Aside from vocal mixing, it is undeniable that the most common question asked around when it comes to mixing music is how to mix the low end.
The kick and bass, and whatever else might be living in that area is what holds the weight and power of a musical track.
In addition, it is often the rhythmic backbone, which is why people tend to have so much trouble with the low end, and I think the following 2 points can pass for the reason why:
The problem with mixing the low end.
There are 2 main problems associated with mixing the low end and they are:
- Harder to hear.
- Frequency perception.
1. Harder to hear.
A lot of speakers and headphones find it very difficult to reproduce the low end with great details and accuracy. You really need to have large cones, preferably 8 inches or more to be able to produce the low end correctly.
Moreover, rooms must be well treated with acoustic that will enable them to manage the low end correctly.
Parallel walls and corners tend to distort bass reproduction, making it very difficult to gauge what you are hearing.
To complicate the issue – the actual bass range is much smaller linear speaking than higher octaves.
You can go from a sub-bass A to a sub-bass A at 55hz. In the upper ranges, 55hz might not even allow you to reach the following note.
Ultimately, this mathematically means your bass elements more readily overlap and leave you with less space to make things sound and focus separately.
2. Frequency perception.
If you set a bass signal at equal amplitude with a mid-range signal, you’ll perceive the bass signal as being very quiet. This means that it will take more juice for the low end to come out and be booming.
Especially, if you’re going headfirst into some heavy compression, which is often the case for dance and hip-hop music. But hey, how important is having a big low end in dance and hip hop?
Oh, wait… Let’s get to see how we can get the low-end focused and big.
How to mix the low end.
Before worrying about focused and big – assign one low-end element prominence. Some people will do this by genre, but I think that’s dumb (maybe semi-dumb).
What I like to do is assign my low-end captain based on what element is most valuable to the rhythm.
Let’s see certain tendencies we can use by genres:
- Jazz – look for the upright bass.
- Dance – focus on the kick.
- Hip-hop – might be the kick also, though it varies sometimes.
- Rock – it’s probably the bass guitar or even a low-rhythm guitar.
Regardless, your main Target is for the low end to create movement, so you want to lean towards the element that does this in the most exciting way.
Once you’ve figured out your low and leader, the rest is not going to be terribly difficult (usually).
What you are going to have to do is start with the volume – get your main player to be at the right volume.
That’s about the majority of the work right there. Then get anything else in the lo end to a level that is present, but that will not override the main element.
You can think of it as the costar.
How to control the low end in a mix.
To properly mix the low end you have to do the following:
- Carefully access the mid-range of the element.
- Use the low pass filter when appropriate.
- Get aggressive.
- Be careful with your compression on kick drums.
- Embrace the sine wave tone.
- Don’t carve out low frequencies to make room for other low elements.
- Don’t be afraid of narrow boasts.
- Never side-chain every bass to every kick in a mix.
1. Carefully access the mid-range of the element.
There is a bunch of good stuff that’s living in the mid-range and often times it is going to want to come out.
Whether it is giving the kick punch in the low low mid-region, sharpening the attack at the treble area, or enhancing the gritty overtones of the bass in the mid-mids-check it out.
Always make sure you go with what feels right.
Boosting the mid-range will not make the low elements bassier, but it may give it more presence in the mix and draw attention to the low end.
2. Use the low pass filter when appropriate.
You only need one bass element to have a lot of high ends, the rest is probably going to be buried under the mid-range instruments anyway – and for that reason, you need to get that high end out of the way and emphasize that deep low.
3. Get aggressive.
The low end is usually an open canvas for heavy processing.
Even a completely flat, sustaining bass instrument can sound very awesome over-driving into a compressor.
The overtones activate and you get something as flat, but a lot buzzier.
4. Be careful with your compression on kick drums.
Specifically, you want a solid amount of attack to keep that kickdrum drawing your attention, and a solid sustain to give that drum weight.
It’s hard to get both. And oftentimes, though not always, the release of the kick doesn’t sound so hot – unless you want that really trashy, weighty kick drum. Which can be cool!
5. Embrace the sine wave tone.
Sine waves are pure concentrated bass. They sound pretty great layered under a bassline, or gated to a kick.
Just make sure the sine wave is playing the appropriate tones.
Guess what? – if your chord is changing through the song, that means the root that the bass resonates best at changes – so program your sine waves accordingly!
6. Don’t carve out low frequencies to make room for other low elements.
Bass doesn’t work this way too often. If you are carving out frequencies, do it because there is an excessive resonance there, or because there’s sub-build up.
7. Don’t be afraid of narrow boasts.
Conventional theory seems to state that you should boast wide. But in the low range wide becomes very relative.
Remember, there’s less space in the low range, so a wide bandwidth is going to be super wide.
Also, narrow boasts can help to emphasize a good sub.
Just be careful when choosing what narrow band – make sure it helps the bass element and fits properly in the context of the track.
8. Never side-chain every bass to every kick in a mix.
Yes, ducking the bass from the kick can be a good idea to get the kick in the open. However, the bass should be supporting the kick.
And if the bass is supporting the kick, and you duck it out of the way – there goes your support.
Also, remember that ducking has rhythmic consequences. In certain styles, where the kick is coming in regular intervals – this can be cool. But when the kick doesn’t come in regular intervals, or very close together you start losing definition of the rhythm.
I actually like to do the opposite. Long-sustaining bass lines tend to have very little movement, and don’t always aid the rhythm.
And for that reason I always side chain an expander, or an upward expander to the kick – so when the lick hits the bass jumps a little with it.
Note: In some tracks, do both expand and enhance. For example, during the verse, the bass can be chained to expand with the kick.
In the chorus, the bass can be chained to duck with the kick.
Oh, and also gate a sine wave to the kick drum that tuned to whatever chord the song happens to be at.