Posts Tagged ‘ Bass ’

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.

-Kim.

Examples of using group busses

Group busses are a versatile and useful mixing technique. They’re often used in a variety of different situations:

  • Distorted guitar stacks. It’s quite common to layer or doubletrack (or tripletrack or quadrupletrack) distorted guitar parts in order to make them sound bigger. Sometimes the layers are all recorded with the same setup (same guitar, same amp, same mic position, etc), but it’s just as common that the layers are recorded with different setups. The layers blend to form a composite guitar sound that the listener hears as a single diffuse part. Because all these layers function as a single part, it often makes sense to treat them as a single channel when mixing the bigger picture. By using a group bus, the layers can all be treated as one. This means that when you’re fitting the guitars in the context of the rest of the mix, you can set the level and tone of the guitars as if they’re a single part.
  • Backing vocals. Much the same as distorted guitars, it’s common to treat layered backing vocals as if they’re a single sound source. This is especially useful when there are several layers that are singing the same words with the same rhythm. Unlike layered distorted guitars, it’s also common the different layers of backing vocals to be singing different harmony parts. Another difference is that backing vocals often benefit from some compression (distorted guitars often already have flat dynamics due to the distortion). When dealing with backing vocals, it’s often useful to compress each individual channels as well as the group bus. That way, each compressor can work gently while still resulting in a smooth and consistent sound.
  • Pads. While not as commonly spoken about, grouping pads can be very useful for the same reasons as distorted guitars and backing vocals. Some particularly interesting effects can be created by combining several layers of different pulsing pads and then compressing the group. Done well, this will produce a texture that is more consistent in level but is constantly changing in tonality.
  • Drum kit. This is a huge topic! The way drums and compressors interact can be quite complex. The sound is influenced by a variety of factors, ranging from the way the kit is played to the selection of kit components to the choice of miss and recording medium to the design and settings of the compressors. Like backing vocals, it’s common to compress individual drums in addition to compressing the drum group bus. Used lightly, drum group compression can give the whole kit a sense of glue and life and density. Just remember not to overdo it – too much compression will flatten your drums and make them difficult to work into the mix!
  • Kick and bass. This is a technique that has been used subtly for some time, but has recently become more fashionable with modern dance music. By grouping the kick and bass and applying strong compression to that group, the bass will duck slightly when the kick is sounding. This will make the low end of the mix more compact and solid. This is now commonly taken to extremes with the use of side chain compression – instead of using a group bus, the bass is processed with a compressor that is keyed (‘side-chained’) from the kick.

Group busses are most useful when you have several tracks that all perform a similar function in the mix and you want to either glue them together or otherwise treat them as a single unit. Of course, you can group anything you like. It’s important, however, to keep in mind that sometimes it doesn’t make sense to use group busses. Often it doesn’t make sense to group tracks that aren’t related to each other or need to remain separate.

On the other hand, you might find some interesting sounds by using group busses in unusual ways…

-Kim.

 

How to get the right amount of bass in your mix

Just a quickie today…

Getting the right amount of bass in a mix seems to be a common problem that a lot of inexperienced mix engineers have. People often have too much or too little bass in their mix and don’t actually realise it until they get an outside perspective. If this is you, try to do these three things:

1) Listen to references. As I’ve spoken about in the past, you need to know your monitoring environment.

2) Resist the urge for more bass. More bass sounds cool and can get you excited and inspired… just remember that you might be overhyping your mix. Don’t be disappointed if it comes back from mastering sounding thinner than you’re used to.

3) Adjust your monitors. If your mixes regularly have too much bass, try turning the bass up in your monitors. Likewise, if your mixes are regularly weak in the bass, try turning the bass down in your monitors. Don’t be dramatic here – even 3dB can make a big difference to your perception.

-Kim.

What it takes to write a killer bassline

Ever had trouble coming up with a bassline? Maybe you’ve got a beat going, or maybe you’re starting with a chord progression. Maybe you’ve already got the start of something going, but you’re not quite satisfied and you want to take it to the next level.

Generally speaking, there are three main aspects to laying down a bassline: choosing a sound, composing and performing. Ignoring any of these will make it very difficult to realise the potential of the music you’re working on.

  • Choosing a sound is important no matter what kind of music you’re working on. Whether you’re producing a teenage punk band’s first EP or composing an epic orchestral dance film soundtrack, you shouldn’t skip this step. Make this deliberate – take the time to think about the sonic character of the bass. Is it loud or subdued? Clean or dirty? Heavy or funky? P-bass or Stingray? Sawtooth or squarewave?
  • Composing the bassline is also something that need to be done deliberately. Don’t fall into the trap of settling for something simple just for the sake of it. Sometimes a simple bassline is the right choice, but not always. Don’t be lazy! Think about how rhythmically complex the part needs to be (how much syncopation, how much groove). Think about how melodically complex the part needs to be (how many notes, how consonant/dissonant). Every song has its own balance, its own sweet spot.
  • Performing the bassline is just as important as choosing a sound and composing the part. Pay attention here – whether you’re the performer or you’re directing someone else. The performance is the difference between ‘yeah’ and ‘meh’. If the song calls for electric bass, sometimes it’s worthwhile hiring a decent session player – especially if you need groove! Even if your bassline is sequenced (and meant to sound that way), there is performance in adjusting synthesis/effects parameters. Don’t just draw the changes with your mouse as automation – grab some knobs and perform it!

With practice and study, you’ll be able to rely on your experience and music theory knowledge to reliably and consistently come up with good basslines.

The experience part is being able to hear in your head the main features of the bassline – the timing and groove, and the harmony and melodic movement. It’s a skill in being able to say ‘oh, this song goes like *this*, it needs *this* kind of bassline’. It requires having a wide range of musical taste and knowledge, and being able to draw upon that in a musical context.

The music theory knowledge comes in when it’s time to choose the individual notes. It’s a skill in being able to work out what the harmony context of the song is (what the chords are, the scale/mode, the melodic language of the song, etc) and using that to know what notes will work well and best support the music.

-Kim.

Masking

Masking is a little-understood concept that is important to composers and mix engineers. Essentially, masking is what happens when one sound makes it difficult to hear another sound. An obvious example of this is two instruments playing the same note, with one instrument sounding much louder than the other.

This can happen with notes or chords, where the voicing of one instrument covers up another, softer instrument. It can also happen with frequencies, where an element of one sound covers up an element of another sound. As with the example above, this happens when two instruments are playing the same note or frequency range and one is much louder than the other.

It can also happen when the notes or frequencies are not exactly the same, but nearby. The effect is particularly strong when both instruments are playing the same or similar parts, and the sounds blend very well. A common example is of distorted guitars and distorted bass. On its own, the distorted bass might have a heavy growl caused by a lot of energy in the lower mids and a crunchy fuzz on top. Once the guitars are brought in, however, the bass is reduced to a low-frequency rumble beneath the guitars. Even though the main energy of the guitars might be in the upper mids, it masks the upper harmonics in the distorted bass.

Another example is vocal harmonies. A song might have a section where the main melody is sung in parallel harmony – perhaps a third or fourth apart. If both voices are similar (sung by the same singer, in the same style, with similar processing), our ear will hear the upper harmony as being much more prominent than the lower harmony. The effect is sometimes quite striking – the lower harmony simply blends into the upper harmony.

These are both cases of the higher sound masking the lower sound.

Sometimes masking is useful, as it allows a sound to be thickened or deepened by adding other sounds to it. Other times it is undesirable as it makes it difficult for the listener to distinguish between the different sounds.

In the bass/guitar example, greater separation could be achieved by filtering or EQ so that each instrument contributes a unique sonic component to the mix. Alternatively, each instrument could be given a different depth. For example, the bass could be up front and the guitar further back in the mix.

In the vocal example, greater separation could be achieved by instructing the singer to perform each part differently – such as whispering one part, or perhaps singing one part forcefully. Better yet, have a different singer perform one of the parts.

-Kim.

That pumping effect

So you’ve probably heard enough of that pumping effect by now. Yes, that pumping effect where the whole mix ducks to the kick. Or at least ducks in time with the music. Or at at least some instruments in the mix. Or something.

If you still think it hasn’t gone out of fashion yet (or maybe you’re waiting for it, like hard pitch quantisation, to come back in fashion) you might be wanting to brush up on your technique. Or you might want to explore some different techniques to come up with something new and different. Or maybe you’re just a sucker for punishment. There are four main ways to approach this:

Straight full-band compression

This is how it was done in the old days – a big kick drum in the mix, and a compressor on the mix bus. For the most distinct effect, the kick should be just loud enough that it should be the highest peaking sound in the mix. You can check this by looking at the peak meter on the mix bus. The kick is loud enough when the peak meter jumps up whenever the kick plays. The mix bus compressor should then be set so the threshold is just low enough that it is triggered by the kick and nothing else. With a high ratio, fast attack and medium release, you should be able to hear the effect pretty clearly. For a stronger effect, use a higher ratio.

Full-band compression with pre- and post-emphasis

For a more dramatic effect than straight full-band compression, insert an EQ on each side of the mix bus compressor. That is, one EQ before the compressor and one after. Set the first EQ to boost the bass significantly (for example, a low shelf +9dB at 150Hz) and set the second EQ to make the opposite cut (for example, a low shelf at -9dB at 150Hz). Coupled together, you should hear an unchanged frequency response. However, what the compressor “hears” is a mix with a LOT more bass than usual. With a strong kick, this can make the compressor behave in an exagurated, slightly unnatural manner. Which might just be what the doctor ordered.

Sidechaining

The two above techniques will fall down, however, on mixes with very strong basslines and relatively weaker kicks. This is expecially so where the bassline is voiced very low and is fairly constant (always sounding, without rests). In these cases, you might want to try true sidechaining. This is where the compressor on the mix bus is operating on the whole mix, but is only “listening” to a separate feed which has the kick drum on its own. Not all compressors can function in this mode, and the ones that do can be fiddly to set up and control.

LFO modulation

Another approach is to use an effect with a tempo-synced LFO. You’d have to set the LFO period to a crotchet (a quarter-note), and its shape to a rising saw. Then assign that LFO to control the gain of the plugin. Volcano from Fabfilter[1] can be configured like this. Apparently Camelphat from Camel Audio is also capable of this, though I haven’t personally tried it myself. The advantage of taking this approach is that being able to adjust the shape and depth of the LFO gives you different, and sometimes more intuitive, control over the sound of the pumping.

While it’s often written that the effect is always produced by side-chained compression, there are other ways of achieving it. Sometimes the obvious solution is not the most appropriate one. And sometimes trying something new can take you places you never thought you’d go…

-Kim.

[1] Disclaimer: I have a professional relationship with Fabfilter.

Processing Bass: Layering

Strictly speaking, layering is not really a method for processing, but it’s a common approach to take when designing a bass sound. Layering is an additive approach to designing a sound, because you’re building it by adding different elements together. By contrast, a subtractive approach (such as subtractive synthesis) works by starting with a big sound and taking away the parts you don’t need (for example, by filtering). In the real world, you’ll probably find yourself combining thw two approaches.

Recall the discussion about character and body. Sometimes you might find that your main bass sound has a satisfying body (energy below 100Hz), but not much character (above 100Hz). Other times, you might find that you like a bass sound that has a lot of character, but not much body. Using layering, you can build a composite bass sound that has right body and character for the song you’re working on.

The trick to making this work is to stay focussed (in your mind) about what you’re trying to achieve. Otherwise it’s too easy to create an indistinct mess of sound.

For example, you might have a deep filtered synth bass that sits perfectly at the bottom of your mix, but loses power when the rest of the mix gets busy and doesn’t “cut through”. You might try to make the bass brighter by raising the lowpass filter or using saturation, but then find that the sonic signature of the bass changes too much and you lose the characteristics that you like about it. Rather than trying to make the bass sound brighter,  think about layering a second element so that the original sound stays at the bottom of the mix but the added layer adds some more character in the lower mids. You wouldn’t need much – the added layer can be effective even if it’s quieter than the original layer.

Alternatively, you might have a bass with a lot of character in the lower mids but find that it’s not adequately covering the bottom of the mix. You might also find that the level of the bass below 100Hz varies quite a lot (especially if the bassline covers a wide range of notes). Boosting the bass might make the level even more uneven, and reducing the note range of the bass would probably compromise your bassline. Rather than trying to add more of what isn’t working down there (or destroying your sound with a multiband compressor), consider adding a new layer to cover the bottom of the mix. That way you can focus the original layer on the range where it’s strongest (the lower mids, or wherever the character is). If the bassline has too wide a range, you might even simplify it for the lower layer, so it is more focussed and sits better under the mix.

-Kim.