This post was originally published on Audio-Issues, arguably with a better photograph.
Mixing bass isn’t easy. It’s one of easiest ways to tell the difference between a lousy mix and a great mix. If you don’t know what you’re doing, your bass will sound boomy or hollow or tubby or messy or indistinct. In a great mix, however, the bass just sounds right. Unfortunately, it’s not very easy to know exactly what right is, or how to replicate it in your own mixes.
In my experience, getting the bass to work well in the mix is not a matter of knowing the right techniques. You know what to do – adjust the tone, maybe use some compression or saturation. But knowing what to do isn’t a ticket to great bass. It’s not about the what – it’s the how and why.
And, interestingly, it’s more about listening than doing.
Bass Mistake #1: Not mixing in an acoustically-treated room
Oh yes, this is mistake number one. Rooms have uneven bass response – the bass sounds different depending on where the speakers are and where you are. It’s worse with small rooms. And while you probably can’t expect to have a perfectly-flat bass response in your room (unless you’re a mastering engineer), you can make a big difference by using bass traps. These are (usually) dense foam or other heavily absorbent material, and work best when placed in the corners of the room. Some basic treatment will cost you less than a new hardware bass synth and do more to improve the sound of your mixes. Convince yourself.
Bass Mistake #2: Not knowing your monitoring environment
Ok, so you’ve got a pretty decent room. All good? Nope. You need to know your room. You need to know how your speakers sound in your room. And the best way to do that is to spend a lot of time listening to your favourite music. In your room. On your speakers. I told you it’d be more about listening than doing.
Bass Mistake #3: Not checking a variety of playback systems
Sounds great in your room on your speakers? Congratulations. Unless you’ve checked it elsewhere, you never know. Speakers and rooms can vary a lot in their bass response – even if you’re working in an acoustically treated room, it’s easy to get it wrong. Listen on a wide variety of speakers. Check on headphones. Take it out to the car or the office or the iPod. You’ll probably hear something that surprises you. Sometimes a fresh perspective is all you need.
Bass Mistake #4: Using certain tools and techniques just because everyone else seems to do it
Oh yeah, this is a big one. The internet is full of people dispensing dubious advice on how to make your bass sound amazing. The trouble is, a lot of this advice works some of the time. Collapsing to mono, highpass stereo unison/chorus, saturation, magic compressors, layering, and side chaining are all techniques that work sometimes. But they don’t work all the time. You need to think with your head (the one on your shoulders) and decide on which techniques are appropriate for your mix. And to do that, you need to listen. Know what your mix needs before you start reaching for magic fixes.
Bass Mistake #5: Thinking everything depends on the bass
Again, some perspective is in order. Bass is very important. For a lot of music, getting the bass right is essential. It’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. There are a lot of other things that are necessary for a great song. Yes you know this. Good. Don’t lose focus. Don’t spend four weeks mixing a single song. Get the bass right, but know when you’re chasing your tail.
Most times it’s not your tools that need improving, it’s your mind.