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Many modern producers desire loud, audible bass in their tracks. Yet there’s no hiding the fact that low-end signal eats up a lot of the available volume headroom in your mix; which makes it more difficult to get the overall song volume level up to a reasonable amplitude — let alone a balanced mix!
If you try to solve this issue by compressing the bass enough to get a sufficient amount of your overall volume headroom back, you risk over-compressing the sound — resulting in loss of dynamic punch and a muddy, boomy feeling that doesn’t represent your true original bass sound. (In a previous Flypaper post, I share why and how loud bass can be so problematic in a mix.)
This makes it seem like the only solution is to either turn your bass volume level down or simply accept the potential side effects of over-compression.
So, is it possible to have our cake and eat it too? Can we actually get extra volume out of the bass without resorting to over-compression that could lead to a ugly, unwanted results?
The answer is yes! (As long as you take great care in your approach.)
Through a combination of selective EQ adjustments and lightly applied compression, it is possible to keep a fairly loud, present bass sound without eating into too much of the overall song volume level available to you in the mix.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “How to Make Your Mixes Louder (the Right Way).”
Let’s talk about what type of selective EQ is required to achieve this desired result. To accomplish what you’re setting out to do, you’ll need to apply very specifically chosen adjustments whose aim is to reduce the highest peaking bass tones within the lowest range of frequencies.
You should choose a very narrow width parametric EQ centered as precisely as possible at the two or three bass frequencies demonstrating the greatest amount of sonic power. A spectrum analyzer is most useful for this purpose. You will want to keep the EQ width narrow so as to only reduce those specific frequencies that are eating up the most volume headroom, and leave the rest of the bass range unaltered.
Your goal at this stage is to take some of the power out of those few loudest bass tones in your mix by EQ’ing down those primary sources of low frequency power in the bass range. This will greatly increase the amount of volume headroom to you, but it will be at the expense of the full strength of the bass presence those low frequencies were providing.
Luckily you can compensate for this loss by enhancing the harmonics of those tones to accentuate the bass feel and presence without overpowering the lowest frequencies that require so much more power for human ears to hear adequately.
And, what are harmonics?
The simplest description of harmonics is they are the tones at each exact multiple above your primary fundamental frequency. For example, a 40Hz bass tone has octave multiples at 80Hz, 120Hz, 160Hz, etc.
So, if you have a bass range peak at 42Hz that you EQ’d down with a parametric EQ, you should now use a narrow band parametric EQ to slightly increase the EQ at 84Hz, 126Hz, 168Hz, and possibly one or two higher octaves, as needed to bring back enough presence to that particular sound element. Your increases should be less than your decreases since these higher frequency tones will be easier for human ears to identify than the lower range bass tones you decreased.
Consequently it’s also a good idea to increase higher harmonics less than you increase lower harmonics. Apply this process of decreasing the lowest fundamental tone and increasing its harmonics slightly for the largest two or three bass tones present in your mix.
Now you will have achieved a bass sound that should feel quite similar to your original bass sound, but perhaps slightly less rumble and boom to it. But you will have opened up the volume headroom enough at this point to allow you to compress your mix a moderate amount without danger of side effects from over-compression.
Now, the Compression
Be sure to keep the threshold high and ratio low in your compression settings. Using a longer attack time can also help push the bass presence more up front in the mix. This will enhance your bass feel further plus create a little more additional overall volume headroom for the song.
At this point, you can work on fine-tuning the sound to get just the right bass feel and balance of bass presence to overall song volume level. Fill in with small EQ boosts at the original bass frequencies and/or one or more harmonics until the bass feels just right in the mix.
- For a punchier sound, slightly increase the primary bass tone and its odd harmonics (i.e: fundamental frequency times 1, 3, 5, etc.).
- For a warmer sound, add a touch more to the even harmonics (i.e: fundamental frequency times 2, 4, etc.).
- For a sound that has extra power that’s more felt than heard, add a little extra EQ only to the original bass frequency but not the harmonics.
Be careful to keep your adjustments small at this stage so you don’t accidentally push things too strongly against your dialed-in compression settings.
This process of selective EQ, light compression, and fine-tuning EQ of bass tones and harmonics can take some practice to perfect.
After some trial and error you’ll learn to use it to get a balance of sounds in your mix with strong clear bass presence that fits the sound character you want without sacrificing your available volume headroom for the other important tonal aspects of the song.
Don’t stop here!
Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, DIY home recording and production, composing, beat making, and so much more in Soundfly’s courses with artists like RJD2, Ryan Lott, Kiefer, and Jlin: Rhythm, Variation, & Vulnerability.