5 Tips to Nailing Your Low End
One of the first issues we encounter as we enter the world of audio engineering, production and mixing is low end. This article provides you with 5 tips to correctly deal with bass frequencies in a mix.
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One of the first issue we encounter as we enter the world of audio engineering, production and mixing is low end. Bass frequencies tend to be a cause for concern because a variety of modern genres depend on it. For example, a hip-hop production won’t sound hip if your bass isn’t tight. Consequently, an EDM track won’t groove if the kick doesn’t hit hard enough without overpowering the bass line.
Some of you might have heard of competing parts, instruments or frequencies - this is the key to solving our problem. In most cases, the bass and the kick drum occupy the same frequency spectrum [I am deliberately not mentioning frequencies as these will depend on your song]. The ‘trick’ is to make the two coexist, sharing the frequency spectrum – here are 5 tips you can use on your own projects:
Start by taking a break
If you’ve been working on your song for a while, take a break, listen to something else, then come back to it with fresh ears and try to hear which element is more important: kick or bass. One will always take the lead, driving the track and helping the groove. This will be different for virtually every song and, while it might seem plain, it is one of the most important things you need to learn how to do as an engineer.
EQ will go a long way
Once you’ve decided what your lead element is, leave it as is and move on to your secondary element. It’s time to make some space - subtractive EQ will help you dip some frequencies where the other part [your leading element] sounds more prominent. A few dBs of gain reduction will usually do the trick, but play with the settings and tweak the bandwidth or Q of the curve and adjust to taste. Another trick is to limit the range in which these elements exist – for example, certain kick drum [especially 808s] won’t have much material over a certain frequency [let’s say 500Hz] but they might add unpleasant artefacts into the mix. Use a low-pass filter to cut everything above your frequency of choice. Similarly, this can be applied to the extreme lows, where, for example, removing some sub from a bass guitar might actually clean up your mix and have the instrument sound more defined. Pultecs are a great choice for overall tonal sculpting, as is the Michelangelo, while SSL, API and Buzz Audio will serve you well where a more surgical approach is required.
These EQ strokes are a very straightforward process which should only take you a few minutes to complete – anything longer than this will start to fool your hearing as your ears get adjusted to the current section and its sound rendering small changes very hard to detect.
Enhancing the Groove
Sometimes, your leading element will also provide the groove to your song. Controlling how one interacts with the other can be achieved by using sidechain compression. Use your main element, for example the kick, to trigger a compressor inserted on the bass track, ducking it’s signal ever so slightly whenever the kick hits. This is where classic units such as the DBX 160 really shine – its program dependent attack and release times will duck your bass track in a musical way, allowing for the kick to ‘poke through’ in just the right amount, based on its harmonic content.
808s? We got this
When dealing with 808 kick drums, one trick is to leave that track unprocessed [provided it is a high quality, good sounding sample] and use tips #2 and #3 to make space around it for the bass to ‘live’ in. The 808 are usually deep samples extending far in to the low end and if the sample is filtered towards the higher register of the bass range, our ears might not be able to pick it up in the mix. In this case, harmonic enhancement is your friend – send part of the signal to a distortion unit [yes, you can call this reamping], filtering out some of the extreme lows - for the sake of our example, you can filter everything below 150Hz [although this will depend on your song and samples used] – and mix it back with the original in the context of the mix. Small amounts of harmonic distortion will be somewhat masked by the more powerful clean bass frequencies of the 808, but it will help our ears pick up its sound in a busy mix. The same principle can be applied to bass lines whenever a production requires it. The usual suspects here are the Distressors and Aphex Exciters.
Front and Back
Compression, as you might have noticed, can have a million and one different uses, one of which is bringing elements to the forefront or pushing the further back, in the context of the mix. This can work wonders on kick and bass – process your leading element [kick or bass] in such a way that your transients are enhanced [usually long attack time] and treat your secondary element in the opposite way [try a shorter attack time]. Both these techniques should use mild compression settings – the key is to bring one part closer in the soundstage while the other is pushed further back without adding any ‘audible compression’ artefacts. Black-face 1176s, Distressors, SSL Channel or Buss compressors will all do the trick here – it will be more a question of coloration since all of these units will do the job.
So there you go – 5 Tips to help you get your low end right. I urge you to try these in every combination and use your ears! Don’t let your eyes fool you – we’re about speakers not screens here. Let us know how these techniques helped your song by sending us a before and after clip of your track.