(This is part 6 of a 6-part series by staff engineer Justin Colletti. Check out part 1 on bass management, part 2 on high frequencies, part 3 on bus compression, part 4 on panning for width, part 5 on depth, and part 6 on getting better balances.)
Whenever new clients come to the mastering studio, the area with the most room for improvement is usually the bottom end. This is especially true for those who have been going it alone, and trying to do everything themselves.
Getting the lows right is such a crucial component of making a great recording that if all your mastering engineer ever did was double-check the low-end in a room that’s perfectly suited to the task, their rate would probably be worth it for that one tweak alone!
But even though we can do a lot to help make the most of a problem track, the best masters will always come from the best mixes. To help yourself get even better lows, the first thing to do is understand where low end issues come from to begin with. The second is to figure out what you can do about them.
Why Low End Can Frustrate Mixing Engineers
Almost all mixing rooms—even professional ones—have significant “peaks” and “nulls” in the low-frequency range. This naturally skewed frequency response can make it nearly impossible for a mix engineer to reliably gauge whether the bass instruments will sound appropriately balanced and powerful on all systems. Having been a mixer in the first half of my career, I know first-hand how challenging (and sometimes confidence-sapping) this can be.
Adding to the issue, most mixers rely heavily on nearfield monitors that don’t reproduce the extreme lows at all. In some mixing rooms, these small speakers may be complemented by a set of larger, ported monitors that reproduce deeper lows, but usually with misleading resonances. Though either of these kinds of speakers may be very helpful in sorting to out midrange balances—which are indeed the most important part of your mix—their limitations make it easy to understand how independent mastering engineers stay in business!
This “low end uncertainty issue” manifests itself in predictable ways: Many mixes, especially from clients who are new to mastering, will often have an unintended over-abundance of sub bass that will actually makes the track sound less powerful than it could. It’s also common for a specific part of the bass range to be either over-emphasized or under-emphasized, as the mix engineer takes misleading cues from the room and monitors.
It’s worth noting that this kind of thing is usually not the fault of the mix engineer at all. Often, the mixer is doing a great job, making exactly the right low-end choices for the room, speakers, and position he or she is listening in. The problem is that these great choices just don’t end up translating as intended, or as expected, in other listening environments.
It’s impossible to say where this kind of problem will show up in advance: One engineer’s mixes may come with an unintended bump at 60 Hz, while another’s mixes may have strange resonances near 110Hz, and a third mixer may have a weak or nearly empty spot around 80Hz. There are so many ways to make decisions that sound good in one room, while inadvertently throwing the bass range out of whack everywhere else.
What You Can Do About It
Of course, your best bet is to have a mastering engineer that you trust do an independent Q.C. of your mixes in a room specifically suited to the task—That’s why we’re here. But there are steps you can take to help improve your bottom end, increase your confidence in your work, and take more control of your mixes before you even get to that stage.
To address this issue during the mix , one of the best things you can do is to improve your room by adding a significant amount of low-frequency absorption, and investing in a set of speakers that are flat and resonance free-way all the way down to the very bottom.
While this is a worthwhile goal—and we wholeheartedly recommend taking as many steps in this direction as possible—the reality is that going all the way with it can be cost-prohibitive for many mixers. A setup that comes anywhere close to approaching the ideal is likely to cost far more than having 10-20 full-length albums professionally mastered by one of the best mastering engineers in the business.
The other problem is that this is not necessarily an instant solution for the mix you are working on right now. Even if you can afford some version of this approach, it may take some time to implement. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take immediately, that can help you improve you lows this very minute. Here are three tactics you can put into place today:
1. Use Low End References
Other than a soup-to-nuts room tuning, the first and best thing you can do is get to know your room by making ample use of professional quality references.
Doing this is pretty straightforward: Find commercial recordings that you love the sound of the low-end on, and listen to them in your mix room. Be sure to walk around your space in order to hear how the bottom end changes from place to place. The bass response can sound drastically different depending on where you’re sitting or standing in the mix room. Sometimes, a move of just a half a foot will make a big difference.
This is important enough that I recommend doing it every day. It’s a great way to help warm up your ears and really get to know your room. But be mindful: The specific low-end cues you get from one song may not apply to your own mix if it has a different tempo, different instrumentation, or comes from a different genre or style.
References are especially important when traveling to new rooms. It can be useful to have a few trusted tracks that you’ve heard everywhere to help you get acclimated to a new space.
Back when I was working on a lot of indie rock records in new and unfamiliar spaces, I might play Air’s “Le Femme d’Argent” to hear how its bass concentration in the 70-80Hz range worked in the room, or Blonde Redhead’s “Elephant Woman” to hear what’s happening in the subs way down around 50Hz.
Today, I reference new recordings from across genres all the time in the mastering studio, and I recommend that you do too. You can learn as much from listening to Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” or Britney Spears’ “Toxic” as you can from hearing your own favorite classic recordings, whether they’re from The National, Billie Holiday, Animal Collective, Black Crowes or Johnny Cash. (All mastered here at JLM, incidentally.)
The author Stephen King once said that “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Replace “read” with “listen” and “write” with “mix“, and you have some pretty darn good advice for our industry as well.
2. Divide and Conquer Your Lows
The second thing you can do right now to get much better bottom-end is to make a conscious choice over which instrument will be the deepest one in your mix.
Is your bass lower than your kick, or is you kick lower than your bass? Try as you might, you just can’t have it both ways!
Do yourself a favor and take it from so many of the greats who came before us: Trying to make two instruments dominant in the same part of the low frequency range is a recipe for unstable and uninteresting bottom end. The earlier you learn this fact, the better your mixes will be. And I hope you learn this lesson even earlier in your career than I did.
This can be a stumbling block for many mixers as they are improving their craft: “That synth bass patch sounded so big and fat when I was programming it! The subs on that kick sounded so delicious when solo’d!” But often, cutting the deepest lows from one instrument can make the whole low end sound more massive and more defined, as you free up territory for the bass instrument that really should be occupying that range.
There are several ways to approach this idea, and the specific solution may vary from song to song: You might let a slow, subby bass dominate the 40-80 Hz range, while a tight, punchy kick dominates the 90-180 Hz range. (Or vice versa!) You might have a deep kick that has has ample energy around 50Hz and 100Hz, with a bass guitar that slides right into a hole around 70-90Hz. (Or vice versa again!)
Cutting lows to get bigger lows can feel counter-intuitive at first, but be ruthless if necessary: If your low end sounds muddy, cluttered and unruly, a “hi pass” (aka low cut) filter on one of your lowest instruments will often do the trick. Sometimes a little bit of subtraction is what will make the low end sound tight and huge.
Don’t listen to your mental chatter, your preconceived ideas, or your ego when it comes to making this decision: Listen to the sound coming out of the speakers. You might also try listening to some of your favorite mixes with this idea in mind. Once you’re conscious of it, you may notice that this is going on a lot more than you ever expected.
3. Listen to Your Mixes in a Great Room
The third and final thing you can do is to take your mixes into an amazing listening environment, and start working with a mastering engineer who can help you understand how the bottom end is working in your mixes.
So many of our clients have told us how much they learned about making better-sounding mixes from stopping by the studio—or even working with us remotely.
As much as I love taking a track from good to great, I have to admit that one of the most gratifying parts of being a mastering engineer is hearing from colleagues and clients that “working with you has made me a better mixer.”
And if you made it this far, you’re welcome to sit down with me or Joe in the studio for your session anytime!