How To Get Your Low End Right (BEFORE Mixing)

Getting the low end right is one of the most important and most difficult things in music production. Not because it’s technically hard to do, but because it requires a musical and tasteful approach, as well as the ability and experience to hear problems, find problem areas and attack them in a systematic way. 

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The low end problem:

So many people, especially home recorders, are struggling with this. They listen back to their raw recordings and find the kick drum to be weak, the bass swallowing up everything else, the guitars muddy and undefined and the bass drops and sub-synths barely audible. So they try and tweak it. Now the kick is boomy and undefined, the bass notes are not really audible and the guitars too thin. At that point they just give up and leave it to the mix engineer. Or, even worse, try to somehow get it right later in the mix themselves. 

Sounds familiar? 

We’ve all been there. I sure have. But there’s a solution to this, a systematic and musical approach that is relatively easy to learn and after a little experimenting and practice, it enables you to get the bass elements of your mix just right. And all that BEFORE the mixing process even starts. Yup, that’s right, I’m telling you to fix this during recording and capture tracks that make it easy for any experienced mixing engineer to get a foundation of the mix that fits your style of music and is just as big, tight, defined, round, transparent or punchy, as you want it to be. 

What is „low end“, actually? 

Well, I googled it to see if anyone came up with a quick and easy definition and the first thing I found was Artopium.com who put it like this:

„‚Low end’ refers to bass-frequency signals that are below 250 Hz“ (Artopium.com)

While I don’t agree that the low end starts at an exact frequency (we’ll get to that later), I think it’s still a pretty good explanation. It’s all the bass parts of every element in the song combined. The fundamental weight and punch of the kick drum, the fundamental notes and low frequencies of the bass guitar, the fundamental notes and low frequencies of the guitars, keys, synths, etc. and the sub-bass elements and SFX (sub synths, bass drops, etc.). 250Hz and down is a pretty decent starting point here, although this varies a bit from song to song.

More than anything, the key is to be intentional here. 

Make conscious decisions based on what you’re hearing and the goal you have in mind. To develop a vision and define the sound you’re hearing in your head, listen to your favorite records and analyze the low end. If you can, do not only listen to them, but import the tracks into your DAW and „look at the low end“ with a frequency spectrum analyzer. You can also pull up a simple EQ plugin and cut all the mids and highs, so you can really zoom in and focus on the lows. 

Also, to analyze low end, I highly recommend using quality headphones

The reason is that every room and almost every set of speakers is problematic in the low end. Especially in home recording situations, your room and speakers are probably lying to you. Headphones are not perfect, as well, but if you have a pair of decent ones, they will likely be more accurate then anything else.

Ask the following questions: 

  • Where is the fundamental frequency of the kick drum? Where does it have the most energy/volume?
  • Where in the spectrum is the bass guitar the most powerful/the loudest?
  • How about the lows of the guitars?
  • What happens when a bass drop comes in?
  • Are there any sub bass elements that you can „feel“ more than you can actually hear them? Where in the spectrum are they?

You’ll find that...

  • ...some songs will have a very low tuned, big, „round“ sounding kick drum and the prominent parts of the bass guitar slightly above that
  • ...others will have a punchy, „tight“ sounding kick drum that hits you more in the chest, than in the guts. And the fundamental frequencies of the bass guitar notes might sit below that, making you „feel“ the bass line.
  • ...some might be a clever mix of both. 
  • ...the guitars might sit above the bass guitar, or they might overlap into bass/kick drum territory, especially with low tuned, heavy guitars. 

Whatever it is, if it’s a quality production, the individual elements will work together like a charm and create a powerful foundation of the mix.

But the magic actually happened BEFORE the mixing process. It’s definitely been refined and controlled in painstaking detail by a great mix engineer, but it all starts in the production and recording process. In fact, it actually starts with the arrangement. 

Now let’s dive into this:

When you arrange your song, think about which elements are part of your low end.

Let’s assume you have a kick drum, a bass guitar, rhythm guitars and a couple of SFX / post-production elements like bass drops and a sub-synth bass line. 

Kick drum:

Tuning:

If you want a super punchy, defined and tight kick drum, because the song is pretty fast and technical, start by tuning it high enough for that to work. A super fat, low tuned, big sounding kick might sound cool on it’s own, but in the dense, fast arrangement of your song it will be lost and create a big low end mess. Try tuning the resonant head higher and keep the batter head loose enough, so you preserve enough of the click sound that’s important to make the kick drum cut through the mix.

If your song is meant to sound huge and fat and it’s rather slow, then try the opposite and go with a low tuned, huge sounding kick drum.

Microphone choice and placement:

Then choose a microphone that gives you the result you're going for and enhances the right parts of the low end. Some mics will be more sub-heavy and will bring out the very low low end of your kick drum, others will sound punchier and have more "knock" or "thump" to them. Some will sound tighter and more defined, some more loose and big. 

The mic position also makes a huge difference, as always! 

Experiment until it sounds great to you and then record a couple of samples and look at them in your frequency spectrum analyzer. The tighter, higher kick drum could live around 80-120 Hz and the huge, low tuned kick drum around 50-70Hz, for example.

Next step are the bass and guitars 

How low do you tune? Where are your fundamentals? A look at a frequency chart is very helpful here. 

  • an E on the bass is 41.20 Hz
  • if you’re in a D tuning it goes down to 36.71 Hz
  • and a C even down to 32.70 Hz

For the guitars it’s an octave above that, so

  • 82.40 Hz (E)
  • 73.42 Hz (D)
  • 65.40 Hz (C)

Now these very low bass fundamentals in the 30-40 Hz range can’t really be reproduced correctly by most speaker systems. Also this is the range that we „feel“ more than we hear it. So, in order to make the bass guitar audible and the bass lines clear, we have to make sure there’s room for the harmonics to shine.

Harmonics

Harmonics or overtones are frequencies in fixed intervals above the fundamental note that are part of every sound, except pure sine waves. The most important harmonics for what were trying to do here are

  • the 2nd and 4th, which are the octaves of our fundamental frequency 
  • and the 3rd, which is the fifth to our fundamental note. 

So for an open E on the bass it would be 82.40 Hz and 164.80 Hz (Octaves, E) and 123.47 (fifth, B). The fundamental frequency itself (E, 41.20 Hz) is called 1st harmonic by the way.

These are frequencies, that can be reproduced by most playback systems and if the low fundamental can’t, there’s a funny and fascinating effect that is helping us out:

The „missing fundamental effect“

If we give our brain an overtone series, it can find out and reproduce the corresponding fundamental, so we can „hear“ it, even if it’s not there. Pretty cool, right? Just hearing the overtones gives your brain enough information to imply and imagine the absent fundamental. That’s why we can hear bass lines and identify the notes on small speakers like laptops, portable speakers, etc, as long as the overtones are there.

The more you drive or distort your bass tone, the more you bring out the overtones. Also, the more (low) mids and upper bass range you dial in, the more those overtones will be pronounced and your bass will cut through, better. It’s a balance game. You might not like some of the mids, but sucking them out completely, like many bassists do, will make the bass disappear in the mix. 

Now back to our practical examples:

1. Tight kick drum

If you chose to go with the punchy, tight kick drum, there’s space below it for your bass fundamentals, the lowest octave (30Hz-60Hz, or 40Hz-80Hz). That means, you can try boosting the lowest bass frequencies on your amp (or other EQ) until it feels too muddy or undefined. 

Low End EQ - Sub

I’m talking about the sub bass frequencies below your kick fundamental here. The bass will feel bigger and have more weight to it. As I said, that range is not so much audible, it’s about how the low end feels.

Then, to make it audible and the actual notes clear in the mix, try boosting upper bass frequencies and lower mids from the fifth upwards (120Hz and above). Also, a little overdrive or distortion helps a lot to bring out the harmonics and make the bass audible and defined.

Low End EQ - Upper Bass

Leave the kick drum fundamental (in the 80Hz-120Hz range) alone, so that the kick drum and bass won’t step on each other’s toes. 

2. Low tuned kick drum

If you went with the low tuned, big kick drum, there might not be much space for the bass guitar fundamentals. So even if they are there, they might get masked by the kick drum and the bass feels small or quiet. But now you can boost from the 2nd harmonic (first octave) upwards to make the bass shine there.

So now the bass guitar lives in the 80 Hz - 160 Hz range, above the kick fundamental and our brain will add the bass guitar fundamentals for us. The midrange above that is the same balance game as always. 

No matter what you've chosen to do, you will also have to consider rhythm guitars. 

They will probably overlap into kick/bass territory and you will either have to make space for them, or clean them up to make space for the bass guitar and kick. Or both. Don’t overdo it with the guitar low end. The fundamentals shouldn’t mask the bass. Instead, you should also rely on the first octave (150Hz and above) to do the job. You don’t have to get too analytical there. Just play around with the bass knob on your guitar amp and experiment with the mic position, until you find a spot where you still feel the weight of the guitars, while also hearing the bass notes clearly. You might also notice that you went to far with the lower midrange/upper bass on the bass guitar that is now masking the rhythm guitars. If so, adjust and find the right balance where everybody can happily coexist. 

Bass drops, low end SFX, etc

If you then add bass drops, make sure you tune the start and end frequencies to the corresponding bass note or key of the song. Then think about distorting it a bit to bring out it’s harmonics and make it audible, even on small speakers. 

If you like a very tight, defined, „midrangey“ bass tone, but still want to feel the weight, try doubling the bass line with a sub-bass synth line below the kick fundamental. And again, try a little bit of overdrive on that synth to make it audible on small speakers. 

And the final thing to watch out for: 

Your snare fundamental will probably be around 175 Hz - 250 Hz. And it’s usually very important for the snare to pop and have weight in that area. So it makes sense to not overdo it in this whole frequency range and not make it too dense and prominent overall, or you might end up with a dull, muddy balance with no chance for the snare to cut through. 

To sum it up:

  • Choose the right tuning for all of the elements and the right key, so that it fits the vibe of the song
  • Make sure there’s a specific area, where each instrument lives and can truly shine
  • Think of it as sub bass, bass, upper bass and lower midrange
  • Try distortion and midrange boosts to make the very low stuff cut trough and to make it audible on small speakers
  • There will always be some overlap and that’s absolutely fine. No need to do radical EQ cuts during recording, if you’re not sure. So there’s no risk. Just define where each of the elements live, by choosing the tuning, key of the song and tone.
  • Use a frequency spectrum analyzer to learn about fundamentals and harmonics and get a visual impression of wat you are hearing.
  • Always base decisions on what you’re hearing, though. The visual feedback is helpful but should not be your only guide.
  • Use headphones to do the final check, because your room and speakers are probably not telling you the truth.

In a fairly heavy drop D song, you could end up having something like this:


  • Kick drum fundamental: 60 Hz
  • Bass guitar: lives in the 73-146 Hz area (2nd-4th harmonic, octaves of D)
  • Rhythm guitars: low end lives in the 146-292 Hz area (2nd-4th harmonic, one octave above the bass)
  • Snare: 200 Hz (be careful to not overdo it with guitars and bass in that area)

Be careful with the guitar and bass fundamentals. 

They are getting masked and no matter how much you add in that range, it will not do much, except make everything muddy and undefined. If you want a super low sub bass in your song, try adding a subtle, doubled synth bass line in the fundamental 36-72 Hz area and play with some distortion to make it audible. 

And finally, don’t get too analytical about the numbers here. 

It’s more about getting a feel for where each element sits and the realization that something’s gotta give. There’s not enough space for everybody to completely take over the low end, but if you do it right, all the elements will work perfectly together and you won’t feel like anything’s missing. 

Get the low end right BEFORE the mixing process! 

If you do this as early as possible during arranging/recording, the mixer will be able to make your source tones work, right away, instead of having to completely tear apart your arrangement and rebuild everything from the ground up to make it work. Less need for sample replacement, less need for reamping, less need for radical EQ moves that will degrade your tones. And you will enjoy the process much more, because what you’re hearing during recording already sounds huge and just makes sense. 

I hope this article helps you get your low end right, next time you record!

If so, please let me know by commenting below! I always love reading your feedback and hear about your progress. 

If you’re about to start tracking guitars or bass, please check out this post about How To Record Kick-Ass DI Tracks, because DIs are so helpful on so many levels when it comes to making your record sound great. And if you’re not sure why you should record a DI track, at all, please watch this video where I answer the question “Amp or DI Track?”.

Thanks for reading and take care,

Benedikt

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