TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 49 Mixing Guitars – Bass

We’ve covered Electric and Acoustic Guitars in the mix over the last couple of weeks. This week in the TCM Mastering Home Music Studio series we’ll look at the Bass Guitar.

Spyro Gyra, Graham Central Station & Sheila E With Dave Koz At The Hollywood Bowl, August 2011.

On a recent visit to Los Angeles I was fortunate to get some great seats for the Hollywood Bowl. That evening I saw Spyro Gyra, Graham Central Station and Sheila E with Dave Koz. I was knocked out by the musicianship of all them.

Larry Graham At The Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles.

In particular it was hard to ignore the bassist, Larry Graham of Graham Central Station who was such a driving force. Apart from being exceptionally loud (we were only a few feet away from the PA system and had to stuff our ears with tissue paper to preserve our hearing), I was impressed by his playing whilst he raced around the stage.

Graham played bass guitar with the hugely succesful Sly & the Family Stone from 1966 to 1972 and pioneered the slap and pop bass technique which provides percussive and rhythmic elements to the bass’ sound. He continues to tour and has worked extensively with Prince.

Bassists – Clarke, Bruce, Myung & Pastorius.

Bassists in general aren’t normally given the ‘God’ status that some lead guitarists are saddled with, but that hasn’t stopped some of them becoming legendary – Stanley Clarke, Jack Bruce, John Myung and Jaco Pastorius are just a few that spring to mind.

It’s important to consider that a lot of modern music today, is heard over laptop speaker systems, iPods, TV and radio where bass frequencies don’t get reproduced very well. On the other hand if you think your music could find an audience in dance clubs, you need to make sure your mix can stand up to the scrutiny of a powerful full-range system.

The fact is, it’s difficult to accurately reproduce bass frequencies in a Home Studio unless you have a big budget to spend on acoustic treatment and monitoring.

Getting a great bass sound in a Home Music Studio can be a huge challenge as inaccurate representations of low frequencies are common in many setups. In other words, if you think you’ve achieved a great sounding bass in your home setup, it may not translate to a great sounding bass outside your room on other systems or speakers.

Choose Monitor Speakers Carefully To Be Sure You’re Getting A True Impression Of Your Music.

Your monitor speakers could be giving you a false impression if the acoustics of the room are poor. So it’s important to carefully consider the monitor choice, acoustics of your studio and take steps to make your room as flat as possible, with regards to frequency response. You don’t need to go out and buy a $5000 pair of monitors. You just need to learn to work with the gear and room you have at your disposal and make the appropriate adjustments in your mixing.

When focusing on bass elements (bass guitar and kick) in your mix, you may want to try switching your monitoring through to the smallest speakers you have connected in your setup, to find the best level and EQ. Then, make the appropriate adjustments and compromises on the main/large speakers to reign in any extremes for the bass elements to work in the mix.

Listening to some of your favourite CDs can be useful to gauge how prominent certain instruments and frequencies sound in your room when compared to your own music output.

We delve into room acoustics in this blog. For information on the difference between sound proofing and acoustic treatment check out this article.

Remember, you don’t want to deaden your room completely, just enough to make the monitoring process effective and true without frequency emphasis, dips or colouration.

Before you start mixing the bass guitar and kick drum, you may need to tidy their tracks up with some editing. These two instruments form the foundation of the beat for any song. So, if one or both are out (you may have recorded them both to a click track, for example) they will require pulling into sync with the fundamental beat of the song. Some bass notes may need stretching or shortening.

Pitch Correction – Logic, Pro Tools & Antares Auto Tune.

Tuning is important with all instruments, but if the bass guitar is out it can resonate horribly with other in-tune instruments. So make sure before hitting record, that the instrument is perfectly in tune. If you get to the mix stage and find you have a problem with the bass tuning, you could employ one of the many pitch correction tools that are available to correct any out of tune notes or passages. Check out this article for more information on pitch correction.

Generally, the most important point to consider with the bass guitar is to get it to work with and complement the kick drum so that both can be heard in the mix. This can be achieved to a large extent with the proper application of EQ.

For example, look at the EQ curves in the picture above – the bass guitar has been cut severely with a high Q at 50 Hz whilst the kick has been boosted at the same frequency. The guitar has boosts at 125 Hz and 1.5 kHz and the kick has another boost at 5 kHz.

An Example Of A Bass Guitar EQ – The Bass Actually Sounded Good To Start With, But Needed Some Severe EQ Cuts & Boosts To Work Within The Specific Mix.

It’s common for the bass guitar to sound too fat or too thin. Muddiness often occurs in the 200-300 Hz range, so you could leave it flat or cut a little to gain a bit of definition. There’s not much to be gained from frequencies below 100 Hz. But you could try a little boost between 100-200 Hz if the instrument sounds a bit thin. For a bit more punch, add a few dB between 500 Hz and 1.5 kHz. More attack and brightness can be introduced between 2.5-5 kHz.

Each instrument is going to require a different EQ setup, so use these suggestions as guides only.

By applying high pass filters to other instruments (e.g. electric and acoustic guitars) that don’t need their bass frequencies accentuating (as long as their overall sound does not suffer as a result), you can create room for the instruments that do need space in the low-end, like bass guitar and kick drum.

Close Up Sections Of Waveforms – Showing Out and In Phase.

If you recorded the bass via a mic and amp as well as DI, the two tracks could well be out of phase with each other. It would take longer for the signal picked up by the mic to reach the recorder than the DI route, because the signal would have to travel through the air between the mic and amp. The difference may only be a few milliseconds.

To test for phase issues, bring one track up in mono and then the other. If the resultant bass sounds thinner or dips in level, you probably have a phase problem. If you’re working in a DAW or software programme, zoom closely into the two waveforms and sync them together, so that they start at the same time and one peak/trough matches the other.

You should always listen to any instrument in the recording stage with mixing in mind. With regards to the bass guitar, a cleaner sound can be achieved if the player dampens strings that are not in use.

Universal Audio’s LA-2A Compressor.

It’s important that the bass guitar works in conjunction with the kick drum to provide a solid beat (especially in modern music). The kick drum is often compressed. If the bass guitar level fluctuates too much, the force of the kick/bass guitar combination can be severely weakened. Compression can help the bass in the mix as the instrument tends to pump out lots of transients. It will also bring out the pick noise more, if one was used and increase the instrument’s sustain.

Try parallel compression – duplicate a bass part onto another track. Then compress one track whilst leaving the other dry allowing more dynamics to come through. Attack and release settings are critical. A very short compressor attack may squash the attack part of the bass notes. If you make the release time too long you could destroy the groove of the music.

By Using A Compressor And Separate Limiter, You Can Increase The Level Of Quieter Notes Whilst Also Limiting The Final Level Of The Instrument.

A useful technique for rock or dance music, is to employ gentle compression (after EQ). This will improve the level discrepancies of the bass guitar, particularly the sustained notes. Then by feeding the signal through a limiter you can prevent the level going over a certain specified point. The result is that you can have great control over how loud and how dynamic you want your bass to sound.

Another useful technique is to use side chain gating. Essentially, the kick drum when played, opens a gate for the bass guitar signal to pass through. The effect provides a tight bass/kick combination.

If your music is more jazz or acoustic folk in flavour, compression may not be necessary. Nevertheless, judge each situation on what you want and what is needed to make a mix work.

With regards to panning the bass guitar – it’s usually placed in the centre along with the kick drum. This means that no matter where the listener is, whether they’re in a home setting or a club, the combo can be heard at its best.

If it were placed off to one side and the kick left in the centre, you would lose impact from the two acting in combination. Besides, if there’s any chance your music will one day end up on vinyl (it’s becoming more popular with some consumers, just as analogue is a favourite of some musicians), you really need to have the bass section in the middle.

The Boss GT-10B Bass Effects Processor Optimised For The Low-Frequency Domain.

Effects can add interest to a bass part. Some can even improve audibility. The best effects used in moderation are – distortion, fuzz, chorus, flange, phasing or wah-wah. The only way to see what works for the song is to try them out. Reverb and delay/echo can confuse and muddy the sound from the bass, so use with caution. A very short verb might work. You could also try a predelay which might help to separate out the reverb from the source signal. And always monitor an effect (on any instrument) within the context of the whole mix – never in isolation.

Next week we’ll look at how to treat the Piano.

Fronted by top record producers and engineers Ted Carfrae and CJ Boggs, with worldwide sales exceeding 25 million, the TCM Music Group understands what musicians want and can deliver professional, fast and affordable services at a rate to suit every pocket. Take a look at last year’s client list including many up and coming artists.

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