Dealing with low end can be tricky sometimes. Especially if you've recorded it in a way that might limit your options. Many famous producers opt to only record their bass direct, skipping the whole miking-the-cabinet step altogether. However, sometimes that DI sound isn't the best you might have hoped for. It might have sounded pretty good during recording but when it comes time to mix it's kind of lacking compared to the other instruments.
But don't worry, there are certainly a few ways you can mix your bass in order to salvage a sub-par bass sound. We'll be looking at ways to fake that amplifier sound using plug-ins, using multi-band compression to target specific bass heavy areas, as well as giving it some subtle space.
Making the Most of a Recording
The bass sample we will be working with in the following tutorial was recorded through the pre-amplifier of a bass amp, but using the Direct Out straight into the Line In of the interface. This was done because we were recording drums and bass in the same room and we wanted to minimize as much bleed as possible. I did the mistake of letting the bass player decide how his sound was instead of tweaking it in the recording phase. Always try to get the sound you want in the recording phase and it will minimize the amount of mixing you will have to do.
Hear how the bass guitar is below. It's kind of weak and very bland. It totally lacks that tightness punch we want from a bass part like that. We can definitely do some things to make it sound better.
Getting Rid of that DI sound
There are a few different ways you can create the illusion of an amped up bass. A DI bass always sounds a little too stringy sounding to me, maybe you want that and that's OK. But a bass cabinet seems to warm up the sound and make it rounder.
The first way is to re-amp the audio. This is the most time consuming since you would basically be re-recording the track. It has its benefits of you being able to place take your time to place mics and tweak the sound of the amplifier to your liking before recording. Just the movement of air that comes from the bass amplifier when you re-record in the room will give the bass guitar a more “real” sound. If you have the time and resources to re-amp your signal, by all means do so. But let's look at some alternatives.
Bass Amp Plug-in
Every audio program usually has some sort of amp emulator plug-in. These plug-ins are used to create the illusion of amped up instruments and can be extremely simple like Logic's bass amp plug-in, or really complex like Guitar Rig. I decided to try the bass amp plug-in in Logic to see how it changed the sound. It definitely did a nice job of rounding out the sound. Browsing through the amp types and tweaking the EQ I found a pretty good sound that I felt made the bass sound more real.
Guitar Amp Plug-in
For experimentation purposes I tried the Guitar Amp Plug-in as well. The guitar amp plug-in gave me a brighter sound. Since guitar amps usually have smaller speakers than bass amp this was to be expected. However, I did like the sound of the bass in the mix as it gave the bass a somewhat Pixies-esque sound with a brighter top but a rounded bottom.
Whatever audio software you are using, there are probably some amplifier emulators that you can use to make your bass part sound, well, more amped up.
Compression for a Steady Sound
Now that we've gotten that taken care let's work on some compression tricks. There is definitely an overabundance of a particular frequency that jumps out at a particular spot in the audio. At 00:08 or so into the audio you can hear that note is thicker and more in the way than the others. Instead of EQing (which I'll do later as well) I'm going to use a multi-band compressor to target those pesky frequencies.
A multi-band compressor is just a few compressors linked together, each one compressing a certain frequency range. The advantage of using a multi-band compressor rather than a normal compressor is the fact that you can pinpoint a certain frequency range, compressing some areas harder or lighter than others. Since we're dealing with a particularly obese low mid we'll try to pinpoint its frequency range and compress it harder than the rest of the bass part.
I used an EQ plug-in to pin-point that overpowering frequency. It's easy enough to find frequencies by just boosting a bell curve EQ with a narrow Q and sweeping it around the spectrum until it jumps out on you. And hopefully doesn't blow up your speakers. Just kidding.
So this massive frequency is somewhere in the 130 Hz range. Now we'll open up our multi-band compressor and try to tackle this particular frequency range by itself. I'm using Logic's Multipressor but use whatever you have on hand.
See how you can move the sliders around and find your frequency area that you want to compress? By choosing that small sliver between 110 Hz and 180 Hz I can compress that are more heavily than the others. The threshold is way lower and the ratio is pretty high as well. I want a steady bass track so the ratio is pretty high everywhere else, but the threshold varies. And since the bass track doesn't really have any high frequencies I've bypassed the fourth compressor.
With this compression technique we can really push down those super heavy low mids instead of overcompressing the whole track.
It's a little tighter but there's still some low mid muddines there. Let's turn to some EQ tricks.
Making the Bass Bassy but not Boomy
Even though they are just a few frequencies apart, there is a big difference between a nice smooth bass and a pile of muddiness. I feel that this particular bass track needs a little more of the former, and a lot less of the latter.
What it needs:
More bass: I want a rounder tone, with a smoother bass. I'm using a bell curve EQ at 80Hz to give the bass more bass.
What it doesn't need:
Muddy mids: Even though I compressed the mids using the multi-band compressor I still want to cut the frequency. I have an extreme hate relationship with low mids and muddiness so off they go.
Sub-bass: There is never that much going on in the lowest end of the frequency spectrum, so I tend to filter it out entirely. No use in keeping something in that you can't hear that still takes up energy in your audio.
Highs: Not a lot of high-end going on in this bass part so I've also filtered out the high-end frequencies. Some mixers might even filter out more since they want the bass to be even rounder with less string noise and attack. I just want it out of the way of the vocal so I filter it around 3 kHz.
A few more EQ tips
If you want more attack to your sound, try boosting the middle frequencies around, say, 700 Hz.
If you want to accent the string sound you can boost the frequencies around 2.5 kHz. It will bring out that string sound that some people prefer in their bass sound.
If you want an even more extreme way of adding high end to your bass parts you can add artificial harmonic by using an Exciter plug-in. An Exciter creates harmonics that blends on top of your signal, accenting your top end. Be careful with this because you might get some hiss as well, but if you want to add an extra touch of high-end an exciter can help.
I'm not a big fan of adding reverb to bass since it sometimes tends to muddy things up even more. When I wrote the Basix tutorial on mixing bass
I demonstrated how too much reverb can make a bass part lack clarity and sound undefined. However, when you're working with a DIed part such as this you might want to add just a tiny bit of ambient reverb to create the illusion of space.
I've sent my bass guitar track to an auxiliary track where I've inserted a simple reverb, Logic's Platinum Reverb. The reverb is a short 0.6 second reverb with a small room size and other parameters I didn't really tweak that much. Since I'm just inserting the send effect underneath the original part to give it that little bit of space I don't worry too much about the specifics.
Also, make sure that the reverb is a mono reverb. I think it's a better idea to not spread the bass reverb out too much but try to tie it to the bass sound as much as possible. Don't screw with the stereo image of a bass track, it's better left in mono.
Extra Slap Echo Trick
While researching some tips for this tutorial I started playing around with the echo plug-in in Logic, and I really liked the slap-back echo result I got from it. If you want that oldies slap-back sound reminiscent of The Beatles or classic pop songs then you might want to try this trick out.
It's simple enough:
- Just put an echo on a send instead of the reverb.
- Make sure it's 100% wet since we're working with an auxiliary track.
- The 1/16th note dotted echo works pretty well for this short slap echo.
- Keep the repeats to a minimum since you don't want an unnatural ringing echo in your track.
- And again, make sure you're doing it in mono.
Kind of a different sound. Not exactly what I'd use for this particular song but it's a nice trick to have in your bag.
We've gone through some pretty easy to learn steps in order to get to a better sounding bass guitar. The original was a bit weak and lame sounding, mostly due to the hurried setup of the recording session. But we've managed to make it sound pretty good even with those beginning drawbacks.
This is what we started with:
With some amp simulation we were able to thicken the sound up a little bit. We managed to reduce the DI sound and make it sound more amped up, no pun intended. Using a different take on compression we managed to isolate a particularly loud frequency with our multi-band compressor. Since multi-band compressors enable you to compress different frequency spectrums individually it came in handy to tone down the lower mids of the bass. With EQ we found a way to both add some roundedness to our bass track with more bass as well as cutting even further down on the low mids of our track. Finally, with reverb we created some space around the track, a subtle way of creating the effect of it being recorded in a room.
With all those things, this is what we've ended up with:
I don't know about you, but I can hear a noticeable difference in the tightness and juiciness of the bass. It blends better with the guitars and the lower mids don't overpower the mix in random areas. This just goes to show that even though you might have recorded something on the fly and ended up with a sub-par recording it doesn't mean that you can' make it sound good in the mixing stage. Using the right tools of EQ and Compression alongside cheats such as amplifier plug-ins can make a lackluster recording sound much better than you thought possible.