Craig’s Mix Tips: Riding the Bass

Waves Bass Rider takes bass mixing “back to the future,” updating the concept of gain-riding with speed, precision and musicality. Craig Anderton shows you how to mix your bass tracks like the pros.

By Craig Anderton

Quick Mix Tips with Craig: Riding the Bass

 

Bass parts are an essential component of modern music, but the low-frequency range and bass response limitations in the listener’s playback system make reproducing bass difficult. The usual solution is to make the bass level as consistent as possible (often along with a little treble boost or saturation) so that it’s always audible, regardless of what’s going on in the rest of the track. This is why many engineers slam electric bass with heavy compression and/or limiting.

Unfortunately, there’s a price to pay for this treatment. Heavy dynamics processing has a hard time reacting to the bass’ initial transients, especially with slap bass. This creates nasty pops that require either super-short attack times or subsequent limiting, either of which takes away the bass attack’s impact. You’ll also hear uneven releases, with level fluctuations as the bass crosses over the threshold (even with fairly long release times), as well as a noise floor increase.

Enter Bass Rider

To devise a solution that smoothed out the bass level without damaging the sound quality or removing a sense of dynamics, Waves went “back to the future.” Before electronic-based dynamics processing, engineers would “ride the fader” to accommodate dynamics by bringing the level fader up or down, to deal with quiet or loud passages respectively. This was the best you could do back then, but the process was highly imprecise—it was difficult to anticipate musical changes, let alone ride the fader with sufficient accuracy to bring it up or down by just the right amount. The upside was that you weren’t degrading the sound quality.

Bass Rider is a modern solution that rides the gain but takes advantage of the fact that it can react more quickly and accurately than any human. What’s more, it’s smart enough to preserve natural note attacks and decays. Unlike compressors and limiters, Bass Rider rides the gain of complete notes and passages, so it preserves the musical dynamics of the bass part instead of trying to make all the levels, all the same, all the time.

Bass Rider compared to other gain-smoothing options

Figure 1: Bass Rider compared to other gain-smoothing options.

Figure 1 shows Bass Rider compared to other forms of dynamics control. The top, gray track is the original bass part. The blue track below shows the same part processed by Bass Rider. Note how the waveform is the same—the only difference is that the levels between the softer and louder notes have been evened out. This example shows Bass Rider doing its leveling to the max, but you can set the range over which it works. For example, you might prefer to have the soft notes be somewhat louder, instead of as loud as the loud notes.

The third, orange track shows the results of applying a limiter to the original track. The soft notes have been brought up, although not as effectively as with Bass Rider, and the loud notes have been squashed. Some have even lost their attack transients. The lowest, green track uses multiband compression followed by limiting to reduce peaks, thus allowing for a higher average level. The results are better than limiting by itself, but still nowhere near as natural, or consistent, as Bass Rider.

That’s Just the Start…

Okay, so Bass Rider works. But where it gets really interesting is when you start to apply effects; whether you place them before or after Bass Rider gives two different options. Bass Rider can also make effects more...well, effective. Here are some examples.

Saturation

Saturation, whether from a plugin like the Kramer Master Tape (my favorite choice for this application) or an amp sim from the GTR family, is many an engineer’s secret weapon to make bass stand out in a mix. The objective isn’t heavy metal-level distortion, but a “growl,” like you’d get from a classic Ampeg B15 amp. If you insert the saturation before the Bass Rider, then the peaks will be more distorted—yet Bass Rider will level out the soft and loud sections. This preserves the sound of the more saturated and less saturated passages, even though their apparent levels are equivalent. As an alternative, placing saturation after Bass Rider gives a consistent saturation sound, along with consistent level, throughout the bass part.

Compression/Limiting

With Bass Rider, we’re free from needing to use dynamics processing to squash the signal—we can use it with a subtler touch, to add character or “glue.” Placing dynamics processing before Bass Rider makes its job easier, but also has more effect on the sound because it’s processing a signal with level variations. Dynamics processing after Bass Rider adds a more consistent dynamics control effect. I often add a touch of compression after Bass Rider not so much to even out the level, but to add a little spice to note attacks and releases.

Envelope-followed filter

Bass Rider teams well with Metafilter and makes envelope-followed filtering a productive member of bass society. The traditional problem with envelope followers was that unless you played bass with a super-consistent touch, it was really hard to dial in the right sensitivity to respond to your dynamics—the filter would go too high, or not high enough. Placing the filter in parallel is a workaround that helps mask the problem but doesn’t solve it. On the other hand, if you compressed the bass before the envelope follower, then the dynamic range wasn’t wide enough to do anything interesting with the filter frequency. Try placing Metafilter after Bass Rider, and you’ll have a more consistent, satisfying effect (Fig. 2). Optionally, follow Metafilter with a compressor or limiter to emphasize the timbral changes.

Bass Ridersupplies the ideal conditioning to drive an envelope-followed effect

Figure 2: Bass Rider supplies the ideal conditioning to drive an envelope-followed effect.

You’ll still probably want the filtered sound in parallel with the bass to avoid thinning out the bottom end unless you choose a lowpass mode for Metafilter. Place Metafilter on a bus or FX return, and feed the bus with a send from the bass. You have two choices on how to trigger Metafilter: with a sidechain send from the main bass channel, or from the input to the bus or FX channel. The main difference is that if you’re using a post-fader send to the bus or have a processor on the bus or FX chain before Metafilter, using a pre-fader send for the sidechain guarantees a consistent level to Metafilter.

Let It Ride

Bass Rider is one of those processors that easily flies under the radar because if you employ the usual technique of compressing the bass, you have a consistent level—so you might conclude that something like Bass Rider isn’t necessary. However, not only does it do its intended function by helping out a mix’s sound quality while retaining the natural bass sound, but Bass Rider also provides a new way of working with effects.

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