It’s not uncommon to find yourself in a mixing situation with low-end issues. This is especially true in home studios. Maybe the room’s geometry swallows the bass or exaggerates the low-end. It’s safe to say no acoustician had any input whatsoever into the construction of your apartment.
And room treatment can be expensive: to secure all the panels and traps you need at once can break the bank. Building them yourself takes time and know-how.
Ideally you’d fix all the issues in a space—and of course, we advise you to do so wherever possible. But what if it’s impossible? Thankfully, you can take measures to keep the low-end of your mix in check, even in a subpar environment.
1. Ascertain what your room is actually giving you
When you first suspect something’s wrong with the bass in your room, you may want to run and hide—and hey, that’s natural. Room acoustics is a truly mystifying rabbit hole to the uninitiated. Room treatment is also decidedly uncool: would you rather spend money on a great piece of outboard gear or a piece of fiberglass?
I liken the whole thing to putting off the dentist when you have chronic tooth pain; you know there’s something wrong, but you don’t want to know the severity of the problem.
But knowledge is power—and you can glean a lot of knowledge with a measurement microphone. They can be cheap these days, and free software like REW is remarkably powerful in analyzing the issues of your room that obfuscate bass.
That being said, the learning curve on this software is a bit steep. You can, in a pinch, settle on this approach for getting the gist of what you’re room is doing.
Place a measuring mic in your listening position. Set it up through the cleanest channel/interface you have—we want no coloration here. On this track, put on a mono instance of Insight 2, and enlarge the frequency analyzer. Make sure to assign the track to “No Output” so you don’t cause a horrible feedback loop!
Set up a test-tone in the low-end on a different track in your DAW, ideally one with both a sine wave and a pink noise generator. Follow the test tone with another instance of the Insight 2 meter. Enlarge the frequency analyzer again, so side by side, you’re looking at this:
Now hit play, move a sine-wave into your low end, and watch the results. See if you can spot obvious differences, in the metering, between the two tracks. Maybe you’ll notice extensive information below 40 Hz off the measurement microphone, even though you’re running a 100 Hz sine wave, like so:
Run the test with pink noise too, and see what’s happening with the low end.
Next, repeat this test, but substitute reference mixes for the test tone. Make sure to sum the references to mono first.
Look at the two instances of Insight—the one on your reference track, and the one on your measurement mic. Here, you can learn something about how bass decays in your space: take something with a sparse, low kick, and see the difference in the kick’s decay between the two instances. If it takes longer to decay in your measurement mic track, you know there’s an issue here.
All of this can give you cursory—key word, cursory—information on how your room is boosting/cutting certain frequencies. This knowledge can help you ascertain how to move forward.
2. Invest in several pairs of 20 Hz to 20 kHz headphones
If you know your room is giving you trouble in the low end, cans can aid to some degree. Make no mistake, they won’t give you the vital feeling of waveforms moving through the air. But they can help you figure out if things are too cluttered or too wimpy.
First, though, you need to take the average of your cans. I’d recommend doing this in macroscopic and microscopic ways.
Say you have a pair good closed back cans, and another pair of good open backed cans. Take your favorite reference mixes and monitor them on both sets of headphones. Pay attention to how the bass information feels on each set of cans.
This is a bit of a subjective test—you’re judging these mixes against your age-old memories of them: does the bass feel like you remember it feeling? Is the bass more pronounced or less pronounced? Repeat this test with several reference tracks (particularly tracks whose low-end you love) and note your findings.
Next comes a more microscopic test, though also subjective:
Take a few bass tracks from your own library of recordings, ideally a bass guitar and a few types of synth bass. One by one, listen to each track. Instantiate a simple high-pass filter—like the one in Relay—on the track as you listen. Put on one pair of headphones and, with your eyes closed, roll the filter higher and higher in frequency until you notice a drop off of essential bass content. The moment you notice a change in the low-end, open your eyes and take note of the position on the high-pass filter. Repeat the test twice more just to make sure you’re not all over the place.
Next, change headphones and conduct the tests again. The two headphones won’t be exactly alike, and the differences will tell you which one represents the low end stronger, and similarly, which one carries the low-mids in a more exaggerated way (you’ll note the low-mid presence as you roll off the low end).
These tests are subjective, because you’re relating what’s going on in the cans to what’s happening with your specific set of ears. For example, if I do the test with my Audio-Technica ATH-M50x closed-backs and my Audeze LCD-X headphones, I note something interesting: for me, the bass roll-off in the M50x becomes very noticeable around 43 Hz. In the Audeze cans, it’s more like 30 Hz. And, what’s more, both sets of headphones have their innate way of reproducing the sound by virtue of their design.
This informs me that if I have a mix that overpowers the LCD-X in the low end, but sounds solid in the Audio Technicas, I still have some work to do in balancing the bass.
3. Check out room / headphone correction software
Correction software measures the response of your speakers in your room—or the innate inaccuracies of your headphones—and offers a rebalanced picture, something closer to flat. In the past, many engineers used to denigrate such corrective measures, but they’ve come a long way in the last few years. If many top engineers in mixing and mastering endorse such products, they should at least be investigated.
I have a few software correctors, and find that I get varied results from placing a filter between my devices and my ears. Sometimes they’re great. But they don’t help, for instance, if there’s a natural cut-off point for the low end on your speakers. You’re not going to get more than 30 Hz out of this software if your monitors only go down to 40 Hz. Also, not all software treats timing issues, which can definitely contribute to a hazy bass.
This is all to say that if you use corrective software, take it through the same tests outlined above: observe the measured results in your room, and the perceived response in your headphones.
If you do all these tests, you can better utilize your cans with your speakers to get a better overall picture of what’s going on in your mix, and it’s time to move on to the following tip:
4. Develop a gameplay loop
With your room understood and your headphones analyzed, you now have a loop. I call it the gameplay loop: a set of devices that get you from a rough mix to a finished one. But make sure to incorporate consumer electronics into your gameplay loop too. Your car stereo, your consumer headphones, and your home stereo system—these things matter.
Anything you’ve used to make the determination that the bass is a problem in your studio space can now be incorporated in the mixing process while you wait on the cashflow to upgrade the studio. Also, the deeper your knowledge of your loop, the more you can start to make decisions that anticipate the issues you might have.
5. Use metering software so your eyes know what’s going on
You should never mix with your eyes alone. Having said that, they can be a good check on what’s going on—especially if you know your room is subpar.
Within Insight 2, you can monitor the frequency analyzer to give you an idea of how low the bass information stretches—and how quickly its moving; timing of bass information can be an issue in sub-optimal spaces: an 808 kick in a sparse mix will give you a different feeling from a more aggressive, faster tune. You may find a sparser mix sits better, bass-wise, than a mix with faster bass barts. You’re not crazy here: you are hearing the limitations of your room, and this is exactly where metering can help. Make sure to fiddle with sizing and timing parameters of Insight 2 when analyzing your bass. For instance, I’ve found these settings to work pretty well, so long as I enlarge the GUI:
Drop Relay onto your various instruments, and you can use the spectrogram to keep an eye on how strong the bass is against everything else. This can show you how much the bass is poking out through its use of concentrated shade. Here, the bass is shaded in blue, while the drums are red and harmonic content is yellow:
Tonal Balance Control 2 can also help, giving you a ballpark figure on whether the bass is too strong, too weak, or too compressed.
With these metering options, make sure you reference to tracks you know through-and-through. Observe how they play in the meters, and always judge the behavior of your mixes against the references.
6. Notate all your findings
Everything we’ve outlined above is in the service of helping you learn what’s best for your environment. Learning something and then promptly forgetting it will not help you in the slightest.
If you notate all the pertinent findings, you have a better chance of drilling vital information into your brain. You have a better chance of retaining all the details specific to your individual playback system—your gameplay loop.
And, even if you don’t retain that knowledge at first, you still have a primer—something to read when you’re going absolutely insane. Insanity during the mix process has been known to happen. You’re far less likely to bang your head against the problem of low end when you remember that you have a document in your possession that explains the issues to you in your own words.
7. Mix conservatively
When you’re not certain of your environment, it pays to be a little conservative with decisions regarding the low end. Don’t seek out outrageous ways of fostering low end when you don’t have to—don’t slap on huge boosts at 60 Hz on the mix buss, for example, unless you’re sure that’s the right move. You don’t need to foster an overwhelming mix. So long as there’s some low-end information in your kicks, basses, and guitars, a mastering engineer will probably be able to work with it, and they’ll ring you up if they can’t.
And if you get that call, it’s not the end of the world! There have been many mixes that came my way for mastering whose ingenuity and creativity—and even frequency balance—I’ve admired, save for the low-end. It does not make me think less of engineers if I have to tell them to turn 80 Hz down on the electric bass track.
It might sting a bit, if a mastering engineer says something like that to me—but then I remember that we’re all learning; even the greatest masters improve their craft. I take what’s offered and see what the problem might be that’s incurring the issue. This is most helpful when working within a new environment.
8. Get a second opinion on your mix
In an earlier article, I recommended getting a friend you trust to give you feedback on your mix. The tip is doubly important if you’re working with an inferior room, and you’re looking to get the best bass. Having someone you trust telling you if the bass passes muster is invaluable, and will definitely lend credence to your own discoveries viz-a-viz your room.
This article in no way advocates for skipping the essentials in monitoring and room treatment. It does, however, acknowledge that sometimes these essentials are untenable in the present moment—and that your passion for mixing shouldn’t wait just because they are untenable.
You may make mistakes when working with low end in a subpar environment—scratch that, you will make mistakes—but that’s okay, because you’ll still be learning. Each time a trusted pair of ears tells you there’s too much bass, you can learn from it, and refine your loop. Each time you take a mix out to the car and find something sounds off in the low end, you can learn from it. Indeed, the best tip I can get you for mixing bass when you’re fighting your environment is to never stop trying to learn, to keep your ears open, to seek out refinement.
Make that your baseline, and you’re sure to wind up with a great sounding bass line (sorry, I had to).