On the topic of gear vs “ear”, Sameer Sengupta (Liveschool trainer and Mastering Engineer at Studios 301) shared this personal tip with us on how to approach mixing bass (and in particular sub-bass) when you don’t have the world’s best speakers, or an acoustically treated environment.
A wonderful thing about music production these days, is that you can do it without the need for a big studio. But it you’re interested in making bass heavy music, then there’s nothing more important than getting to know your bass better.
One of the main reasons people struggle with getting their mixes to sound tight and punchy is because of poor monitoring environments, especially in the bottom end. One way to hear whats down there is to turn it up, but if you don’t have the luxury of an acoustically isolated space, you’re going to piss off your neighbours, girlfriend, parents, etc. Another way to do it would be to fork out on absurdly good headphones or a subwoofer (and again, the subwoofer will piss off your….).
But there is cheap and effective solution! I discovered this years ago by accident but got so used to it, that I still rely on it to this very day.
I used to place my monitors directly on my desk in a fairly small room; this created all sorts of negative issues, such as causing the table to resonate, or given how close the speakers were to the back wall, the entire room would resonate at certain frequencies at higher volumes. But at lower volumes when the room didn’t resonate, I noticed something else. The speakers were sitting directly on the wooden table because I couldn’t afford any acoustic sponge to sit them on, but this in turn caused the low-frequencies to vibrate directly through the table. So I found myself feeling the bass.
This became especially useful even when my speakers were turned up, because even though I didn’t have a subwoofer, I could feel what was going on below 40Hz. Doing this, I was able to have a sense of how fast the low-end was moving, or feel the separation between the kick and bass. I could also feel just how low the bass frequencies went. This in turn affected sound design and mix decisions… and when you get the low-end sounding good, the rest is a lot easier to build.
At first, it takes a while to understand what you feel, but you eventually learn how to interpret it. This technique may sound strange – and also familiar from this part of that film “It’s All Gone Pete Tong” (in which a DJ goes deaf and learns to DJ mix by feeling vibrations) – but I swear by it.
One other interesting way is to get an idea of what’s happening with your sub-bass is by actually looking at the woofer. If at a moderate volume, you can visibly see the woofer moving back & forth (which means there’s something happening at ~5-15Hz) then you definitely need to hi-pass something.