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Mixing Bass Guitar: Step-by-Step

Sep 20, 2018

Learn 12 vital steps for turning a raw bass guitar recording into the finished, rock-solid foundation that your mix deserves. From phase alignment to leveling, compression and EQ, this step-by-step guide will help get subs shaking and heads bobbing in no time.

Mixing Bass Guitar: Step-by-Step

Step 1: Quantize to the pocket

Tighten up any timing issues in the performance manually or by using quantization, which automatically aligns the transients in your performance to a grid based on the tempo; just be careful not to overdo it and suck the life out of your tracks! Most DAWs feature an option to exclude mistakes within a certain percentage, allowing you to keep some of the human inconsistencies of your performance that make it charming while correcting major timing issues.

Step 2: Align phase

When recording bass guitars, it’s common to capture the signal into separate “amp” and “DI” channels for better control over the tone and dynamics. When working with multiple recordings of the same instrument, it’s always important to check the phase relationship between them. The two tracks will almost definitely be out of phase with each other. The DI signal travels directly from the instrument to the direct box, a preamp and to your interface, but the amp signal runs through the amp head to a loudspeaker, travels through some air, then to the microphone, preamp and maybe additional outboard gear before it reaches the DAW; this all adds up to some sure degree of latency.

The time difference between the two sources when blended together can cause the low-end to sound weak and thin if they're significantly out of phase. While it can be corrected manually by zooming in to see the waveforms and nudging the tracks, or simply flipping phase 180 degrees, plugins like InPhase help to sync tracks quickly and precisely.

In this video, master hard rock mixer/producer Joe Barresi (QOTSA, Tool, Soundgarden) explains his process in aligning and blending multiple bass tracks, and how he uses each to help sculpt his overall bass tone:

Step 3: Get your gain staging in order

To create a solid low-end, bass guitars often require a significant amount of compression. If your bass track is too dynamic, it may not reach the compressor’s threshold evenly and will create an unwanted pumping effect. To prevent this, try splitting louder sections from quieter ones by splitting the clip in your DAW, and adjusting the clip’s gain to create a more consistent performance. This can be a very tedious process depending on how the bass was played and recorded. The Bass Rider plugin can save time here by automatically ‘riding’ the fader to even out the dynamics without compressing. The plugin's detector has been optimized for the frequency range and envelope characteristics of bass instruments, making it quick and easy to gain an even, dynamic bass recording.

Step 4: Re-amp and blend if the tone isn't cutting it

Blend your various amp and DI signals together to create a tone that you’re happy with. DI tracks often have a bright, detailed quality that’s great for adding definition and clarity to bass tracks, while amp tracks will have more color and room tone.

If you can’t seem to create a balanced tone with the tracks you have (or you just don’t like the tone of the amp mics), try re-amping the DI signal using bass amp simulators like in GTR3, or try PRS SuperModels to help find the tone you’re looking for and blend it in with the original mics. For example, If you like some element of your tone like the low end, but you want it to be more chunky and rich overall, try re-amping an overly distorted tone, blend it with the original DI and check the phase.

Signal flow: EQ and compression

EQ before compression or compression before EQ? That is the question… There are no right or wrong answers here—just different sonic options. When working with bass guitars, EQ before compression often works best to help get the low end in check before compressing. Otherwise, your compressor may be triggered from an excess of low end information, resulting in a compressed sound that may not be exactly what you want. Either way, try both routing configurations to see which works best for your particular track.

Step 5: Apply subtractive EQ where needed

EQ is the most subjective part of mixing bass guitars. Depending on the genre, you may want to scoop the mids and accentuate the low end. For others you may want a bright, percussive tone, or a gnarly, midrangey kind of sound. The exact frequencies you cut or boost will vary from song to song, and from recording to recording.

Now that you’ve got a solid foundation to work with, it’s time to start cleaning up any problem frequencies in the individual channels. There are two basic approaches: You can either EQ each of the tracks individually, or EQ them as a whole by routing them all to a buss. The listener never has the luxury of soloing an individual channel, so generally speaking it’s best to EQ the bass channels together—though you may have to apply some surgical EQ moves to individual channels to correct specific problems.

One of the biggest challenges with bass guitars is managing the low end, especially as they coexist with other low-end mix elements. The lowest note on a 4-string bass guitar in standard tuning (low E) has a fundamental frequency of 41 Hz. Any frequencies below that are likely to cause unwanted rumble that can muddy up your mix. Use a high-pass filter to remove any unnecessary sub frequencies if you know that there isn’t any musical information below it.

To identify problematic frequencies, try the sweeping technique:

  • Turn up the Q value on one of the EQ bands so it’s very narrow
  • Significantly increase the gain for that EQ band
  • Slowly ‘sweep’ through the frequencies with that band
  • Listen for resonant frequencies to ring out above the rest; when you find them—stop!
  • Reduce the frequency on that band so you’re attenuating instead of boosting
  • Adjust the Q value to taste

When using subtractive EQ it’s usually best to use narrow bands with moderate-to-high Q values. Wide bands with low Q values generally work best for additive EQ.

Since bass guitars have such a low pitch, they can create massive surges in the low end depending on the note they play. Dynamic EQs like the F6 are great for controlling unruly bass frequencies. By using level-depended bands that engage only when a set threshold is crossed, dynamic EQs only affect frequencies when you want them to.

Step 6: Sculpt tone with additive EQ

Now that you’ve cleaned up the problematic frequencies in your bass tracks, you can use additive EQ to help craft a more genre-appropriate tone.

For genres like pop, hip-hop and EDM that require big, booming bass tracks, try using a sub harmonic frequency generators like MaxxBass or Renaissance Bass to reinforce low end frequencies and add upper harmonics that help bass guitars cut through on small speakers. For genres like rock, punk and metal, use EQ to bring out the midrange and accentuate noise from the strings; the SSL E-Channel's EQ section is perfect for this—and check out the presets from top mixing engineers to help get you there quicker.

Step 7: Add channel compression

When it comes to compression there are a lot of benefits to processing each channel individually. DI tracks have much more dynamic transients, which means they can be compressed harder than big, beefy amp tracks with massive envelopes. A common trick is to use an 1176 compressor like the CLA-76 to apply a healthy dose of gain reduction at a high ratio like 12:1 or 20:1 to bring out the attack of the transients. To find the best attack time:

  • Start with the slowest attack and fastest release times
  • Slowly increase the attack time until you start to shave off the initial transient of the bass, then back off
  • Slowly decrease the release time until the compressor starts to “breathe” in time with the songs

Step 8: Apply buss compression

After bringing out the attack in the DI track, it’s time to accentuate some sustain. The SSL G-Master Buss Compressor is a classic choice for “gluing” tracks together. For buss compression, use gentler settings: 1-3 dB of gain reduction at a ratio 2:1 or 4:1 is common. Time the release setting to the tempo of the song for the perfect amount of sustain.

If your bass tracks are still causing significant low-frequency spikes when moving from note to note, multiband compression can help. Multiband compressors like C4 and C6 compress discretely within specific frequency ranges, so you can set compression for the low end, midrange, and high fretted detail each with their own best settings.

Step 9: Sidechain compression

In order to make sure there’s enough room in the low frequencies for the kick drum and the bass guitar, try applying sidechain compression to the bass buss. To set up sidechain compression:

  • Insert a compressor on the bass buss with a sidechain or "key input" feature (like the dbx 160, Renaissance Compressor, C4 or C6)
  • Add a send from the kick drum channel to a spare aux channel
  • On your compressor, select the aux channel that you’ve sent the kick drum to, to be your trigger or "key input"
  • Set your compressor with moderately fast attack and release times
  • Decrease the threshold until compression is applied every time the kick drum hits

This will cause the bass guitar to quickly “duck” every time the kick drum is played, leaving enough space in the low end for both instruments. Just make sure you don’t set your attack and release times too long or apply too much compression, otherwise you’ll create an unwanted pumping effect.

Another option is to use dynamic EQ with a sidechain. In this quick video excerpt, mix engineer Brad Divens (Enrique Iglesias, Kanye West) demos the F6 Dynamic EQ plugin, and shows how he uses it with a sidechain to duck 125 Hz in the bass every time the kick hits, so that they can both cut through the mix without getting too cluttered:

Optional step: Parallel compression

It may not be required on every track, but parallel compression can be used to apply additional control to particularly detailed and dynamic bass performances. Start by sending the bass buss to an aux channel with a super-fast compressor like the dbx 160. Then apply generous amounts of compression at high ratios. This will help create a more consistent low end by raising the overall RMS levels while the original tracks retain the natural dynamics of the performance. Blend in the compressed signal to taste.

Step 10: Saturation and distortion

Now that the frequency response and dynamics are in control, it’s time to add a little color and character. Saturation and distortion create harmonics that help bass guitars cut through dense mixes and small speakers.

Tape saturation has a particularly pleasant effect on bass guitars. Try using the Kramer Master Tape plugin to add some subtle harmonic color, roundness and vintage vibe to your tracks.

For genres like rock, punk and metal, try adding a healthy dose of distortion in parallel; the Manny Marroquin Distortion plugin is perfect for this, as it gives practical, detailed control over parallel distortion that works great on bass. In many cases, even for 'softer' genres, a tiny touch of distortion acts as a secret weapon of sorts to get bass sounding rich and present in the mix.

In this video, Grammy-winning mixer Tony Maserati (Beyoncé, Jay Z) builds a plugin chain to liven up a bass part to his liking, which in this case includes stages of compression, EQ and subtle harmonic distortion:

Step 11: Avoid time-based effects (for the most part)

Bass frequencies don’t respond well to time-based effects. Adding reverb or delay to a bass guitar can quickly create a muddy mess. If you feel that your bass guitar needs more depth, apply very short time-based effects in parallel, with a light touch. It’s also a good idea to apply a low-pass filter to any effects to prevent the sound from smearing. You could try adding Doubler for some stereo chorusing as a special effect.

Genres like pop and EDM often call for very wide bass tracks. If your bass guitar needs additional width, try adding the Doubler plugin, or a stereo imaging plugin like S1 Stereo Imager.

MIX HACK: Signature series plugins

Applying EQ, compression, dynamics processing and effects to bass guitars is a delicate process. One wrong move and the whole signal chain can fall apart. Thankfully, seasoned mixers Chris Lord-Alge (Green Day, Muse), Jack Joseph Puig (U2, Lady Gaga) and Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin) have helped develop plugins based on their award-winning signal chains.

The Signature Series plugins offer unique combinations of EQ, compression, distortion and reverb, specifically designed for a variety of bass guitar applications. Signature series bass plugins include: CLA Bass, JJP Bass, and Eddie Kramer Bass Channel, each with their own style, feel and set of presets to help you achieve desired sounds quickly.

Step 12: Write automation

Automation is another secret weapon for mixers. It’s one of the best ways to make your music feel alive. Nothing makes a chorus or a bridge pop like a heavy bass line, so why not gently crank up the bass for those sections?

Most DAWs allow you to manually program automation for volume and virtually any other parameter. This means you can also adjust EQ, compression and effects settings throughout the song to introduce variety and keep things interesting: whatever your mix and arrangement call for.

Bass guitars can be fickle instruments to mix—especially as the foundation of a dense mix when the solo button is off. When possible, try to mix the bass guitar with all of the tracks playing to ensure they all sound good together. And remember, bass guitar tones vary greatly from genre to genre; whether you’re mixing bass for a growling rock song, a trunk-rattling hip-hop track or a slap-tastic funk tune, be sure to listen, experiment and work one step at a time so that your bass will serve as a solid foundation for the rest of your mix.

Want to make sure your mix translates well on all speakers, even without bass-shaking subs? Get tips for making mixes sound great on small speakers.

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