How to Get Great-sounding Bass Using Reference Tracks
Besides vocals, bass tracks are easily the most difficult to nail — especially if you want your mix to sound great on a variety of playback systems. And given the bass-centric nature of most contemporary genres, the last thing you want is a mix that thumps in your studio and falls apart when the club's subwoofer kicks in.
So, how do we confirm that our bass sounds right? That's where reference tracks come in.
A reference track is a professionally mixed and mastered song that you compare your project with while you're building your mix. This allows you to regain perspective after you get lost in your own mix, and it ensures that your mix will translate across a wide range of playback systems.
Sound complicated? It isn't if you have our REFERENCE plug-in.
In this blog, we'll outline how you can use REFERENCE to build rock-solid bass parts that can go toe to toe with any pro-level mix.
Balance Your Channels for a Solid Foundation
Start by selecting a reference track that's within the same genre as the song you're working on. Choose a track with what you'd consider the definitive mix; one you'd like to emulate.
Then, listen closely to the reference track and use it as a guide for how your bass track should sit in relation to the other elements of your mix. Even if you've got a killer bass track, you don't want it to overshadow the rest of your song's tracks — nobody wants to listen to a lopsided mix!
Your goal here is to craft a well-balanced mix without EQ, compression, or other processing. While your mix will likely sound a bit rough (that's why they call it a rough mix), it should still offer a cohesive sound that's easy to listen to.
It's also a great idea to check how your mix sounds in mono, as many of your listeners will consume your music on a low-quality smartphone or Bluetooth speaker. Listening in mono will also reveal flaws in your mix that aren't apparent when you listen in stereo.
Plus, you'll have a rock-solid center channel, which is where the bass resides in most contemporary mixes.
Eliminate Unwanted Resonances with RESO
Unwanted acoustic resonances make achieving a great-sounding bass track nearly impossible — they're definite mix-wreckers. Resonances occur when a frequency in your mix interacts with the natural frequency of your room, playback system, or another element within your mix.
Resonances will give your mix a shrill or muffled character, and they'll make your bass sound either weak or completely out of control. Either way, you'll be tempted to overcompensate or under-compensate based on what you're hearing.
Resonances will also wreak havoc on your mix's dynamics and cause your mix to sound completely skewed — especially on other playback systems.
If your room's acoustics or your playback system are causing unwanted resonances, you'll have to deal with those issues physically using sonic isolation and acoustic treatment. But, if the issues are contained in your mix itself, our RESO plug-in will make locating and dialing out resonances a piece of cake.
RESO is a dynamic resonance suppressor that automatically finds and eliminates the problematic resonances in your mix.
And it's a breeze to use. Simply instantiate it on your bass track, click the Calculate Targets button, and the plug-in will take it from there, supplying you with Target Nodes and helpful setting suggestions.
Solving resonance issues is a guaranteed way to achieve a clearer, more accurate mix that's easy to listen to, and it will yield you bass that's clear, solid, and impactful with zero bloat and muddiness.
Apply Automation Before Compression
Bass — especially the electric bass guitar — is a dynamic instrument.
If you've balanced your levels properly, the bass will likely sound fine most of the time. That said, you'll probably get stray peaks that hit a bit too hard and valleys where the bass seems to disappear.
Many neophyte mix engineers immediately resort to heavy-handed compression to make the bass sit easier. This is a mistake, however.
Compression should not be used to correct a dynamic performance.
Rather than applying dynamic compression, use automation instead. This will enable your bass to sit well in your mix — without squeezing the life out of it.
Instead of applying heavy compression, try "riding the fader." If your bass track gets too quiet, automate a 1dB–2dB boost; if it gets too loud, automate a 1dB–2dB cut.
This is just a starting point, of course. You'll doubtlessly need to adjust your automation — repeatedly — while you're mixing to completely nail it.
Once your bass track's dynamics are sorted out, then it will be time to apply a compressor to take it that last 10 percent. Compressors are also a great way to infuse your bass with punch and character.
An oft-used compressor combination for bass is an 1176-style comp for taming stray peaks and a 160-style comp for adding the final punch and fullness.
Set the 1176 with a high compression ratio (12:1 or even higher) and a fast attack and tweak the release so that the effect fits the pulse of your track (the gain reduction meter should be moving along with the tempo of your song). You also won't want the compressor to yield more than 2dB–3dB of gain reduction.
Set the 160's ratio to 4:1 as a starting point, then adjust the threshold and other controls until you get the sound you're aiming for. The 160 is a relatively transparent compressor; plus, since the 1176 is already taming the peaks, you can afford to get aggressive with the 160.
LA-2A-style and Distressor-style compressors are also great choices for bass, as they can add tube warmth and fullness and even distortion to your track.
It's vital that you toggle back and forth between your mix and your reference mix while you're making these adjustments. This ensures that the changes you're making sound great in the real world — it's easy to get lost in the sound of your own mix!
Use EQ for Tonal Shaping
So, your bass is sitting well and thumping along nicely — great job! Now, it's time to deploy your equalizer to carve out its place in your mix's frequency spectrum.
For starters, apply a gentle highpass filter or low-shelf cut to all the non-bass tracks in your mix to free up your mix's low end.
You don't want to go crazy with this, however. Cut just enough low to clear the mud, but not so much that your tracks sound reedy and thin.
One of the best EQ plug-ins to tackle sound-sculpting duties for your bass track is our MIXROOM plug-in.
MIXROOM is a huge time-saver. Not only does it sound amazing, but you also get application-specific presets and target frequencies based on a reference track to ensure top-notch results with little effort.
Start by loading MIXROOM on an insert of your bass track. Next, choose an applicable channel preset from the Bass section.
You can also create custom target values by clicking the Target icon on the bottom left corner and importing a reference track.
Next, choose a loud section of your bass track. MIXROOM's Target EQ Curve allows you to skip the guesswork and dial in your sound with pro-level results.
Beyond that, the Add Smart Bands button instantly loads EQ bands that match the Target EQ Curve, giving you an intelligent starting point for your tone shaping.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for mixing bass. That said, boosts around 100Hz and 800Hz can really pump up your low end, and a gentle boost in the 3kHz–5kHz can really add presence and articulation to your track's bass line.
Making a cut in the 250Hz region is also a great way to reduce mud and add clarity to your bass.
While you're EQ-ing your bass track, it's important to compare the sound of your mix with your reference mix regularly. This is how you'll confirm that your track offers a similar sound to the reference.
You should also resist the urge to tweak your bass track while it's soloed. Generally, tweaking a bass track in isolation won't sound right when you bring the rest of the instruments in, thanks to frequency masking and other issues.
It's much more effective to EQ each track within the context of your entire mix.
Add the Final Bite and Grit
If there's ever been a source that sounds great with saturation and distortion, it's the bass. By its very nature, bass contains plenty of low-end oomph, but adding upper harmonics is a great way to reinforce its sound.
For example, upper-harmonic presence will make your bass audible on smaller, bass-deficient playback systems.
While saturation and distortion will add midrange presence to your bass line, it's important that you don't get carried away — an overly distorted bass will lose its definition, low-end punch, and power.
Our ANIMATE plug-in is tailor-made for injecting your tracks with character and color. Its four different movement modes, each with individual frequency assignments, will imbue your bass track with plenty of ear-grabbing sizzle — without damaging its low-end impact.
PUNCH does exactly what you'd think: it adds punch to your signal. It works by enhancing the transients of your track, enabling you to accentuate upper frequencies to really make your bass smack.
IGNITE is a harmonic distortion generator that will increase the perceived power and presence of your bass track, allowing it to sound loud and clear — even on a bass-challenged speaker. Best of all, it does this without the pumping you'd get from a compressor.
As with every other stage of mixing, it's important to check your changes against your reference track. Saturation and distortion should be used as a subtle enhancement; it shouldn't throw your whole mix off kilter.
Stop the Guessing Game — Use a Reference Track
It's easy to get lost in the bubble of your own mix. That's why it's important to check your mix against something outside of your bubble — a reference track.
Proper referencing is also the most foolproof way to ensure that your mix translates well to other playback systems, whether it be in a car, in the club, or on a cheap set of earphones.