Sometimes even the most beautifully played and recorded bass has trouble finding its place in the mix. So what’s the first thing a lot of engineers do, myself included? We reach for the nearest compressor. Squishing the dynamics down lets you boost the overall level, and that immediately raises the bass’s profile in the overall mix.
This technique works, and it may be the only thing that works in the case of a part that’s badly played, or with an instrument that’s not sonically balanced. You know the instrument I’m talking about—the one where the A string is louder than all of the others.
But with a well conceived and played part on a good instrument, squishing the dynamics with a compressor is not necessarily the best solution. Yes, you may gain some gain, but, puns intended, this gained gain comes at a cost (no pain, no gain doesn’t just apply at the gym). You lose some of the pop and ping of the original dynamics when you compress. In other words, there’s a risk of taking the excitement out of the track.
Over the years I’ve learned a few ways other than simple compression that get the job done while maintaining more of the excitement. Here are two that you can use in a variety of situations.
Method 1: Split personality
I saw a fellow traveller in the engineering world use this simple technique several years ago. It has stuck with me and I’ve used it to great effect ever since.
His trick is to split the bass track to two channels of the mixer or two channels in your DAW. With a mixer you would return the playback to a mult (multiple-output) point in your patch bay and route two copies of the output from there to two separate mixer inputs. With a DAW you can just clone the track.
The first channel gets a compressor inserted. Most mixers have a channel insert point near each channel’s input, where a tip-ring-sleeve (TRS) plug may be inserted; this plug is at the end of a Y-cord that sends and returns the signal to and from a processor like, in this case, a compressor.
Use the best compressor available to you. A UREI 1176 or an LA2 would be good choices in either hard- or software formats. When using a plug-in on one track and not the other in a DAW, make sure that the delay caused by the plug-in processing is compensated for to prevent comb filtering.
The second of the two channels remains uncompressed. All the dynamics are preserved—the only processing I would recommend, if needed or desired at this stage, is eq. I like to give the bass a little touch in the 40 to 60 Hz range and maybe a little dip somewhere in the mids to make room for other instruments.
You’ll tailor compressor attack and release times to the nature of the track. You’ll probably pick a fairly fast attack, with quicker release times for uptempo tracks while ballads and mid tempos can take a little longer to relax. Play with the ratio and the threshold until you get some satisfactory gain management.
You want to bring out the sustain of the instrument for slower tunes with lots of held notes Don’t worry about being too subtle as this compressed track won’t dominate in the mix. I usually start with a 4:1 ratio and a –10 threshold for a track recorded with good levels.
When you mix you can blend these two signals together, favoring the uncompressed track. The compressed track is there for support. You get the best of both worlds with this kind of setup. The snap and sparkle of the original track’s dynamics are still evident but you’ve got a degree of gain management and a boost in sustain to beef up the track’s presence in the grand overall scheme of the mix.
Method 2: Wake-up call
Sometimes what the bass needs is a good slap in the head... something to get its ears ringing. [Dear reader: Please note that rugged Canada differs in this regard from the civilized U.S. where such behavior is frowned upon.—Ed.] A little distortion is often the rude awakening that the bass needs so it can be brought under control and into line with the rest of the band. Distortion works best on faster tempos, but subtle and harmonically pleasing grunge can work well on a ballad if it fits the attitude of the tune.
I often run the bass out of an insert and into a guitar pedal. There are lots of devices that can achieve distortion effects—the Tech 21 SansAmp, for example, seems to have taken up residence in just about every studio I go to these days. There’s an endless selection of devices that model different circuits and cabinets, all able to give the bass a little or a lot of edge if so desired. Try a few and see what works for you.
My personal favorite is my cherished Chandler Tube Drive pedal—it actually employs a real tube. Another favorite distortion generator I use is a Project r Tube Mic Preamplifier I built; like many of the Project r devices premiered in this magazine, this pre is available in kit form from PAiA Electronics, www.paia.com. If driven hard enough this unit can add just a hint of fuzz to the bass, giving it a nice vintage sound that clients have characterised as Beatle-esque.
A device that uses a tube has the added benefit of adding a gentle compression to the instrument. Sometimes I find that’s all the compression the bass needs. Subtle yet effective. You could use the two-channel trick with this technique as well, blending the distorted bass back in to achieve just the right effect.
Bill Stunt is a producer, engineer, and radio-show host for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Ottawa, Ontario. He also plays a mean looped blue parlor guitar.