Mixing Low End: 10 Pro Tips

Mixing Low End: 10 Pro Tips Mixing Low End: 10 Pro Tips

Nothing says "amateur mix" quite like lousy low end.

In many ways, a mix without a decent low-end can be difficult to listen to. Think about how much information low frequencies give you. They can give you hints about genre and style, and add emotion and depth as the foundation upon which the melody and harmony is built.

Of course, even if you're working in a decent mixing environment with acoustic panels and professional monitors, trying to decipher what's happening down there can be a pain. In this guide, we're going to discuss some tips on mixing low end, so you can better manage what so many mixers see as the mortal enemy.

What is Low-End?

To mix the low-end, we first have to understand what it represents.

To me, the low-end encompasses frequencies between 20 Hz and 250 Hz . This portion of the frequency spectrum includes some of the deepest and most visceral sounds we hear, including bass guitar, kick drum, synth bass, and 808. You'll even find the lower range of other instruments down here, such as piano, guitar, vocals, snare, and synthesizer.

While the bulk of what we experience lies in the high and low mids, the low end provides us with a sense of weight, warmth, and foundation. In many ways, we feel these frequencies more than we hear them. You likely know the feeling of being hit with a sub bass at a club. There's no sensation like it.

Because it's such a powerful beast, we need to find ways to manage it effectively, so that our mixes are clear, powerful, and well-defined.

Why Is Mixing Low End So Hard?

Mixing the low end of a track can be challenging for several reasons.

For starters, low-frequency sounds have longer wavelengths compared to higher frequencies, which means they behave differently in a room. If you're mixing in an untreated space, phase cancellation is a very real threat to your mixes. When these long sound waves interact with the room's boundaries, they can cause certain bass frequencies to be exaggerated or reduced depending on where the listener is positioned.

This can make it incredibly difficult to judge low-end balance accurately.

Plus, the human ear is less sensitive to low frequencies than it is to midrange frequencies, meaning to perceive them as equally loud as their mid or high-frequency counterparts, they need more volume or energy.

Lastly, most consumer playback systems, such as the speakers on your laptop or earbuds, don't reproduce low-end very well. If you aren't mixing on proper studio monitors or headphones that can reproduce sub bass, you won't be able to mix it. After all, how do you mix what you can't hear?

Before we dive in and look at these mixing tips, I want to stress the importance of making sure your setup is dialed in for low-end mixing. Your listening device should be able to reproduce low frequency content and your room should be mildly treated in the least - soft furnishings and rugs can often do the job of expensive sound panels and bass traps.

Low-End Mixing Tips

1. Be Vigilant of Attack and Release Times

Though it might be an interesting point to start on, I want to first talk about compression. I have no doubt that you'll choose to use it on your low end. After all, we want a foundation that's solid, right?

Unfortunately, one of the easiest ways to destroy a mix is with poor compression technique.

The low end of a mix contains tons of energy, and the way in which you set your attack and release times on your compressor can completely alter the way in which this energy occurs.

If you use an attack time that's too fast, you can squash the transient of the kick drum or bass, removing the impact and making the low end feel weak or lifeless. Too slow, on the other hand, and you might let too much of the transient through, causing big spikes or peaks in your signal that can make your mix feel unbalanced.

So, what's the right way to use compression?

Compressing the Kick:

  • Attack Time : I like to let the initial transient of the kick to come through with a slightly slower attack time to maintain punch. A good starting point might be around 10-30 MS, depending on the kick and the effect you're going for.
  • Release Time : Set the release time to complement the tempo of the track. It should be short enough to recover before the next hit but not so short that it creates a pumping effect. Typically, between 30-50ms works well.
  • Ratio : A moderate ratio around 4:1 to 6:1 should control the dynamics without squashing the life out of your kick.
  • Threshold : Adjust the threshold so that the compressor kicks in during the louder hits to maintain a consistent level. Then, apply makeup gain to get it back up to its original loudness.

Compressing the Bass:

  • Attack Time : I'll often start by setting an attack time that allows some of the bass's initial transient to pass through uncompressed for definition and articulation. A fast attack is great for a warmer, rounder bass, while a slow attack is great for a punchier, funkier bass.
  • Release Time : Choose a release time that gels with the rhythm of your track. Fast release times are better for faster parts, while slower release times are better for long, sustained notes.
  • Ratio : A low to moderate ratio between 2:1 to 4:1 often does the trick.
  • Threshold : Set the threshold to catch and reduce the peaks. You may even use parallel compression, which we'll discuss in a bit.

Of course, the above tips are just starting points. After all, an 808 kick drum is different than an acoustic kick, just as a bass guitar is different than a synth bass. Even so, the basic ideas remain the same.

2. Compress Kick and Bass

One of the best secret tricks for getting that gluey, cohesive sound between kick and bass is compressing them together. It's a key technique for genres where the relationship between the kick and bass is crucial to the overall groove, such as EDM or hip-hop.

All you have to do is send them to a separate buss with a compressor to get around 2-3dB of gain reduction.

3. Use Multiband Compression on Bass

Bass is a dynamic instrument, especially in the lower frequencies. With multiband compression, you can get more precise control over those low-end dynamics by only addressing that specific frequency range.

I usually like to slap a multiband compressor like Waves C4 on my bass and apply heavy compression to those unruly low frequencies to get rid of mud, while applying slightly lighter (or no) compression to the mid and high frequencies to preserve the character and articulation that helps it cut through. Think of it as locking in the low end.

No matter what note your bass guitar hits, this technique should help the lows to feel more consistent.

4. Take Advantage of Sidechain Compression

Sidechain compression is an old dance music production trick that can be heard on just about any genre today. Though there are infinite ways to use sidechain compression, one of the main reasons we use it when mixing low end is to make sure the kick drum cuts through the mix clearly.

At its most basic definition, sidechain compression is using a signal from one track, which we call the sidechain source (the kick, in this instance) to control the compressor on another track (the bass, in this instance).

By momentarily reducing the volume of the bass when the kick hits, you create a pocket in the mix that helps the kick cut through without having to compete for the same frequency space. This is especially key if both the kick and bass need tons of low end, such as in EDM or hip-hop.

Here are some good settings to start with:

  • Threshold: Lower the threshold until the compressor starts reacting to the kick drum. 3dB to 6dB is great for subtle sidechaining, though if you want a bit more pump, you can push it further.
  • Ratio: A ratio of around 4:1 should be good for noticeable compression without overcooking it.
  • Attack Time: Go fast here, around 0.1 ms to 10 ms. You want the compressor to react to the kick immediately so its gets out of the way.
  • Release Time: Adjust the release time so the bass returns to its original volume quickly. 30 ms typically does the trick.

As a secondary benefit, sidechaining is a great way to accentuate the rhythm of your track by creating an ever-so-slight pumping effect.

5. Tame the Mix Buss

If I find that my compression in the mix isn't taming the low end like I want it to, I'll squeeze the lows on the mix buss with multiband compression. This is very much a last resort, especially if pristine low-end consistency is our aim.

I'll usually set my crossover point on my multiband compressor to 100Hz and get about 2-3dB of gain reduction. Lock it in and bring the makeup gain back up to its original volume. The ratio should be pretty gentle (2:1-3:1), with a medium to slow attack and a release time that gels with the groove of the track.

6. Use a Low-Pass Filter

Low-end elements like bass guitars, kick drums, and synths often contain unnecessary high-frequency content, such as hiss and string noise.

A low-pass filter is one of the best ways to cleanly remove these frequencies to make more room for mid and high-frequency instruments like vocals, guitars, and cymbals. You don't have to go super heavy-handed. I would suggest trying to take it down to around 7kHz on these instruments and see how it sounds.

7. Unmask the Low Frequencies

The low-end in a mix requires a lot of care. It's easy for bass frequencies from different instruments to overlap and become muddied. EQ is your best friend here.

Using a High-Pass Filter

The first EQ move that I make in just about every mix is a high-pass filter . I'll engage it to get rid of low-end frequencies in instruments that don't need a strong low-end presence, such as vocals or percussion. This reduces clutter and makes room for the prime low-end instruments, such as the bass and kick drum.

When setting up your high-pass, the key is to carefully adjust the cutoff frequency so that you're only removing unwanted bass frequencies and not compromising the natural sound of the instrument. So many new engineers go overboard in this regard, which is why they end up with thin-sounding mixes.

A good starting point is around 80-100 Hz for fuller-range instruments like guitars and pianos. For instruments that are more focused on higher frequency content, such as shakers and hi-hats, you can take it a little higher.

Just make sure to use your ears and adjust the cutoff based on the context of the mix and the specific characteristics of each instrument. You can often get away with cutting more in a busy mix than a sparse mix. If high-passing is too intense for the particular signal, you can use a low shelf cut instead.

Delegating Space

Next, I like to make sure each low-end element has its own space in the mix. For example, if the kick is most prominent at 60 Hz, consider a slight cut in the bass at the same frequency, and vice versa, so that they can fit together like a puzzle.

The most important thing here is to avoid narrow cuts and boosts . This is especially true in the bass.

Low frequencies have longer wavelengths. When you make overly narrow or surgical cuts, you end up reducing the volume of specific notes, rather than the general range that the kick drum is competing with.

So, if you have a kick drum that wants to dominate the sub-bass range from 20 to 60 Hz, consider high-passing the bass to around 30-40Hz and making a wide cut around 50 Hz. You can then make a small EQ cut in the kick where the bass lives most prominently, maybe around 80 to 100 Hz.

Dynamic EQ is typically my go-to tool here, especially if I only want to get rid of certain frequencies in the bass when the kick is present, while leaving them untouched when it isn't. Throw a dynamic EQ plugin on your bass and sidechain it to your kick drum, so that whenever your kick appears, the 50 Hz region dips out a few dB. Think of this as a focused version of sidechain compression.

8. Boost the Mid-Range

Though it might seem counter-intuitive, one of the best ways to get good low-end is by focusing on the mid-range. This is where the meat of the mix lies, and where you'll get clarity, definition, and presence.

To me, the mid-range is anywhere between 250 Hz and 2.5 kHz. While the fundamental frequencies of kick drums and bass guitars lie in the lower frequency range, their character and articulation are often up here. You'll often find the "punch" and "snap" of kick drums and the "growl" of bass lines here.

When you give these frequencies a good boost, it helps these elements stand out, especially in crowded mixes.

It's also worth noting that many consumer speaker systems, such as laptop speakers, phone speakers, and earbuds, have limited low frequency reproduction capabilities. When you enhance the mid-range of your low-end elements, you ensure they're heard, no matter the device the listener is using.

9. Use Saturation

This tip goes hand-in-hand with the above tip on mid-range, and can either be used in tandem with mid-range or EQ or as a substitute when EQ alone isn't working.

With saturation, you add harmonics to the original signal, which can naturally accentuate the perception of mid-range frequencies without the need for explicit EQ boosts. Not only do they help most instruments sound richer and more complex, but they also often make them easier to distinguish in the mix if used correctly.

One of my absolute favorite plugins for adding saturation to low-end instruments is FabFilter Saturn . With its multiband design, you can saturate specific frequency ranges while leaving others unscathed. For example, you might add a bit of tube or tape saturation to the frequencies in your bass guitar above 250Hz to give it a grittier sound, while keeping the lows clean.

10. Use Reference Tracks

I'm a huge fan of using reference tracks when mixing.

The idea here is finding a professionally mixed and mastered song in the same vein as yours to give yourself a clear standard for how well-balanced low end should sound to make sure it holds up across various playback systems.

If you're working in an untreated room or poor listening environment, you can use a reference track to stay on the right path. Most rooms that aren't meant for mixing have frequency imbalances that make it difficult to make informed adjustments. It's one of the reasons so many producers experience mixes that sound great in their studios but fall apart once they take it to their cars or Bluetooth speakers.

With a reference, you know exactly how much low-end you need for your mix to sound good, no matter what speaker systems you're listening on.

Similarly, even if you are in a good listening environment, it's easy to lose objectivity after hours of working on the same mix, particularly when it comes to frequency balance and dynamics. A reference track provides an external, objective standard to compare against, helping you reset your ears and make more impartial decisions about your low-end mix. Think of it as small palette cleanse every now and then.

Lastly, using references is a great way to learn. I recommend spending time analyzing the balance between the kick, bass, and other low-frequency elements in different reference tracks. The EQ and compression choices certain engineers use might surprise you.

Nailing the Low-End

For so many years, I struggled with mixing low end. It's one of the hardest things to get right. Even after years of producing and mixing, I still feel that with every mix, I learn something new about mixing low end.

Hopefully, these low-end mixing tips can help you skip the trial and error process and start dialing in more powerful mixes.

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