The Low-Down on Low-End: A Guide to Mixing Bass

You’ve heard the phrase many times- “the mix feels a little muddy,” or, “the mix just feels a little thin.” Getting the low-end right in your mix can be one of the most frustrating parts of producing a song. Like some of you, I have a challenging room for low-end response. To dial in frequencies below 100hz, I have often used the process of checking my mixes in car stereos, headphones, home stereos and on and on, which has been frustrating and time consuming. In this article, I’m going to shed some light on several simple, repeatable steps that will help you dial in your bass frequencies with consistency. While there is a lot of science that goes into getting your low-end right, I am going to focus on the art of learning your environment and the tools that can be used really well. We’ll do this by using 2-3 songs as reference material and repeating the same steps and process for each mix. For each concept, I will share a great starting point that will get you noticeable results right away, but you can always dive deeper if you choose to. Let's take a look at these six simple steps to improving the low-end in your mixes today!


Speaker placement

Let’s start with a fairly obvious one - speaker placement. If you are working in a relatively small space, it can be difficult to get your speakers into an ideal position for low-end response. The first step is to get them away from your wall. And while this is may seem like an obvious step, many of us prioritize our workspace over our speaker placement. If you are writing, producing and then sending your music out to be mixed elsewhere, by all means, keep what space you have. But if you’re looking to create mixes for release, I recommend prioritizing your speaker placement. Start by measuring your room from front to back. If you are currently oriented with your speakers pointed toward the closest wall, or the shortest distance in your room, you may want to flip it so that they’re pointing toward the furthest back wall possible. Where low-end is concerned, space is your friend. Low-end sound waves take the longest to develop and need as much distance as you can give them to develop. If you have a small room, you’re going to experience some build-up and phase cancellation but we’ll talk more about that later. Once you've measured your room, determine where 33% of the way from the front wall to the back wall is and that will be your mix or listening position. Next, determine where 25% of the way from the front to the back wall is and that will be your speaker position. Once you’ve done that, you want to make sure your speakers are the same distance from each other and from where your ears will be, creating an equilateral triangle. In my room, the speakers are 40” from each other and the cone of each woofer is 40” from my head. You’ll also want to make sure that your mix position is directly between your two sidewalls. And while there is more science that can be applied here, this is a great starting point to dialing in your low-end.

Room treatment

I recommend basic, absorptive treatment for any mix room. While the lowest of low end won’t be controlled by foam bass traps or basic acoustic panels, it will help with cleaning up what you are hearing across a wide frequency response. A good trick for determining where to place your absorption is to grab a small mirror and place it on one of your sidewalls, if you can see one of your speakers in the mirror, that’s a point of reflection (no pun intended!). If space is tight, start by offsetting your acoustic treatment. If one side of your room has a hard surface, put a panel directly across from it for absorption. For most of us, the trouble spots in our mixes are below 100hz so this acoustic treatment will by no means be the cure-all, but it will be a good starting point to bring some clarity to what you’re hearing.


Subwoofers

Having a subwoofer can greatly improve the low-end response of your system but it can also present a whole additional set of problems. The most important thing when adding a subwoofer to your system is using reference material that you know well to get it set correctly. Have 2-3 songs on hand that you have listened to a lot and of which you know the sound. This will be your ultimate guide as you listen and mix using a subwoofer. If you have a very small room, I recommend not using a sub when mixing because often you may create a false sense of low-end or will be adding more to your mix than is appropriate due to some frequencies being canceled out through phase issues. If you’re in the writing phase or beat-making phase, keep it rocking, but when you go to mix, turn it off. Now let’s look at how to best employ the use of a sub when mixing. I have a small, 10 inch, powered subwoofer in my mix room which is set to cover frequencies below 80hz. Most powered subs have controls on the back to help you dial in the frequency response of the sub. Mine also has a phase switch which is very useful in getting my subwoofer in phase with my speakers. My goal is to have an even frequency response from low to high so I use my subwoofer sparingly as my main speakers reproduce low end quite well. Start with your subwoofer directly in-line and centered between your two main speakers. Begin with the volume of the sub very low and gradually increase it until you can hear and feel the low-end filling out. Now try flipping the phase switch on the back - if you hear more low end, it's most likely in phase, if you don’t hear an increase in low-end, it's most likely out of phase. Next, let's pull up the reference material I was talking about earlier. Press play on a song that you know the low-end response of really well based on headphones you use a lot, your car, etc. Use this song to help you dial in the level of your subwoofer, aiming for the sound that you know and have heard 100 times before in your most trusted listening environment. If you primarily make hip-hop, make sure your reference track is hip-hop, the same goes for pop or rock.


Headphones

If you don’t have a subwoofer, time, or money to install acoustic treatment or the space to reset your setup to the above-mentioned dimensions, then headphones are your last line of defense! As with dialing in your subwoofer, using headphones is all about reference material. I have two go-to sets of headphones that I trust to help me dial in my low-end. My main pair are my white Apple ear-buds. I know this probably sounds hilarious but millions of people are listening to music with these headphones every day and, assuming that the mixes I am working on make it onto a streaming platform, many people will be listening to them with these headphones or something very similar. My second and most trusted pair of headphones are my open-back Sennheiser HD600s. There are many brands and models of open-backed headphones on the market so this is in no way an endorsement for this particular model. Again, it’s all about reference material and trying to match the low-end of your mix with the low-end of your reference song or songs using the same headphones. The concept of open-backed headphones is that the sound has somewhere to go other than back into your ears the way a typical closed-backed headphone design would. They are supposed to more closely represent the sound of a speaker in a room. If your room is small and you don’t trust the sound of your speakers to tell you what’s going on down low, grab a pair of open-backed headphones to assist you.


Plug-ins

Another really important step in getting your low-end right is using the same processing or plug-ins on all of your mixes, at least for a while, once you have found something that works well. The key here, beyond comparing with your reference mixes, is not to change too many pieces of the puzzle at once. This is a big one. Once you have your physical setup dialed in or a pair of headphones that you are comfortable using, stick with them for a while. Work with your new setup and see how much you can improve your mixes before changing more pieces of the puzzle. A common mistake is to keep changing parts of your setup constantly while trying to improve your mixes. It’s all about learning your space, your equipment and knowing what your reference songs sound like in your particular space with your headphones or speakers. Keep these reference songs the same for weeks or months, it will make a difference, I promise! When it comes to plug-ins, I highly recommend a visual EQ on your mix buss and in general. This will help you see the frequency response of your mix. Ultimately you have to trust your ears but being able to see what’s happening in your mix will help train your ears to hear certain frequencies better, especially in the low-end. I also highly recommend finding an EQ with mid-side capabilities which will allow you to push all of your low-end to the center channel of your mix. This can be a simple way to clean up your mix quickly and effectively and should be applied on your master or mix buss. Another key EQ move that I almost always do is to high pass filter all of my instruments that don’t contain any necessary low-end information below 100hz. These tracks typically include vocals, keyboards (other than synth bass or low keys parts), guitars, snares, claps, cymbals, samples, etc. Doing this simple step early on in your mixing process will clean up your low-end considerably. In addition to these concepts, I also highly recommend soloing your kick drum and bass sounds to hear what’s going on with them. This is where your visual EQ will come in very handy, as well. If both are really present around 80hz, you may want to cut your kick drum at 80hz and then boost it at 60hz to make room for the bass. Another helpful option is to use multiband compression on your master buss to target frequencies below 100hz. Try starting with a basic preset and set the threshold to a level where you are seeing 2-3 dB of gain reduction below 100hz. As with all things compression related, a little goes a long way. If you apply all of these basic steps to your “muddy” mix, you will hear a big result right away. From there, trust your ears to get you the rest of the way. A great rule of thumb is, if it sounds unnatural, you’ve probably gone too far. When in doubt, listen to your reference songs and see how your low-end compares to theirs.


Vision

The last thing I’ll mention, which is actually the first thing I do when starting a mix, is to develop a vision for what you want your end product to sound like. If you don’t have a target, you’re going to miss every time. Once you have your setup dialed in and your go-to process for plug-ins figured out, take some time to create a vision for your finished mix. Again, this is why having reference mixes is so crucial, especially when it comes to low-end. Make sure you have great, genre-specific references for the song or songs on which you are working. When I’m mixing, I make more creative choices based on my target vision than any other factor. Even though mixing is very technical and scientific, you want to make your biggest decisions based on your artistic vision and how the music impacts you emotionally.

Hopefully these tools and tips will help you dial in your low-end better, give you more confidence in your mixing choices and ultimately help you create more impactful art! Please share your thoughts and any questions below! Happy mixing!

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