What is Bass Compression? Energy and Groove

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Written By Tanya

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The bass is an essential part of any mix. It’s important to have a solid foundation for a song that has energy and a groove. It is dangerous to do it wrong.

A great bass compression setting, in conjunction with other considerations, is what makes the difference between a strong, full, thick bass with great harmonics, attack, and one that’s weak, thin, or boomy and murky. The low-end is a very narrow area.

This tutorial is applicable to both bass guitar and synthetic bass lines that are programmed from a synthesizer ( DAW ). This tutorial will work if it falls within the sub-bass frequency range, and serves the purpose.

Bass Compression: What is the point?

Bass compression has one purpose. It reduces the dynamic range of an instrument’s amplitude in order to provide constant low frequency energy to a song. By shaping the first attack of each note, bass compression can alter the tone and clarity of the recording.

We want our bass tracks to have a very narrow volume range, unlike other instruments. It’s almost like we want to reduce it to a pulse, then create the shape with the compressor’s attack/release settings. Volume variance is determined by the string attack that we allow through.

We prefer to have minimal dynamics as we want to give a consistent listening experience to the listener’s ears, and their speakers. While mixing, we also want to use a predictable amount headroom. It can be felt as loudly as it is heard, which can put a lot of strain on headphones and speakers.

How to Compress Bass

This article assumes that you are able to clean up your track by muting regions that are not meant to be heard, that you have properly applied bass guitarist EQ, and that you know what a compression is and the various options.

These are the essential things to do before you start to compress. Because compression reacts to the volume it is being fed, it needs to be done with equalization and a typical clean-up. It shouldn’t react to frequencies or noises that you don’t intend to remove.

How to Compress Bass

This assumes you are familiar with how to use the multitrack feature of your DAW and how to add plugins to the appropriate tracks. You may not be using your best compression pedal, or other racked hardware. This will apply regardless of your choice, but I’ll share images from plugins. You can use the same settings!

You will need different amounts of compression depending on the genre. Deep compression is required for electronic dance music, hip hop, heavy metal and pop. For genres such as jazz, bluegrass, blues, or similar performances by singer-songwriters, a lighter amount is sufficient.

Pro Tip: Do not be tempted to do these steps in solo mode with your bass. It is important to hear it within the context of the whole mix. This could mean you have to focus on other parts of the mix first, then come back. If you need to mute the kick drum, you can do so now.

1) START WITH THESE BASS CORESSION SETTINGS

Once you are ready to go, set the Threshold on the compressor to zero decibels. This will ensure that it doesn’t engage. Next, set the following up:

  • Ratio 5:1
  • Attack – 100 ms
  • Release 1 ms

This ratio should be sufficient to cover most cases. A heavier ratio with a deeper threshold is preferable to the one that has a lower dynamic range. We want to flatten the peak of the waveform without brick-walling limiting or introducing audio clipping.

2) LOWER THE THRESHOLD AND INCREASE MAKEUP GAIN

You now want to reduce the threshold from 0 to -20 dB. You should see some gains reduction if you have done gain staging. You should aim for a gain reduction of about 5 dB and then add this amount to the makeup gain.

You can now put the compressor into bypass mode to compare the volume of the compressed and un-affected versions. Keep the volumes relatively similar to get an accurate in-the-mix view of what you are doing.

It is possible to decide to lower the threshold and achieve a gain reduction of around 10 dB. If you are unable to get this much with a low threshold, you may need to raise it again and increase the ratio to 8:1 or 10:1.

This is because if your threshold is too low, even with a lower ratio than you intended, dynamic range variances will still result, which defeats its purpose. Your bass will also sound terrible and unnatural. If you are interested in understanding what it means, try it. It may be easier to understand why it is bad if you do it vocally.

3) CHOOSE AN APPROPRIATE ATTACK TIME

Now you can deal with the attack. This is the time that the compressor waits before engaging after the threshold has been reached. Your attack time is currently set at a moderate level. You should now hear your bass notes attack.

The initial volume spike caused by a pick or finger striking the strings is called the attack of a note. Each non-digital instrument, even vocals, has an attack. It is important for our ears to grab onto the sound, and help us make it clear and understandable. We want the bass to continue its attack.

Loop a note from the bass track, and slowly reduce the attack. If you feel it is interfering with your note’s attack, reduce it. Let the attack shine through, then start compressing.

You’ll get a smoother, softer bass if your attack is too fast. This is because you are slowing down the note’s speed. You want a punchy, percussion-like bass. But that doesn’t always work. You can always try both and decide which one suits your mix best.

4) DIAL AT THE RIGHT TIME

We will now consider the same concept regarding the release time. This is simply how long the compressor waits before it stops compressing after the volume drops below the threshold. You have it set to the fastest speed.

Fast settings allow the natural sustain of a note to ring out. A slower attack will continue to compress that decay tail, which can change the envelope of the note as well as the performance. It can sound unnatural and strange just as fast settings can, though the knee can help smooth it out.

With bass notes that are often long, your goal is to find the perfect timing so that the gain decrease gradually returns to 0 before the next note. This will prevent the bass from “breathing too hard” and keep the gain reduction within a “musical” timeframe. It can be timed to a quarter note, half note or whatever you prefer depending on your performance and tempo.

5) ADD THE KNEE TO TASTE

The last thing you need to focus on is the setting of your knees. There are two options: soft or hard. It’s best to set it to a gentle knee and leave it there even when you are singing aggressive songs. The compression will kick in more clearly if the knee is hard.

This point in time is made more transparent by a soft knee, which means it is not visible to the listener’s ear. This makes the music sound more natural and less processed, which is what most genres strive for. It is possible to make the music sound subtle even if we compress it.

BONUS TRICK #1: SERIAL COMPRESSION IN BASS

You can set up your compressor following the above steps, then reduce gain to around 3 dB. You can then place another compressor directly after the first, and get an additional 3 dB reduction. You can do this until you reach the desired level.

Some mixers claim that serial compression sounds natural and more transparent. It may, but it’s not something I would like to do. Although I like this technique, I do not use it. It doesn’t sound any different to using just one round of compression, so I don’t think it is any better.

BONUS TRICK #2: BUS COMPRESSION IN BASS & KICK

Another way is to send your kick drum and bass to an auxiliary bus that’s specifically designed for them. Send it along with a sinewave generator if you have one below the kick. You can also send the sinewave generator, even if you have used sidechain compression below the kick to make it duck under the kick.

Once you have balanced their relative volumes you can control them all on one fader. You can add an equalizer or any other effects. The main benefit of this method is to add a second round of compression to glue the instruments together and make them behave like one (to some degree).

BONUS TRICK #3: PARALLEL COMPRESSION TO UPRIGHT BASS

Although I called upright bass, I really mean any track that requires low-end “oomph” but doesn’t have to be completely squashed. You can compress the track to a large extent and then mix it with the original. This will bring out the quieter parts and preserve the dynamic range, especially the attack.

This is done by using the ‘Mix” knob of your compressor plugin. This creates two versions for you, and allows you to balance them according to your preferences.

Problems arising during bass compression

You may not achieve perfect results every time you try this process. You can’t just practice and experiment. You may be hindered by other factors that could affect your progress, which I would like to highlight.

NO SUBWOOFER AND POOR ROOM ACOUSTICS

Without a subwoofer, it will be difficult to hear the sub-bass frequencies and the upper bass register. It’s impossible to make accurate decisions if you don’t hear it. These low frequencies can’t be heard at the proper volume with even the best studio headphones.

Poor room acoustics can also be a problem. Even if you have a large room, bass problems will still occur in small rooms. You can fix this problem by adding tons of bass traps to the room and huge chunks at the corners. It’s much easier to use headphones than deal with compromises.

DO NOT APPLY TOO MUCH COMPRESSION

Sidechain compression can cause your bass to feel like it is breathing if you compress too fast or too little. This can alter the energy and cause a complete loss of groove. It is possible to end up with unwanted distortion.

MIXING BASS IN SOLO MODE

Many people will sing the track they are working on. It’s not only illegal, but also unnecessary due to the separation of bass and sub-bass frequencies as well as the mid-range and high-end. As you make decisions, it is important to listen to each instrument within the context of the whole mix.

If you are having trouble mixing the track or haven’t yet, you can route the entire track to a bus and add high pass filters to it. To block out the kick and bass frequencies, turn it up to 150 Hz. You will be able to hear them clearly without losing context.

EXTREMELY FAST ATTACK TIME

I am guilty of the same as everyone who has defaulted to a one-millisecond attack time. This is not a good idea as you want to keep the notes’ attack intact. This can make a big difference in clarity, understanding, and punchiness. It won’t sound live; it will sound dull and ineffective.

This is all there is to bass compression!

The whole process can be summarized as follows: Use a high ratio, medium depth threshold, gain reduction of around 7 dB, soft knee, then adjust attack and release manually. The bass should attack first, then the release should follow the tempo.

It’s the actions you take before adding a compressor that will help you get there. Bass compression is easy once you have done that and followed the steps here.

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