A strong low end is the foundation for any good mix. Learn how to customize your listening environment and enhance your mixing skills to really get the bass pumping like it should.
By Charles Hoffman
Mixing the low end is something that many people struggle with. The reason isn’t that it’s innately hard, but because many factors make it difficult to hear an accurate representation of the bass. This leads to a common issue of people overcompensating for the bass they can’t hear on their system. Conversely, some mixing environments emphasize bass so much that people will end up with an underrepresented low end in their mix. Further complicating matters is the fact that these mix imbalances are usually only noticed in a different listening environment, where the mix simply doesn’t translate.
If you’ve been mixing music for some time, and you’re still struggling with getting your low end to sound right, you could very well have fallen victim to acoustic problems or improper monitor positioning. It could also be that the gear you’re using is incapable of reproducing an accurate low end. Ensuring that you identify and address these issues is the first step to fixing pervasive low-end problems. These 7 tips should help you get started.
Once you’ve set up your listening environment appropriately, you can move on to mixing techniques. Many Waves plugins will allow you to mix your low end including Bass Rider, Renaissance Bass, Submarine and Waves VU Meter.
1. Position your monitors correctly
Monitor placement can significantly affect how your bass will sound. Setting up your monitors correctly is essential if you hope to achieve an accurate bass response in your room. There are two key things that you’ll want to avoid when setting up your monitors; placing them too close to the wall, and placing them in the corners of your room.
Placing your speakers up against a wall can result in strong peaks in the low-frequency response. Try pulling the speakers away from the wall, and then walk around the room to see if the bass response fluctuates substantially. Ideally, you want to be able to walk around the room and hear a relatively balanced low end, indicating that there are few nulls; areas where frequency cancelation occurs.
Setting up your monitors in the corner, or to one side of the room will cause significant problems. When placed in the corner, there will be a large bass build-up. When set closer to one wall of the room than the other, there will be an imbalanced frequency response. If your room is a rectangle, a common solution is to place your monitors centered along the shortest wall of your room.
2. Treat the acoustics
The acoustics of your room play a much more significant role than you may think, so much that treating your room should take precedence over almost any piece of gear you’re thinking about buying. If your room isn’t treated, you can’t hear. If you can’t hear, you can’t mix. Spending money on acoustic treatment may not be as exciting as buying a new compressor, but it’s absolutely essential if you’re mixing your own music.
The world of sound treatment is a rabbit hole that you can fall into for eternity, but you can deal with most of your room’s acoustic problems using a simple combination of acoustic panels, bass traps and diffusers. The dimensions, shape and material of the room, including its furniture and equipment, will play a significant role in determining the type and position of acoustic treatment you need to apply.
If you can afford to hire an acoustic engineer to measure your room and provide custom treatment for you, that would be ideal. However, if music production/audio engineering is more of a hobby for you, there are 5 major things you can do yourself to improve a small home studio:
You can start off using this basic room acoustics setup, and then fine-tune the frequency response using room measurement software and a microphone. The goal is to achieve overall a relatively flat-frequency response.
3. Integrate a sub
If you’re using small studio monitors, they may not be able to accurately reproduce the low-end frequencies that you need to hear and feel to properly mix your low end. This can turn your entire mixing process into a guessing game.
When mixing in surround sound, you’ll need a subwoofer to mix the low-frequency energy accurately. The “.1” in surround sound formats like 5.1 and 7.1 refers to the sub. 5.1 systems contain 5 monitors and a sub, whereas 7.1 systems contain 7 monitors and a sub. Waves offers an affordable plugin called Nx that acts as a virtual mix room for your headphones. It integrates with a little hardware piece that clips onto your headphones, so you when you turn your head, the surround image pans as well. This is a great way to reference both surround and stereo mixes on a device uninfluenced by your room.
When mixing in stereo it’s not always necessary to use a sub, but can in many cases be beneficial, for example, if you’re using smaller monitors which miss an octave of low-end below 30-40 Hz. An excellent way to see if your room would benefit from a sub is by using a room analysis software to look at the low-end frequency response of the “sweet spot” in your room.
It’s critical that if you are using a sub, you dial in the level accurately. You can use an SPL meter do this. It’s possible to buy SPL meters online; they come as phone apps and work fine. Make sure you set the SPL meter so that it’s C weighted. The weighting you set determines how the meter chooses to read input level across the frequency spectrum.
Bobby Owsinski has an excellent method for setting up your subwoofer. In your DAW, generate some pink noise using a plugin like eMo Generator. Turn on one of your monitors, hold your phone in the spot that your head would be in while listening to a mix, and adjust the level of the monitor until it reads 85 dB. Do the same thing with the other monitor, and then turn on your sub and set it to 79 dB. The reason you set the sub at a lower level is that there are fewer low-frequency bands than high frequencies. If your sub has a polarity switch, flip it to whichever setting sounds smoothest in the crossover area.
4. Manage the level of your bass
It can be challenging to control the level of your bass if it’s playing a musically dynamic riff. For example, the part jumping an octave will often cause a massive spike in volume. The Waves Bass Rider plugin is specifically designed for smoothing out the level of basslines.
Engineers used to use a technique in which they would “ride” the input gain of a vocal, guitar or even bass guitar during the recording process. This allowed them to capture a recording that was less dynamic, making it easier to mix. Bass Rider seeks to mimic this effect by applying downwards and upwards volume-automation that pulls that level of the input audio towards the threshold, whether it’s above or below.
Mixing your bass once it’s been levelled out is significantly easier than if its level changes multiple times throughout the song. Applying this type of dynamics processing helps to put the bass in its own space and prevent it from interfering with other elements in the song.
5. Don’t over-compress your low end
Over-compressing and over-processing in general is the fastest way to sabotage the low end of your song. I receive projects from clients all the time in which they’ve beaten their low-end to death with plugin after plugin. It’s incredibly important that you A/B the processing you’ve applied to your low end to ensure that you haven’t accidentally sucked the life out of it.
If you’re trying to tame a transient heavy bassline, a compressor like H-Comp set with a short attack and release should do the trick. If you need to thicken up the tail end of each bass note, a compressor with a more prolonged attack and release, as well as some makeup gain, will get the job done. It’s best to avoid applying processing just for the sake of it.
Bass exists to take up the low-end frequency range, so when you’ve squashed it with a compressor, it can no longer do its job effectively. This happens frequently due to inaccurate listening environments that prevent people from hearing just how hard they’re compressing their low end. In addition to the acoustic treatments discussed, checking your mix on quality headphones is another great way to identify low-end issues.
6. Make the bass more audible
Depending on the song, arrangement and genre, the apparent level required for the bass and kick will be different. What further complicates matters is that depending on the playback method used by the listener, the low-end level can appear completely different than intended. If you have an 808 heavy hip hop track with plenty of sub, it may pump right on a hi-fi system but sound completely anemic through laptop speakers. Alternatively, you may be working on an EDM track which sounds perfectly balanced in your studio monitors, but when played in a club environment doesn’t manage the shake the floor as much as other tracks.
There are a few methods to solve these audibility issues, though it is important to consider your intention. A saturator can sometimes create a more audible bass, but only if there’s pre-existing frequency content in the range of the bass you’re trying to affect. Saturators apply compression and distortion, but if there’s nothing to distort up the frequency spectrum, you’ll be quite disappointed with the results. Another downside to using a distortion unit in this way is that unless it’s a multi-band saturator, you could ruin the clarity of your low end.
Renaissance Bass solves the audibility issue for speakers that are incapable of reproducing real low end (such as laptops and phones) by using a psycho-acoustic phenomenon to create an illusion for the brain, forcing it to imagine a “missing fundamental”. The brain perceives pitch not only by a tone’s fundamental frequency, but also by the relationship between the tone’s upper harmonics. If, for example, 200hz and 400hz are reproduced by the speakers, the missing 100hz fundamental absent from the speakers is still interpreted by the brain as being present. R-Bass is designed using this concept to enhance bass audibility on small speakers.
R-Bass builds on technology originally developed by Waves for MaxxBass, a plugin which also provides low-end harmonic enhancement using psycho-acoustics, but with extended controls. Both plugins do a great job of preserving the sound of your original bass, while helping it to be heard on consumer devices. While these solutions work great for small speakers, they do not add subharmonics to the signal and therefore cannot assist in creating true sub bass tones for the club environment and other purposes.
Submarine is a different solution which does create true sub harmonics, and can thus add sub bass on large speakers, up to -2 octaves below the source. It works using Waves’ Organic ReSynthesis technology which strips the source to its core elements, processes them individually, and then reconstructs them to prevent unwanted artefacts and yield natural results. The result is a processor that can be used not only on clean kicks and basses, but also full drum loops and other instruments. This solution would be appropriate for mixes intended for night clubs, live venues and movie theatres. It can even be used to simply deepen any harmonic or percussive instrument.
LoAir is another plugin which works as a subharmonic generator -1 octave below the source but is more geared towards sound design and post-production. It can quickly create a 5.1 LFE track from mono, stereo or 5.0 sources, and has a unique Feed section which allows differentiation for 5.1 sources.
7. Balance your kick and bass
There’s no one correct place to start when setting the levels of your mix, but many people prefer to start with their low end. Getting your kick and bass to sit together nicely can be tough, and while I’ve been doing this by ear for years, I recently discovered a new technique that consistently sets up my mixes up for success.
A volume unit (VU) meter like Waves VU Meter is a device that displays the signal level in audio equipment. The mass of the needle used in a VU meter causes it to jump quite slowly, and the result is a meter that averages out peaks and troughs of short duration. This device was created to let you aim the signal level to a target of 0 VU. The scale on the meter ranges from -20 to +3 and is non-linear.
To take advantage of this meter, you’ll want to start by applying it to your stereo buss and setting the target level to -18. Next, solo your kick track, and adjust its level until the VU meter is peaking at -3 VU; this number is technically the middle of the meter. Now solo your kick and bass and adjust the level of your bass until the meter is peaking at 0 VU. Your kick and bass should now sound quite balanced relative to one another. The reason you set the target level to -18 is so that you have a healthy amount of headroom to mix the rest of your elements around the kick and bass.
This method isn’t an exact science, but it usually works quite well. Feel free to tweak the level of your bass around your kick as necessary. Often a 1-2 dB adjustment is all you’ll need.
Getting the low end to translate consistently across different systems takes a combination of careful monitor placement, acoustic treatment and the tasteful application of certain audio processes. Low-end mix issues are often a result of your inability to hear what’s going on down there. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are as an engineer; if you aren’t hearing an accurate representation of your low end, you can’t make informed mixing decisions.
The tips provided in this guide should help you take control of your low-end and make well-informed mixing decisions. Try out these different techniques for yourself and determine which of them work for you.