On this edition of Audiophile Tech Tips we’ve asked artists to tell us how they achieve killer low end in their tracks.
Some of the things that we do to achieve a low-end mix are the following: focus on getting the most out of each sound by separating them in groups of frequency characters – from low, mid, and high range, applying panning to each channel inside the groups to create space between sounds. Next, apply EQ and compression. This will help fill out the room a lot more and actually might allow you to start deleting sounds/tracks that are not necessary on the record, helping you creating a clean mix. Our mastering line is very simple, layering EQ, compression, limiter and a loudness monitor. All of them shaping the final mix down subtly enough to make it sounds nice and clean.
I typically run my kick, sub bass, and other bass elements in my track through the same bus so I can use some processing to glue them all together. I run this bus through several different saturation and distortion plug-ins with mild settings. Some of my go-tos include iZotope Trash 2, Soundtoys Decapitator, and the Ableton Saturator. By keeping the drive and dry/wet mix on these low, it helps subtly fatten up the low end and emphasize or add upper harmonics without sounding like a distorted mess. After this, I typically compress the whole bus using a mild ratio, high attack, and short release time. This lets transients punch thru so you don’t lose the thump in your low end, but helps glue it all together. It’s easy to go overboard doing this and over-process/compress your low end, so proceed with caution – less is more.
My go to for creating basses is the Roland sh01A – a recreation of the iconic sh101. It provides a fat low end with a more hands on, performance-like approach. When in the box I like to use a couple of the waves plugins, namely ‘Rbass’ & ‘PuigTec.’ These do wonders to tone & fatten basslines in order to hear them on all platforms. I often run my kicks through the filter on the moog sub37 which layers them with that analog distortion providing a nice warmth & ‘thud’ to the kick. After all that, I use the Fabfilter ProQ2 to eq & clean up the low end and to make sure everything fits right in the mix!
Multiband stereo imaging is a great way to process bass sounds. It helps keep the low end in mono to clean the mix and prevent muddying while simultaneously adding width to some of the higher frequencies. This is especially helpful when working with synths or samples that contain a wide variety of frequencies. Izotope has a great stereo imager that acomplishes this. Set the first band to everything under 150 hz and set that to mono. You can then widen anything above that to your own taste!
One thing I always do is to play the instruments and drums till they feel right and then record them. I seldom quantize. Down the line, this has given me some pleasant surprises, especially during mixing. This helps when they are actually played because most hits will be slightly off, so will the transients. That means there is less need for side chaining and EQ’ing things to hell to make them fit. In many cases things will fall naturally. Playing rather than grid-programming also makes you take other decisions on sounds from the start, using sounds that play well together form the start. Yet another thing that makes mixing easier. One thing I do get from working on big speakers though, is too much low end. I’d normally fix this with rolling off low end and adding distortion in the top end. This is especially useful on bass, as it will trick the human ear to think it’s more low end than it actually is, even at low levels.
Something I think a lot of producers are missing in their tracks is really diving into pitch & filter envelopes to bend basses to create a dialed in groove. It’s really easy to come up with unique sounding beats if you use them to your advantage. Honestly, it doesn’t even stop here; start putting envelopes on different parameters of your basses and watch your track go to the next level. Don’t be afraid to learn one of your synths to the point where you feel comfortable with the parameters available for an envelope.
Sometimes we like to add a saturator on to our sub bass parts. The slight distortion helps it stick out more and can bring out some extra harmonics. Also if you’re able to, add an extra oscillator on your synth with a sine wave(or other wave) an octave up from the main sub oscillator. This can also help the sub stand out a little more.
Keeping the low end clean of frequencies that could muddy the mix is very important. I like to look at low end in 3 parts: The Kick, the mid bass, and the sub. First I’ll EQ the kicks and kick group to my liking and from there I’ll add my low end sub in. I tend to keep out anything above 150-200hz in my sub group, but I do tend to play around with wave shapes other than sine waves for sub. Sometimes I like to dirty them up and add some triangle or square in there for a little extra oomph. From there I add in the mid bass group and i cut anything above 150hz on these basses, so that they sit on top of the sub bass layer!
With the kick, try adding just the slightest amount of reverb. This can sometimes lead to a bit of separation from the rest of the low end in the mix. key word is SLIGHT!
Also don’t be scared to use a little distortion on the kick. Sometimes this has a cool effect and can make your kick brighter and stand out more in the mix. I often times use the “sinoid” curve in Abletons built in saturator. And even on top of that I might push it even further with a 3rd party distortion like the old school Camel Crush. Simple yet effective. The key here is using things subtlety. There’s a fine line between adding just enough and going over board and destroying the tonality of what your trying to achieve.
First, make sure you can hear the lower frequencies of your track correctly while producing. Small monitors and headphones are not always very reliable for this. If your monitor has a rear-facing bass port you need to make sure their placement on the room is correct. Second, the lower frequencies take up a lot of space in the mix, so you need to make sure there aren’t too much overlapping frequencies in the lower ranges and cut out the unnecessary ones (below 25hz) to make room for what you want to be heard. Don’t be fooled by overcompression, Sidechaining and EQ are your best friends when you want your bass to be heard – and felt.
Good low end can make or break a dance record. You can fiddle with eq and compression until your ears are sore, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is your source sound. In an ideal situation, you don’t even want to have to use equalization or compression on your low end. If you’re using samples for your kicks, spend the extra time to find the exact sample you need. If you’re designing your own kick drums with a module or a synth, spend that extra time getting the sound as close to perfect as possible before tracking it. The same thing applies to your bass element(s). Unless you are using equalization or compression for very specific sound design purposes, avoid them – unless you know what you’re doing, they will decrease the fidelity of your sound, and create phasing issues that you might not hear until your mix starts falling apart on a big system. With that being said, there are some little mixing tricks that, once you get your source sounds right, will beef up your low end in some pretty serious ways. If you do in fact decide you need a compressor on your kick drum, pull out a digital timer (the stopwatch on an iPhone if you have one is great!) and try to get a close estimation of the milliseconds between each instance of the kick, and then dial that in for your release time. Moreover, instead of using a standard compressor, try a multiband compressor and do the following: use a frequency analyzer to see where the body of the kick is and set two bands on the low and high edge of the kick, bypass all other bands. Choose a medium attack time, in order to allow the transient and body to pass through with some beef, and set your release value according to the timer. Make sure your signal is only grazing the threshold, and set a very low ratio, as you are not trying to squash the signal, only tighten it up ever so slightly. What this does is accentuate the ADSR envelope of your kick. While the thing everyone ultimately focuses on is the low end of the kick, all of that energy is originates from higher frequencies, and in particular your low-mid body. You’ll notice that the kick will seem to “suck up” into the frequencies you’ve just compressed, while still maintaining its low end intensity (as long as you get your compression settings right!). If you listen to all the most well-engineered house and techno records, you’ll hear that this form of sound design is very common, and actually allows your mix to be played louder with much higher fidelity. Happy thump thump.