When mixing bass guitar, don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to get the track just where you want it – bass can be the most difficult instrument to manage in a mix. Here are some tips to get started.
The relationship between the bass guitar and kick drum in the low end of an audio mix is of fundamental importance. A rhythm section that’s in step and expertly mixed can make a track (and a band) sound tight and ferocious, while a sloppy and indistinct bottom end can drag a recording down – no matter how good the performances are.
When mixing bass guitar and the kick, the goal is to create a powerful and moving combination, avoiding either instrument crowding the other out or forcing it out of the way.
Mixing bass guitar and kick drum
With the combination of bass guitar and kick drum, a conscious EQ decision needs to be made about which one gets to “win” the low-end battle. Is the bass holding down and rounding out the bottom end with a rich tone while the kick drum provides a snap and click? Or, does the kick drum grab the attention with a deep, sustained sound? It’s a stylistic choice, determined by the needs of the mix and the vision of the producer.
Whichever instrument ultimately drives the low end, you can use EQ to wrap the other around it. For example, if the kick drum is emphasized at 80 Hz, the bass should not also emphasized at 80 Hz, but should rather have its emphasis at 40 Hz and 120 Hz.
EQ and distortion
A good mid-range area to boost these low-end instruments lies between 2–5 kHz, where the upper harmonics that identify the bass tone and pitch reside. Adjusting these frequencies can help a bass guitar poke through a dense mix.
Adding tube-style harmonic distortion can also help enhance frequencies in the lower range, thickening the low end of a bass guitar, while adding tape-style distortions will be more noticeable in the mid- to higher- ends, brightening the 2–5 kHz area.
As you work to find the perfect balance of EQ and distortion, toggle between employing and bypassing your settings to make sure you’re really able to hear – and not just see – how the changes affect the mix. It’s not uncommon to get so accustomed to working on computers for music production that you judge mixes based on what waveforms and visual changes in the audio track look like.
As a result, our eyes can actually fool us into hearing a change that isn’t occurring. It’s important to use your ears, listen carefully, and make choices based on the true audio signal. Try turning your computer monitor off once in a while, to make sure you’re hearing what you think you’re hearing.
Bass guitar compression
Bass compression can vary depending on how the instrument is played. For instance, if the song has an upright bass, subtle to moderate compression with a moderate attack and release is probably best. If an electric bass is played with the thumb or a pick, faster attack and release times may be required to help tame the transients.
For a finger style electric bass performance, attack and release times can go back to moderate. These ratios often vary between 3:1 to 6:1 but can go as high as 10:1, and it’s important to note how much gain reduction is occurring. Subtle gain reduction can result in the peaks being attenuated by approximately 2-3 dB, where moderate reduction might be closer to 6 db. Make sure to apply make-up gain, or auto-gain, if you have that function. Without it, the bass will sound smoother and quieter, which can cause it to wash into a mix.
Side-chain compression on bass
Another useful tool for separating kick and bass is side-chain compression. This form of compression uses one instrument’s level to activate the gain reduction – or compression – on another instrument. For example, inserting a side-chain compressor on a bass track that reacts to the kick drum will compress the bass whenever the kick drum is hit. This process will attenuate the bass track each time the kick is hit while still maintaining its overall level in the mix.
The complexity of the bass
Unlike drums, bass is both a heavily rhythmic and melodic instrument. While every kick drum hit is largely the same tone, the dynamics on a bass can change for every note the bassist plays, which makes nailing the low-end on bass a lot more like hitting a moving target. If the bass part has a lot of movement, you may have to make further adjustments using automation.
When mixing bass guitar, don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to get the track just where you want it – bass can be the most difficult instrument to manage in a mix. If you get off track, call up some of your favorite recordings and listen closely to how the bass interacts with the kick in the mix. With patience, practice, and focus, you’ll be able to nail the right sound for your rhythm section.
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