No matter what genre you're mixing, you've probably encountered an unruly low end that can mess up the whole mix. In this free video tutorial, iZotope product specialist Geoff Manchester walks you through some techniques to help you manage low end in a mix.
At some point, every engineer has had difficulty taming the beast that is low end. Why? Multiple factors are involved. For one, imperfect rooms treat low-end information imperfectly—and many rooms are imperfect. Another factor compounding the issue is monitoring, especially in project studios; nearfield monitors, often utilized in home-based mixing rooms, tend to taper off below a bass-hound’s favorite frequencies; subwoofers are untenable in certain situations (ones involving neighbors, often); and cans tend to over-exaggerate the lows, leading to a cure that might be worse than the disease.
The third factor is experience, or a lack thereof. Yes, it takes time to learn how to identify low-end issues, to tell them apart from your room and monitoring issues, and to find practical, actionable solutions.
Now, we here at iZotope can’t come over to your place and treat your room for you; likewise, while I’d love to donate a pair of excellent full range monitors to everyone who asked for them, that too is impossible. We can, however, address that third issue with some concrete tips and tricks—giving you the tools you need to accrue experience in managing low end.
Listen For Frequency Masking
Frequency masking occurs when two instruments are fighting for the same frequency space. In the case of low end, one could imagine the fundamental of a bass masking the sonic information of the kick, which leads to two specific problems. First, you won’t be able to hear either instrument particularly well. Second, with a buildup of both, you may experience an overblown, woofy low-end—a bass response that throws off the balance of your mix.
Sidechain Elements To Each Other To Make Room
One of the easiest ways to calibrate the low-end properly is to sidechain a sustained bass element to a more percussive one. You hear obvious examples of this all the time in EDM, where the bass sucks and ducks to the kick. But you can do this in multiband for an even more precise, yet subtle effect. This trick works in a variety of genres, and here’s an example of how:
Say you’ve got a lovely, perfectly mixed rock bass, but it’s getting in the way of the kick drum. Here you can set up a dynamic equalizer or multiband compressor on the frequencies of the bass that mask the kick. Assign the sidechain’s input to the kick drum, and tweak both the attack and release to the appropriate values.
Let One Instrument Win
Consider thinking of managing the low-end as a war—a war, specifically, between the kick drum and the bass, where both fight for two frequency bands: 40–60 Hz, and 80–100 Hz. One winds the lower territory, while the other is relegated to the high ground, where it does its solemn duty-free of lowly interference. Of course, it winds up being far more complicated in the long run, as other instruments sport essential content in those frequency ranges (heavy metal guitars and baritone vocalists come to mind).
Try EQ’ing An Uneven Element Into A Compressor
Many of us love to compress our kick drums and basses. On kick drums, compression helps achieve punch, smack, slap, and other such adjectives. On bass, we can elicit both smoothness and attack from the act of squeezing the dynamic range. Indeed, one of the first bass tips we used was to slap an 1176-type compressor with the attack around noon and the release around 3 o’clock on the bass, using a 4:1 ratio. This is still a favourite setting of ours, tweaked to taste of course.
But what if the kick, bass, or low-end element has been recorded in a suboptimal fashion? What if certain notes poke out? Here, you might be wise to try a little EQ before feeding the compressor. Why? To cheat the compressor into responding to the signal as a whole, rather than the loudest, spikiest, or otherwise worst part of the signal.
Cheat The Perception Of Lows With Harmonic Distortion
A lot of lovable low-end content can suddenly disappear from cheap earbuds or computer laptops. So, if you’ve ever put your mix up against a famous, commercial reference on a laptop speaker and wondered why the bass is lacking in your mix, try the following trick:
Bus your bass, kick, or low-end element to a separate aux channel. Examine, with a frequency analyser, where the fundamental frequency range is—where you see a spike in frequency response. If it’s in the 60–120 Hz range, you might not be able to hear this on a laptop. But you will be able to hear its overtones, which help carry the illusion of bass across narrow-frequency listening systems. An octave up should do the trick, so if your bass is hitting at 80 Hz, juice the corresponding aux track to give off more 160 Hz. Here’s the thing: we’re not going to do this with EQ; instead, we’ll harmonic distortion.
Take The Average Of Different Monitoring Platforms To Get The Right Balance
As we’ve established, you might not have the best system for hearing your low end. You know what the second-best system is? A whole bunch of them! Stephen King once gave some particularly apt advice on receiving writerly feedback. To summarise, he said that if you hand out a story to a bunch of readers, and they all give back different, conflicting critiques, discard it all. However, if they all gave back the same critique, you need to address that one issue.
The advice translates to your low end: Listen back to your mix on all your speaker systems and cans. Take note of what works and what doesn’t. If the mix sounds consistently muddy in the low-mids or lows, you know you have a problem.
Use References And A Frequency Analyser Across The Mix
We recommend stacking your mix against two or three reference tracks. It keeps you honest—especially in the low-end, where your monitoring situation, headphone choice, and sheer love for the lows can trick you into overhyping the bass in an unprofessional way.
Ozone 8 makes referencing between tracks easy. Simply load your tracks into the reference pane, level match, and go from there. But when you’re just starting, you’ll want to rely on more than your ears; you’ll want to see what’s going on too, as this will help you make better decisions.
Frequency analyzers come in especially handy here, as does the Tonal Balance Control plug-in, in Ozone Advanced and Neutron Advanced, which shows you not only if your low-end is stacking against modern pop or EDM standards (or a pre-loaded reference track), but also analyzes if the low-end might appear too compressed with its low-end crest factor meter.
Try For Yourself
Download a free session of a song by Elijah Woods x Jamie Fine to practice your mixing skills.
If you’re finding you’re not getting the low end to sit just right, don’t beat yourself up about it; you’re only human. GRAMMY-winning engineers worry about their bottom end, grown men and women lament the bass horrors they have wrought. But they never stopped working at it, no matter how much they doubt themselves.
Take a cue from them: The important thing is to keep soldiering on, to keep referencing commercial material while you practice your craft, and to strive, always, for the right balance at every turn. If you have a self-critical nature, use it as a tool rather than a crutch. Always be in pursuit of your goal, employ some of these tips and tricks, and you’ll be well on your way.