Getting great drum and bass sounds starts at the mic and ends at the monitors
The quest for phat low end begins with recording and continues through the mixing and even mastering processes. The end goal is a low end that’s round but tight, deep but punchy. Anyone can just EQ-boost the lows, but this too often results is a soggy, indistinct mush underlying the track.
Record it right
The first step towards achieving a phat kick drum is to record in a way that captures its deep frequencies in balance with the mid and high frequencies you include. The kick has to be deep, but it will just sound muddy unless you balance its low end against the ‘slap’ of the attack in the high-mid/high range.
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In my experience, if you want a top-class drum sound, you need to be in a studio with a well-acousticized live room and a smattering of analog preamps and compressors. With bass guitar, on the other hand, you can get away in any environment with going direct from the bassist’s preamp or using a single outboard preamp/compression unit, like the Avalon 737; not to say I don’t love a well-miked bass cabinet. You should include more or less of the high-mids and highs, depending on the sound you want: sub-dub versus growl.
For the kick, start out by using 2 mics, one placed inside the drum, a few inches from the inner skin of the kick and just a few inches off the beater, and another placed a few feet from the outside skin of the drum, in line with the first mic. I like to use an AKG D112 for the inside skin, and a Neumann U 67 (with the pad ON) for the distant mic; if you don’t have the Neumann, substitute another large-diaphragm condenser, preferably one with a pad option. The AKG picks up the slap and plenty of low tones, which get supplemented by the even deeper tones picked up by the Neumann (bass-frequency waveforms, as long as they are, can take several feet or whole room-lengths to fully express themselves). Sometimes I even go so far as to build a tunnel using padded materials like sofa cushions and chairs to ‘extend’ the barrel of the kick leading up to the distant mic. In my experience, it’s usually not necessary to invert the phase of either signal, but I suggest trying it just the same.
Many engineers like to record flat, without EQ, and then tweak frequencies later in the mixing process. I recommend recording with eq, before compression. This way you can really enhance the roles played by the close and distant mics, and get a clear sense of how each is contributing to the blended sound. You’ll also end up one step closer to the finished sound and make the band and producer happy by delivering a recording that already sounds wicked.
EQ the close mic to grab the lows and low-mids, along with the slap in the high-mids/highs; you can usually record the distant mic flat and then place a plug-in lowpass filter below 400–600 Hz or so on its audio track in your sequencer, but you should experiment with different frequencies according to the character of the drum itself. Compress the close mic at a high ratio like 8:1, with a fast attack and release; the distant mic should be compressed with a slightly slower attack, to allow its (((boom))) to really articulate; make sure to reserve at least one of your high-end preamps and EQs for the kick’s close mic, and make an outboard-gear compromise on the distant mic if you must.
At the end of the day, I usually end up monitoring and then mixing the distant mic at 10 dB or so below the close mic (assuming both signals have about the same incoming peak level). An added benefit of this 2-mic setup is that you don’t run much risk of overemphasizing the low end from the close mic because you can always add depth from the distant mic. This setup usually yields a tight, hard-hitting kick that’s also warm, with plenty of oomph. It can be used in all kinds of music, from Rock to Reggae to Hip-Hop. If you want an even bigger, White Stripes-esque kick drum, add a pair of stereo room mics into the equation, placed about 10 feet directly in front of the kit.
When it comes to recording bass, I use a few methods, depending on the resources at hand, and the best results can come from any one or a combination of these. If you can mic the cabinet with a good large-diaphragm condenser mic (like the U 67) in addition to getting a direct line from the head’s preamp output, then you can mix and match the signals later. Place the mic several inches from the cabinet’s face and a few inches off the center of the speaker cone. In my experience, using a tube preamp versus a solid-state device makes a real difference when it comes to low end, whether miking the cabinet or going direct. V-72s are ideal if you can get them; when I’m outside the studio, I use my Avalon Vt737, which includes tube amplification, EQ, and compression, and travels well for a tube unit. If the bassist’s amp head lacks a preamp out, you can use a splitter cable to send one line to the miked amp and another line straight to your outboard gear.
Compression is key when recording bass. Boosting the low end with EQ inevitably pops out certain notes whith overtones that fall in the boosted range. Post-EQ compression will help smooth out these bumps while making the overall sound punchy and rich. The UA 1176 is a classic favorite for bass compression, but you can get away with a more affordable model, like the Empirical Labs Distressor. I like a fast attack and a slightly slower release with 3:1 or 4:1 ratio.
I find it’s less urgent to EQ the bass when you’re recording than it is to EQ the kick. Usually, some tweaking is inevitable to get the two to share space in the bassy end of the mix anyway. Eq up the lows and low-mids if you can, but if you’re in a rush or don’t have enough outboard gear, just have the bassist adjust the tone knobs on their bass and amp head to get a good sound.
Phat phix in the mix
When mixing, there are a number of tricks you can use to fatten up the recorded kick and bass. When EQing the bass, find a nice balance between the tone in the mid/low-mid range (300–650 Hz), and the (((hoof))) of the lows; if the bass is too rumbly and not ‘musical’ enough, you can often bring out the notes by boosting frequencies in the mid/low-mids. Depending on the genre you’re working in, you may want to enhance the high-mids too, to preserve attack and growl in the bassist’s sound.
If your kick or bass are just not heavy enough for your taste, try a subharmonizing plug-in. The Waves MaxxBass plug-in is a burning subharmonizer that works really well on the kick, and on bass guitar; Logic’s SubBass works well too. But take it easy on the extra subs generated by these plug-ins; you should feel them more than you hear them.
If the bass sound is lacking in depth, and EQ just won’t warm it up enough, you can try using a more complex harmonizer (Eventide makes the best ones) to add harmonized effects like sine-waves or chorus; these effects actually ‘sing’ along with your recording’s dominant pitches and can add a smooth, synthetic low-end. Sometimes just a touch of ordinary chorus helps broaden the bass tone as well (a lot of chorus will give you the classic Cure-esque bass sound).
I once had no choice but to record Meshell Ndegeocello’s bass direct into my original-vintage MOTU 828, whose preamps were far from ideal compared to what MOTU’s offering these days. In the mix, I managed to generate a nice tone using the Eventide H3000’s harmonizing chorus.
A lot of modern recordings drive the master compression on the stereo bus using the kick drum. To achieve this, decrease the threshold of the stereo-bus compression until it starts triggering on the kick, but watch out if it’s kicking in on the bass guitar. If the bassline is not loud enough unless it’s triggering the master compressor, you can try rolling it off around 80 Hz; this will allow the kick to dominate the subs and still trigger the compressor. One mastering engineer even recommended this rolloff technique to me as a rule.
Mix ‘n monitor
In general, using a good monitoring system in a room with a proper bass trap will give you the best shot at low-end mixing. If you can’t accurately hear what’s going on in the low end, you’re likely to over/undercompensate with volume. Mixing with different kinds of speakers gives you a good perspective on your lows. Many “smiley-curve” powered speakers, for example, have amazing low-end definition, but tend to flatter the bass sound, and demand less work from the mix engineer. Mixes done only on such speakers may sound bumpin’ in the studio, but then fail to impress on an ordinary hi-fi system.
Using a pair of less flattering monitors, like Yamaha NS-10Ms, in conjunction with your usual speakers will keep you honest, and make you work on the bass sound until it’s right. Listen to some of your favorite bassy records in the studio and at home, and compare these to your mixes. In the end, knowing your speakers and checking your mixes on your trusty home system are the best ways to keep your phatness on target.
Keep shakin’ floors!