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In today’s music scene, bass guitars and synths rule the bass frequencies. Once ubiquitous, upright basses are now relegated to dusty corners of relevance. Classical orchestras and symphonies; traditional jazz bands; rockabilly and psychobilly bands. The double bass is therefore an instrument of passion, tradition, and pride. Of course, these behemoths are no longer common for obvious reasons. They are about the size of a person, and playing one is a workout, let alone transporting it. All this to be a bassist- and as every bassist knows, they are among the most important and least appreciated musicians. So if you find yourself wondering the best way to mix an upright bass in music, then you are already working in a proud, fussy world.
Upright basses play a few common roles, as I previously mentioned. I’m going to start with a general guide, and then I’m going to give specific advice based on a few popular contexts you may find yourself in.
General Guidelines to Mix Upright Bass
First of all, upright basses can be recorded in a few ways, and the recording method will influence your mix decisions. This section will assume the bass was recorded in isolation. If the bass was recorded as a combo, you should still be aware of these tips, but you may have to make compromises depending on mic bleed and the way the mix is working together.
Some upright basses have pickups, and the player may have recorded a DI track. On top of this, the recording may have employed one or two mics. If the engineer used only one mic, he or she probably placed it close to the bridge, with a secondary mic further away. A single mic near the bridge is the default way to record upright bass.
All of these potential sound sources play different roles. Since the mic near the bridge is the default, treat this as your main source. You could use a secondary mic track for texture, overtones, and potentially room reverb. Players primarily use pickups for amplification in live settings, but if you have a DI track, you may want to use it to add power to the bass frequencies.
Try high-passing a secondary mic track, and compressing it more than your primary track (if your primary track is compressed at all.) This will bring out the track’s texture, but will prevent any boomy room reverb from making the mix too muddy. If you have a DI track, try low-passing it (as its mid and high-frequency sounds will almost certainly sound less interesting than the acoustic recording, and shouldn’t get in the way.) By compressing it heavily but with very low gain, you can add power to your bass tracks.
Taming Bass Frequencies
Many of the same principles apply when mixing upright bass as when mixing bass in other contexts. If you are aiming for a full, saturated sound, as in pop, rock, or electronic, then you must take care to balance the bass frequencies with other low-frequency sounds, particularly kick and tom drums. In these settings, bass frequencies create the feeling, the power, the movement in the music. You can think of bass frequencies as a beast that must be tamed. As powerful as they are, they can be destructive if not handled correctly. The two issues they can create, are to eat up your headroom, and to create muddy, unclear-feeling mixes.
Bass frequencies require the most power, and therefore they can disproportionately eat the headroom if not handled properly.
Basically, you need to make sure the different tracks in the bass frequencies (40-200 Hz) have their own space. Use EQ to give each its own space. Cut the 40-100 range in one track, and cut the 100-200 range in the other track. I typically give the kick the lowest frequencies, and the bass the higher frequencies in this range. But you can try both in each mix, and just choose whatever feels best. Make sure you are using a good monitoring system! You might be mis-hearing your music if you are not working with the right equipment.
Another option: do not use EQ at all for bass frequencies. Use side-chain compression instead. This is a powerful tool, and taming bass frequencies is one of its most important uses. Since the bass usually has more sustain than the kick (that is, the sound holds for longer) I typically side-chain the bass to duck every time the kick plays. Make sure to play with your threshold and release times to create the right feeling. If you use the effect too strongly, your mix will feel like it is “pumping.” This is occasionally done intentionally, often in EDM. But usually a more subtle effect is better.
These tips are probably not as relevant in traditional jazz or classical recordings. These recordings more often rely on the players’ original dynamics and blending, as well as the dynamics of the space. They don’t rely on compression or EQ as much for balance. That said, jazz is a diverse genre, and many hybrid recordings use jazz instrumentation with more modern mixing techniques. Change your approach to suit the context. If a client tells you they are looking for their track to be louder, punchier, or more “studio polished” then that is a sign you should approach the mixing with more modern pop/rock techniques.
Besides the typical bass considerations when mixing, the double bass has its own unique character. In other contexts, producers may use basses for just their low frequencies, or may use their tone in the mix as well. With upright bass, you can basically guarantee the player wants to employ its distinct tone, and if you treat it like a typical bass, that tone may get lost in the mix. The upright bass tone is complex with many aspects. It’s warm in the 250-500 Hz range, can be boxy or woody around 500-650, and has a throaty growl in the 650-2000 Hz range. Explore the upper ranges, especially 5k-10k, to find the textured finger noises. Employ EQ more dramatically than you might expect to add any of these elements to your mix.
As aforementioned, classical recordings tend to rely more on players and room than on mixing and production. I would apply minimal compression, or possibly none at all, allowing the mastering stage to potentially introduce Dynamic EQ. Try very light EQ usage to bring out whatever texture the recording demands. Don’t be afraid of the recording getting muddier than you would allow in other genres. Even if your recording has double bass, timpani, bass drum, and more in the low frequencies, the composer probably wrote the piece with all that in mind.
If the piece is for a mid or large ensemble, but your track was close-miked, your bass may sound unnaturally present. Use a gentle HPF to place the bass further to the “back” of the sound, as it would be on a stage. This is how a natural context would prevent bass frequencies from building too much- they would die off before reaching the mics or audience.
As I said before, jazz and the sub-genres where upright bass may be common (blues, fusion) are diverse. There are many approaches to recording and production, from traditional combos being recorded together with no amplification, to recordings that verge on modern productions with traditional instrumentation. This makes it hard to generalize. Generally, jazz recordings rely on the warmth in the 250-500 range of the bass to contribute to an overall “jazzy” tone. They are probably interested in making the growl in the 650-2000 Hz range more present, but not the higher-frequency finger sounds. In a smaller combo, don’t be afraid to boost the 1000-3000 Hz range for presence, especially during bass solos when the rest of the band is hardly playing.
Tend towards less compression and a more natural approach in more traditional-sounding recordings. In modern and polished recordings, use compression heavily, and balance bass frequencies as mentioned before. Bring out 1000-2500 Hz at a few moments in the song to let the bass tone shine at important moments, such as when the bass enters for the first time, or when other instruments are not being showcased.
Rockabilly and Psychobilly
These related genres are small, passionate, and proud. Both developed in the 1980s as a throwback to a pre-1960s rock and roll sound. The upright bass is an obligatory element of the genres, as are semi-hollowbody guitars, tight drumkits, baritone singing, pompadours, and Chevy Bel-Airs. Rockabilly can be understood as turning Elvis rock recordings (like “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Jailhouse Rock”) into an entire genre. The defining recording is “Rock This Town” by the Stray Cats. Psychobilly built on this foundation, and combined it with Ramones-era punk production- more overdrive on the guitars, shameless gated reverb on the snare.
In any -billy music, the bass playing is prominent and distinct. The style involves slapping on the strings while playing walking lines, to create a uniquely percussive effect. In these genres, treat the bass like a typical rock bass in terms of compression and balancing low frequencies. Add a medium amount of low-mid and mid frequencies. -Billy combos tend to be small, so there is lots of room in the mix for the tone, but rich baritone singing is also a genre hallmark, so don’t compete with that. Try boosting mid frequencies in the spaces between singing.
The slapping on the bass is so prominent that it deserves special treatment. I would process this in parallel, or duplicate the bass track. Severely high-pass the track, and the compress heavily. You should be left with a track that functions in a similar way to a shaker or tambourine track. You may want to roll off anything above 10kHz to avoid competing with drums and vocal consonants. Listen to reference tracks to nail the sound! The -billy genres value tradition and are not likely to be interested in a “new interpretation” of their sound.
I have occasionally heard upright bass used as a sample in electronic music. Sometimes as a novelty sound, sometimes to function as the bass role in the music. In any case, you should apply extreme compression when layering acoustic instruments into electronic music, with very short attack and release times. The musicality in these settings comes from the tones and the arrangement, not from the dynamics of the playing. After compressing, use EQ to taste. If the bass is being used as a texture or even melody, and not as a bass instrument, boost the 650-2500 Hz range and consider cutting below that.
So there you go. A guide to mix upright bass in a range of contexts. Have fun with the unique challenge, and don’t sell the production short. Any bassist who owns and plays an upright has essentially made a lifestyle choice, and their work should be rewarded with well-produced recordings! If you are having trouble, don’t be afraid to reach out to professional mixing services, which can help you learn from example and be more affordable than you might think.
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.