Get That Pro Sound The Ultimate Guide to Bass First Edition Publication date: September 2013 Published by George Robinson Getthatprosound.com © Copyright George Robinson, All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical or electronic, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior written permission from the publisher. While all attempts have been made to verify information provided in this publication, the Author does not assumes any responsibility for errors, omissions, or contrary interpretation of the subject matter herein. Of course, please let me know if you find any errors and I’ll correct them! The Purchaser or Reader of this publication assumes responsibility for the use of these materials and information. Neither the Author nor its dealers or distributors, will be held liable for any damages caused either directly or indirectly by the instructions contained in this book, or by the software or hardware products described herein.
Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass
Introduction........................................................................................ 4 Bass Is The Foundation Why Is Bass Difficult To Deal With?.................................................. 5 Acoustic Treatment Solutions Part 1: Getting A Bass Sound............................................................ 8 Initial Recording: Acoustic And Electric Bass Initial Synth Bass Sound Programming In 5 Steps Part 2: Refining The Sound, And Fitting It Into The Mix................ 14 Mix Order: Bass, And The Rest Distortion For Additional Punch Bass Attack Bass Compression Bass EQ Harmonic Enhancers Bass Panning Bass And Effects
Part 3: Finishing, Testing And Mastering....................................... 21 Mastering Bass Judgement Day
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass
Introduction Bass Is The Foundation
Having a tight, punchy low end in your tracks is a prerequisite for a professional-sounding mix. Particularly today with the development of ‘bass music’, bass is taking centre stage like never before, often taking on the roles of lead sound and providing the main musical hook as well as it’s conventional function of offering low-frequency weight and support to the other instruments. But regardless of whether you make electronic music, rock, pop, folk or any other style or genre, get the low end component right and you have the perfect stable foundation for the rest of the production; get it wrong or laving it unrefined and you’ll find almost everything else you try will be something of an uphill struggle towards getting a consistent, powerful mix.
That’s where this guide comes in. We’ll examine the bass range all the way from recording or programming the ideal bass sound, to fitting it into a full arrangement and grooving with the drums, to effects, processing, mixing and mastering. Everything you’ll need to craft the perfect bass, and low end in general, for any type of production. Let’s get into it...
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass
Why Is Bass Difficult To Deal With? Room Modes, Acoustics and Solutions
Very often it’s clear that the bass elements of a mix are coming through too muddy, boxy, or apparently turn ‘acoustically invisible’ in the context of a full mix. Frustration sets in, because what’s not clear is how to resolve these problems. In principle, bass is simple: once you come to the mix there shouldn’t be a huge number of different elements whose primary frequency ranges are in the low frequencies, so we’re mostly talking here about, first, keeping everything else out of the way frequency-wise with filtering and EQ, and then getting bass guitars or synth basslines and kick drums working together, supplying the low end groove and weight. But while the bass component of your tracks is made up of relatively few and simple elements, it can be surprisingly tricky to get them working together to optimum effect, without either over- or under-emphasizing the low frequencies. As you’ve no doubt discovered if you’ve been making music at home, it’s trickier still for small project studio producers with less-than-ideal listening environments and speaker systems. But why is this? The environment in which you mix or listen to your music has a huge bearing on the perceived level of the different frequencies. This is why top studios spend houndreds of thousands on acoustic treatment, or simply design the space from the ground up with optimum acoustic quality in mind (by ‘optimum’, we generally mean a room which ‘colours’ the sound as little as possible, providing a ‘flat’ response across all frequencies without emphasizing or reducing particular ranges). In a typical home or project studio, we have relatively poor acoustic conditions for such ‘transparent’ reproduction of our music, and this problem is compounded if we use inappropriate (not necessarily ‘cheap’) monitor speakers, or position our monitors in the room in such a way that their otherwise flat frequency response is compromised (i.e. too close to walls or corners, or positioned to fire across the shortest distance to the opposite wall rather than down the longest dimension the room offers). In small rooms it’s the bass frequencies that are most affected by poor acoustics and short distances between surfaces because bass frequencies. This is because with their longer wavelengths than higher frequencies, bass sounds are much more prone to phase cancellation (sometimes referred to as ‘standing waves’ or ‘room modes’ in the field of acoustics). We don’t want to get too deep into acoustics and ‘sound 101’ here, but imagine that bass waves are literally larger rollers compared to higher frequency ‘choppy’ waves and ripples: there are fewer of them, but each one is more significant to the overall sound. In a small room, if the wavelength
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass of a particular frequency divides evenly into any of the distances between opposing walls or between the floor and ceiling, the reflected waves will phase cancel each other as they bounce back and forth. What this means in effect is that sounds at exactly that frequency will disappear or at least significantly reduce in perceived level. In some rooms you might experience reductions/’holes’ of up to 35dB at particular intervals along the frequency spectrum. Clearly this is not so great when you’re trying to judge relative levels while mixing! Even though you won’t necessarily be aware of the uneven frequency response of your room while mixing, your mix results will show it like this: if sounds at 100Hz are being phase cancelled or otherwise effected by the acoustics of your room, they will appear quieter to you so you’ll naturally mix those frequencies a little higher. Everything will sound great in there, until you play the track outside your studio and on other listening systems, at which point the increased 100Hz component will be painfully apparent. Related to this problem, bass has the perceived tendency to ‘collect’ in the corners of a room, and this is most apparent in three-point corners, for example where two walls also meet the ceiling. In a typical small project studio, all the edges and corners are that much closer to the listening position that would be ideal, so again these ‘bass enhancements’ are made more apparent.
Acoustic Treatment Solutions Before you give up any hope of ever mixing anything in any room though, here are the primary solutions to those acoustics problems: bass traps, broad-band acoustic treatment, speaker selection and proper speaker placement.
Bass traps are generally positioned in corners, and consist of foam triangles (either pur-
pose-built acoustic foam or homemade versions with ceiling insulation wool will actually work equally well). The deeper the foam the more effective the traps will be, both in terms of the dB amount they reduce bass frequencies and the range of frequencies they will work down to (i.e. the thicker the trap the deeper the frequency it will work to, the trade-off being the amount of space very thick traps and panels will take up in a small room!).
Broad-band acoustic treatment would typically consist of as many ridged foam pan-
els as you can fit onto the exposed walls and other large flat surfaces. Not specifcally designed to deal with bass like the traps, some general taming of the mid and high frequencies is still obviously desirable, and will indirectly effect how you mix the relative balance of bass with these other ranges.
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass
Appropriate speakers for your studio are essentially the best monitors you can afford
that are designed to provide the correct power for the size of room you are working in. There’s little point getting huge Genelecs with a separate sub-bass unit to put under the desk if you’re working in a cloakroom. You’ll be sitting so close to them the majority of the time that the additional power will be wasted; it would be far better to opt for ‘nearfield’ monitors, callibrated for the purpose of accurate frequency response at close quarters and comfortable levels for extended use. Also, if you are going to use headphones to mix (not recommended, but in some situations its unavoidable), don’t use them exclusively without also testing your mixes on other systems. More on this later.
Proper speaker placement is simple to do and can completely change the sound
you’re getting from them. Usually there are suggestions from the manufacturers in the manual that it would be wise to follow, but typically they’ll tell you things like:
→→Keep monitors a minimum distance from walls and avoid corners wherever possible →→Place monitors along the shortest wall so that they’re firing down the longest dimension in
the room (this minimizes the effect of reflections off the back wall to the listening position)
→→Position monitors upright (not on their sides) and with the tweeters at the same height as your ears when seated at the listening position
→→Isolate them from stands and desks with foam pads (the Auralex ones are favourites) to minimize vibrations and keep the low frequency response as tight as possible.
It’s also worth mentioning here that with an amazing monitoring system and listening environment in place, it’s easy to forget that your music is likely to be listened to by other people on crappy phone speakers, in cars, on radio (hopefully) and ringy MP3-streamed from Youtube to tinny laptops and headphones. None of these will give you the kind of deep bass response you get in your studio – in some of these cases they just can’t reproduce any real bass at all! - so we’ll be looking at the various tricks and ways to make your bass sound amazing on any system throughout the guide.
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass
Part 1: Getting A Bass Sound Bass Fit For Purpose
As we just mentioned, not everyone has a relatively pristine listening environment in which your bass sounds will be reproduced faithfully. If you’re making club music or anything that is specifically designed to be played over a large soundsystem, the rules are slightly different about what you can get away with when creating huge sub-bass sounds, because a club system will be able to accurately depict very low frequencies. However, when playing music very loud and over large systems, the apparent freuqency response will change, so you’d still be wise to test your club mixes as much as possible on real soundsystems before locking your project studio-produced mix. For everything else that needs to sound good over a wide range of different playback systems, or for club music that you still want to sound good elsewhere, you’ll want to focus on enhancing the perceived level of certain bass frequencies and allow psychoacoustics to help our ears and brains fill in the sense of ‘power’. First of all, consider that even decent home hi-fis don’t reproduce frequencies lower than 40Hz, and most domestic listening systems won’t do much below 80Hz. So begin your journey towards a good bass by making sure the bass sound is providing plenty of energy somewhere in the 70100Hz range. This will ensure the fundamental bass frequency won’t be lost on the vast majority of playback systems. (Where exactly the bass hits most will partly depend on where the kick drum sits as well, as you want the two working together. More on that below.)
Take Care From The Start: Take Time To Experiment, Trial And Error
Try to avoid the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ syndrome by making sure you start with the very best, or at least most musically appropriate bass sound. Whether it’s a sample, a real bass guitar or a synth bass patch, do as much as you can at source to get the bass sounding great. Yes, it does take some time to experiment and discover the right combination of source, additional processing and EQ etc. but it’s always time well spent, and time that you might otherwise use fixing problems with the sound and how it fits at the mix stage later.
Initial Recording: Acoustic And Electric Bass We’ll start with looking at how to record ‘real’ bass instruments, both acoustic or electric. Usually with bass guitar the best option is to DI the signal directly from the guitar output (or possibly the last box in a hardware or stompbox effects chain) into your soundcard or audio interface.
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass However, if you have acoustic bass instruments of you want to get more ambience into the initial recording, you’ll need to mic up either the instrument itself or the amplifier. There are a few mics specifically designed for recording bass instruments, so if you can get your hands on an AKG D12 or D112, Shure Beta 52A or Audix D6 you’ll have the tools optimized for the job. These mics are tailored for bass applications in their frequency response (with reduced mid-range and a slight peak in 3-4kHz to pick up the all-important attack ‘click’ for definition) and can withstand the kind of sound pressure levels generated by kick drums and other bottom-heavy sources. Of course it’s definitely possible and wise to conisder more neutral general purpose mics as well, particularly if you’re miking the amp and want to capture some nice room ambience. Here an FET condenser-type mic will be best such as the Neumann U87 and U47 or AKG C414. Just be careful not to overload and damage such relatively sensitive mics by placing them too close to high-SPL sources, like acoustic bass or bass amps! As ever, experiment with mic placement (taking into account the pickup/polar pattern of your particular mic) and distance as this will always have a significant effect on the quality, presence and warmth of the recording. For a start, if you want a warmer and more ambient bass sound try pointing the mic further off-centre, away from the middle of the amp cabinet itself. Of course there’s nothing stopping you having the best of both worlds and combining both a recorded mic (or even multiple mics) and a DI signal. This will give you maximum flexibility in the mix to add more or less character, warmth or ambience as the situation requires – just be careful and check the phase alignment between your two bass sources, as one or other is likely to need slight adjusting to make sure they’re hitting exactly together.
Even if your bass originates from a synth or sample, you can still ‘mic it up’ to imbue it with additional real-world ambience and vibe. This is a trick that comes most famously from the film sound design world, where sound designers would take their fantasy and sci-fi sounds and play them back over a small speaker positioned and miked up in a real world location such as a subway station or elevator shaft. This would give the fabricated sounds a real reverb and character that can be quite different to what could be achieved with studio processing. Plus, it’s way more fun to record stuff in unusual spaces, and you’re guaranteed to come with original sounds!
Initial Synth Bass Sound Programming In 5 Steps Unlike with a bass guitar part in a typical rock song, it’s not always very clear how a synth bass part ‘should’ sound in order to fulfil it’s role in the complete mix. The options are limitless with VSTi synth patches and presets, but it can be difficult to figure out from amongst all the possibilites what the track actually wants. Of course much of the quality of a given bass sound is purely artistic choice, and with many style of electronic its normal to base the entire track around the
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass character or motif of the bass sound. But whether the bass takes centre stage or not, it still needs to hit certain technical marks in order for the entire mix to work. For example, you want it to provide wieght, but not so much that it unbalances the mix; you also want it to cut through the other elements and actually be audible, which is a challenge in itself for low frequency sounds in a busy mix. So with creative and technical considerations in mind, here are some tips for the initial programming of your bass sound (or preset selection for further tweaking as you progress to the mix):
1. Start With A Sound Or Waveform With Plenty Of Harmonics
Even if you’re aiming to create a ‘sub’ bass sound that will appear to be just a deep thudding boom, it’s a good idea to start with at least some other harmonically rich component layered over the basic sine wave: sine waves literally have no harmonics (hence the smoothness of the waveform), so any filtering you do on a sine wave will simply reduce its level, and anyway as you turn a deep sine wave up loud enough to hear, you’ll use up far more of your available headroom than is really necessary. Using additional saw or square waves will not only provide additional sonic character to tweak into your perfect bass sound, but these waves inherent upper harmonics will enable the sound to literally cut through the mix and register at lower listening volumes and on smaller lsitening devices. Remember, harmonically rich sounds will always appear louder than pure tones. Old School Waves It’s worth noting that the classic Roland TB-303 bass synth, beloved by many dance producers, offered only saw and square wave options – the lack of a pure sine wave didn’t stop it from producing killer, heavy bass sounds. If you ever wondered what the harmonic difference is between the different wave types, saw waves contain all of the ‘integer harmonics’ (both odd and even), while square waves contain only the odd, integer harmonics. Triangle waves are much less harmonically rich than saws or squares, making them a poor choice for bass sounds in most circumstances, while sine waves have no harmonics at all.
In fact, many electronic producers literally construct their bass sound as two or three separate components, programming different sounds that occupy specific frequency ranges and that give the impression of a single frequency-spanning behemoth when played together. This allows the sub-bass to do it’s job of adding real weight, and the ‘mid-range bass’ parts adding sonic interest, character and ‘sizzle’. If you want to remove some or even most of the resulting harmonics you can sculpt them away with a low-pass filter – but you can’t sculpt or emphasize later what isn’t there to begin with, so start harmonically rich and refine down as necessary, as you go.
Layer Detuned Oscillators
A favourite way of achieving instant harmonic
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass interest is to use two (usually identical) oscillators pitched apart by a specific number of cents or notes. For example, one might be pitched an octave below the other; another option is to pitch each oscillator either up or down by the same amount, for example one +7 cents and the other -7 cents. It’s important to keep the pitch change the same for each oscillator so that the combined pitch of the overall sound stays the same: if you pitch one oscillator at +7 and the other at -9 you end up with an unmusical sound (although this may be what you want in some situations!). Once you have the oscillators set up, try adjust the amount of pitch difference between them until you get something that feels right with the best combination of depth and definition. Also try switching one or both of the oscillators to different wave types and see what works best, or adjust the filter envelope settings to be slightly different for each oscillator – every situation will have it’s own optimal settings.
The same rules for detuning synth oscillators also apply to samples: try layering up two different bass samples and tuning one sample a few cents sharp and the other a few cents flat, or alternately tuning them a whole octave apart.
2. Initial Envelope And Modulation Settings
Ideally while playing back your bass riff, or at least playing different notes up and down the keyboard, begin to shape the sound with amp and filter envelopes. You’ll almost certainly want a fast attack for helping each note audibly punch through the mix, and a reasonably fast release as you don’t want the tail of each bass note flapping around uncontrolled after you’ve let go of the key. Keep things tight and controlled at this stage, unless you have a creative reason not to. Decay and sustain will help create the character of your bass sound, making each note more plucky, for example, or longer and more pad-like. Generally, the longer each note is in your bassline, the more movement you can and should introduce into each of those notes. Try assigning an LFO to modulate pitch, filters or oscillator level. You could also assign velocity and even keyboard tracking to certain parameters so the notes sound different depending on how hard they are hit or how high up the keyboard register they are. Keep playing different notes and little sequences to see what a different each tweak makes – don’t just repeat a single note over and over, as this won’t give a very useful impression of the sound in context. A neat trick for enhancing the attack of a bass sound is to route an envelope to the filter cutoff and set it with very short attack and decay times and zero sustain, so that it very briefly opens the filter up a little at the start of each note. This can help a struggling bass sound be heard.
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass
3. Bring The (Subtle) Noise
As well as your harmonically rich waveforms, most synths will allow you to add some form of creative distortion, whether it’s a white noise-generating oscillator or distinct distortion or ‘warmth’ effects section. It’s a good idea to add some noise at this stage to bring out even a little grit and character in your sound – a completely clean and polite bass sound is generally one that will disappear in the mix context, so you’ll be surprised at first how much noise and harmonics you can get away with on bass without it being perceived as a ‘distorted’ sound. And as before, you can always remove unwanted frequencies afterwards. Quite often the best sounds are created from just one or two oscillators and maybe three envelopes modulating the filter, pitch and amplifier sections of the patch. By all means experiment and particularly try taking apart presets to see how they work, but for effective bass programming for a track try not to overcomplicate matters by using all the oscillators and modulation options at your disposal.
4. Configure The Bass Part To Fit With The Kick The most efficient way to put together an effective low end rhythm section for an electronic track (and for any genre really) is to figure out pretty early on how you want the bass elements to work with the kick drum, both in terms of their sonic characteristics and their respective musical patterns. For example, the classic template for dance music is to have the bassline playing a simple off-beat throb around the kick: not only does this keep a driving, syncopated but consistent intensity in the low frequency range to push the track along, but it also means there is no danger of the bass and kick sounds clashing or masking each other since they never play at exactly the same time. The upshot of this is that you can allow both the bass sound and the kick drum to be sonically larger, each occupying a slightly wider frequency range as as such each delivering more energy and more impact. Of course it’s perfectly acceptable to have bass notes and kick drums sounding at the same time, and this is where you’ll want to be that much more careful about the sonic makeup of each. For example, in Drum & Bass you’ll typically have a very deep sub bass sine-wave underpinning things in the 40-80Hz range; then you’ll have the kick, selected and/or EQ’d specifically to slot it’s fundamental frequency in at around 100Hz; then higher above the kick you might have the distorted, ‘character’ part of the bassline, fizzing with mid- and even high-frequency energy to really help define and enlarge the perceived presence of the ‘bass’. What this all means is that you’ve built the track with carefully defined layers, making sure from the start that each component is hitting it’s own fundamental frequency. Of course you can always use EQ at
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass the mix to carve holes in unwieldy sounds that are masking others, but when you begin with a clear strategy of what’s basically going where in the frequency spectrum, you give yourself the best possible chance of making a great track and focusing on the creative decisions, without the need for purely corrective mix surgery later.
5. Give it that extra touch
At some point during the initial sound design process (probably somewhere between the other steps mentioned, but it will always depend on your approach and that particular tracks needs) you’ll want to go that extra bit further to begin developing a unique character for your bass sound, or even simply to give it some movement that fits the specific needs of the sound of the part that it’s playing. The possibilities are endless, but here are some ideas and typical starting points for further exploration:
→→Layer multiple sounds together, either the same synth sound with different amp envelope or filter settings, or the sounds from two completely different patches or synths. This si a great way of coming up with unique and signature sounds, and allows you to combine hard digital with warm analogue, or sharp attack sounds with swelling pads for example, in such a way that they appear to be one complex and developing texture.
→→Nows the time to explore the many options provided by LFOs (Low Frequency Oscillators)
for modulation and rhythmic movement tailored to your bass riff and sound style. For example, a triangle wave LFO modulating the filter cut-off on a bass sound is guaranteed to change things up and spark fresh ideas.
→→Once you’ve got your bass part, the riff or notes, figured out, re-appraise the initial transient of your sound to make sure it’s providing enough attack – or a smoother fade-in, if appropriate – to punch through the mix, work with the inherent groove of the part and keep the separation between the notes clear and distinct. One trick here is to actually use the attack part of a completely different sound, such as a percussion hit, guitar pluck or even a snippet of pitched or filtered white noise: layered up to trigger with each bass note, it becomes part of the perceived bass sound itself, providing additional character and definition.
→→Related to the tip above, if you’re using mulitple oscillators for your synth bass sound, try
setting a pitch envelope to bend one of the oscillators down and the other up at the attack phase. As long as they’re the same amounts the tuning will remain in the right key, and you’ll have an interesting sound with plenty of movement.
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass
Part 2: Refining The Sound, And Fitting It Into The Mix Bass In The Mix
With your bass part developed and recorded/sequenced into the tracks structure, you may think that the majority of the work is done. But if you really want to achieve a professionalsounding mix, this is just the beginning. Now it’s time to begin the real craft of mixing and production: refining the sound and bedding it properly into the mix so that it gels with the other elements to form a cohesive whole. Remember that how the bass sounds, or any soloed part for that matter, can change quite dramatically when played in the context of a full mix, so don’t be put out if your amazing bass part needs a fair amount of tweaking as you go on – it’s all par for the course.
Mix Order: Bass, And The Rest
One factor that might determine how much work your bass sound needs in the mix is the order in which you introduce all the parts into the mix. You might be inclined to start with the lead part such as the vocal or main synth or guitar riff and mix around that, and this is valid of course if it works for you. But all other things being equal, the most popular and strategic mix process is to start with getting a rock-solid foundation for the track with the bass, kick and snare drums: get these balanced and their grooves locked together and it’s difficult to mess up the rest. Bringing the bass in early also means you can can filter, EQ and balance the other instruments around it, pre-empting the scenario where you bring up the bass into an already busy mix and find no matter how loud you turn it up it’s not being heard. Having the bass there from the start means you don’t have to carve holes at the end to slot it in: it’s been there all along. Doing things this way also means you’ll have a good indication of how much high-pass filtering you can get away with on all the other instruments (it’s advisable to high-pass everything to some degree apart from the bass and kick drum, keeping the bass range clear and tight) – you’ll be able to remove more than you would think if you were filtering the part in solo, as the bass will be doing it’s conventional job of providing focused low-frequency support for everything happening in the higher ranges. Remember, don’t worry if things sound ‘worse’ in solo – if it sounds right for the complete mix, that’s all that counts in the end.
Use Distortion For Additional Punch
Once you’re into the mix and have a few elements playing nicely together such as bass, drums and a melodic part such as guitar, you’ll quickly discover whether the bass has the necessary presence in the right frequencies to make itself felt and heard. The programmed harmonics or light creative distortion from the initial sound creation or recording may have helped, but this is
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass the time to try out some more overt distortion effects, either from something like a guitar amp simulator or distortion effect plugin. Creative distortion adds the kind of harmonics that really contribute to an increase in perceived loudness, reshaping the structure of the waveform potentially quite radically. Guitar amp plugins are great for adding distortion to any instrument, not just guitars, as they typically offer so many ways to controll and shape the distorted sound. They are also a natural choice for distorting any sort of lead instrument because, with their speaker or ‘cabinet’ simulating component that follows the amplifier section itself modelled on the hardware in terms of smoothing or otherwise taming the unruly and less musical high frequencies. Another aspect of distortion which is sometimes forgotten is that the added harmonics follow the signal dynamics, so the louder the signal the greater the effect. And as distortion usually involves some aspect of limiting or even hard clipping the loudest parts, you’re effectively getting compression on these louder parts. This is why distorting bass sounds in particular is so effective – you get added upper harmonics for a perceived louder sound overall, and a more even level that is less likely to disappear behind other instruments all in one process.
Give Your Bass Sound An Attack That Helps It Cut Through The Mix
So you’ve got a nice and loud bass sound that doesn’t get lost behind the rest of the mix. But once you bring in the combination of drum hits and sustained melodic sounds such as guitars and synths, you might find that the definition of each note start is now somewhat imprecise. An this can be problematic because we get most of our psychological perception of the timbre and character of a sound from it’s initial attack. Here are some fixes for sharpening the attack of your bass sound to really cut through any mix:
→→If you’re using a synth bass, revisit your synth patch and program in either an additional
oscillator with a particularly hard or higher-pitched attack sound, or program a fast filter change to sweep very quickly through the existing sounds attack phase at the start of every note. For example, you can set the filter with an envelope to be fully closed at the start of each note and on ‘note on’ open partially or fully as quickly as it possibly can. Additionally, have the filter then close right down again: the resulting percussive ‘thlip’ will sound familiar from many electronic records.
→→The tip above provides a clue for another technique: rather than programming a filter sweep into the source synth sound, simply add a completely separate additional percussive hit to the start of each bass note. You want something pretty short and tight, although you may need to both lengthen the attack portion of the hit to make it less obviously ‘drum-like’ and pitch the hit up or down to get it sitting in the frequency where it feels like it belongs to your complete bass sound and contributes the bite to each note that we’re looking for.
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass
→→Also try the above trick but with a sample of white noise: extend, chop and pitch to taste for a particularly sharp attack noise to add to your bass.
→→We’ll cover bass compression below, but if your sound at this point uses any compression
(some synths like the brilliant z3ta+ have a compressor module built in, for example), make sure that the compressor is set with an appropriately long Attack setting to allow the initial transient of the bass notes through unsquashed.
If you’re working with a bass guitar performance or any samples of acoustic bass instruments that are not as apparently malleable as the synth patches we’ve been discussing so far, you’ll be relieved to hear that compressors can be used to similarly transform the dynamics of any sound source you choose to feed them. Compression can be used to turn a fairly limp bass guitar recording into a breathing, growling monster, or bring up the detail of timbre and recording artifacts that give the part (and potentially the whole track) a sense of character and uniqueness.
The Kick Drum Most of the tips we’ve discussed so far for creating and sculpting ultimate bass sounds apply equally to kick drums as well. Layering electronic or sub kick samples with higher-frequency acoustic ones can provide with a desirable combination of character and punch; and of course, compression, limiting and distortion are your best friends when it comes to drum processing too.
→→Consider that compressor models have different characteristics and can sound quite differ-
ent to each other, particularly when pushed to relatively extreme settings. For compressing bass instruments (and most other things as well), two of the most iconic compressors are the Teletronix LA-2A, Urei 1176 and Empirical Labs Distressor, and there are now plenty of compressor plugins modelled on these original hardware designs such as the Waves CLA2A and CLA-76 and the Universal Audio officially licensed emulations. Why are they often considered to be head and shoulders above the rest? Apart from the intuitive controls, it’s specifically for their saturation characteristics when driven hard with loud source signals. They can imbue sounds with nice and smooth ‘distortion’ or extra grit (particularly useful for rock, metal and dubstep).
→→One trick used by many rock producers is to subgroup the drums and bass together and ap-
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass ply compression to the group. This will help further ‘glue’ the bass and percussion elements into a cohesive groove.
→→Taking the ‘bass and drums compression’ idea to an extreme in a sense leads to sidechain
compression. I’ve discussed this in much more detail in the GTPS Ultimate Guide to Compression, but essentially you’re compressing the bass every time the kick drum sounds, which both ensures the two are adequately separated and also contributes to the cool dynamic ‘breathing’ effect found in most modern dance and electronic music.
→→You can usually get away with far heavier and more aggressive compression on bass than
other sounds and parts. With this in mind, also try the classic processor chain of a compressor/limiter combination:
Use A Compressor And Limiter In Combination For Maximum Power
One of the main reasons to compress the bass sound will be to enable a significant increase in its overall level: we squash the peaks and bringing the average signal level up. Ironing out the peaks also of course makes the sound more consistent in level, which is doubly important for the ‘track foundation’ role of basslines and sounds. However, compression can be only part of the solution to processing the bass sound for maximum punch and loudness. One of the significant characteristics of compression is that it works optimally over periods of at least tens of milliseconds: If you try to make a compressor respond faster than this by using very short attack and release times (in an attempt to capture the initial transient hit of the bass note), the compressor begins to respond to individual waveform cycles rather than the greater overall shape of the signal, and you start getting distorted lower frequencies – definitely not a desirable side-affect for bass processing! The answer can be to use a compressor together with a limiter, in series. Limiters work in microseconds, which can make all the difference, and the nice ‘soft clipping’ type of harmonic distortion generated by valve designs (and valve-emulating plugins) rounds rather than hard clips the peaks – which conveniently increases perceived loudness. A limiter will only introduce soft clipping on high-level signals, so the idea is that by using a compressor followed by a limiter, you can allow each of them to play to their time-based and amplitude strengths. The compressor evens out the overall level of the signal, not clipping the peaks but bringing them to a more uniform level (you don’t have to worry about compressing the peaks anyway, as any that do spill through will be reined in by the limiter that’s next in the signal chain). This is then just the sort of ‘raw-but-optimized’ audio a limiter likes – it simply has more signal to work it’s soft clipping magic on, for achieving maximum overall ‘loudness’ gains without unwanted compression artefacts.
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass
With a suitably loud and consistent bass sound playing back in your mix, the next step will naturally be to refine the way it slots into the frequency spectrum under and around the other instruments. This is the primary role of EQ, and while it’s difficult to offer universal rules for EQing any sound – every situation will have its own problems and solutions – there are a few bass-specific EQ tips that are always worth bearing in mind:
→→When selecting and setting up an EQ plugin for bass, it’s generally better to start with shelv-
ing EQ rather than introducing bell-shaped EQ curves. This is because it’s very easy to start boosting or dropping particular frequencies that will make individual notes stick our or disappear – undoing the work of your compression processing to keep things nice and even. Shelving EQ will keep any boosts you add suitably broad and non-‘lumpy’.
→→For specific frequency ranges to boost, try starting at 300Hz or 400Hz for added low-mid
presence that will allow the bass to come through on smaller speakers and to make it feel more smooth and warm; and around 700Hz to bring out any aggressive bite inherent in the bass sound. To really make the bass sound poke out, you can boost a little at around 3kHz.
→→It’s generally a good idea to cut high frequencies on any instrument above their particular or
characterising ranges: this applies equally to bass. You might be surprised to find just how much relatively inaudible ‘stuff’ is going on in the mid and high frequencies of your bass sound, and by cutting these away with EQ or a low-pass filter you can free up this space for the instruments that actually sit primarily in those ranges. However, be careful not to overdo the filtering: sometimes, there are odd bits of pluck noise, string squeak or almost unnoticeable fizz or vibe in the higher frequencies of a bass track that you don’t want to necessarily lose completely. Try starting with a low-pass filter at 10kHz, sweep it up and down the frequency range a little as you listen back to the mix, and check it’s not ‘boxing in’ the bass sound in any way. If you have a good spread of higher-frequency instruments playing with the bass, this should add a little extra clarity.
→→It’s a good idea to pay particular attention to the evolving relationship between the kick and
bass parts as you go through the stages of processing, EQing and sculpting. Each change you make you want to be strengthening the way the two work together: if you find that a significant change to one hurts the way it interacts with the other, it’s probably better to rethink the new change than potentially be undoing the interaction you’ve created so far. Always think of any mix change in the context of the full mix – this is the only way anyone else is going to hear it, after all.
EQ & Compression: Which First?
As mentioned in the Ultimate Guides to Compression and EQ, there are decisions to be made about the order in which you apply processing and EQ to your bass sound. There are several
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass options and it can seem confusing at first whether to EQ or compress sounds first. The key thing is to remember exactly what effect you’re having on the sound at each stage: Compression will naturally tend to emphasise the stringest tones of the source material, so it does make sense to place an EQ before the compressor in order to shape the sound that you actually want to emphasise. But you could also use EQ after compression if the situation calls for it: this post-compression EQ can be used more to further sculpt the sound into the context of the complete mix.
Bass Mix Trick: An Alternative To EQ
Sometimes you’ll find that no matter how much EQ tweaking and adjustment you make, the bass just won’t cut through the mix like you want. In these cases, a very simple but effective trick is to just duplicate the bass track and have it playing back on two identical tracks. Here you’ll simply get more gain to play with and avoid the scenario of pushing a single tracks fader dangerously into the red. And of course from here, you’re also ready to process the two tracks either identically or differently, with EQ, compression and distortion. This parallel processing provides you with yet more flexibility and opportunities to sculpt and ‘scale up’ the bass sound as big as you need it in the mix.
Once you’ve created, distorted, compressed and EQ’d your bass sound into the mix, you might very well still find that with all the sculpting, not to mention the processing on the other parts in the mix, the bass is not cutting through just as much as you want. Particularly if you’re using a relatively clean or smooth bass sound, you might be missing some of the vital upper harmonics we discussed earlier that give the bass that extra presence. An harmonic enhancer plugin here can be more effective than EQ at this point for increasing the clarity and perceived level of the bass sound in the mix. What these processors do is read the incoming material and generate new harmonic content from it. What’s more, they allow you to adjust the balance between the fundamental frequency or root note and these new harmonics (even as far as removing the fundamental frequency completely). This works because the way our brains naturally interpret sounds and harmonics means they tend to ‘hear’ any missing fundamental if the upper harmonics are present – so the processor essentially creates an illusion of more bass while actually potentially reducing the level of the lowest bass frequencies. This is particularly useful for getting your mixes to sound full and bassy even when played on systems with no actual bass response, such as radio or headphones. There are enhancers designed specifically for bass, such as Maxx Bass and Renaissance Bass from Waves.
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass
These work in a similar way to harmonic enhancers, but here you’re adding lower frequency harmonics rather than higher. This can be used to add extra weight and sub-bass frequencies that just weren’t present in the original sound. Some producers also use pitch shifters at this stage for similar effect, pitching a copy of the bass part (and often kick drum too) down by an octave and mixing this with the original. In a sense, this works in the same way as layering different components for the ultimate bass sound that we discussed in Section 1.
It’s generally accepted that the main bass and kick drum parts should always be kept panned to the centre, for a couple of reasons. First is that this shares the high-level bass energy equally between the two stereo speakers, so you maintain maximum impact overall. Another reason is that it maximizes the chances that listeners will always be able to hear the bass properly, even when they’re not positioned directly between the two speakers (moving around or sitting to one side of a large room, for example). However, remember that if you’re building your bass sound from multiple layers at different frequencies, and you’re working in a genre where the bass is a key melodic or hook feature of the track, consider using separate panning and effects treatments on the layers that don’t occupy the lowest frequency regions. For example, you’ll want to keep sub-bass and any deep layers central, but any mid- or higher-frequency elements of the bass sound – some fizzy distortion or filter ‘swooshes’ on a Dubstep sound, for example – could be panned progressively wider the higher in
frequency they get. This is one technique to help create a really big, epic-sounding synth bass that still keeps the fundamental bass energy front and centre.
Bass & Effects
Related to the above trick, it’s best to leave the primary, low frequencies of your bass sound clean and powerful, but with the higher layers or frequencies additional effects processing can bring movement and variation to the sound. Therefore, the best sorts of effects for bass, apart from the now familiar distortion, are those that incorporate some kind of sweep or modulation effect: flangers, phasers, and any of the new breed of auto-filters and LFO-shaper plugins are worth a try. Typically bass and delay or reverb are a tricky combination to make work: these effects easily mask and obscure the original sound with their washes of extra sound, which is usually the opposite to what we want when working to create a punchy bass sound. However, there are times when a whole-note delay line could be used to create a sort of arpeggiated variation on your original bass riff, or a bit of pre-delay (and short or non-existent decay time) from a slapback-style reverb can help place the bass in a characterful ‘space’. Whichever effects you end up using on your bass sound, be sure to set up a filter after the effect to filter out all the low-frequency return, particularly from a delay or reverb. This way you’ll get to keep the tight low end of the original untreated bass in place.
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass
Part 3: Finishing, Testing And Mastering Mastering Bass
Mastering is the stage at which, traditionally, a final mix is taken to a dedicated studio with a very experienced engineer who tweaks the frequency balance, EQ, compression and overall level so that the mix is in its most optimized form for mass reproduction and distribution. These days many aspiring producers undergo this process themselves, particularly because the equipment required to do mastering is now much more available in plugin form. However, decent mastering depends at least as much on the highly controlled mastering room and the know-how and experience of the engineer as it does on access to the finest EQs and compressors. With that in mind, if you still want to master yourself, tread carefully – but there is still a lot you can do to further tighten your ‘finished’ mix, especially in the low frequencies. Getting the best results will probably be a matter of trial and error at first. Some tools to get familiar with are multi-band compressors, dynamic EQ and enhancers, if you aren’t already. These will enable you to select and treat frequency ranges independently from the others, which is of course paramount when you’re dealing with a complete mix. One more thing on mastering: it’s generally better to go into mastering a track with slightly too much bass present than too little: it’s a lot easier to sculpt, filter and reduce excessive levels and bass frequencies than it is to introduce something that wasn’t there to begin with. And finally, if you don’t’ have the budget for professional mastering, your best bet is to just make sure, through trial and error if necessary, that your mix sounds great on as many different systems as possible.
Judgment Day: Accurate Monitoring & Referencing On Different Systems Is Crucial
Here, at the end of the production process, you’ll want to come back to the question of what kind of listening environment you’re primarily catering for. Is your music destined for radio play, or are you mainly interested in making club bangers that are optimized for a large and powerful soundsystem? These choices have big implications for the bass element of your mixes: for radio and home listening, for example, it’s almost pointless creating a monster sub-bass whose fundamental frequency at 50Hz will just disappear on a small speaker system. Here you might want to use an
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass enhancer to give the illusion of bigger bass through mid-range harmonics. On the other hand, your perfectly-crafted studio mix might sound quite small and boxy when played over a massive club system if you haven’t ever tested how it’s sounding outside your bedroom. This is usually because of the psychoacoustic effect of listening level: we perceive extreme low frequencies and high frequencies as being quieter than the mid-range at low playback levels, and it’s only when hearing things at an overall much greater level that the perceived frequency balance is ‘flat’. So although it’s preferable to work and mix at generally very low levels, try and crank things up – ideally on a variety of different systems – as you progress towards the final mix. If producing for the club, try and build in some test listening sessions (or if you DJ, incorporate a work-in-progress mix into your next set) before you get to the finishing and mastering stages.
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Get That Pro Sound - The Ultimate Guide to Bass
Throughout this guide we’ve covered everything from sourcing and shaping your initial raw bass sounds, to fitting them into full mixes, to applying the full gamut of mix tricks, techniques, processing and effects to make the bass component deliver exactly what you want in the context of your own music productions. You might find that having worked your way through the different sections, once you get to the final part about mastering and testing your particular tracks, you’ll have a better understanding of the importance of the discussion at the very beginning: the idea that you can know all the production techniques and have decent equipment, but the bottom line is that you must be able to hear accurately what you’re doing - or at least what is going on down in the low frequencies - in order to make bass work well for you.
In this sense, don’t worry if your bass doesn’t come up to scratch on initial testing on different systems as mentioned: just return to the earlier pages and see if there are any acoustic treatment tips or sound-shaping techniques that you can apply to solve the problem. Most of all, I hope this ebook will be helpful in your next sonic adventures - let me know how you get on at [email protected]
, and don’t forget to check out the GetThatProSound blog regularly for new posts, more tips and more ebooks coming soon.. Best of luck, George Robinson Get That Pro Sound
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