Album bass tones are some of the most widely debated tones amongst professionals. How much of your mixes low end come from the bass guitar track? 50%? 90%? How would you actually measure it?
The truth is, a great, mix-ready bass tone should just fit perfectly, regardless of the situation. It’s not as simple as just using an EQ to balance the level of the bass frequencies with the rest of the mix (if it were, our jobs would be a whole lot easier to do). Instead, you need to find the right tone that fits your session and let that guide your low-end mix decisions.
So where do we start?
If you’re a hard rock or metal bassist yourself, you’ve probably already seen firsthand what a difference a great preamp can make to a bass’s tone. Using specialty preamps can add a certain amount of grit to your tone. It’s a unique type of grit – not really strong enough to be considered a full-blown fuzz or distortion, but certainly noticeable enough to dirty up your sound.
Tube preamps are especially unique in their ability to add non-linear harmonic distortion to your tone. You can drive them harder for a more noticeable grittiness, and depending on the age and quality of the tubes get a rounder, warmer tone once they’ve been broken in a bit. Bassforge Rex Brown’s Era knob was built to give you a way to dial in those kinds of characteristics, with a brighter, more modern tone when turned clockwise and more vintage, darker tones as you dial it back.
Dialing In Your Bass Amp
Getting the right settings on your amp can be a daunting task, especially if it’s got a lot of functionality built into it. The EQ portion of many bass amps goes far beyond what you’d find on most guitar amps; rather than lows, mids & highs, it’s not uncommon to find full graphic EQs on the front of a bass head.
To dial them in, find where your other instruments (specifically guitars) sit, and feel free to scoop those frequencies out of your bass guitar if needed. Bass is an incredibly powerful instrument in that low end tends to carry and build up, lessening its reliance on many of those competing mid-range frequencies that other instrumentation fights over.
A great trick for helping your bass continue to cut through even when scooping is to add a slight boost just above and below the scooped frequency range. This bump can offset some of the cut transparently; creating a psychoacoustic effect where many listeners won’t even notice anything was cut.
Even still, EQ alone might not be enough to get your tone right where you want it in the balance of your mix. A Contour control is a great way to change the “tilt” of how your bass sits, but if your bass is going in and out of the mix, further dynamic processing is going to be your best bet.
Compressing & Limiting Bass
In the past, we’ve discussed how two-part bass compression can help you with dynamic control and consistency, but we didn’t really get into how those processors can affect your tone.
Just like the pseudoscience behind the previous EQ trick, a well-compressed bass signal is going to make the player sound smoother and more consistent – instantly giving your tone a boost in quality. For low end, this means squashing everything up against a threshold for a very controlled sound. In the upper frequencies, we’re able to be a bit more relaxed with compression, allowing some dynamism to get through in the attack of each note.
Setting the crossover to get these two situated correctly is essential, as David shows in this studio clip:
A you can see around the 8 minute mark, he’s using some drastically different post-processing on the low end of his bass than the high end, because each range contains a specific set of tonal issues that needed to be addressed.
Approach your bass tone with that same attitude of “how can I keep making this bigger and better?” and you’ll find yourself working with great-sounding bass on a regular basis.
You know that the other major element of your low-end is your kick drum, but do you know how to get those two elements to play nicely outside of just scooping some room out for your kick?
Or what about the bass synths in your mix that are overpowering the bass guitar? Do you know how to balance the two effectively?
If you have any hesitation, the resources available in JST VIP are just what you need! Inside, we’ve got tons of guides and courses to help you get the tones your after, take control of your mix, and guide you through common studio issues that plague engineers and producers every day.