Posts Tagged ‘ Saturation ’

6+ ways to get bigger bass

This is about basslines, not (necessarily) the frequency range. The bassline is the harmonic foundation of a track. A solid mix often needs a solid bassline. So how do you get there? How do you stop your basslines from sounding weak or flabby? Here are some techniques to consider:

  • EQ. This is the big one. A lot of the time, EQ is all you need. The trouble is, each situation is different. I can’t tell you where to boost and where to cut without hearing your track. Because EQ is relative, the right settings depend entirely on the sound of your bassline and the direction of the mix. Pay close attention to how the kick and the bass interact. In some cases, it makes sense to have a bass with character voiced above a deep kick; in other cases it makes sense to have a deep bass voiced under the kick. Good monitoring is crucial here, because you’ll have to balance the tone across a wide range – sometimes all the way from subbass up to the top of the mix. And most lower-budget monitoring environments are pretty bad at accurately representing the critical range from the bottom through the lower mids.
  • Layering. You can’t boost what isn’t there. Often a bass sound will have a great character in the mids but doesn’t have a solid bottom end. Similarly, it’s common for a bass sound with a solid bottom end to be missing character in the mids. By layering two complimentary bass sounds, you can have the best of both worlds! Be careful though – effective layering can very easily take over the whole mix. When layering bass sounds, it often helps to filter the layers. For example – an upper layer that adds a lot of character in the mids may have a weak or inconsistent low end. By using a high pass filter to cut out that low end, a lower layer can be much more focussed and provide a stronger sound. Similarly, it often makes sense to use a low pass filter or dramatic EQ to take the mids out of the lower layer so that the upper layer can punch through more effectively. Lastly, don’t forget to pay attention to the relative levels of each layer. Often a mix needs one layer to be dominant – the other layer(s) usually can be much quieter and still provide enough definition and size.
  • Saturation. This is a magic trick for making almost any sound bigger – not just bass. When using saturation, it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t need much for it to be effective (unless you’re going for a fuzzy distorted bass). A little bit goes a long way. Also, different saturation tools respond very different to bass. It’s often useful to have several different options. Some saturation tools will rob you of low end, others will get too fizzy. A technique that often works well is to mix a saturated version of the bass with the original clean version, and to apply a low pass filter after the saturation. This will avoid the high end fizz produced by some saturation tools, and will often thicken up the lower mids.
  • Stereo width. Simply, wider sounds are often perceived as being bigger. It’s important, however, to find the right balance – too much stereo widening will reduce the body and foundation of the sound. It often makes sense to widen the mids and/or top end, while keeping the low end narrow.
  • Chorus / unison detuning. Similar to stereo widening, the use of chorus and unison detuning can make a sound bigger. And again – the balance is in using enough to make the sound bigger without reducing the body and foundation. Applying chorus or unison detuning to the mids and/or top end will avoid the bottom getting washy.
  • Sidechain compression. This is a popular technique – especially when triggered with the kick drum. This allows the bass to be louder when the kick drum isn’t sounding. By making the kick and bass take turns, the overall low end of the mix can be more consistent and powerful. It’s a distinctive sound, however, and isn’t appropriate for all kinds of music – particularly when the bassline has a distinctive rhythmic pattern. If in doubt, try it out.
  • Bonus technique: Bass amp / cabinet. Amp sims aren’t just for guitars! Processing a synth bass with a simulated bass amp can provide a dramatic tonal change. Saturation/overdrive and compression are also often included as part of the package. This technique isn’t subtle though – don’t reach of an amp sim if your bass is already pretty close to what you want. Amp sims are great when you have a weak or lousy bass that needs some major transformation. The sound of the cabinet can also help keep the energy of the bass consistent across a wide range of notes – this can be handy if your bassline is melodic or jumps around a lot.
  • Bonus technique: Compression. I think compression on synth bass is overrated. Most synths can be set up to provide a consistent level and punchy envelope without compression. Where compression shines, however, is on electric (or even acoustic) bass when performed by a musician. When working with recordings like this, applying the compression first will make the sound more consistent and help later processes – especially saturation.

With these techniques and some practice, you should have no trouble getting your bass to support the rest of your mix.


Five secrets to making your mix louder

Don’t dismiss this post yet! Even if you’re in the ‘more dynamics’ brigade, these tips will give you clearer mixes that suffer less in mastering. That means better-preserved dynamics and higher fidelity!

For those of you who really do want your mixs SUPER LOUD, this tips will let you push more volume without your sound turning to mush.

  1. Go easy on the bass. That includes sub bass, kick and melodic bass. It always tempting to turn them up, but the low frequencies really use up a lot of headroom (high peak level for the same perceived volume). The more headroom your audio needs, the less you can push it in mastering and the worse it will sound when it’s pushed hard. First try to compare your bass levels with commercial reference songs. Listen carefully to the level of the low frequencies in comparison to the rest of the spectrum – you might find there’s less than you initially thought! Also consider saturating the kick or the bass.
  2. Saturate those peaks. Take a look at your mix bus peak meter to see if any tracks are ‘poking out’ of the mix – often it will be the kick or the bass. Used carefully, you can use saturation to reduce the peak level of your kick or snare tracks without reducing the perceived volume. Often peak level reductions of 6-9dB are easily attainable without adversely affecting the audio quality. Limiters are usually not so useful here because they’ll tend to change the sound too much.
  3. Embrace the background. Push some instruments further to the background. If you try to put too many sounds in the foreground you’ll end up with an indistinct mush. This indistinct mush will quickly become even worse when you apply heavy limiting in mastering. Instead, try to identify the three or four most important elements of the mix (typically the snare, kick, bass and lead synth/vocal). Be bold and push everything else to the background! You’ll get a mix that’s more focussed and more powerful.
  4. Leave your stereo widener at home. Stereo widening tricks might be fun to play with, but they’ll rob your mix of punch and power. If you want those foreground sounds (snare, kick, bass, lead) to hit as hard as possible, stay clear of any stereo width manipulation. Some subtle widening is sometimes useful for special background effects, but remember – if you do it, do it in moderation.
  5. Be careful of the lower mids. The region between 100Hz and 1000Hz is the cause of many troubles. It’s very easy to put a mix together that has a lot of mud build-up in that area. To get the ultimate clear mix, get brutal with an EQ! Make some big dips in the lower mids for all background instruments, and make sure you don’t have any excess lower mids in your foreground instruments. You need to keep some lower mids, because that’s where your body and thickness comes from. Here’s a secret though – a mix with body and thickness only needs a few foreground instruments to have that body and thickness. To put it another way, a few fat foreground instruments makes for a fat mix. A lot of fat instruments makes for a flabby mix.

With these mixing tips you should be able to get a few more decibels of clarity in mastering!


What is saturation?

Saturation used to be something that happened in the analogue world. Typically, this is when a gain stage is overloaded – the signal level exceeds the available headroom. When this happens, the signal is saturated.

Basically, the sound gets distorted because you turned it up too high.

The result of this is that the parts of the signal that were going to exceed the available headroom are waveshaped. If you were look at the waveform of a saturated signal, you’d see that the loudest parts of the sound have been clamped down – they’re quieter than they should be. This is similar to what a compressor does, except that saturation affects the shape of the waveform itself – not necessarily the perceived volume level (as we hear it). By changing the shape of the wave, the sound changes too. 


Saturation reduces the level of transient peaks by distorting them. However, because the transient peaks are very short, the disortion is often not obvious. The excess level in the transient peaks is transformed into upper harmonics. That is, the transients become noisier and dirtier. For some kinds of music, this can be a desirable alternative to reducing gain using a compressor or limiter. The power and impact of the sound is often retained (or even enhanced!), but at the expense of fidelity.


Saturation of steady-state signals is often more noticeable because the audio is constantly being saturated. This usually causes the sound to be brighter, as upper harmonics are being created. Too much saturation will make the audio sound lo-fi or outright distorted. Used subtly though, saturation can make audio sound more exciting, or even aggressive. In a dense mix, individual tracks will sound less distorted than when listening to those tracks on their own (in solo).


Limiting vs Clipping

Limiting is an extreme approach to compression. Where compression reduces the degree by which sounds can go louder than the threshold, limiting is designed to stop sounds from being any louder than the threshold at all. Limiters usually have simpler controls to compressors, but are functionally similar to compressors with high ratio and fast attack.

Limiters are useful for reducing peak level (the level that machines “hear”) of a sound without affecting the average level (the level that humans hear). This reduces the headroom that the sound needs so that it can be made louder without distorting. 

The downside the using limiters is that they reduce the level in the same way that compressors do – by applying gain. That is, they turn down the volume. Ideally, a limiter does this fast enough that the transient peaks are reduced but the steady-state sound is not audibly affected. In many cases though, the gain reduction is audible. It can give the sound a soft, wooly character, or even a random tremolo effect if the threshold is too low. Often using a limiter reduces the power and impact of a sound. This effect is sometimes hidden because the limiter also increases the overall volume, making it more difficult to notice that the character of the sound is changed.

An alternative to limiting is clipping. Yes, this is the same clipping that usually engineers try to avoid when recording and processing audio. Most of the time clipping is undesirable, but in some situations it can be used deliberately and beneficially.

While limiting reduces the level of the transient peaks by turning down the volume (applying negative gain), clipping reduces the level of transient peaks by distorting them. If you view the waveform of a clipped sound, you’ll see that the waveform looks like it’s had the tops and bottoms chopped off. This is distortion! However, if only the transient peaks are clipped, the clipping only occurs for a very short period of time, and is not very noticeable.

When this happens, the excess level in the transient peaks is transformed into upper harmonics. That is, the transients become noisier and dirtier. For some kinds of music, this can be a desirable alternative to reducing gain. The power and impact of the sound is often retained (or even enhanced!), but at the expense of fidelity.


Vocal processing

My usual vocal processing chain consists of several stages: Gate, EQ, Compression, De-Essing, and reverb (as a send).


This is first in the chain so the gate has the full dynamic range of the original audio. The more natural the dynamic range available to the gate, but easier it is to set the threshold and timing for a natural sound.


Generally I prefer to use EQ before compression. This is so I can get the tone I want for the mix before I adjust the dynamic range. It also makes it easy to highpass the audio so the compressor doesn’t respond to low-frequency audio (such as rumble) that isn’t going to make it to the mix anyway. I’ve written more about the order of EQ and compression here.


I choose to apply compression to the final tone of the sound, rather than adjust the tone afterwards. This helps the compressor react smoothly and naturally to the sound we hear, rather than responding to sound that is going to have its frequency balance changed afterwards.


I don’t often use saturation of vocals. When I do though, it’s just after compression,  and I use it similar to a limiter  - to catch the few peaks that are too loud even after compression. Usually I set it up so that loud sustained notes are saturated, making them sound loud without overpowering the mix, but most notes are left clean (not saturated).


This is interesting. I’ve found that I get the best results by applying the de-esser after EQ and Compression. I find that the way I use EQ tends to enhance sibilance (tonal tilt toward high frequencies and high-ratio compression). Using a de-esser earlier in the chain sometimes means that the later EQ and compression counteract the effect of the de-esser. This forces me to apply more de-essing, which ends up sounding (more) unnatural (at extremes, it can “pump” a bit – but not in a good way!). By de-essing after EQ and compression, only a silght amount of de-essing is needed.


Reverb can be quite sensitive – responding to both tone and dynamics. In the kind of dense productions I usually do, it’s best to feed the reverb as consistent a signal as possible, to avoid widely-warying levels of ambience or a build up of mud. The purpose of reverb here is to add ambience and air to the vocal sound – not to be heard as an effect separate to the vocal. To that end it’s important that the reverb responds to what we hear (similar to the compressor). I’ll often lowpass the reverb to keep it sounding lush and avoid it “catching” any sibilance.


Processing Bass: Saturation

So, we’ve addressed two important processing tools available to a mix engineer – EQ and compression. Next up is one of my favourites – saturation. How can saturation be useful for bass?

Saturation can do a number of things simultaneously – it can reduce the headroom requirements of the track, it can make the bass more audible on smaller speakers (and more powerful on larger speakers), and it can help it sit more consistently in the mix.

Saturation reduces the headroom requirements of a track in a similar way to a limiter (or compressor with high ratio) – by making sure signal cannot exceed a certain level. This “chops the tops off” the loudest notes, bringing them down to the level of the other notes. Unlike limiting or compression, however, saturation doesn’t do this by actually reducing the volume. Instead, using the saturation the loudest notes are distorted a little. The net effect is that pure volume is transformed into noise. Another way of looking at it is that lower-frequency energy is turned into higher-frequency energy.

What does this actually sound like?

It should sound like the bass is at the same level, but instead of stronger notes getting louder, they get noisier. Applying saturation with a deeper threshold (so that most notes are saturated, not just the loudest ones) makes the whole bassline sound noisier. What’s actually happening is that upper harmonics are being generated. Because the bassline is monophonic (single notes at a time – not chords), the harmonics being generated are related to the pitch of the bass. Because these harmonics are at a higher frequency, they’re audible even on smaller speakers that can’t reproduce the lowest bass sounds. This means that your bassline will still be audible without requiring large speakers. You don’t even need much saturation for this to occur. On larger speakers, the upper harmonics reinforce the bass, making it sound more powerful.

As for actual selection of tools and settings, you’ll have to experiment. There are a wide variety of different methods of saturating a sound, and there’s a wide variety of different sounds available. Aside from some kind of “drive” control, saturation processors don’t have standardised controls in the same way that EQs and compressors do. Just remember that less is usually more – you don’t need to push the bassline into full distortion to achieve a useful saturation effect.


Saturation, compression and reverb

Following on from the previous post, here are some tools I use:


Voxengo Voxformer – Great for adding “hair” to a sound. It’s a very dry  scratchy sound, so too much can sometimes make a sound pretty gross, but just a little bit often is enough to add some life and colour to a boring clean sound.

Magix Am-phibia – A lovely thick solid sound, especially with the two adjustment controls under the advanced panel. Coupled with a VERY gentle compressor and some VERY interesting EQ and exciter options, this is simply a great tool for locking down a sound.

Magix Am-track – The tape saturation module here is great for smoothing out a sound. I tend to use it more like a coloured limiter that behaves in interesting ways when pushed hard.

Occasionally I’ll overdrive other plugins (such as Stilwell Oligarc or Audio Damage Dr Device and Rough Rider) for a saturation effect, but this is on more of a “most songs” basis, rather than “most tracks”.


Magix Am-track – This is my primary compressor. The modern mode is great for basic dynamics control. It does exactly what it’s told to, with the exception that it never sounds nasty. I don’t know how they did it, but somehow it never sounds nasty – even at extreme settings. Sometimes it’ll sound inappropriate, but never nasty. The vintage mode is particularly good for adding some vibe to drums and percussion – it tends to shape the envelope more than control dynamics.

Audio Damage Rough Rider – For when I need something extreme, this is what I reach for. It pumps and breathes easier than almost anything else I’ve tried. While Am-track never sounds nasty, Rough Rider almost never sounds nice. It doesn’t even have a neutral default setting – the plugin starts smashing the audio as soon as it’s plugged in. The top-end roll off is good too, it often makes the audio sound more solid and compact. When I’m applying this kind of compression, a little colouring doesn’t really bother me. If it’s too much, I’ll usually boost the top end going into the compressor. While the frequency response is flatter that way, it’s still far from neutral and the built-in clipper does interesting things to the boosted top end before it’s rolled off…

Occasionally I’ll use other compressors, such as those Voxengo Voxformer (for convenience) and Magix Am-phibia (for something special).


IK Multimedia CSR – What can I say? I love it. Feels just like it should. The hall and plate are my favourite at the moment. I’ve got several of my own custom presets that I use about 90% of the time (often tweaked slightly for the song). If I’m doing something more conventional (such as Erin Shay’s A Day Too Long), I’ll start with one of the factory presets and adjust it for the song. At the moment I’m rolling all the sibilance off the top, creating a darker sound that sits easily in the background without drawing too much attention to it.



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