Producing Perfect Bass
Techno pioneer Dave Clarke explains his secrets to perfect bass.
Artist: Dave Clarke
Album: The Desecration of Desire
Tutorial: Dave Clarke
From the beginning of my career I had to concern myself with bass. When vinyl was the predominant format for DJs, we learnt how to control the low frequencies. We had to. If you went too hard, you’d risk the needle skipping. (Incidentally, that’s why the bass drum sounds comparatively thin on those vinyl pressings from the ’90s.) Now bass is a fascination for me.
Making sense of the low end is about how best to deliver the energy in your mix. I’ll spend the time using EQ to carve space for the bass drum to come through with its second, third and fifth harmonics. I’ve also spent time refining my monitoring so I can adequately understand and appreciate bass in a way that’s clear and reliable.
Once you’ve got the fundamentals right then eventually dealing with bass becomes an intuition.
The bass drum and the bass line are always the challenge in electronic dance music but fortunately our DAW’s EQ is now so surgical, it’s easy to do the work — everyone has the tools at their disposal. Years ago you might only have a low or high tone control and it really was about taking the edge off what was most objectionable. Now you can precisely carve out the space you need, such is the surgical nature of the EQ. Which frequencies? That’s easy as well: every DAW has a real-time frequency analyser; it’s easy to see where the energy is. I like the bx_digital V3 plug-in as a surgical tool.
I have a variety of different EQ tools that I like to use for a quick shift to reveal what’s going on. Sometimes I’ll use a Tone Tilt EQ — where the EQ simultaneously boosts the HF and attenuates the LF content. That can be a very good way of finding out why your bass line and bass drum aren’t gelling — shift it away, see what it isn’t working with; make some tweaks; then shift it back.
I’ll generally start off any track with the bass drum and/or bass line or maybe a drum loop. I work out a drum loop and then work around that and then add body to it.
I have my favourite hardware compression for different types of bass lines and sometimes I sum a couple of bass lines together so I can compress them as one. I don’t overdo the compression. I’m normally in the 2 to 3:1 ratio range, occasionally 4:1. I’ll use my ELI Distressor on the drum bus, normally at a ratio of 4 or 5:1. I don’t nuke my drum bus, and in so doing I get the interplay between the compression of the bass drum with the compression of the bass line. They will go through different compressors and then they get fed into the master mix through a Cranesong STC compressor — very minimal, just enough to rein the levels in a little bit.
You can, of course, do something similar with plug-in compressors.
I like working with the compression of the kick drum and bass lines while in that workshopping stage. If they’re working together cohesively then getting everything else to work with them becomes easier.
I’ve learnt a lot from listening to reggae. The bass is the star, it’s where the energy is.
My monitoring setup plays a big role in getting my bass right. My ATC SCM50s handle bass so well. I’m not using a sub in my studio, it’s just coming out of the three-ways. I’ll then flip to my smaller Neat Acoustics monitors to see if the mix is sounding okay or if any distortion is being introduced. I also use my trusty DK Audio meter for secondary visual feedback so I can see what it’s looking like.
As a final ‘translation’ check, I have a corner in my studio which isn’t treated, where I can sit and feel what it would be like in a corner of a nightclub.
Confession time: I do crank it. I know I shouldn’t. I often go into the studio with the best of intentions: ‘yes I’ll keep it calm today, I’ll keep it quiet.’ But, no, I turn it up because I crave the urgency.
That said, I’m only pushing levels a little too hard in the final mix stages. Prior to that, when I’m writing and arranging, I’ll happily keep things at a more sensible level.
The problem with monitoring at too high a level is your ears will experience a ‘squashed ear’ compression. In other words, after extended exposure you’re not actually hearing the mix properly and any decisions you make will be compromised.
I spend a lot of time concentrating on bass energy in my productions. It doesn’t always work out. Sometimes it sounds really horrible. Sometimes I have a really beautiful bass line but I can’t get it to sit with a bass drum and then you just almost wish you were doing a ‘bass-apella’ version of the track.
Bass is fascinating and sometimes infuriating but it’s always so crucial.
Dave Clarke’s first release was in 1990. His most recent album, The Desecration of Desire, was released last year, produced from his boat-borne studio in Amsterdam. And, yes, it has perfect bass.