Big Bottom

In trying to wrangle some music into shape for a new CD, I’m confronting my penchant for bass. There’s generally too much of it.

With older mixes, I have only a stereo master, so dialing back the bass with EQ is my only option. With new pieces, I can pull down the level of the bass and kick drum instrument tracks separately, or change their EQ, or even add overtones by opening a filter, which gives me much more control.

But taming the bass is only part of the process. I also need to understand why I turn it up so high in the first place.

Mixes that sound perfectly swell in my studio (a bedroom equipped with a pair of TOA 312-ME speaker enclosures) tend to sound as boomy as all get-out on my living room stereo (which has a more modest pair of Polk Audio monitors). This could be because the room acoustic in the studio is eating the bass. Or it could be that the Polk Audio speakers are jacking it up. Or maybe the TOAs have better mids and highs than the Polk Audios, so that what’s balanced in the studio sounds unbalanced in the living room.

One good way to test this is to take commercial CDs that sound balanced in the living room and see how they sound in the studio. But finding CDs that have the kind of bass lines that I tend to write is not easy — and that’s one of the factors I have to look at. I’m a bass player, or at least a former bass player. I hear counter-melodies on the bottom, and I write and record them. I do have a CD by Patrick O’Hearn called River’s Gonna Rise that has some good bass action. He’s a bass player, of course. So that’s a point of comparison. He tends to leave more space around the bass than I do, in terms of both the mix and the arrangement. That’s something to think about.

Another factor is the kind of bass tones I use. I need to use tones with more mids. A tone that’s mostly a rich, creamy low end can sound nice and full in the studio, but when I dial it back so that it sounds better balanced in the living room, the bass line turns wimpy. Commercial recordings (those that have moving bass lines at all) seem quite often to double the bass with a midrange instrument. This insures that the line will be audible and clear on systems that are deficient on the low end. It also makes it easier to dial back the low end, if need be, without affecting the musical content. This observation won’t help me with my older mixes, but it’s something to keep in mind for the future.

Preparing a CD is a learning process, that’s for sure.

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