Three BASS MYTHS for you to stop believing

I was working at an audio repair shop in NYC to make money for music school.

The name of the shop was E.A.R.S., Expert Audio Repairs and Services.

There were some incredible techs working there, guys who had been on tour with Pink Floyd, built studios for Wu-Tang and even worked with Bob Marley personally on sessions.

I got the job because I brought in a broken Mackie mixer and would not shut up about it.  They let me come in and literally sweep the floor, add water to the sponges in the soldering stations, and bench-test finished gear after repairs to see if everything worked right.  

By the way you know those $100 headphones like Sony MD-7506...  yeah the actual speaker elements in them cost $10 each. (transducers)  That pair of headphones is $25 in parts and $75 in plastic.  But they last forever so maybe the body armor is worth it on your head.

anyway

My favorite tech was Lyndel Williams, a real skinny Jamaican guy with a thick accent who told me funny stories about growing up in Jamaica.

One time when they were kids they caught an octopus and made it swim through a clear plastic tube in between barrels of seawater, banging on the barrels with sticks to make it swim back and forth through the tube all day.  It was a small tube but the octopus stretched out to fit inside it and they could see all its suction cups moving as it went through.  

Or about the alligator clamps for their power supply.  You know like on jumper cables for your car battery?

so they were building their own amps, the amps were too big to plug in to house power, so they used alligator clamps to connect their 25,000 watt power amp into the main power line at the telephone pole!  Can you imagine doing that?  Clamping onto the main power split outside your house to run your own hand-made 25 kilowatt sound system???

When I started working there, I had severe illusions about mixing BASS.

I'm gonna share three totally wrong ideas I had.  Here's the truth that fixed them:

1. You don't need a subwoofer in your studio

2. You don't need new .VST plugins

3. You don't have to buy analog studio gear

I know these are really basic for a lot of you reading this, but they helped me a lot at a time I needed it, so I'm going pass this on for the newer producers.

MYTH#1: "YOU HAVE TO HAVE A SUBWOOFER IN YOUR STUDIO TO MIX BASS"
Wrong. You know what happens when you get a sub?  You lose all the low end out of your productions.  

Sounds backwards but this is what happens -- you crank up the sub, everything sounds amazing, your shit is rattling on the walls, and the music you're making sounds totally Ginormous.  But that's not coming from your track, that huge bass is coming from the sub amp.  

When you bounce out a mix like that, and then somebody else plays it on a normal system (that doesn't have a subwoofer jacked up +12dB), your mix will sound thin and weak -- because the SUBWOOFER was giving you the illusion of bass in the mix, and you compensated by lowering the bass in the audio file itself!  

The bass was not in the mix, it was coming from the amp.

OH LOOK IT'S COCKTAIL HOUR
You know when a margarita has salt on the glass, you drink it and it tastes salty right?  If you pour that same drink into a different glass, it's not gonna be salty because the salt was on the glass, not in the drink.  

A subwoofer is like that salt and your music is like the drink.  Cheers.

This subwoofer myth got busted when I was playing music at the shop and turned up a bass amp and said yeah that sounds great right?  

Lyndel said to me,

"Lookman you gotta use your meters.  You can't trust your ears, because your ears want to hear more bass in this room.  It's not gonna sound like that when somebody else plays on their own system."

MYTH#2: "YOU CAN'T MIX BASS WITHOUT ANALOG GEAR"
Wrong.  

This one got cleared up for me on the oscilloscope looking at waveforms going through a circuit.

I'd been talking about the debate between recording on tape and recording at 44.1kHz, with the psychological effect of hearing tiny millions of little slices of sound and blablabla.

This is what Lyndel did.  He patched a CD player into the oscilloscope and showed me the waveform.

He said the source might be digital but when it gets to the amp it's analog again, and when it gets to the speaker it's a bunch of sine waves pushing back and forth on the speaker cone,

and when you HEAR it you are hearing air pressure from those gooey sine waves pushing your gooey eardrum.  

The point: it's all analog when it hits the speakers.  The mix happens in the air, not in the computer chip.  

Digital equipment is not putting "bad sound" into your music -- great sound is all about your gain staging and how you use the mix tools.

Speaking of mix tools.

MYTH #3: "YOU GOTTA HAVE NEW VST PLUGINS TO MAKE A GOOD MIX"
Wrong.  

VSTs are not the only place to get the sound you want.

I didn't learn this one directly from the repair shop but what I learned was the ubiquity of the basic mix tools.

Ubiquity: the state of being everywhere all the time 

Isn't that a record label?   Yeah!  It's Roy Ayers' label.   How did that stick in my mind...

Newbies often get lost looking at the huge list of plugins in the Audio Effects browser but the truth is, there are only a few important audio engineering mix tools.

Here's my short list:

  • Parametric EQ's
  • pre-amps
  • Low-shelf and High-Shelf EQ's
  • Phase switches
  • High and Low pass filters 
  • bandpass filters 
  • Resonance / bandwidth control
  • Gates
  • Volume & Pan knobs
  • Compressors
  • Limiters
  • Reverb
  • Delay
  • Chorus
  • Flanger

I learned this by seeing them built into all kinds of analog hardware that the digital plugins are copying.  

Audio effects in the analog world are just circuit components within mixing boards, effects units, analog synths, guitar FX pedals, 19" rack gear, 500-series modules, and more.  

and then there are the heavy hitters you don't even see -- built-in Limiters on power amps, hard-wired Compressors before keyboard output jacks, and multiband splitters made from resistors and capacitors in a circuit.  (crossovers my lovelies, crossovers)

To you new people who feel like you are drowning in the ocean of plugins:

A new VST plugin is not the only tool which can solve your problem.   

Popular VST plugins give you an effects chain that leads to a mix result -- that's the fun part about them -- but when you know what the basic mix tools are, you can just build your own chain and get even better results.  

Learn to dial in mix tools from the basic Ableton plugins and you will find yourself getting amazing sound with MUCH LESS cpu power.  

Steve Knots

mixitecture, Pittsburgh, PA

Thanks for your visit! If you're new here, check out the session lessons. They're the most exciting new way to learn sound design, composition and mixdown techniques for electronic music production in Ableton Live. -Steve