Top 10 Tips for Mixing Bass Synth
By Anderton |
Get your synth bass to dominate
By Craig Anderton
I love synth bass—there’s something about its massive sound that’s hard to resist. And I also like the versatility, from a weapon of mass distortion that provides the pit bull snarl behind a hardcore dance track, to a sweetly attacking rubber-band bass that lopes around a tender ballad.
We’ve already covered the Top 10 Tips for Mixing Bass Guitar, so in a spirit of equal time for the keyboard crowd, here are ten tips designed to help you get even more out of your synth bass.
1. Keep it centered. With electric bass, you’re usually dealing with a mono signal, so panning it to the center is a no-brainer. But with synth bass, there’s more of a tendency to get creative with stereo imaging and layering. Bass frequencies are much less directional than high frequencies, so pan the bassiest elements to center. Spread any additional layers a bit to left or right, but don’t go too far away from the middle. And if you’re planning a release on vinyl, it’s imperative to keep the bass centered.
2. “A” is for “Ampeg.” Put your synth through an Ampeg bass amp, and you’ll have the classic bass amp and cabinet that powered a zillion hits, from rock to R&B. Don’t have an Ampeg amp? IK Multimedia’s Ampeg SVX plug-in nails that sound, but you can also get great Ampeg emulaions from the Line 6 POD Farm Flip Top bass amp, Guitar Rig 4 Bass Pro model, and Waves G|T|R Mo’Town bass amp model (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: A collage of three bass amp sims. Clockwise from top: Line 6 Flip Top, Waves Mo’Town, and IK’s Ampeg-approved SVX (click to enlarge).
3. Sometimes more is less. If one bass sound is good, layering a second one is better . . . right? Not necessarily. What makes similarly-tuned layers sound rich is how their frequencies add and subtract as they go in and out of tune, which is fine for a string patch, but can weaken the low end. If you’re using layers, keep the lowest, primary layer at maximum level, and reduce the doubled layer by at least -6dB. However, layers set to different octaves are a whole other matter. Create a prominent main layer, add in a sub-bass layer an octave lower, then add an octave-higher layer with most of the highs taken off for a huge bass sound. But again, avoid detuning unless it really works well.
4. Mod wheels are better for more than vibrato. Really, how often do you need to add vibrato to a bass line? So use that mod wheel to bring in a sub-bass layer, or tie it to filter frequency so that moving the wheel away from you cuts the highs somewhat. That way, with something like a sawtooth wave-based patch, you can do a quick change from raw and rude to smooth and round.
5. The punch factor. A Minimoog sounds punchy because the signal doesn’t decay immediately once the attack is complete, but hangs at the maximum level for around 20-30ms before decaying. If your envelope generator has a hold function or can do rate/level envelopes, bingo: You’ve got punch (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: In Cakewalk’s Dimension Pro, the amplitude envelope has been edited to add a 45ms hold time (click to enlarge).
6. Live in a parallel universe. Want to add effects to your synth bass sound, like distortion or wa? To avoid thinning out the bass sound, copy the audio track (or if you’re using a virtual instrument, render it to audio), apply your effects to the copied track, and mix it behind your main track.
7. Use Limiting to tame filter peaks. It’s common knowledge that electric bass loves compression. Synths don’t need compression as much because the sustain can be pretty constant, and there’s no neck to have “dead spots.” However, if you’re using filtering there can be resonances and with layering, there can be sudden peaks as notes add or subtract. The solution is a limiter (Fig. 3), as it will tame the peaks while leaving the rest of the signal relatively unscathed.
Fig. 3: A limiter can keep bass dynamics under control, even in the face of filter resonances and detuned layers (click to enlarge).
8. A little EQ can really help. Don’t just rely on your synth’s filters; a slight low end bump (around 80Hz) rounds out the bottom, while another slight boost in the upper midrange (2-3kHz) accentuates bite. And while we’re on the subject of EQ, roll off the low end of instruments that don’t have any signal in the bass range. There can still be low frequency components (including sub-sonic ones) that may interfere with the bass.
9. Let it slide. Bass and kick often share notes that hit at the same time. To emphasize the bass, slide the MIDI or audio clip slightly ahead of the kick—just a few milliseconds will work. Conversely, to emphasize the kick, slide the bass a few milliseconds after the kick. Whichever track is ahead will sound slightly louder on playback, even if you haven’t touched the volume.
10. Be careful about ambience. Reverb doesn’t like low frequencies, and besides, diffusing the sound takes away some of the bass’s force. But what can work is to add five or six very tight delays (in the 15-30ms range), mixed very subtly in the background (stereo will work because the level is so low). Multitap delays are good candidates, as are chorus effects that have multiple voices. Don’t add any modulation to these delays, as they’re designed to simulate the early reflections you get from a room. If they don’t sound good, then they’re mixed too high.