Processing Bass: Compression

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen this exchange:

“hwo do i maek my bass PHATTNESS pls halp”

“Use a compressor”

I can’t decide what’s funnier – the blatent (and sometimes obviously deliberate) spelling errors of the question, or the starkness of the response.

While not as powerful as EQ, compression can be useful in turning your raw sound into your desired sound. Traditionally, the role of compression is to reduce the dynamic range of the audio by turning down the loud parts and turning up the soft parts. If you’re working with a recordng of a musician performing on electric bass, you might use compression as a corrective tool where some notes were played stronger or weaker than others.

For electronic genres, however, the note-to-note levels aren’t as much of a problem because the MIDI data (the “velocity” of the notes”) can be manipulated directly. In fact, it’s fairly common for synth bass sounds to be set up so that every note is the same level, regardless of how hard or soft you might play the keyboard. For electronic music, differences in levels can come from filters or EQs interacting with different notes in a bassline. If you’re using some fairly extreme EQ and/or filtering then you might find that some notes are reinforced (making them louder) and other notes are quieter.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell, though, because your monitoring environment might also be reinforcing some notes over others (in this way, the room acts as another layer of EQ or filtering). If you think your bassline is changing levels from one note to another, take a look at your level meters. If the level meters are visually correlating with what you’re hearing, then compression can be used to even it out. If the levels are constant, then the problem is with your monitoring environment and compression won’t help.

If you’re using compression to even out changes in level caused by EQ or filter, it’s best to place the compresser after the EQ or filtering. That way you’ll have the most control, and the compressor will respond to what you’re hearing. If you use EQ or filtering after the compressor, then that might introduce more level differences that the compressor can’t fix.

When setting up the compressor, you’ll want to start with a fast attack, medium release and high ratio. Set the threshold so that the quietest notes are just reaching the threshold – the other notes should be over the threshold, thus triggering the compressor. Best to choose a hard knee instead of a soft knee. If you can hear the level of the bass dropping after loud peaks, try reducing the release time (this will make the compressor react quicker to drops in level). If the bass sounds like it’s distorting, increase the release time (this will make the compressor a little smoother). If you have some extreme processing and you want some notes to stand out (filter sweeps, for example), reduce the ratio (this will make the louder notes punch through a bit more).

-Kim.

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