Live bass guitars and similar instruments come with their own world of recording and mixing problems. Unlike the majority of midrange-heavy instruments that are easily discernible when left with enough space around them, bass-heavy instruments tend to be far more dynamic – making it difficult to identify the subtleties between variations in tone and pitch.
Have you ever noticed the initial attack of a bass note rings through loud and clear, just to lose it in the background of your mix immediately after? If so, you’ve experienced the issue I want to focus on first hand.
You see, bass notes are harder to work with across the board. A lower frequency means fewer cycles per second, and fewer cycles translates to more difficulties (and variation) in tuning. It’s the reason a guitar tuned low starts to “rattle out”. The string can’t vibrate consistently enough at such a low frequency and ends up wobbling, eventually bouncing off a fret, creating a buzz/rattle.
Bass guitars are built to handle lower frequencies better than guitars, but that doesn’t exclude them from the most common issues plaguing low-end frequencies.
If you’re struggling to balance clarity and sustain with presence and attack, here are some of the biggest adjustments you can make in the mix:
Clean Up Your Other Instruments
It might sound like common sense, but your bass instruments aren’t alone in most mixes. If you’re struggling to find the sustain of held notes, start instead by cleaning up the low-end frequencies everywhere else in the mix. If your guitar tracks, vocals & overheads are picking up low-end rumble, get rid of it!
Cleaning up your low-end frees up a ton of space for the things you want to hear down there; primarily bass and kick drum.
While no single instrument is going to give you that “a-ha!” moment where you find what’s masking your bass, the combination of removing the unneeded low-end from several sources will make a night and day difference.
Lower Your Live Bass Transients
“Jumpy” is rarely a word I want to use to describe a live bass in a final mix (outside of some good, old-fashioned polka). While a bouncy bass line can be catchy and entertaining, your dynamics should sound controlled and intentional. If your bassist is playing octaves, there’s no good reason the second note should be 6 dB louder than the first, but it happens. Most of the time, this is a red flag of a lack of compression.
At a basic level, compression should be catching your peaks and bringing them back in line with the rest of the notes. With a low level of compression, you might only bring that second note down 2 or 3 dB. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Smooth Out the Rest of Your Live Bass Tone
Once you’ve got the attack of the bass transients under control, you should look at the rest of your bass content and determine if it needs a little something extra. When it does, a more aggressive approach to compression can usually be taken. Something like Gain Reduction can add saturation and grit to a dull bass guitar while still giving you a smooth, consistent tone.
See how Fluff uses Gain Reduction on bass to create a foundation that the rest of his instrumentation can be built off of:
Want More Compression Tips?
Once you’ve had a chance to check them out, come on over to the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook and join the discussion with our community of engineers and producers.
We’ll see you there!