Mixing a track at times could be a hectic and tiresome process, especially when this track has a very busy arrangement. And you know that amongst other things, your track has to have a tight and enshrouding bottom end in order to reach a listener. So today, we will show you how to mix bass guitar in 9 steps.
Step 1: Think of the music
As obvious as it sounds before you even think about pressing the record button, you must make sure that every component of your track sits at its right place. Each instrument has its own purpose inside of the arrangement, and if something is out of place, it wouldn’t matter how stellar your mix will be. All of the parts have to be in key and shouldn’t get in each other’s way. They have to be consistent with the mood of the composition and, moreover, they have to be interesting. Nobody will dance to a boring bass groove.
When it comes to the actual bass guitar part, there are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly, don’t overdo it. We all love 16th note syncopated slapping, but only when it is done tastefully. Your bass guitar part should be interesting and creative, but at the same time, it mustn’t overshadow lead instruments and vocals. Secondly, always keep the groove. Bass guitar is a part of the rhythm section for a reason, and that reason is to emphasize the rhythmic structure of the sound and at the same time underline the harmony. So, naturally, if you lose the groove or the key, your song will immediately fall apart.
Step 2: Choose your sound
Although it is possible to make a killer metal track with a vintage Rickenbacker, there are certain standards that we, as audio producers, should meet. In other words, you have to choose the right instrument for the right situation. But if you don’t have too much to choose from, make sure that your instrument sounds good and serves the purpose. Make sure that your instrument is properly maintained and has a fresh set of strings. It is very hard to achieve great results having a curved neck and old and dull sounding strings.
Whether you are using a real amp or a VST emulation, always use the built-in tools in order to achieve the sound you are looking for. The closer it would be to something you’ve already pictured, the less you will have to do later.
Step 3: Record properly
Make sure that your bass guitar is in tune and check the tuning between every take. This might feel rather tedious, but still, it’s easier to do than fixing the tuning later. If you are using a DI bass guitar, use it only with a DI Box or an audio interface with proper preamps. Make sure that you have proper gain levels and nothing is clipping. If you are using the real amplifier, choose the placement of your mics carefully and do some test takes to be sure that you have the right sound.
Step 4: Edit and fix
When your recording session is over, you may consider fixing some issues here and there or edit a part. As we all know, it’s very hard, even for experienced musicians, to record their best part all in one take. So if you kept all of the recording material, you may go through all of the takes and edit them together. For example, Take 1 has stellar performance in verse, but there are a few mistakes in the chorus, and Take 2 has a great chorus but rather weak verse. So nothing would stop you from cutting those takes and combining them into one.
You may consider quantizing your bass guitar part to a kick drum in order to make the groove cleaner and more consistent. However, this step is completely unnecessary. It’s rather beneficial for some modern styles, but if you are working on something vintage, a quantized groove could make it less believable and authentic. In order to have consistent levels throughout the track, automate the level of your bass guitar.
Step 5: Gain staging
It may come as a surprise, but most of the mixing could be done even before you apply any processing. At least, if you set the levels of the tracks properly, you would know exactly how much processing you actually need. To balance a track, you need to set the levels of the individual tracks so that nothing would seem out of place and the energy of the track is maintained and even emphasized.
When it comes to balancing the bass guitar track, simply use your common sense. Turn it up if it sounds too thin, or make it quieter if it’s too boomy. If you recorded your bass guitar properly, you would end up with great results in terms of low-end energy. Of course, almost anything can be fixed or enhanced with an EQ, but now, at least, you know much EQing you actually need.
Step 6: EQ
It doesn’t really matter what type of EQ you will use, but for modern styles of music, it’s better to use an EQ with as little coloration as possible. When it comes to EQing bass guitar tracks, it’s always a good idea to start with a low-pass filter somewhere around 10-15 kHz. This will make your bass sound more contained and cleaner. A high-pass filter around 50-60 Hz will eliminate low rumble and make your bass sound tighter and more pronounced.
If your bass still sounds too boomy, make a gentle cut somewhere 200-350 Hz. If you want it to sound more aggressive, make a slight boost somewhere around 2 kHz. Boost anywhere around 50-100 Hz to emphasize the low end, but be sure that the bass doesn’t fight with a kick drum or any other instrument within that range.
Step 7: Compression
When it comes to compression, generally, you want to even the bass out and make it more consistent throughout the track. In order to do that, use a slower attack so you wouldn’t choke the initial transients. The release also should be slow in order to bring up the sustain of the bass guitar. The exact numbers would very much depend on the individual bass guitar part. So set your attack and release in a way that you’ll hear consistent and even low-end throughout your track.
Generally speaking, we are looking for 3-6 dB of gain reduction, so set your threshold accordingly. If you automated your bass guitar track beforehand, you shouldn’t worry about the consistency of gain reduction. When it comes to the ratio, it very much depends on the effect that you are trying to achieve. If you want your compression to be subtle, which is rather desirable in jazz music, use lower ratios. If you want more obvious and aggressive compression, which is typical for metal and rock music, use higher ratios.
Step 8: Saturation
Saturation is completely optional and isn’t needed at all if you’ve used something like a tube preamp. But nevertheless, it’s a beneficial tool. If properly used, it can make your bass guitar sound translate better on acoustic systems without any sub buffers. Or, in general, just a bit noticeable without any changes to the balance of the mix.
What type of saturation to use is completely up to you, but we recommend something with multiband capabilities. That way, you can emphasize the high frequencies of the bass and keep the low-end very clean. It all very much depends on the style of the track you are working on, but in modern styles, multiband saturators are typically used. If you are working on something vintage, pretty much anything will do, but tube saturation is obviously preferable.
Step 9: Give it time
This step could be applied not only to the bass guitar mixing but to almost every imaginable creative situation that you can find yourself in. If you feel like you finished and your job is done, set it aside for a bit and revise it later. If you work on something too long, you might lose focus, and you cannot be objective about what you’re doing. So, if you give yourself some time to relax, later you might find some mistakes that you’ve missed before.
Mixing bass guitar: conclusion
We hope that this article helped you to understand how to mix bass guitar better. To sum up, you have to spend some time on your arrangement and make your parts interesting but yet purposeful. Before you start recording, choose the right equipment and instrument and make sure that your instrument is properly maintained. After the recording session is over, edit the parts to achieve better results and quantize your bass guitar to kick drum if needed. After gain staging, apply some EQ and compression with the addition of saturation if you feel that it would benefit the composition.