One of the most gratifying things as a producer is getting the low end of a mix to sit together perfectly.
If the kick, bass, and any sub-frequency synths are not working together, it’s basically impossible to get a great sounding mix.
It’s just like trying to build a house on sand; if there isn’t a firm foundation, you just can’t build on it.
And it’s the same with your mix; if the low end is weak, you won’t get the mids and high frequencies to sit properly. This creates an unbalanced mix, at worst, something that just sounds ‘wrong’!
So, let’s start off by considering…
What frequency range is considered to be ‘Low End’?
The kick and bass live predominantly between 60Hz and 250Hz. Going lower than 60Hz will take you into ‘sub bass’ territory, which is always exciting if you mix dance and EDM and have high-quality studio monitors that actually go that low.
Over 250Hz is where the upper harmonics of the fundamental bass frequencies can be found. But don’t think that’s the frequency range for mixing either the kick or the bass; this is just an explanation of where the Low End is.
You can add much higher frequencies to either instrument, for example, to bring out the beater of the kick or the string sound of the bass.
Now that we know what frequencies are found in the low end, let’s discuss…
Why is mixing bass so difficult?
Well, put simply, problems with room acoustics and studio monitoring not allowing you to hear your mix properly in the lower frequencies.
Most engineers spend more on a fancy compressor or yet another pre-amp than they do on treating their mix space properly. This is a massive mistake!
You will get a far better sounding mix in a well-treated room with mid or even low-range equipment than you will in an un-treated room with every piece of gear you have ever dreamt of owning.
The low-frequency sound waves in untreated control rooms or mix rooms contain dips and peaks that make it difficult for the engineer to hear the sound properly.
Therefore, they make the wrong mixing decisions which result in a mix that sounds great in the mix room but terrible when played on any other system.
And now to monitoring…
Thankfully, unlike acoustic treatment, most engineers tend to take monitoring more seriously and spend a bit more on it. However, in my opinion, it is often not enough.
As I just explained, if you can’t hear what you are mixing properly, what hope have you got of creating a good mix?
This is why getting a good pair of quality monitors will make your mixes sound so much better and save you countless hours of mix revisions because ALL your mixes lack or have too much of certain frequencies.
Check out my article on the Best Studio Monitors under $2000 for some great recommendations that will get your mix as tight as a gnat’s chuff!
So, as is know obvious, understanding your room and your monitoring system is critical in getting the best results.
These will help you find your problem frequencies so that you can try and fix them with some simple acoustic treatment.
And a final word on monitoring, you obviously can’t beat a good set of studio monitors but also get yourself a pair of full-range studio headphones, such as the Beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro or the DT 990 Pro.
These will help you focus on the sub frequencies for reference if your studio monitors don’t go that low.
OK, that should have sorted your frequency issues, especially in the low end; let’s now take a look at…
Who are you mixing for?
We all know that there is nothing better than hearing our favorite tracks through full-range speaker systems.
And if you work on a lot of Hip-hop, EDM, Urban, and Dance Music and your music is only going to be played through a high-quality megabass club sound system; the low end should be pounding the listeners into sonic submission.
However, don’t forget that the majority of music is consumed through smartphone speakers (often in mono!), laptop speakers, small portable speakers, etc., all of which are extremely lacking in the bass range.
However, don’t worry; there are techniques that I will explain later that will help you get the low-end information to come through on these small-range systems.
A quick tip…
Whenever you’re choosing low-frequency sounds, remember that it’s much more effective to control and cut low-end frequencies than to boost them.
Attempting to boost low frequencies that aren’t very powerful will never produce the same result as cutting an overly powerful sound. So, keep that in mind when you’re selecting your sounds.
Mixing the Kick
In most songs, the kick is the driving force behind the track. It creates the vibe and the energy, guides the rhythm, and makes the listener tap their foot.
Therefore it’s important to spend the time to shape and enhance the kick, which will result in far more engaging mixes.
Getting your kick sound
Whether you’re working with an actual ‘real’ kick sound or a sample, choosing the perfect kick is always a difficult decision.
Sample packs contain hundreds of kick sounds that should (in theory?) suit any genre. There are also VSTs with countless kicks, such as EZdrummer2, BazzlSM, and KICK.
The first step is to create or choose the best possible source sound. If you’re working with a real kick, it is what it is, but you can always add a sample to reinforce or even replace it if necessary. However, if you’re using a virtual kick, the world is your sonic oyster!
It is always less effective to use an EQ to add sub-bass to a kick that already contains a lot of low-end energy. This is also the case when you are recording acoustic ‘real’ kick drums.
Therefore, always try to capture the vibe that you are going for from the source; it makes mixing a lot easier and quicker, as well as produces better-sounding results.
EQs are superb, but the less you use them, the better, especially if it is to give an extra low-end boost.
Most people, including a lot of engineers I meet, seem to think that tuning a drum is about getting a certain pop or sound from it.
Well, it is that, but it is also about getting the drum to be musically in tune with the rest of the instruments. We all know how bad a song sounds if the guitar is out of tune, so why put up with it on drums?
Ok, now that I’ve got that off my chest, back to the real world… In most cases, it doesn’t make that much of a difference, and it’s a lot of work when you are recording a real drum kit, and every drum has to be re-tuned by hand.
But you’ll be surprised how many of the pros, both drummers and producers do it religiously, so there must be a reason why they go to all this effort?
However, in the virtual world, it’s incredibly simple to do, and you can hear the change a lot more easily. Using a kick that is perfectly tuned to the key of the track will usually groove with the music in a more pleasing way as well as sit better in the mix.
So, let’s find out…
How to tune a Kick Drum
Start by finding the root note of your track and then match the kick to this note. In order to identify the kick note, use a frequency analyzer and sweep it across the low end to find the frequency where the note resonates.
If you are using Logic, use EXS24 to change the tuning of the kick. Start by converting your kick sample to a ‘New Sampler Track,’ then simply transpose the pitch to the key of the song. The low end will usually now magically fall into place. Fantastic!
Regardless of how good your musical hearing is, it’s difficult for the human ear to identify a note at frequencies as low as this.
Therefore, use your frequency analyzer and a Fundamental Note Chart to easily find the actual note of your kick.
This is the frequency range where the kick packs its punch, i.e., the ‘woomf’ that hits you the hardest. A Pressure Point chart will help you find the kick pressure point.
Root vs the 5th
Many engineers think that it’s actually better to tune the kick to the 5th degree of the scale as opposed to the root note and that it helps the kick sit in the mix.
Personally, as long as you’re working virtually, I would suggest trying both to see which one sounds best. And since experimentation is the key to creating a good mix, also try a few others; you may find that one tuning just works with the song.
Theoretically, a tuning may not make sense, but to your ears, it just works, and remember that you should mix with your ears, not your eyes or your head!
However, if you’re mixing a song where the bass is consistently playing the root note, then tuning the kick to the 5th degree of the key will create harmony in the frequencies as opposed to them fighting for the exact same frequency range.
Mixing the Bass
The vibe and genre of your track will dictate the bass sounds for your mix.
However, as I mentioned with the kick, it’s always better to go for a deep-sounding bass that can be cut and sculpted to perfectly fit in the track. The same would also apply to fat sub-bass synth sounds.
I’ll now move on to possibly the most important decision when it comes to mixing bass and kick, and that is…
Kick vs. Bass Dominance
As mentioned, the low-end frequency range only covers about 200Hz (60Hz to 250Hz).
This is a much smaller amount of physical space than the thousands of hertz we have to play with, in the mid and high frequencies.
Therefore, having low frequencies that clash with each other will make your track sound muddy and use up too much valuable headroom. That’s why you need to consciously decide which element is more important to your music, the bass or the kick. In most mixes, one has to give way to the other.
If you decide that the kick is the driving force behind the song, then you need to ‘duck’ the low frequencies in the bass out of the way.
This can be done simplistically by getting very surgical with your equalization and setting the peaks of both of the instruments at different frequencies, for example, the kick at 60 Hz and the Bass at 90 Hz, or, if you want to get more technical, by sidechaining.
However, if you have a bass synth or similar sound that has a lot of detail in the mid and higher frequencies, then it might be a good idea to reduce its low-end using EQ or even a high pass filter or a multi-band compressor such as the excellent Fab Filter Pro-MB.
Alternatively, you may want the bass to dominate over the kick. This is obviously achieved in a similar way to Kick over Bass, but in reverse.
However, if the bass is using sustained notes, you may need to reduce the tail length of the kick to free up some space. Or, If your bass is playing short staccato notes, you may need to control the attack of the kick to give some space for the bite of a punchy bass guitar part.
These can both be achieved by compressing the kick in different ways. Increase the compression to lower the level of the tail to give the sustained bass notes the space they need to be the prominent feature of your mix.
Clearing The Mud
A ‘muddy’ mix lacks clarity, especially in the low-frequency spectrum. It’s a very frustrating problem that many engineers who are new to music production come across. However, it’s actually far easier to clean up the mud when mixing than most people realize.
In simple terms, a mix lacks clarity whenever more than one source is occupying the same frequency range, especially in the 100-350Hz range.
The first way to reduce the mud is to find the audio tracks that have bass information that is not needed. For example, when recording a sound source with a microphone, unwanted low-end frequencies will be captured.
Even though lots of these tracks will sound fantastic when played in ‘solo,’ the low ended they contain is not needed for the mix and will just muddy it up.
So, once again, it’s time to use the high pass filter on something like the FabFilter Pro-Q 3 to remove the low frequencies without affecting the rest of the frequency range. How much you cut is a matter of taste, obviously, but a good tip for mixing is to high-pass the track when listening to the full mix, not in solo.
When you notice an audible change in the sound of the instrument, you are high-passing; you have gone too far, so back off a bit.
You’ll probably be amazed how much low-end you can remove from things like distorted guitars and synths without it making any real difference to the sound of the instrument within the mix.
The only difference will be how much clearer and better sounding your low frequencies sound which is exactly what you want.
As we all know, low-frequency instruments, such as the kick and bass, need to be placed in the center of your mix to give you a powerful and solid sound.
They both contain a lot of sonic energy, and if they are even slightly panned left or right, it can give the mix a lopsided feel. You also have the problem of poor mono compatibility where the track will sound totally different when played through a club sound system or in other scenarios using mono.
However, there are exceptions. Personally, I hardly ever move the kick from the center position, but I am a lot more open to experimentation with the bass.
One trick that I use a lot is using the Sound Toys Microshift plugin on a bass guitar to give it some very subtle movement and give the kick more room.
It won’t work on a tight, punchy track, but if you’re mixing ambient dance or post-rock, it fills the bass out in a wonderful way without getting in the way of the kick.
Distortion and modulation effects such as the Eventide Instant Flanger II are superb for shaping a bass and making it sound far more interesting as well as more audible in the mix.
But why just use them on a bass? I often use the Sound Toys Decapitator plugin on kick drums, both acoustic and samples.
In fact, I use Decapitator on almost every track on some mixes, including vocals. I don’t use much, but you’ll be amazed at the presence it gives a kick drum if you need to stand out in a mix.
Reverb and delays can also sound great on both a kick and/or a bass, depending on the song. But don’t be too heavy-handed because they can reduce the clarity of your mix.
If this is a problem, try using parallel processing if you want to add these effects to low-end instruments without affecting the very low frequencies.
Harmonics is a very important characteristic in terms of the perceived loudness of low frequencies. For example, if the fundamental note in a bass track is at around 60Hz or below, it is easier to interpret the sound using the first harmonic, which is an octave higher.
In fact, our brains are so sonically developed that we can ‘imagine’ low fundamental frequencies when we hear the harmonics, whether the fundamental note is there or not.
Also, as I have already mentioned, remember that lots of people will not be listening to your mixes through full-range speaker systems. These days, loads of music is consumed using smartphone and laptop speakers with an incredibly poor low-end response.
However, a harmonic exciter, saturation, or distortion plugin will help make your low-frequencies more audible on these types of systems.
All you need to do is select one; my favorite is Sound Toys Decapitator, as you know, and then monitor on small range speakers such as on your smartphone, a small portable radio, or your internal laptop speakers.
Then just add the harmonic excitement until it brings out the bass frequencies in the mix. Then go back to your full range monitoring to make sure the mix still sounds good there.
This can often mean a little bit of a compromise and lots of minor adjustments to make it work over both systems, but it is definitely worth the effort to get it right.
Mixing Kick and Bass – Final Thoughts
So, that’s it, we’ve come to the end of our exciting look at getting your low-end instruments to sit perfectly in any mix.
As with everything to do with mixing, practice makes perfect, so keep trying these techniques until you get them to work.
But remember, what works on what song may not work on another, so try and work out why? This will make your life easier and your mix sessions quicker in the future.
Also, don’t forget to keep experimenting; rules are made to be broken, especially musical ones, so try whatever crazy idea comes into your brain; most might not work (especially for me!), but the odd one takes a mix to a place you never thought possible!