By Jake Wood Originally published in the July 2009 issue of DRUM! Magazine
Spinal Tap said it best with “big bottom drive me out of my mind,” and their wisdom resonates to this day as a common result of mismanaged mixing of the low end. Temperamental bass frequencies, whether in abundance or lack thereof, can drive listeners batty, as opinions of bass boosting and cutting drastically vary. As good as it can sound, it is indeed possible to go too far with the “umph,” and adding unchecked sub-low frequencies will muddy up the mid range and lower overall intelligibility. Therefore, the decision here, dear Lady Justices of the console, is to balance clarity and strength. The following suggestions will aid in molding suitable mud flaps to any tune.
In the earlier stages of mixing, attend to clarity first by carving out different sub patterns for the bass guitar and kick. In general, the kick will need a slight sub boost (usually from 50—250 Hz), and the bass guitar will accentuate that area by living somewhere slightly above it. For all other tracks that don’t occupy the lower end (i.e., vocals, harmonica, shaker, etc.), cut out anything below 60Hz.
With a roughly sculpted low end, begin referencing albums that have stood the test of time. Use artists from similar genres, and also check out material from atypical bands and producers. A/B their songs back to back with the work in progress, and a lot of surprising elements might start to pop out. You’ll find that many different low-end strategies work. For instance, The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik is virtually devoid of bass when compared to almost any other album. It’s surprisingly dry, crispy, and papery thin, which is pretty remarkable for an album so popular among bass players and drummers. On the other hand, while in a similar genre as The Peppers, Soul Coughing albums are typically very heavy in the sub department as a means to enhance the sound of the upright bass.
After aligning equalizer patterns to similar albums, remember that location is just as important as the stereo system, because every room affects bass differently. For the seemingly perfect environment, some engineers claim that headphones are the only way to truly monitor low end. It’s best to be thorough, however, and audition the main three listening stations: home stereos, headphones, and car systems.
Finally, remember that mastering can make or break that precious kick.