Mixing Low-end for Any Sound System

Whether you’re a producer, mixing engineer or mastering engineer, mixing low-end is widely regarded as one of the most challenging parts of the job. There are few things more frustrating than mixing your track to sound spectacular on studio monitors or headphones, only for the entire low-end to disappear into the ether when played on smaller playback devices.

No matter what style of music you’re working with, the majority of contemporary music is enjoyed on consumer-level devices including mobile phones, bluetooth speakers, laptops or earpods. For this reason, being able to make a song’s low-end sound good on any system is a valuable skill to add to your arsenal. In this article, we’ll cover some tips and tricks for making sure your kick and bass shine through, regardless of the sound system.

Why does your low-end sound different on small speakers?

Many small consumer-level sound systems are incapable of accurately reproducing bass frequencies. The actual frequency response varies from device to device, but most mobile phones are unable to produce any sound below 500Hz, while laptop and bluetooth speakers can generally go slightly lower thanks to their larger speaker drivers. By contrast, most club, event and festival sound systems can go as far down the frequency spectrum as 30Hz to 40Hz.

Generally speaking, a song’s bass sits between 60Hz and 250Hz, while sub-basses sit below that. It’s no surprise then that your low-end can sound so different when played on smaller speakers.

How to mix your kick and bass for any sound system

While mixing your next track, there are numerous approaches you can take to make your low-end more impactful and present across all speaker systems. Let’s take a look at some of those approaches.

1. Bring out your bass’ upper harmonics for more presence

In this example, we’re mixing a dance track that contains a sub-bass made with pure sine waves. While the bass sounds deep and transparent on our studio monitors (with a frequency response of 44Hz), the bass is all but non-existent when played on a mobile phone. Using a simple spectrum analyzer, we can see that there is hardly any information above our bass’ fundamental frequency of 62Hz.

Using Leapwing Audio RootOne, we can introduce some upper harmonics to our bass by increasing the Harmonics Saturation fader. By default, the Low Pass filter in the Harmonics Saturation circuit is set to 300Hz. We’ve raised the filter cutoff to 1000Hz, because we want to introduce harmonics above 300Hz too.

When we look back at our spectrum analyzer, we can see that RootOne is introducing both odd and even-order harmonics right the way up the frequency spectrum. This results in a much more audible bass sound across all playback devices.

We can use the Drive and Color controls to tweak the character of the saturation being applied. Increasing the Drive amount introduces some pleasant distortion, thus giving the bass a more gritty sound that will be even more audible on small speaker systems.

A Color value of 0 gives you symmetrical distortion characteristics, while a value of 100 gives you asymmetrical characteristics. While it’s not directly comparable, you could think of symmetrical as being similar in character to tape-distortion, and asymmetrical as being similar to tube-distortion. Try applying different combinations of these values to see how it affects the timbre and frequency information of your bass sound.

To hear the effect RootOne is having on your signal, use the Mute button below the Original signal fader. This essentially solos the processed audio.

2. Add subharmonics to your kick for more depth and impact

As well as being able to bring out upper harmonics in sub-basses, RootOne is also capable of generating subharmonics in kick and bass sounds, or any other instrument for that matter. This is actually RootOne’s primary purpose, and is particularly useful for adding weight to thin kicks or bass guitars.

Check out this video from Leapwing Audio co-founder Robin Reumers to find out more about the concept behind RootOne.

Here, we have an acoustic kick which has plenty of high-frequency transient information and mid-frequency punch, but not much information below 100Hz. This causes it to lack impact and get lost in the mix on bigger sound systems.

After placing RootOne on your kick channel, you can use the bands’ crossover controls to control where subharmonics are being generated. With the Thump Crossover range set to 48Hz to 100Hz, the band is searching for frequencies an octave above that range.

We can see from the spectrum analyzer that our kick’s fundamental frequency is just above 100Hz. With the Crossovers set appropriately, you can start to slowly increase the Thump fader within the Subharmonics section.

As you increase the fader, RootOne generates clean, phase-aligned subharmonics within that band that correlate to our kick’s fundamental frequency. By using our own proprietary amplitude and phase analysis algorithms, RootOne is able to introduce subharmonic content that is free of artefacts and phase smearing. This results in a far cleaner and more cohesive low-end than traditional pitch-shifting subharmonic generators.

If you want to add harmonics to your low-end in a transparent and musical way, you can add RootOne to your plugin folder now.

3. Reinforce specific harmonics with multiband compression

Now you’ve added some more harmonics to your low end, there are steps we can take to bolster out those harmonics in the mix, thus ensuring that they have the necessary transparency and presence. Multiband compression is a great way to achieve this, as it gives us control over our signal’s level and dynamic range on a per-band basis.

In this example, we’ll be applying multiband compression to the bass sound we saturated in step one of this article. We’ve placed DynOne after RootOne as an insert on our bass track. Using a similar Crossover system to that in RootOne, we can set up the bands in DynOne according to the frequencies we want to affect.

Our bass’ fundamental frequency is 62Hz and the saturation applied with RootOne introduced harmonics above 100Hz. With that in mind, we’ve set the Low Frequency (LF) Crossover at 100Hz, so the Low Mid Frequency (LMF) range is 100Hz to 800Hz.

You can delink the LMF’s controls from the other bands by deselecting the link button at the bottom of the fader. This allows us to alter the LMF’s dynamic processing independently of the other bands.

By default, DynOne is in Parallel Mode with all of the bands’ faders at -infinity. Bringing up the LMF level fader introduces the band’s compressed signal to the mix. We’ve also adjusted the Attack and Release settings to work with the rhythm and tempo of our track’s bassline.

This technique allows us to increase the level of our bass’ upper harmonics in a natural and musical way, without affecting the dynamics of the dry signal or the fundamental frequency.

DynOne won the 2018 MusicTech Software Product of the Year, and you can grab it for yourself here.

4. Check mono compatibility

Regardless of a speaker’s size, many sound systems sum stereo signals to mono during playback. This is the case for many mobile phones, bluetooth speakers and even live sound systems. So what does that mean for your mix?

If your mix contains elements that are out of phase with one another, the left and right channels may cancel each other out when summed to mono, thus causing them to lose impact or go completely silent. As they consist of larger waves, low frequencies are particularly prone to phase cancellation.

In this example, we’ve got a synth bass with some stereo information that doesn’t sound too problematic on studio monitors or headphones, but folding the bass to mono reveals how much of an issue it would be on a mono sound system. The audio level is inconsistent and lacks impact when monitored in mono.

After loading StageOne 2 on our bass channel, we can see from the visualizer that there is some stereo information in the bass and sub-bass frequency ranges. Using StageOne, we can independently control the width of these frequency ranges.

Our stereo bass mostly occupies the area below 200Hz, so we’ve set the Low band crossover slightly above that. We can now bring down only the Low band’s Width, thus leaving the stereo information higher up the frequency spectrum intact.

In StageOne 2, you also get a Phase Recovery algorithm which intelligently analyzes your stereo signal and brings your left and right signals in phase with one another. As with the other controls in StageOne 2, the Phase Recovery algorithm can be engaged on a per-band basis.

StageOne 2 is the ultimate width and depth plugin and is the ideal tool for a range of applications, including mixing your low-end. To see how it works for yourself, you can download a free one-month trial now.

5. Reference regularly

During the mixing process, it’s easy to lose sight of the sound you’re trying to achieve. This is particularly true when focusing on a particular instrument or frequency range, such as your bass or low-end. Using professionally mixed and mastered reference tracks can help you to recalibrate your ears, and can guide you towards how your finished mix should sound.

As well as using reference tracks, it’s good practice to reference your mix on as many different playback systems as possible. By regularly exporting a version of your mix and playing it out of different speaker systems, you can make more accurate and reliable mixing decisions.

Alternatively, you can simulate another speaker system’s frequency response within your DAW. Armed with the knowledge that most mobile phone speakers don’t extend below 500Hz, try placing an EQ on your master that cuts below that point. This should give you an idea of how your mix will sound when played out of a mobile phone.

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