No matter how the part’s written, mixing bass guitar is one of the most important elements of your song. It’s also one of the hardest to get right.
Want to make your tracks sound professional? Read this guide below to learn everything you’ll need to mix a killer bass.
But first, I made a cheat sheet just for this article to help you remember what you’ve learned.
It’s a stellar reference for when you’re in the heat of mixing!
Download it below:
- Step 1: Check Your Arrangement
- Step 2: Focus on The Recording
- Step 3: Balance Your Bass in the Mix
- Step 4: Use Reference Tracks
- Step 5: Make it Consistent With Compression
- Step 6: Balance the Low End with EQ
- Step 7: Thicken the Bass with Saturation
- Mixing Bass Guitar: Conclusion
Step 1: Check Your Arrangement
I know, this has nothing to do with mixing. But hear me out.
Before you start the mixing process, you need to look at your arrangement. Are there other parts masking the bass notes?
Arrangement refers to all of the notes of a song, and the instruments that play them. Sometimes, changing those notes is necessary to get a more powerful low end.
Check out this EQ chart. Instruments in the part of the frequency spectrum where the bass sits (60Hz-200Hz) are easily covered up. The more instruments that have notes in that range, the worse the bass will sit in the mix.
Look at the parts in the song.
What parts are too low?
What parts could be cut?
Are there parts that could be taken up an octave?
Maybe it’s the left hand in a piano part.
Or several low guitar parts.
Or even a synth or two.
Before you even record your bass, make sure it has room to breathe!
Of course, this does not apply to the kick drum. That’s the bass’s older brother. They fight and get on each other’s nerves, but ultimately, they’re family.
We’ll cover how to get the kick drum and bass guitar to play nicely later in this guide.
Step 2: Focus on The Recording
90% of your sound is going to come from this step. So make it count.
Get the Tone Right Before Mixing
In order to get a good mix, you have to have good tone.
Be intentional. Consider the rest of the song. What tone would fit best with the other instruments?
Before you ever reach for an EQ, try to create that tone using your amp (or amp sim).
Want a boomy bass? Crank the lows, or cut the highs.
Want something with a little more slap? Cut the lows, or boost your highs.
Want a bright tone, one that won’t hold down the low end but will cut through the mix? Cut your lows and boost your mids.
If you start with a good foundation, mixing bass guitar will be 10x easier.
Amp Sims and Recording Direct
If you’re using an amp sim, don’t think you’re off the hook.
You’ve got a little more work to do!
The world of amp sims is a little more complicated than the realm of the bass amplifier. It’s a new game with new rules.
But with a little effort, you can make your DI bass guitar sound just as good (if not better) than one recorded through a real amp.
So – before you even start, make sure you have the right gear.
Make sure you have a proper DI box. Or, alternatively, an audio interface with a direct-in option.
These help the signal from your instrument to pass through more accurately. It’ll really help the sound of your bass.
Then, make sure you have a decent amp simulation software.
(I go through a LOT of options (both free and premium) in this article. Take a look if you need help weeding through your choices.)
When recording through a DI box, make sure your gain staging is good. How loud your bass notes are will affect the tone of the amp sim.
I go through how to properly set your instrument levels in this blog post. Read it a few times, ‘cause it’s good advice for all of your recordings!
Once you’ve recorded your DI bass, you want to make sure that you put on a low-pass filter. The high frequencies can distort in DI recordings, and your track can sound unnaturally digital.
Set your low-pass filter at around 10kHz to cut those nasty frequencies out.
After that, you can set the tone of your bass exactly as you would on a bass amp! Pick the amp cabinet that fits your needs for the song, then turn the knobs until you find the tone you want.
Remember, when it comes to tone – be intentional.
Know what you are looking for before you start. Search for it with a purpose, don’t just randomly turn knobs.
(Note: With DI bass, you don’t necessarily NEED an amp sim. Those are more necessary with DI electric guitars than basses. Sometimes the bass needs a little more “umpf”, but other times the dry tone works just fine.)
If you want to get your amp sims sounding right every time, I made a free cheat sheet to help with mixing bass guitar.
Check it out below:
Step 3: Balance Your Bass in the Mix
Want to know the biggest secret to mixing bass guitar?
It’s so simple, but so overlooked.
The big secret:
Get really, really good at balancing the volume of your tracks.
It’s not flashy, but 80% of a solid mix comes from proper balancing.
The same is true for a solid low end!
Before you move onto EQ and compression, you have to balance your bass with the rest of the instruments.
It’s really simple.
Does it sound too boomy? Turn the track down.
Too thin? Turn it up.
Be aware – you’ll need to use automation to make sure the bass sits well in each part of the song.
If it’s sitting well in the chorus, but its too loud in the verses, don’t turn the whole track down! Just adjust the level of that verse.
Doing this will keep your mix dynamic and energetic, rather than uneven and lifeless.
You will add more processing in the next steps to make your bass more consistent. But proper balancing is important in creating the foundation. Without balance, no amount of compression or EQ is going to make it sound professional.
One technique to make your bass sound more consistent is to automate the track gain.
Let’s say that your verse is played fairly quiet, and your chorus is performed extra loud.
You obviously want to keep the dynamic contrast of that part if that’s what the song calls for. That, however, poses a problem.
All your processing (e.g. compression or distortion) on the track will go crazy in the chorus, and will hardly work at all in the verses.
For example, in the choruses, you might be getting 5dB of compression.
But in the verse, you’re not getting any gain reduction at all!
The solution? Gain automation.
Gain automation is the process where you are turning the GAIN of the track up in certain sections, rather than the VOLUME.
GAIN is the level going into your effects. VOLUME is the level coming out.
This will make your bass sound consistent throughout the song, even in the quieter parts!
Step 4: Use Reference Tracks
The next step to mixing bass guitar is to use a reference track. This is crucial to a professional low end.
What is a reference track? It’s a professionally mixed song that you use as a point of reference while you’re mixing.
Basically, you listen to a song in the same vein as your current mix, and ask yourself these kinds of questions…
“Are my guitars too loud?”
“Is my vocal too dull?”
“Are my keys panned too wide?”
When you use your answers to tweak your mix, you have one of the best ways to make your mix translate well on all different kinds of speakers. It’s a godsend.
For your low end, it’s especially important. Having a well-balanced low end can make or break your mix.
Without it, your mix will fall apart in other speakers.
There is a special technique to getting the balance of the low end to sit just right.
First, make sure your reference track is the same volume as your current mix. Otherwise, your balance will be off no matter what!
Load up a VU meter (I prefer the Klanghelm VUMT, though any would work) and play your track, taking note of how loud it is. Then play the reference track and check its volume too.
Because the VU meter is slower and more accurate to what the human ear is actually hearing, you’ll get a better idea for where the two tracks are in relation to each other.
If the reference track is louder than your track, just turn it down to the same level.
IMPORTANT: Make sure the reference track isn’t being processed by any effects on your master buss! Otherwise it won’t be accurate. To avoid this, create a stereo aux track that will function as your mix’s stereo output and send all of your tracks there. Put any plugins you want for the mix buss on that track. Then, send your faux-stereo-out and the reference tracks to the actual stereo output. Simple as that!
(Alternatively, use a plugin like Magic AB in your last plugin slot on the master fader.)
Once the reference and your track are the same level, place an EQ on the stereo output and put a low-pass filter at 200Hz.
Now, all you’re listening to is the low end of both tracks!
Take a few seconds and listen to both.
Does yours sound too loud?
Tweak your bass and kick drum until the low end sounds like the low end of your reference track. Now your mix will transfer to different speakers much better!
Congrats. You’re one step closer to a professional low end.
Step 5: Make it Consistent With Compression
One of the most important things in a professional low end is consistency. You want to make sure that your bass doesn’t have random notes that stick out from the others.
To tame those dynamics, turn to a compressor.
Try using a slow release time. Bass guitar tends to have longer sustain in each note, so you want the compressor to catch it all.
If you get your release time just right, your bass will sound nice and fat. Too short though, and the bass could start distorting or “pumping”. This is because the compressor relaxes and disengages before the note is finished.
You want to time the release time to the tempo of the song. Ideally the gain reduction meter doesn’t return to zero until right before the next note.
Start with a release time of 150ms, and move it faster or slower from there. That should be a good starting point.
Alternatively, If your compressor has an auto-release function, use it. It will often work better than manually setting the release time.
Start compressing with a slow attack time as well. Try around 20-40ms.
If the transients of your bass notes are inconsistent, you can make the attack time faster. If some notes are clicky and others are quiet, a faster attack time might be necessary.
In modern production, bass instruments are compressed more than other instruments in the mix. Don’t be afraid to get 4-10dBs of gain reduction.
If that’s sounding a little too obvious, try using a technique called serial compression.
Get your compressor to get about 3dB of gain reduction, then copy and paste that plugin beneath it.
You’ll get the same amount of compression, but each compressor won’t be working nearly as hard.
It’ll sound much more natural!
Also: Remember to use makeup gain with your compression! Otherwise, you’re just making the bass quieter.
Step 6: Balance the Low End with EQ
The Pocket EQ Technique
Remember that tense family rivalry the kick and bass have? This is where we resolve their differences.
What we want to do is to create a pocket for each low end instrument to sit in. It’s simpler than you think.
Using the Pocket EQ technique will cement the relationship between the kick drum and the bass guitar. It’ll make sure your tracks aren’t too muddy or too thin and lifeless in the low end. It’s a key part of mixing the bass guitar.
1) Find the Pocket.
The first thing you need to consider is this:
Which instrument is going to hold down the low end? The kick, or the bass?
The reason the kick drum and bass guitar fight so much is that they occupy the same area. So we need to give them seperate spaces to live in.
If they each have their own space – or one has the priority overall – that’s going to make your low end sound much clearer, more defined, and far less muddy.
Whether the bass guitar has the priority or not is going to vary depending on the genre.
If it’s something like hip-hop or electronic music, then the kick is probably going to have priority over the bass. The kick drum will take up a lot more of the low end, and the bass guitar will sit a little higher in the mix.
Maybe the kick is taking care of all the sub-bass frequencies – and then the bass is sitting higher in the mix, maybe between 100 and 200 hertz. In this case, the kick will have priority in the sub bass.
In rock, punk, and a lot of hardcore and metal music, it’s the other way around. The bass takes care of the sub EQ frequencies. The bass provides the constant low end, and then the kick has more punch and attack in the upper midrange.
If you imagine a metal kick drum, it’s got a really high pitched ‘kk-kk-kk’ sound. It’s not about the big boominess that you might expect from hip-hop.
If you’re not sure which should have priority, listen to some genre-specific references. Observe what’s going on in the low end of each track, and adjust accordingly.
One more thing you can do to try and find the pocket for the bass is to simply look at what you’re working with.
If you’re mixing a bass guitar and a kick drum with a lot of low end energy, the kick drum would likely be the best candidate to be present lower in the spectrum. So you would decide for your kick drum to take up the space below 100 Hz, and the bass guitar would take up the space between 100 and 200 Hz.
So depending on the tone of your instruments, the song may have already dictated where each part is going to sit.
2) High-Pass Filter
This seems counterproductive, but you may want to use a high-pass filter on the bass.
Stay with me here.
When you’re mixing the bass and kick together, you need to consider that we don’t actually want that frequency content that’s being taken up by the kick drum. We want the kick drum to have its own space to live.
So putting a high-pass filter between 50 and 100 Hz would actually help the bass and kick to play better together! This will tighten up the low end.
It also “rounds out” the bass. It gives it more energy in the lows and low mids, and gets rid of the boominess in the sub bass that is fighting with the kick.
If the bass guitar is providing the sub bass instead of the kick drum, a high-pass filter may still be beneficial. Some low end “boom” can be detrimental no matter what. But if a high-pass filter is necessary, make sure not to take it higher than 30 Hz.
3) Exaggerate the Pocket
Next, find where the bass is going to sit (say, 170 Hz), and boost it there. You want to make sure it has enough presence in that area, so that it can really own the bass pocket.
A massive boost will likely not be necessary. 2 to 4 dB with a wide bandwidth should be plenty.
Warning: this step may not be necessary! If the tone of the bass is already heavy in the area that you are choosing, boosting it could cause the bass to be too overpowering in the mix. Use your ears to decide whether or not to boost.
4) Remove the Stuff You Don’t Need
We’ve already tightened up the low end with that high-pass filter, but now we can remove some of the top end that we don’t need. It’s just filling out space in the mix.
Use a low-pass filter between 6-10 kHz to cut the highs that you don’t need.
What this means is we are essentially creating a band-pass filter for the bass to live in.
5) Make Space for the Bass Guitar
Once we’ve really got the tone going on the bass guitar, we can now address other areas of the mix, like the kick drum or guitars.
Maybe there’s a keyboard part with the left hand in the lower range of the piano that’s interfering with the bass. Even vocals could be conflicting with the bass guitar if the vocalist has a low enough range.
So use EQ to create more space in the mix for that pocket. Carve out some of the lows in these instruments. Create that pocket for the bass to sit in.
And that’s it! You’ve successfully created a pocket for your bass and kick to live in.
Now they’ll play nicely together. No more fighting.
Just one big happy family.
Step 7: Thicken the Bass with Saturation
Finally, you may want to make your bass a little thicker, or poke out a little more in smaller speakers. Here’s where saturation comes into play.
Saturation is a fancy word for analog distortion. It does a great job of subtly “filling out” the sound of an instrument.
[A warning: I am very passionate about being able to use stock plugins to produce professional mixes. However, saturation is an exception. Most DAWs don’t have a great plugin to achieve this sound. There are a few plugins I would recommend. Klanghelm IVGI is a FREE saturation plugin that I think sounds great. It’s stellar to use while learning to use saturation in your mixes. When you’ve learned the techniques and are ready to upgrade to a better sound, I would recommend the FabFilter Saturn.]
For bass, you may want to add saturation to the track to sound more full. This would be great if, after all of the work you’ve done so far, the bass still feels too thin.
If this is the case, try lightly saturating the lows. Take the tone knob of your plugin and turn it down to that area of the frequency spectrum. Make sure to use your output knob to properly gain stage this effect!
You can also use saturation to make the bass sound better in smaller speakers.
One of the biggest problems with the low end is that it gets lost in headphones, phone speakers, and other smaller stereo systems. They’re too small to be able to produce lower frequencies, so the bass just gets lost.
By using saturation to add subtle distortion to the top end of the bass, you can help it to pop out more in those small speakers.
Try saturating the bass in the low mids and above. Because those are the frequencies that are available in those small speakers, the extra “push” of the saturation will help with translation.
This way the bass will cut through the mix without having to boost with EQ.
Remember: saturation is more meant to be felt than heard. A little goes a long way!
Mixing Bass Guitar: Conclusion
And that’s it! Follow these steps, practice these principles, and you should be able to produce a professional-sounding bass for your song in no time.
Step 1) Tweak the arrangement so that other parts aren’t taking up space in the low end.
Step 2) Get your tone right before recording.
Step 3) Balance the bass volume with the rest of your song. Use gain automation for extra consistency.
Step 4) Use reference tracks to make sure your low end sounds like the pros.
Step 5) Heavily compress the bass with a slow attack and a timed release or auto-release. Use serial compression if necessary.
Step 6) Use EQ to create a pocket for the bass and kick to live in.
Step 7) Use saturation if necessary to “fill the bass out” or make it pop in smaller speakers.
Want to make sure your bass sounds like the pros?
Download the free cheat sheet below to make sure you’re doing this right when you’re mixing bass guitar… So you can avoid making your mixes sound messy, muddy and amateur!
Audio professional, musician and founder of Musician on a Mission.