How to Achieve the Ultimate Kick-Bass Relationship
"I spend most of my time on getting the kick and bass relationship together. I‘ve always taken the approach that I want both of these to be thick and full, and heard as completely independent yet fully blended elements. In other words, I want the kick and bass loud and present in club mixes."
— Jay-J, Grammy Nominated Producer
Ahhh. That elusive kick-bass relationship…
There are few things better than perfectly nailing the low end of a track. For me, it’s up there with a warm cup of coffee on a brisk morning, jumping in the ocean on a hot summer day, putting on fresh, brand new socks for the first time, reading ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ by a fire after playing in the snow, or cuddling with 17 puppies at once.
Yes, proper kick-bass isn’t just essential to any good mixdown, it also happens to make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Truthfully, though, nothing can be worse for your song than getting the kick-bass relationship wrong. In fact, a sloppy and poorly mixed low end it usually the biggest give-away to identifying an amateur produced track.
Whether it leads to masking, distortion or frequency build up, poor low end management will destroy any shot your mix has at sounding professional.
Here’s the reality: we don’t all have fancy setups with perfectly treated rooms, so one of the biggest issues surrounding low end management is simply recognizing when low end mistakes are happening.
That said, this takes time. It requires both ear-training and a thorough understanding of visual cues and metering methods to help spot these problems much easier.
Let’s discuss the four main ways to spot your low end management issues:
- Waveform Cues
- Transient Clashes
- MIDI to Audio Issues
In layman's terms, masking is when any one sound is occupying the same frequency, space, and timing of another sound.
The best way to describe what it sounds like is to think about two people talking to you at once. It’s really hard to hear and understand what someone is saying to you if another person is also right there talking.
Similar to why we raise hands in classrooms, we should only let one element be heard fully at once in terms of frequencies, stereo placement, and timing.
This is especially apparent in the low end and sub frequencies. Because these lower Hz values tend to be the loudest and most demanding of your headroom, it’s extremely important to not let any masking occur in the low end.
Masking in the low end can be a huge culprit in making a limiter have to work too hard and introduce distortion (more on that later).
2. Waveform Cues
Since masking isn’t always the easiest to hear, there are ways you can use visual aids to explain why masking and overlapping frequencies are problematic.
Every digital audio workstation is equipped with waveform data on audio clips. When dealing with low end elements like kicks and subs, analyzing waveform information can be a critical way to spot issues and masking buildups.
For example, take a kick sub relationship. Once these are in audio, simply place the tracks right next to one another and look at the waveforms.
Does the sub play when the kick does? Is the tail of the kick long and bleeding into the meat of the sub? Even without listening to your track it’s possible to spot issues with your low end just using the waveform data alone.
Now, as always in music production, there is a catch…
Waveforms are getting more accurate but they are no means perfect. You always want to check with your ears to verify that the sound being made is accurately reflected.
More often than not, I find myself making great mix-based decisions solely due to the waveform data in front of me (especially when it comes to low end instruments).
3. Transient Clashes
Similar to masking, transient clashes and buildups in the low end can cause significant break-ups in the lower frequencies, especially when limited or compressed heavily.
A break up simply means a quick instance of distortion that usually happens on a beat where the kick is playing with too many other elements (hence transient buildup).
This differs from masking in that it only occurs in a single instance. It’s also a lot easier to solve than masking because the fix is simple: avoid multiple, loud transients from happening at the same time.
If you have one transient that you deem ‘good’, you can let that transient pass and fade the rest to not interfere.
A classic example of this is when you have a kick, 808, bass, crash, and synth stab all happening at once. Usually it’s in the low end element transients fighting for space and causing the drastic spike in peak dB value. There are tons of solutions for this that we’ll dive into later, but a quick solution? Shift the timing of the transients. Even slight ms changes can make the world of difference.
4. MIDI to Audio Issues
This is a personal favorite topic when it comes to discussing low end management issues. Have you ever wondered why certain artists basslines and subs seem so fat and constant even when they’re varying notes?
There are tons of potential solutions to this issue, but one thing is for certain: DAWs cannot always convert MIDI synths and samplers correctly. I know, it sounds crazy...but it’s true.
Take for example Serum (my favorite synth). If I simply play an F0 in a patch that consists of a saw wave filtered pluck sound, and then convert that to audio using resampling or freezing, there are almost always discrepancies.
Of course, this isn’t always bad. Having slight variations and changes to a sound can be part of why it sounds interesting and even analogue. But when it comes to sub information and your low end, these kinds of variations can really put a damper on the intensity and consistency of your low end.
This is really evident in synthesized sub bass when playing different notes or a succession of quick notes. Again there are great ways to fix this issue, but it could be as simple as creating more of your bassline in audio.
Now that we understand the main issues that can arise inside of low end management & kick bass relationships, let’s talk about some practical ways to combat these problems and give some concrete solutions with several examples.
Build Up of Transient Information
As mentioned before, transient build ups can cause major issues with your track aggressively pushing your limiter to the point of distortion. Oftentimes, it’s your low end elements that contribute to this huge spike in energy.
However, sometimes it’s worth checking everything that’s playing at any given instant where a buildup occurs. The best solution for this issue is to isolate the problem transient and delete it.
This pretty much has to be done in audio, but you can start with one element on at a time and as add each additional element through soloing.
Make sure to pay close attention to the metering tools in your DAW - if you start to clip when something is added, zoom in to the audio and see if you can put a fade on the transient that causes the issue.
If you find yourself losing too much punch or attack, then try keeping that transient while removing others.
This can take a little bit of time to get right, but in reality you should never need more than one transient dominating the mix (even more so with low end sub information).
Masking Kick Fundamental with Repetitive Basslines
If your bassline is playing a repetitive lick alternating around the fundamental of your key, having a kick drum with that same fundamental can cause masking issues and diminish the clarity and fullness of the low end. There are tons of ways to address this issue...
1. Try Changing the kick sample
Sometimes the timbre of your kick and bass simply don’t work together. I usually find myself trying to find or create a kick drum to match a bassline versus the other way around because basslines are more sound design intensive.
Try creating your kick with MIDI and hot swapping the sample until you find a kick that works (or even hot swapping the audio itself).
I’ve never been able to make a bassline that doesn’t work well with a four on the floor beat with the right kick sample. It might require just not having too much sub information in the kick itself.
2. Use Sidechain Compression Effectively
This is probably the most well-known and typical use of sidechain compression.
If you have a kick-bass pattern that at all plays notes at the same time, it’s essential to use some amount of sidechain compression. Sidechain will effectively lower the volume of the bassline whenever the kick is played creating headroom and less masking.
Setting up sidechain compression is fairly easy in most DAWs using their built in compressors.
When using visual side-chain compression, it’s important to make sure the visual sidechain curve it as long as the decay of the kick to avoid any conflicts.
3. Use a Tighter Kick Drum & Utilize Fades
A huge overlooked problem within the kick bass relationship is dealing with long kick decays. Simply put…I just wouldn’t use them.
There is no need to have a long kick sample that causes interference with a groovy bassline. Almost every kick sample I use has some sort of fade on it to tighten it up and leave more space for my subs and 808s.
There are obviously times when a long kick decay can sound cool as like an impact or in a section with no bass, but just be careful when you’re having both play at once.
Still, if you insist on using longer kicks, follow this rule of thumb: short kicks work with long basslines, or long kicks work with short basslines.
4. Make Sure to Execute EQ Reductions
An extremely quick and effective method at clearing up kick-bass masking is by using reductive and additive EQ moves. I find that there are several troublesome areas in the spectrum with kicks and sub bass masking.
Try hunting and removing somewhere around 80Hz on kick drums to help the bass come through. You can also look between 100-300Hz on basslines to see if removing frequency content there helps a kicks presence shine in your mix.
Often times with EQ cuts you can apply a slight boost to the same area on the other sound making the dynamic range between those two sounds at that particular frequency even more apparent.
To see more about how you can master EQ reductions, check out our 7 Must-Know EQ trips with Fab Filter Pro-Q2.
5. Tinker with the Composition Itself
As harsh as it might sound, sometimes your composition just does not lend well to a fat and powerful low end.
With enough time and effort inside of sample selection and sound design, this rarely will be an issue. That said, having a huge sub impact playing at the same time as a kick and bass will make low end management extremely difficult.
It’s not impossible, but the samples used and the sounds designed will heavily impact how successful you can be here. It might be worth changing up bassline rhythms to clean up the mix, or have a kick happen less often. Thinking about your low end in the composition stage can really help avoid a lot of these issues.
Still stuck on composition? Check out our 8 Creativity Hacks: How to Start Your Song in an Empty DAW.
Some Additional Tips and Tricks
After some experimentation, if these ‘solutions’ still present additional issues, there are a few other unique methods to try and explore.
Some are not as common and are usually methods involving specific plugins or types of plugins. Others are more of a philosophical approach to the issue as a whole.
6. Utilize Dynamic EQs
Dynamic EQs are a great middle ground between sidechain compression and static reductive EQ.
For example, if you truly only hear a problem at a certain instance in specific parts of the spectrum, than dynamic EQ is a great tool to grab. Simply automate an EQ cut to trigger during the instance that the EQ spectrum is affected past a certain threshold.
This can be great for low end management between a kick and a sub/bass. Try removing between 100-300Hz with a dynamic EQ on the bassline.
This will allow the bassline to have no reductive EQ be applied when the notes of the bass are higher and don’t trigger the threshold. There are also several plugins that allow for a sidechain input to trigger the dynamic EQ.
One of my personal favorites is by Wavesfactory called TrackSpacer - which allows you to remove the frequencies of one sound when another sound occurs (essentially the ultimate masking-removal tool). Watch the example video above for more clarification.
7. Try Working in Audio
If your kick and bass is in audio (as opposed to midi) you can immediately see and fix issues with overlapping transients and masking. You can duplicate good notes and eliminate bad resamples. MIDI is simply not 100% accurate or reliable when it comes to consistency in your sounds.
If you really have trouble committing or printing to audio in your mix, save multiple projects at different stages of the track. You can always bring back a previous version of a sound.
Working in audio is all about having full control over the FINAL product, with no question marks. It provides the ultimate ability to take charge of your session and make your music sound exactly the way you want.
8. Visual Sidechain's Kick Ass
Visual sidechain tools like Cableguys VolumeShaper and Xfer Records LFOTool are essentially the same thing as sidechain compressors, but they simply automate the amplitude of your signal based on a curve set by the producer.
They also have the ability to go to true –inf which built-in DAW compressors can’t do. Simply replacing traditional sidechain with visual sidechain can do a lot at creating more space in your mix for the kick to punch through and for your low end to shine. Not to mention all the other crazy features inside these plugins!
Get the Perfect Low End Every Time
Here’s the thing — it’s not impossible to get the low end of your song to match the professionals. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say it’s pretty easy when you know all the tools you have at your disposal.
The truth is, there is no one size fits all solution when it comes to proper low end management and kick-bass relationships.
Try using visual sidechain, dynamic EQ, and audio fades all at once and you’ll most likely find what I believe - I’m usually only happy with my low end after combining several, if not all of these techniques.
At the end of the day, kick-bass relationships might not actually be better than sex, but you won’t know until you try (both sex, and kick-bass relationships). So get out there.