Cleaning Your Bass
First of all, no, this post is not about gutting and cleaning fish; sorry to disappoint. What I’m going to be talking about today is how to get nice, tight bass frequencies that really pack a punch.
Something that is extremely crucial in a track is clarity, especially in the lower frequencies. Bass can make or break a track. If the bass frequencies in a track are muddy or have weird transients, it can be very unpleasant to listen to even if all of the other aspects of the song are glorious. So how can you clean your bass? How do you get that amazing, infectious punch in an upbeat EDM track? What is the trick to getting a rockin’, pumpin’ baseline?
Hello, did you think you could get away without cleaning? Nope. The first step in cleaning your bass is literally cleaning up your bass frequencies. In my previous post, “Mastering Mastering”, I mentioned that each instrument has a specific frequency range that it should be limited to. If you go through and put an EQ on all of your tracks, you’ll probably be surprised to find that most instruments—even high frequency instruments—have some low frequency sounds. Those low frequency transients might seem harmless, but if you have multiple tracks with those low frequency transients left unchecked, it can begin to make a mess. If you want the kick and bass to really stand out, you need to get rid of those low frequencies in some of the other instruments so that only the kick and bass are coming through in the lows. The high frequency instruments should have the lows cut out up to around 200hz and the mid frequency instruments should have the lows cleaned up only if they are interfering with the bass (maybe cut up to 100hz, but play around with it and listen for what sounds best, you don't want to cut the meat out, just the sub frequency transients that muddy things up).
Also, you want to be careful with low frequency reverb and delay. I am a strong believer in reverb and delay and I use them quite a bit to add some richness and depth, but when you use reverb and delay, just make sure to cut out the low frequencies in the reverb or delay settings.
Up until recently, I was one of those people who was like, “Lol, m0no aud1o is dum.” But hey, if you’re one of those people, hopefully this will change your mind. Monotizing your bass (as in making it mono, not as in making money off of your bass) can really help it stand out from the mix. For the longest time, I was under the impression that making your bass stereo wide would make it stand out better, but that’s exactly the opposite of what it does. Most of the other instruments in the mix are already stereo wide, so if you make the bass stereo wide, it actually can get buried with all of the other instruments, plus it makes the kick disappear as well. When you’ve got big stereo wide bass, and a mono kick (Kicks are usually mono by default or at least the bass part of it is), then suddenly the kick doesn’t seem as big and powerful, which results in it getting lost in the mix. The kick should NEVER be outdone by any other bass heavy instrument, in my opinion. (It really depends on the genre though… Most jazz music is bass dominant instead of kick dominant. BUT THE BASS SHOULD STILL BE MONO)
"The kick should NEVER be outdone by any other bass heavy instrument"
Along with diminishing the kick, stereo wide bass can also develop phasing problems. To put it in the most basic terms, phasing is when an instrument is playing at slightly different times on the left and right channels, which makes the center speakers have to do crazy stuff and the two channels end up canceling each other out. If you don’t have a center speaker, you might not be able to hear any problems, but having stereo wide bass can actually make it less impactful when the song is played on a good sound system with a center speaker.
So, to sum up everything I just said there, STEREO BASS IS BAAAAAD. To make your bass mono, you can do one of two things. Either you can use a directional mixer plugin and set the spread to 0 (this is the method I recommend) or you can use a channel EQ, set it to edit ‘side only’, and cut the lows up to about 200 hz.
Layer that bass like a cake! Well, don’t get carried away… I’m talking about a two layer cake, not a wedding cake. The point is, you can layer your bass, but you have to do it right or the bass police will come after you (Yeah, that would be me). Layering is a technique that I learned very very recently and I’ve only had a little time to experiment with it, so I’m not a pro, but I think I know what I’m doing. Plus, what I’ve done so far with it sounds way better than anything I’ve ever done before, so I think you can probably trust me on this.
Basically, you can have two different bass instruments playing the same thing. According to step #1 of cleaning your bass, this would be a terrible terrible mistake. But if you do it right, it sounds amazing and you actually stay within the boundaries of step #1. Here’s how:
Pick ANY instrument (it doesn’t have to be a bass instrument, but they generally have some nice mid frequencies that you can boost) and make sure it has good mid frequencies that will stand out in the mix. This is going to be the top layer that helps the listener clearly distinguish the notes in the bassline.
Cut all the frequencies up to about 150hz and EQ the rest of the instrument as desired
Now add a sub bass instrument to the mix. This is going to be the main bass, so make sure it is very clean. If it has a lot of frequencies above 200hz, I would consider using a different bass. When I say choose a sub bass, I mean a nice freakin’ subby bass.
Have those two instruments play the same notes whenever they are played together and you’ll have a really sweet, rich bass. Just make sure you take some time to balance them out so one isn’t overpowering the other.
If you want, you can have other instruments hit on the same rhythm as the bassline for emphasis.
Disclaimer: remember that I have very little experience with this technique, so if it makes your songs sound terrible, I’m sorry lol.
(For those of you who know what this is, skip down a little way to learn about some useful sidechaining principles)
When I first started producing music, my low ends sounded extremely muddy. It was partly because I wasn’t using the other techniques described above, but the bass and the kick didn’t sound that bad separately. I was practically pulling my hair out in frustration, trying to figure out how to make the kick and the bass stop fighting each other. I couldn’t understand what the heck I was doing wrong, but what I didn’t realize is that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I just didn’t know there was a “key” to unlock the magical pumping beat.
Most of you probably already know what sidechaining is, but for those of you who don’t, sidechaining is reducing the volume of an instrument whenever the kick hits. You can do this manually, by automating the volume, or you can let the music program do it via compressor.
Here’s a video on how to set up sidechaining in Logic Pro X (It’s what I use, sorry. You’ll have to do some research for yourself if you use a different program):
So you know how to do sidechaining, but how do you perfect it? Well in order to perfect sidechaining, you’ll really have to know what you’re doing with a compressor. If you’re new to compressors, I’d recommend researching them and figuring out what each knob, button, and doohickey does. THE MOST IMPORTANT SETTINGS WHEN SIDECHAINING ARE ATTACK AND RELEASE. (In caps and highlighted for those who already know how to sidechain.) Generally, the sidechaining compressor should have a fast attack and a slow release to get the fullest effect. I usually set the attack to 10ms and the release depends on the BPM. If the attack is too fast, it can cause a weird pop, and if it’s too slow, it can disrupt the beat. The release always depends on the genre and the BPM, but somewhere around 60ms is a good minimum. If the release is too fast, it defeats the purpose of sidechaining and if it’s too slow, the bass doesn’t have enough time to come back up to full volume. In my mixes I like to set the release around 140ms. If you want a really nice pumping bassline, watch the thing that shows you how much and when the compressor is compressing and set the release so that right when the compression reaches full release is when it attacks again. Experiment with it and don’t get stuck in a rut of doing it the same every time!
Well, I hope you found some useful information in there! I know I would’ve saved a lot of time failing at music production if I had been able to read this when I first started… Go have fun with this new knowledge and make some epic bass!!!!