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How to Mix 808s for a Powerful Low End
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Almost every type of music has some low end frequencies, but there are a handful of genres that are, to put it mildly, all about that bass. Particularly in the spectrum of hip hop, whether it’s drill, trap, crunk or boom bap, the bottom end needs to be big and burly. And the way most of us describe a huge low end is by referring to the “808.” This is the round and thick low end bass line that works in concert with the kick.
We’re going to talk about how to define and how to mix 808s in order to get the most impact out of them.
Here's what they can sound like mixed with a drum kit.
808 Beat, Mixed
Follow along with iZotope Neutron, a powerful all-in-one mixing tool.
What is an 808?
The term “808” comes from the use of the bass drum of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. This was one of the first commercially available drum machines during its production run from 1980–1983. It used very basic analog synthesis to make clean drum sounds, and its bass drum had a very smooth 50 Hz sine wave sound, with the option for a very long decay.
The low end produced by this combination was so huge, it became a defining sound across an encyclopedia of burgeoning genres. As samplers became more available, it quickly became common practice to sample the bass drum of the 808, and pitch the sample to different notes to create a bass line.
This practice became so common that the term 808 became synonymous with a big low end note, pitched to create a bass line, sometimes by itself, or with a kick drum. Now, instead of sampling a TR-808, most producers can make their own with plugins in a DAW. For the purpose of this article, from here on we’ll use the term “808” to refer to these, and not the original much-loved drum machine.
Before you mix: make your 808 stand out
Before we talk about 808 mixing, let’s look at a simple way to define your 808 sound using MASSIVE from Native Instruments.
First we’ll start with a blank program, which will load as a default when you open MASSIVE in your DAW. Next we’ll want to start with a waveform on OSC 1 that gives us the smooth, clean sound of a sine wave like the original 808. We’ll choose “Sin-Square” and set the wavetable position to zero.
Let’s listen to this for a moment. We’re hearing a sine wave with some harmonic content, and it’s definitely got plenty of low end. But it’s lacking something. It doesn’t have power.
808 Dry Sine Wave from MASSIVE
We can see that this bass note is all alone, just one single frequency lacking any upper harmonics. This is because sine waves have no overtones, and no timbre. Because of this, such a low note will not be heard on many speakers and systems. In order for the 808’s low end to translate to more systems, we want it to have more harmonics extending up the audible spectrum.
To do that we need to introduce some other waveforms. So let’s turn the waveform dial on OSC 1 to about 40%. Now it’s adding some 3rd order harmonics from the square wave.
Next we’ll add OSC 2, and we’re going to choose the same waveform, but pitch it down -12 semitones (one octave). We’ll add a little bit less harmonics here, because we want the pure low end of the sine wave to support our bottom end.
We also want to add a bit more harmonic texture to this to make sure it really feels thick and loud in a mix. We’ll go to FX1, select Classic Tube, and then dial the Dry/Wet mix to about 30%.
We can also drop DIRT on it from Native Instruments, which has a great preset called “808 kicker.” The Classic Tube and the Dirt plugin model analog types of saturation, which give 2nd order harmonics to supplement the 3rd order harmonics we added with the square waveform.
Here is how this sounds now.
We can hear it much more clearly. The bass still feels smooth, but the hum of it will now ring out in many more types of speakers and feel fuller in a mix. Here’s how the spectrum looks in Neutron now.
How to mix 808s
A lot of producers struggle with making an 808 sound right in the context of a full mix, because mixing low end can be a real challenge for anyone. And the other primary sound in the low frequencies is a kick drum. So now that we have the sound of our 808 shaped nicely, let’s figure out how to make it work with a kick.
1. Get your kick ready
I’ve grabbed a kick from the BATTERY 4 library, using the MotherBoard Expansion pack. You can use kicks from almost any kit, whatever is to your liking. We’re going to shorten the decay here in the “Volume Envelope” section. We want just the first punch of the kick, but not much decay.
Remember that our bass decay is created by the 808 coming from MASSIVE, so we want to avoid the kick disrupting that. Too much decay in the kick will overlap with the 808, and they will mask each other.
This is the kick with a shortened decay.
808 with Kick, Shortened Decay
We can beef up this kick with a little bit of compression using SUPERCHARGER. Here it is with a bit of compression.
Here's how the kick sounds with the compression added.
Kick with Compression
2. EQ the 808
Now we want to start making sure that the kick and bass will mix properly together. So let’s start with the Neutron EQ, and put that on the channel with our 808 from Massive. We want to just notch out the fundamental frequency of the kick from our 808 channel, so that they combine nicely with each other. We’ll open the Dynamic section of the band that sits where our kick fundamental is (62 Hz) and we’ll have it sidechained to the input from Band 2 in our kick channel.
Here’s how the 808 EQ looks in Neutron.
3. Use sidechain compression
Now, when the kick and bass hit together, the kick’s fundamental will duck out of the bass, while the rest of the harmonics decay freely. We have another Sidechain trick we can play here, so we’re going to use SOLID DYNAMICS, and sidechain the full spectrum of the bass to the full spectrum of the kick. So the entire bass will briefly drop in volume for the early hit of the kick.
Here’s how that looks:
We’re using a very low threshold, a medium ratio, and relatively short release. This will ensure that the early pop of the kick ducks the 808 out of the way, but lets the 808 take over as it resolves.
This is the 808 soloed, but being ducked by the kick.
808 Solo'd, Sidechained
Let’s hear how the kick and bass are working together now.
808 and Kick, Sidechained
These feel like they’re working together, and not against each other. They’ll translate nicely on a lot of speakers, from earbuds to big subwoofers. To learn more about how to get kicks and bass to work together, check out this guide on how to mix kick and bass.
4. Adjust 808 levels
How loud should your 808 be in the mix? The ideal loudness level for an 808 in a mix can vary depending on the genre of music and the overall sound you're aiming for. The amount of headroom you should leave can vary depending on the specific context and desired outcome, but a general guideline is to aim for around 6 dB of headroom.
iZotope Insight has K-System metering, which means its level meters display the K-20 scale via the Levels options window. Effectively, this meter moves the 0 point to -20 dBFS, and then shows how much of the 20 dB of headroom above that you’re using.
If you build a well balanced mix, you’ll likely find that at the loudest points in the mix the average levels get up to maybe the +4 or +5 mark on the K-20 meter. For mixing 808s, an ideal level would be -3 to 0 mark on a K-20 scale to allow other mix elements to be added.
Mixing 808s isn’t that fundamentally different from mixing any other source though, so follow good gain staging and headroom practices and you’ll be fine.
Now that our 808 has been EQ’d, and it’s mixing with the kick, and we know it’s at the proper level in the mix, let’s hear how it works as a bass line.
Since our 808 and our kick are going to be some of the most prominent parts of our mix, we can use that as the starting point to begin fitting in the rest of the mix around them. We’ve added some other drum samples taken from the original Roland TR-808 to complete the feeling of this kit. Here’s how it sounds:
808 Beat, Mixed
Start mixing 808s with ease
Remember, there are no hard and fast rules for 808 mixing, so trust your ears, experiment, and develop your own unique approach. With practice and a discerning ear, you'll be able to create mixes that make the 808s shine while maintaining clarity, impact, and musicality throughout your music production journey.
To learn more about mixing your low end, take a look at how to mix the low end, how to EQ your mix, and tips for mixing bass.