Finding good compression settings for bass to get a tight and solid low end can be a mystery if you’re new to mixing.
But once you get the basic principles under your belt, you’ll find that bass compression is actually a fairly simple concept.
So in this article we endeavor to make make bass compression, in the context of mixing and recording, simple.
We’ll achieve this with a few guidelines for to you follow… as well as make sure you’re approaching your bass-lines in your mix from the correct perspective, no matter the genre.
Let’s take a closer look 🙂
Table of Contents
- Compression in Bass Mixing
- Compressor Features and Controls
- The Correct Approach to Bass Compression
- Optimal Compression Settings
- Bass Compression Settings by Specific Genres
- Final Thoughts
Read the other compression guides:
- EQ and Compression for Drums
- Compression Basics
- Bass Compressor Plugins
- Compressor Settings for Vocals
Compression in Bass Mixing
As useful as a compressor is for live applications, it truly shows its worth in a studio recording scenario.
Back in the days of analog tape recording, compressors were typically used to ‘shoehorn’ a dynamic audio signal into a relatively narrow range. This made it possible to fit an inherently dynamic instrument–such as a loud bass or guitar–into the mix, without having it dominate.
So when properly applied, compression makes a bass fit better with the other instruments, resulting in a more cohesive whole. And that’s essentially the whole principle of compressing bass.
The Modern Era
Even with the greatly increased dynamic range of modern digital recording media, compression still has value in terms of making a dynamic audio signal sit better in a mix. Oftentimes, the bass is compressed along with the drums (via side-chain or parallel compression method), resulting in a solid rhythmic foundation upon which the rest of the track can be built.
Depending on the creative goal or artistic vision, the bass may be made more prominent in the mix or it may be eased back into more of a ‘support’ role. By utilizing various compression techniques, the bass track can be ‘massaged’ into its desired niche without any perceivable loss in volume or character, which might occur if equalization or level control was employed instead. (You can read about some effective techniques from ProAudiFiles blog).
Compression is also a great way to increase the apparent volume level of a bass without introducing distortion or causing clipping, as well as adding more “punch” and “smack” to it. This is one of the most common applications of compression in a mixdown scenario, and it can be remarkably effective.
Don’t discount the usefulness of a compressor in creating unique ‘character’ sounds as well. Over the years, the characteristic ‘pumping’ and ‘heaving’ sound of a guitar, bass, or drums being heavily compressed has become something of a stylistic and creative signature, and it is a great way to add energy to the mix. This principle is what led to the pump-and-suck sound (Ableton Blog link) that we get in modern house and EDM tracks.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of compressor settings, let’s take an overview of the various settings of a compressor we use to make sure we’re on the same playing field.
Compressor Features and Controls
Compressors tend to vary in terms of the controls and features available. Some basic models do away with certain features entirely, while others seemingly pack in every feature that has ever been devised. In any case, well-spec’d compressors will usually have the following controls:
This basically sets the volume level wherein the compressor circuitry kicks in.
This specifies how much compression is applied to the signal. With a ratio of 6:1 for example, an input signal that goes over the threshold by 6dB will increase the output level by 1dB.
This specifies how quickly the compressor affects the signal.
This specifies how soon the compression effect will cease after the signal dips below the threshold.
The knee setting specifies the manner by which the incoming signal is compressed. With the “hard knee” setting, signals are compressed immediately after they cross the threshold. Set to “soft knee”, the compressor reduces the level of the input signal gradually.
This compensates for the decrease in level that occurs with more extreme compressor settings.
This adds another degree of control to the overall level, allowing you to boost the signal without adding any more noise.
You can read more about how these various components of a compressor works here.
The Correct Approach to Bass Compression
The human ear tends to pick up high frequency sounds more readily than low frequency sounds. In the context of a mix, the bass may often be difficult to hear, to the point of being practically inaudible.
Compression can help fix this problem by boosting the lower volume sections of the bass signal. Simply boosting the entire signal (by applying gain or pushing up the fader) would result in the transient peaks (typically the louder, initial attack of the bass notes) to clip the audio circuitry. This is where the compressor’s dynamic reduction capabilities come in.
By boosting only the softer part of the signal and attenuating the peaks, a compressor can make a bass track seem louder than it actually is. This helps make the bass pop out against the background of the mix, making it more audible and “in your face” without throwing any of the other elements out of balance.
The Qualities to Strive for
One of the most sought-after qualities of a bass compressor is transparency.
In most cases, audio engineers and producers want the dynamic limiting and signal boosting qualities of a compressor, without having the circuitry impart any kind of coloration to the tone (artifacts).
The very best compressors are often referred to as “transparent”, which means that they affect the signal in the desired manner without adding any distortion or altering the original sound significantly.
Low noise is always a welcome feature in a bass compressor. Because compressors typically boost the level of the softer signals, any noise that is present will get boosted as well. An inherently clean and noise-free compressor circuit will give you the desired effect without adding any noise.
Optimal Compression Settings
Although there are some fundamental compression principles that apply to most every recording or live situation, many artists and producers opt to utilize compression in more creative ways.
The tonal requirements of different genres have also resulted in the ‘codification’ of certain techniques in the interest of creating genre-specific signature sounds.
Loud and Aggressive Tracks
Take rock music for example. In a typical rock song, the bass will have to share sonic space with a loud, pummeling drum beat and heavily distorted guitars. Either or both of these elements could occupy some of the bass’ inherent frequencies, resulting in a weak, poorly-defined, or even inaudible bass track (see Metallica’s “And Justice For All” album.)
In this scenario, compression can make the bass seem more present, without actually making it louder. In particular, increasing the ‘attack’ will let more of the bass’ initial transients through, enhancing note definition and helping it punch through the mix.
Mellow and Laid Back Styles
Of course, a similar setting might not be suitable for mellower or more laid back musical styles.
In a pop ballad or a boss nova tune for example, you don’t necessarily want the bass to jump out of the mix. Instead, you will probably want to ease back on the compression, which will help tame the peaks and make the bass sit back neatly into its own pocket.
Bass Compression Settings by Specific Genres
Here are some suggested bass compression settings along with musical styles in which they would be appropriate.
Characteristic: Soft and gentle with a mellow attack
Suitable for: Jazz, Pop, Reggae/Dub
- Attack: Fast
- Release: Fast
- Threshold: High
Characteristics: Powerful attack, well-defined notes
Suitable for: Rock, Up-tempo Pop, Hip-hop
- Attack: Medium
- Release: Synchronized with beat or tempo
- Threshold: High
Characteristic: Subtle reduction of dynamic range
Suitable for: Pop, Ballads, Jazz
- Attack: Medium
- Threshold: Low
- Ratio: Low
Characteristics: Long, sustaining notes, consistent level
Suitable for: Rock, Reggae/Dub, Hip-Hop
- Ratio: Less than 1:1
- Threshold: Medium
- Gain: Set to compensate for reduced volume on note fadeout
Keep in mind that these are only suggestions on how to set your compressor in order to achieve certain effects.
Experimenting with the different settings may help you come up with unique results that you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise, and help you gain familiarity with the compressor’s features and controls.
Oftentimes, compression is as much about technique as it is about art. Although there are some important guidelines that you would do well to keep in mind, a healthy degree of experimentation can be invaluable for getting unique and creative results.
In using the settings above as a guideline, and plus operating from the correct mindset as explained in this article, you should be in the clear as what to do when it comes find the best compression settings for bass.