1. Listen for frequency masking
Frequency masking occurs when two instruments are fighting for the same frequency space. In the case of low end, one could imagine the fundamental of a bass masking the sonic information of the kick, which leads to two specific problems. First, you won’t be able to hear either instrument particularly well. Second, with a buildup of both, you may experience an overblown, woofy low-end—a bass response that throws off the balance of your mix.
Yes, frequency masking in the low-end is especially odious, as the imbalance can affect all other mix decisions. Yet the bass draws us closer to the music; we feel it in our chests, so we resist the urge to carve space here, lest the mix grow cold and sterile.
With tools like Neutron 3’s handy Masking Meter, we don’t have to carve more space than necessary. Simply place Neutron’s Equalizer module—or Neutron itself—across your bass elements, turn on the masking feature, and assign the elements in question to monitor each other.
Open Neutron 3 on the bass, and you’ll see where the kick is obfuscating the signal in an easy to read graph that lights up at the problem points. Open the kick drum plug, and you’ll likewise see where your bass is messing with the kick. Further bolstering the utility of Neutron 3, you can equalize both elements from the same plugin, which is especially useful, as it saves time.
2. Sidechain elements to each other to make room
One of the easiest ways to calibrate the low-end properly is to sidechain a sustained bass element to a more percussive one. You hear obvious examples of this all the time in EDM, where the bass sucks and ducks to the kick. But you can do this in multiband for an even more precise, yet subtle effect. This trick works in a variety of genres, and here’s an example of how:
Say you’ve got a lovely, perfectly mixed rock bass, but it’s getting in the way of the kick drum. Here you can set up a dynamic equalizer or multiband compressor on the frequencies of the bass that mask the kick. Assign the sidechain’s input to the kick drum, and tweak both the attack and release to the appropriate values.
Personally, I keep the attack a little slower than the release, tweaking the attack to let a little of the bass transient through (should there be one), so the bass doesn’t lose too much impact in that vital area. I time the release, on the other hand, to last for the duration of the kick drum hit, so the kick is heard in totem.
Of course, this is all done to taste, and different scenarios call for different values. But when you’re done, you should have a stellar compromise: the bass sound you always wanted, but a kick drum that cuts through nonetheless.
3. Let one instrument win
If you’ve read my article on mixing good ol’ fashioned rock and roll, you know I like to think of managing the low-end as a war—a war, specifically, between the kick drum and the bass, where both fight for two frequency bands: 40–60 Hz, and 80–100 Hz. One winds the lower territory, while the other is relegated to the high ground, where it does its solemn duty free of lowly interference. Of course, it winds up being far more complicated in the long run, as other instruments sport essential content in those frequency ranges (heavy metal guitars and baritone vocalists come to mind).
It still starts simply, with mixing decisions made straight away: listen to what you’re given by the client—or what you’ve fashioned for yourself—and make the decision right at the beginning of your mix. Is this a song with a lot of 808 kick? Perhaps the bass line should be filtered off in the seminal 808 frequencies. Conversely, is this a hard rock song with a strong, pronounced bass part? In this case, the bass might win, and the kick would be allowed to knock more in the higher frequency range.
The important part is to make your decision as soon as you can, as it helps you carve space without losing bass or muddying up the low-end down the line.
4. Try EQ’ing an uneven element into a compressor
Many of us love to compress our kick drums and basses. On kick drums, compression helps achieve punch, smack, slap, and other such adjectives. On bass, we can elicit both smoothness and attack from the act of squeezing the dynamic range. Indeed, one of the first bass tips I ever internalized was to slap an 1176-type compressor with the attack around noon and the release around 3 o’clock on the bass, using a 4:1 ratio. This is still a favorite setting of mine, tweaked to taste of course.
But what if the kick, bass, or low-end element has been recorded in a suboptimal fashion? What if certain notes poke out? What if it is otherwise funky (and not in the good way)? Here, you might be wise to try a little EQ before feeding the compressor. Why? To cheat the compressor into responding to the signal as a whole, rather than the loudest, spikiest, or otherwise worst part of the signal.
For example, if we’ve chosen the kick drum to occupy the upper part of the bass spectrum, we might want to compress the kick to give it more attack—to emphasize the front end of the transient, the initial hit. But the kick drum might have some sub-harmonic content that is driving the compressor to react too quickly, or too unevenly. Here, we can bring that undesired trigger frequency down a smidge in an equalizer, right before the compressor, so it responds in kind.
Of course, many compressors have sidechain inputs that filter out excess lows and highs; still, you might find that too much of the frequency bloom in question gets through. Experiment, of course, but if you find the compressor is not doing its job—is not evening out the dynamics with the result you intended—try placing an EQ before it.
5. Cheat the perception of lows with harmonic distortion
A lot of lovable low-end content can suddenly disappear from cheap earbuds or computer laptops. So, if you’ve ever put your mix up against a famous, commercial reference on a laptop speaker and wondered why the bass is lacking in your mix, try the following trick:
Bus your bass, kick, or low-end element to a separate aux channel. Examine, with a frequency analyzer, where the fundamental frequency range is—where you see a spike in frequency response. If it’s in the 60–120 Hz range, you might not be able to hear this on a laptop. But you will be able to hear its overtones, which help carry the illusion of bass across narrow-frequency listening systems. An octave up should do the trick, so if your bass is hitting at 80 Hz, juice the corresponding aux track to give off more 160 Hz. Here’s the thing: we’re not going to do this with EQ; instead, we’ll harmonic distortion.
Something like Neutron 3’s Exciter can easily do the trick with its various settings. Select a distortion that fits the mix, and apply just enough so that you see more activity at the desired octave (160 for 80 Hz, for example). You don’t want to hear amp-like, lead guitar distortion, but rather, a pleasant, rounded, solid sound. Do this across the entire frequency spectrum rather than in Multiband mode.
Depending on the result, you may want to apply some high and/or low pass filtering to further isolate the distorted, octavized sound. Whatever you decide, when you’ve got the right tone, dial the aux track back to where it’s not all that noticeable in your mix, but lends a little subliminal character. You may have to audition the mix through a high-pass filter that broadly mimics the response of a laptop as you play with the right levels. Just make sure to take off the filter before you print the mix!
When you get it right, you won’t have clouded up the low-mid range, and yet, the low-end will “feel” more noticeable on laptop speakers.
6. Take the average of different monitoring platforms to get the right balance
As we’ve established, you might not have the best system for hearing your low end. You know what the second-best system is? A whole bunch of them! Here’s what I mean:
Stephen King once gave some particularly apt advice on receiving writerly feedback. To summarize, he said that if you hand out a story to a bunch of readers, and they all give back different, conflicting critiques, discard it all. However, if they all gave back the same critique, you need to address that one issue.
The advice translates to your low end: Listen back to your mix on all your speaker systems and cans. Take note of what works and what doesn’t. If the mix sounds consistently muddy in the low-mids or lows, you know you have a problem.
7. Use references and a frequency analyzer across the mix
I firmly believe in stacking your mix against two or three reference tracks. It keeps you honest—especially in the low-end, where your monitoring situation, headphone choice, and sheer love for the lows can trick you into overhyping the bass in an unprofessional way.
Luckily, Ozone 8 makes referencing between tracks easy. Simply load your tracks into the reference pane, level match, and go from there. But when you’re just starting, you’ll want to rely on more than your ears; you’ll want to see what’s going on too, as this will help you make better decisions.
Frequency analyzers come in especially handy here, as does the Tonal Balance Control plug-in, in Ozone Advanced and Neutron Advanced, which shows you not only if your low-end is stacking against modern pop or EDM standards (or a pre-loaded reference track), but also analyzes if the low-end might appear too compressed with its low-end crest factor meter.
If you’re finding you’re not getting the low end to sit just right, don’t beat yourself up about it; you’re only human. I’ve watched titanic, GRAMMY-winning engineers worry about their bottom end, grown men and women lamenting the bass horrors they have wrought. But they never stopped working at it, no matter how much they doubt themselves.
Take a cue from them: The important thing is to keep soldering on, to keep referencing commercial material while you practice your craft, and to strive, always, for the right balance at every turn. If you have a self-critical nature, use it as a tool rather than a crutch. Always be in pursuit of your goal, employ some of these tips and tricks, and you’ll be well on your way.