Bass Compression Sins (and How To Avoid Them)

Forgive me bass gods, for I have sinned. I’ve overcooked my bass to a crispy, distorted wreck. I’ve taken perfectly good bass guitar tracks and replaced them with programmed bass notes. I’m not perfect, but I’m doing everything I can to make sure I don’t make the same mistakes I once did.

Bass is no easy instrument to mix. How could it be when it makes up so much of our low-end content in almost every song?

You need to find the right balance between your kick and bass to fill out the bottom of most mixes. You need to ease the mid-range content in with the rest of your instrumentation so that the attack of each note cuts through without masking anything else. Then you need to control the dynamics of your bass so that your listener can pick up on the subtleties of each note.

Think you’re up to the task?

Be Surgical With Your Approach

Just like surgical EQ, compression can be applied in a very methodical, detail-oriented way. As an engineer, a lot of your job is listening critically. You should be able to identify a problem area of your sound and make adjustments intentionally to correct them.

Applying a compressor and selecting a preset is not enough.

While presets are a great starting point, they’re rarely the exact answer you’re looking for when compressing your bass. Compression is as much an art as it is a technical skill. Presets might get you ¾ of the way there, but it’s up to you to adjust it to settle into the mix.

Using Compression Where It's Not Needed

This is a big one. When building a mix quickly, it’s easy to slap a compressor or channel strip on every track for easy access. Do you really need them though?

In a sparse mix with a well-recorded bass track, a bass compressor could be wholly unnecessary. Why screw up the perfect bass sound for the sake of standardization?

This isn’t always going to be the case – a lot of bass tracks need the compression. Due to the dynamic nature of the instrument and the somewhat combative nature of low-end content, compressors do a lot to clean up the sound. But if the bass tone is amazing on the way in, whether that’s thanks to a great bass rig or a talented tracking engineer, there’s no reason to discolor it with unwanted compression.

Trust your ears – if it’s right, it’s right. Ask yourself if you can accomplish the small tweaks with EQ or automation before reaching for that compressor. If you can, that’s great. That’s one less thing between the musician’s live tone and the listener.

Not Using Bus Compression On Bass

If you think bus compression is only for your drums and mix bus, you’re stuck in the mix approaches of last century. Almost anything and everything can see an upside from bus compression, and bass is no exception.

We’ve talked a lot about how you can reinforce your bass with synths, how your bass and kick drum can back each other up, and half a dozen other ways to get your bass to stand out. With all of those additional tracks, don’t you think it would make sense to bus them down to a single aux and process them together?

Think about it: you’ll have each piece of your bass tone coming together in a single place. Even if some of those tracks are just beefing up a bass guitar, you’ll be able to treat them as a group. This type of compression really glues everything together to solidify the low end of your mix.

Experiment with your bass compression. I’ve found success sending some of my kick drum to the bass bus to add a little more punch to the bass guitar. Using BG-Bass, you can focus in on the low & high frequencies independently if you want to (a more surgical approach like we just discussed). From there, it’s a matter of setting how much compression you want and matching your output to the right level.

Don't Think Bus Compressors Are Limited To Busses

While the Bus Glue series was developed to work best on dedicated mix busses, don’t think you can get just as much out of it on a single track.

We talk so much about what you can add to your bass, it’s easy to lose sight of a bass that just needs some compression to achieve greatness. For single tracks, BG-Bass can be loaded right in-line with the rest of your signal chain. Once there, you have the option of using the mix knob to process it in parallel – no aux track required.

Time to Repent? 

If you’ve committed any of these sins, know that you’re not alone and you’re not far from redemption. I’ve changed my approach to compression dozens of times throughout my career, and every mix has been a chance to learn and grow.

It all starts with the right compressors for the job and a bit of intuition about how you want to use them. Once you start experimenting, you’ll never want to stop!

Come see how the rest of the JST community is using Bus Glue to solve their compression problems and share your own stories in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook!