how to compress bass


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If you produce Electronic music, or work with electronic bass at all, you know the importance of it.

Without a solid low-end, your tracks can easily start sounding thin, and lose energy and dynamics.

So how do you get that “oompf” into your low-end?

As with a lot of topics in music production, none of what’s written on this page is a rule that’s set in stone.

Always remember to use your ears.

It’s important to realize that all bass lines and instruments are different, and your case may differ.

However, there are quite a few guidelines that can help guide you to a solid end product.

So yeah. Enough said… let’s jump into the basics of bass compression.

Importance of Note Selection

ableton piano roll
Credit: Attackmagazine.com

Historically, a lot of bass centered music has stuck to certain keys.

Usually it’s better to stick to notes from E to G#

Why is that, I hear you screaming from the other side of the screen?

Imagine you’re writing a line for your sub bass.

You want it to hit that sweet spot of super low, but not having an overblown and muddy bottom end.

best notes for sub bass

The main body of the bass lies at around 100Hz-300Hz. If you’re in the key of G, and your root note of your sub is a G2, that’s vibrating right at the sweet spot of 98Hz.

Whereas, if, for example, you’re writing in the key of C.

A C2 note vibrates at 65Hz, which is already pretty damn close to what you’ll be trying to subdue with your EQ later on.

We want the main bass fundamental frequency notes to be in the range of 80-120Hz, for it to have a better and more pronounced low-end body which we’re trying to accomplish

TIP: You should usually have your sub-bass be strictly mono. A subwoofer is a single channel speaker, so a sub-bass with a stereo image will not translate well.

Should I Compress or EQ First?

Credit: Fabfilter.com

So after you’ve written a nice bass line, you have to start thinking of initial mix settings.

This is where you’ll have to make a lot of decisions.

Do you EQ or Compress first?

Good Bass Compression is key, but it’s not always what you want to start with.

First of all, is your bass sound exactly how you would like it to sound?

If not, start off with an EQ. You should try to shape your sound to remove any unwanted frequencies.

A good thing to start off with is a Low-cut.

Use an High Pass band on your EQ, to cut everything below 20Hz of your bass sound.

You might ask, why remove low frequencies from your bass? Won’t that just make my bass thin?

Nope! On the contrary!

A low cut is pretty much guaranteed to make your bass sound tighter.

Even super high end audio systems rarely go below 20Hz, so there’s no reason to have all that bottom end information just muddying up your mix.

We recommend using Fab Filter Pro Q because of its sheer precision.

Next, let’s look into making your bass THICC

A lot of people automatically assume that you should just have a low shelf, boosting the entire low-end up, but that’s not the case usually.

Slightly counterintuitively, most of the body of your bass isn’t in the low end (<150Hz), but rather in the low-mid range (150-400Hz).

The Low-Mid range is where all the weight, body and punch of your bass is.

A slick boost here, can help you get some thickness into your bass.

Let’s say you boost at 200Hz, a nice thing to experiment with is harmonic eq.

fundamental frequencies & harmonics
Credit: Teachmeaudio.com

Try boosting the harmonic multiples of your initial 200Hz boost, in this case that’d be 400, 600, 800, etc.

This will make your bass sound more resonant and also serve to build up the harmonic body of the sound.

Obviously all of this can apply to bass guitar as well.

For Bass guitar we suggest easing off the low end a littlee.

When you’ve EQ’d your bass, it’s time to compress.

Why do it this way?

Compression by its definition helps bring out dynamics in your audio.

So if there are any slight issues with your bass sound, bass compression is just going to make those issues much more audible, and you’ll quickly end up with a noisy and muddy low end.

If you don’t have a good compression plug-in, take a look at our list of the 10 best compression VST’s.

Compression Settings for Thick, Solid Low End

vintage compressor for basss
Credit: Theproaudiofiles.com

So you’ve selected your bass sound, written a bass line, and EQ’d it.

Now you need a good bass compression plugin, so check our list of best vst compressors, or choose one from your library.

You’ve now opened a Compressor plugin and are now staring at it, not knowing what to do.

Let’s run through the very basics, get some general settings down, and then move on to more in-depth tweaks.

General Bass Compression Settings

compressor fact sheet

We’ll assume you know what compression is, and what it does. If you don’t, please read our guide on what is compression and how it works.

Using compression isn’t as scary as you migh initially think.

Firstly, let’s set your ratio. If you’re not going for a totally slammed sound, we’d suggest leaving the ratio at around 3:1-4:1, go higher if you want your sound to be squashed more, but this’ll be a good jumping off point.

Next, you should set your attack and release time. These will affect the compression characteristics the most.

Set your attack to be very slow, let’s say around 100ms, and your release time much faster, around 20-30ms.

Lastly, adjust your threshold, so that your compression levels are between 5 and 10 dB.

Staying between 5 and 10 dB is a good rule of thumb for most bass sounds, but the result can sound over-compressed in some cases. We’ll talk about this more in a little bit.

Now that you have some basic settings put in, it’s time to tweak your compressor to the perfect settings.

In-Depth Compressor Control

Visual cues on your compressors UI will help a lot with nailing down the perfect Attack and Release settings, but make sure to properly listen for the changing sonic characteristics.

Slowly start decreasing your attack time to the point where it starts to cut off transients and sound dull. Dial it back a couple ms, so that you get as close to the transient as possible, without cutting any of it off.

You should now have your attack set, so let’s nail the release time as well.

Your bass should have room to breathe

A good bass sound needs room to breathe, this is usually accomplished by the release setting of your compressor.

Release times, more often than not, is the most important knob on your compressor.

It shapes your sound the most.

Too long of a release time and your compressor won’t have time to reset before the next bass hit, leading to an unnatural and over-compressed bass.

Too short of a release time and you’ll start getting weird artifacts in your sound, and we can’t have that if we’re looking for a thick and solid low-end.

Let’s try increasing the release a little bit!

This is where a good visual element can help massively. You want your release to have time to reset to 0 (before the next bass hit) so that you don’t start squishing the life out of your bass.

This will usually be around 50-150ms, so try to nail it down as best you can.

If your bass line has a lot of notes in quick succession, don’t worry about hitting 0 before every single note – 2 or 3 times per bar should be fine.

On some compression plug-ins you may also see a hard-knee and soft-knee control. 

  • Hard-knee compression kicks into its full compression amount as soon as the threshold is crossed, usually best for percussive sounds.
  • Soft-knee compression kicks in gradually as the threshold is crossed. Soft-knee is a smoother sound. It’s probably the setting we’d choose on bass.

And lastly, after everything is more or less where you want it to be, adjust the makeup gain so that it hits around the same levels as your uncompressed signal.

That being said, a compressed bass will sound more forward in your mix than an uncompressed one so you might have to turn down the channel volume to make it fit in your mix perfectly.

Serial Compression

Remember when we said that 5-10 dB of compression can start feeling unnatural?

Let’s say you want to compress your bass by 8dB.

Unlike the last example, where you’d adjust the threshold to hit around the 8dB mark, let’s take a different approach.

For the ratio, attack time and release, keep the previous settings, but adjust your threshold to hit only 2 dB of compression.

For a more aggressive feel, you can up the ratio.

Now duplicate your compressor 4 times so that you end up with 4 compressors on your bass channel, all hitting 2 dB of gain reduction respectively.

This is essentially the same as having 8dB of gain reduction on a single compressor. However, the result will be a much more dynamic and natural sounding bass.

This works because you’re using compression to bring up the dynamics of your signal a small step at a time, rather than taking a big brush and painting over everything.

Parallel compression

Parallel compression is a slightly different concept.

With the previous two techniques, we use compression for gain reduction; flattening your sound and bringing focus to the dynamics of your bass.

Parallel compression is a tool to bring out details in your audio, that normally, you wouldn’t be able to hear.

Unlike previously, where you dropped a compressor on the audio channel and had it affect the whole thing, you’ll be putting the compressor on a send track.

Essentially we want two separate signals; a clean signal and a compressed one that we’ll mix together.

Unlike the settings on the previous two techniques (which are subtle), if we’re doing parallel compression, we’ll be slamming the compressor as much as possible.

Solo the send track and try to get a super dynamic, rough and aggressive sound that has all the nice little details that weren’t audible in the mix before.

A fast attack time, high ratio and low threshold are the best things to start off with if you’re slamming your compressor.

After you’ve set it up, just layer the send with the original bass sound and adjust the volume of your send, so that all that you hear from the compressor are those nice little details, while the clean bass provides all the body and thickness.

TIP: Parallel compression is an incredibly useful tool and can be used on anything from compressing drums, to vocals, to bass guitar and anything else. It’s an essential mixing tool, that you need to learn.

How To Mix Kick & Bass Perfectly

You have your bass sound, you’re chugging along, making your track, and you come to mix it.

You notice the Kick and the Bass just competing for that space in the low end.

What do you do?

We’d start off with some…

Spectral Slotting

Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds.

Essentially it’s carving out space for your kick and bass signal , to play together nicely.

Decide on what’s more important in your track, the kick or the bass. Which is the element that is the centre of the track?

Drop an EQ on the least important track, let’s say it’s the bass, and carve out space in the frequency range for the kick.

Let’s say your kick fundamental frequency is 80Hz, scoop out around 3-4 dB at 80Hz, with a bell curve on the bass EQ.

This will make your kick and bass play together, without blowing each other out.

Sidechain Compression

sidechain compression ableton

If spectral slotting doesn’t get you all the way there, and you want your kick drum and bass to play off each other more and create a “pumping feeling

You can use compression for this!

Sidechain Compression is the tool for the job.

Set up your sidechain on your bass track by routing your kick channel into the compressor.

Now, the compressor will respond to your kick signal, rather than the bass signal, effectively turning the compressor on and off in time with the kick.

As for settings, you should, again be hitting around 5-10 dB, with a fast attack.

The amount of compression here will determine how defined you want your pumping sound to be.

For the release, listen to your bass and kick signal , and adjust your release so that the compressor has time to recover to 0, before the next kick hit.

For a more pronounced pumping feeling, you can increase the threshold and make the attack a little slower.

Make sure to use your ears here, overdoing a sidechain can easily lead to a lot of lost dynamics in your bass.

Trust your ears, but a gain reduction meter can help if you’re not confident.

Finishing up

So, that brings us to a close for this little bass mixing tutorial.

Remember that, in music there’s rarely a thing as a standard.

We’ve prepared guidelines for you to follow & help you work out the best settings in your situation. It’s up to you now to adjust our methods to your workflow.

Or just disregard them, it’s up to you mate!

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Toms is a music producer & DJ, born and raised in Post Soviet Latvia. Currently based in Brighton, Toms has had over 6 years of experience with all things production and in that time, he's done a tonne of cool stuff! He's played multiple festivals, had experience in the field with mixing & mastering and even become a freelance journalist in the music industry. Toms currently creates music under the alias Sovereign. Producing music that's intimate and subtle, while full of edge and energy, the young producer combines the artistic sounds of Trip Hop artists like Massive Attack, with the energy and youthfulness of producers like Flume, Jamie XX and Yaeji. You can check his stuff on Soundcloud.