Some genres of music are more dependent on bass than others, but in every recording the low frequencies have the most power. Unfortunately, many loudspeakers are simply unable to reproduce these powerful audio signals, meaning that your previously impressive track may be left without any audible bottom end…
Start With The Fundamentals
A 55Hz bass note might sound great on a full-bandwidth studio monitoring system, but it simply won’t be audible on a laptop speaker. In fact, you’ll be lucky to hear much of anything below 200 Hz.
A 55Hz (low A) note will have harmonics at 110Hz, 220Hz, 440Hz and so on. So, even though the 55Hz and 110Hz may be inaudible, the harmonics at 220Hz should show up on low-end equipment.
If you want your bass to be audible on a wide range of systems, you’ll need to ensure that there is some harmonic activity. Although notes naturally produce harmonics at multiples of their fundamental frequency, the intensity of these varies greatly between different instruments – which may be a particular issue if you’re dealing with relatively pure synth sounds.
Plugging The Bass Holes
If your bass doesn’t have much harmonic content, there are a number of plug-ins that can help it cut through on lo-fi gear, such as the Waves Maxxbass series and BBE’s Sonic Maximiser, or you could try a free VST such as Baxxpander.
These tools create harmonics that are audible at higher frequencies – and due to some clever psychoacoustic modeling, they can also reduce the fundamental without any apparent loss of bass information.
This has the twofold benefit of making the bass audible on lesser speakers, while also increasing the total headroom available to the mix by reducing the amount of fundamental energy.
Some Bass Mastering Hacks
If you don’t have a dedicated harmonic exciter, adding a bit of standard distortion from your favourite effect might also make your bass audible at higher frequencies… but will obviously colour your sound. However, the trade-off might be worth it if you find that your listeners are primarily experiencing your tunes on limited speakers…
Making sure your track translates well to a variety of systems is a vital part of mastering. If you want to get a rough idea of how your mix sounds on a dodgy stereo, just put a steep (e.g. 24 dB per octave) high-pass filter at about 200Hz, and a similarly steep low-pass at 2kHz, across your master out channel.
If you can still hear all the vital elements of the mix and they sit well together under these conditions, then you probably have the makings of a decent record. However, there is no magic bullet for bass problems – despite this post’s title, you’re never going to get thumping bass from a one inch speaker, but you may be able to save your bass from disappearing entirely…