Mixing bass is one of the most challenging parts of an engineer's job, which is why we write about it so often:
In this article, I’ll continue the tradition of bass articles with five tips for mixing better electronic baselines.
1. Separate kick and bass
Making sure the kick and bass in your mix do not overlap is important in all styles of music, but this point takes special priority in electronic bass. Electronic basslines are commonly used in EDM, pop, and hip-hop—genres that require a powerful and clear low end. There won’t be a memorable impact if the kick keeps getting in the way!
There are a number of ways to address masking in the mix. If you’re having trouble hearing and feeling low end elements, instantiate Neutron 3 on your bass and then place another instance of Neutron, or Nectar or Relay on the kick that is interfering with translation.
On the bass’ Neutron, hit the drop-down menu next to “Masking” and bring up the kick. This will display the frequency spectra of both signals and reveal where masking is taking place: the red bars at the top and the orange overlays on the EQ is where your attention is required.
It’s up to you to determine where you want to boost or cut with EQ to reduce the masking. If the kick is the lowest element, scoop out the sub frequencies on the bass and enhance them on the kick, around the fundamental. To make this process easier, select “Inverse Link” which will apply a complementary EQ setting to each instrument (for example a 2 dB cut on the bass will add 2 dB of gain to the kick on the same frequency band).
Learn more about Neutron 3 in the video below:
2. Use a bass reference
Another topic we’ve written about often is reference tracks: the songs we use to guide us toward specific sonic results when mixing. Whether you want a warm and dubby bass or the punchiness of an 808, be sure to pick a few songs that match this requirement and listen to them before and during the mix process.
Using your ears to determine what makes your references sound the way they do, and altering your mix to reflect this is a challenging but valuable skill to develop. As you practice, it might serve you well to use a visual aid, like Tonal Balance Control. The plug-in won’t tell you what effects to put on your bass or how to EQ it, but it will tell you how much bass energy is in your reference—and how much bass you need to add or take away from your mix to get in the same ballpark. It also lets you know whether your bass is over- or under-compressed.
Use a single track to create a target curve or collect a handful of references to capture a more specific sound. Your mix (the white line) should fall within the limits of the blue overlays (the reference).
3. Protect the low mids
The low mid range includes frequencies between approximately 150Hz and 350Hz. This is an important range to pay attention to, since it’s where many different instruments meet—bass, kicks, snares, pads, and synths all pass through here, and it can easily become bloated as a result.
Using a combination of Tonal Balance Control and the Masking Meter in Neutron will help you identify excessive low mid frequency content and then shape it into something more compact. Careful treatment of this area can produce the driving, muscular sound of electronic music basslines. The synth bass in this Floating Points song demonstrates a fine treatment of the low mids.
In some cases, your mix might be missing low mid content, which is just as big a problem. Maybe the producer made the song with a subwoofer on and didn’t feel the bass needed any information in a higher register. But on most other monitors—and in other rooms—the mix lacks thickness and punch.
Again, Tonal Balance Control can confirm this. If you need to add more low mids, open up the bass filter or add harmonic distortion focused around 200 Hz. You also might want to double the sub with a square bass to fill up the spectrum. You will quickly hear the mix come to life after this.
4. Adjust note lengths
Due to the MIDI grid of DAWs, it’s common for producers to draw in quantized bass notes that are of equal length. This can work for certain tunes, but sound rigid and blocky in others. If the song you’re mixing needs a little groove, extend some MIDI notes to provide on- or off-beat emphasis. You’ll find the entire rhythm section will open up and flow more fluidly.
While you’re at it, draw in a slight pitch bend upward (from low to high notes) or downward (from high to low notes) to increase this feeling of movement.
5. Dress things up with reverb and delay
Say what? Won’t adding reverb and delay to my bass just muddy the image? If done improperly, adding ambient effects to electronic basslines can lead to cloudy, muddy mix. Luckily, it's easy to avoid this from happening.
If the electronic bass in your mix sounds lifeless and small, add reverb or delay (like Exponential Audio’s Nimbus or Excalibur, respectively) to the track. Filter the effect signal so frequencies below 300 Hz don’t make it through. This way you get the space and size from the effects without the cloudiness in the lows.
After a bit of tweaking, you will find that your bass starts to sound bigger and more expensive. Just be sure to control the pre-delay on your reverbs and the feedback on your delay to avoid messy buildups that disrupt the groove.
If you’re feeling adventurous, add a compressor after your reverb or delay and sidechain the output to the kick. This way the tails will fall in line with the beat, creating some fun rhythmic activity.
Learn more about reverb:
6. Try an automated move
Automation can be useful on all instruments in a mix, but electronic basslines seem to take to it particularly well. Spend some time experimenting with simple automated moves—like opening and closing a filter, riding the volume knob to create swells, or increasing send levels—to enhance the groove and emotion of basslines at key moments, especially transitions between song sections. Who’s to say you can’t do all three at once?
These moves will inject character into your mix and support the wild and shape-shifting energy of electronic music.
Get inspired with automation tips in 7 Creative Automation Tips for Music Producers.
Really, most of these tips are applicable to all styles of bass. Given that electronic bassline stems often come supplied with MIDI, allowing for easy sculpting with plug-ins, there is more flexibility when it comes to mixing them. These tips should help you to conquer common errors and engineer better-sounding low end.