects. The quick-and-easy fix is to turn down the bass a dB or two in the mix.
It's smart to be conservative while mixing bass for club play. You may not think your tracks have much nose-tickling, chest-thumping impact while you're listening on your desktop near-field speakers, but once your tune has thousands of watts behind it, it will be loud!
LET THE RHYTHM BE YOUR GUIDE
There are plenty of tips and tricks for shaping and mixing bass, but ultimately this advice is a framework upon which you'll need to develop your own style and technique. There are no standard rules in music — it's an art, not a science, so textbook precision is rare. Mixes are more than the sum of their parts, so let your ears be your guide. If it sounds good, it is good. Just remember that bass frequencies form the foundation of your music. If you develop reliable techniques for laying down a robust low end of solid bedrock, you'll have an ideal support structure for your next chart-topping tune.