The 808 bass has become a staple part of most genres of music since the release of the TR-808 back in the 1980's. Since then mixing and sound design has come such a long way meaning that your 808's have the possibility of sounding better than ever if they are mixed right. Unfortunately, even with such advances in music technology and mixing equipment I still hear so many producers using 808's that just sound lost in the mix and don’t carry any significant weight to the track they find themselves in. In this article we will go through the most essential aspects of mixing your 808's to show you just how easy it is to create a professional and well-rounded low end using cheap and easy to find plug ins that any producer will have in their arsenal. So, sit back and take some notes.
- Tune Your 808's
The most common problem I see producers all levels making, is not tuning their 808. Whether this is because they forget to do this or just simply overlook the importance of it the truth is a wrongly tuned 808 will never sound natural in a mix and will leave your entire track feeling out of place.
Tuning an 808 is really simple all you really need is a tuner plug in and knowledge on how to adjust the tuning of a sample. Luckily tuning plug ins are very common so finding one won’t be hard at all but my go to is the MTuner by Melda production, this plug in is free to use as part of the Melda Productions MfreeFx bundle which can be downloaded here:
Using this plug in you first want to find what key the 808 your using is in; this is done by simply adding this plug in to your 808 channel and letting it do the work. It will tell you the exact note that is being played. Next you want to identify what key your track is in, so you know what root note to tune your 808 to. Once you know the key you want to simply adjust the transposition of your 808 to the root note of your track and you will immediately hear the difference this makes to your overall mix. Please be aware that if the sample your using is quite far from the root note is might not sound good when its tuned correctly due to a difference in pitch. In this case just pick another sample you can find our 808 bass pack here: it will include all the 808's you will ever need in a variety of different notes.
Once we know our 808 is in tune with the rest of our mix the next thing, we need to utilise is our EQ tool. EQ is going to be probably the most useful tool in the sculpting of our 808's so I recommend taking some time to get this stage right before moving to any other stage of mixing.
With our EQ we can cut and boost the frequency range of our 808 in order to mould it into our mix and avoid any clashing or muddiness in the low end. But this EQ can be looked at from a couple of different perspectives depending on what you want out of your 808 but I will start with the most common technique that I use on around 80% of the tracks I mix.
So, for this technique we are going to try adding power to the low end and remove any muddiness from it which should leave your eq sounding powerful but not taking up too much of the frequency range. So, for this I like to start by getting rid of the muddiness, to do this I usually use a gentle cut using a bell curve at around 250hz. the amount you bring this frequency range down will all depend on what the 808 your using sounds like but a good rule of thumb is around a 4db cut as this will remove the mud without taking out any character from the sound. Once I have taken this muddiness out of my sound I then like to boost the low end to give it more power, to do this I boost using a bell curve around 40 to 100hz dependant on where the power of your 808 sits, so use this bell curve and sweep through this range to find the ideal place to boost. When boosting in this area you need to make sure not to boost too much as this will make the bass sound way too boomy, so I usually recommend around +3db on this boost. Then finally I personally like to take out all the frequencies below <25hz as you don’t hear these frequencies so by taking it away you give the bass more room in the frequencies that matter meaning a more rounded bass altogether.
So, what I just went through is my standard EQ process on bass but sometimes I also like to do other edits in this. So, if I have a bass that has some higher frequency information I will sometimes boost at around the 10khz range to give the sound some air which will make it sound more present in the mix but I rarely do this and only on a select few bass sounds.
Once we have a nice rounded bass from the EQ, I then look at compression on my bass. As 808 tends to rely on a strong initial transient I like to compress it to give that transient more power and give the sound more overall punch.
So, to do this you can use any stock compressor in your DAW, or you can use your favourite plug in. So, let’s look at the settings for your compressor. I like to start with my ratio and usually set it at 3:1 or 4:1, 3:1 is my go to ratio but if I’m wanting a more aggressive compression I will go to 4:1, it doesn’t make too much of a difference but the trained ear will be able to hear the difference. I then set the attack really fast, usually under 1ms if the 808 has a very fast punch at the start, or anywhere from 1ms-4ms if the bass doesn't have an initial hit. Then I look at my release time, my release time usually depends on the length of the bass note that I will be using. If my bass is very short, I will set my release to also be very short as to emphasise the initial punch so this would be around 10ms - 80ms. Then if the bass note is a lot longer, I like to have a medium release time to give the whole note more weight rather than just the initial impact, when I do this, I usually set it anywhere from 200 - 400ms. This release time is very dependent on the length of the sound so I recommend playing about with the release time to see how it works and find what will work best for your chosen sound. Then finally we look at the threshold and I usually set the threshold to around 3-8db of gain reduction dependant on how aggressive I want the compression to be, but again play around with the threshold to find where you like it.
- Side Chain compression
Side chain compression is one of my favourite tools when looking at bass because it can help with the problem of kick and bass masking each other. As your kick and bass lie in a similar frequency range, they tend to get lost behind each other, so to fix this we reach for our side chain compressor.
To do this we put the compressor on the bass channel and use the side chain option on the compressor the select the kick track as the trigger. this will mean that every time the kick is triggered the bass will be compressed meaning that the level will be brought down slightly. This will help the kick to punch through when it’s there but will mean that the bass can be more present when the kick isn’t there. The settings we use for this are quite simple, so I like to use either 1:3 or 1:4 ratio, a very fast attack time (usually as fast as the compressor will let me) and around a 10-50ms release time, and I like to set the threshold to around 3-6db of gain reduction depending on how much I need the kick to punch through. Be aware that you don’t really want to heart the bass ducking in level so be careful on how much gain reduction you use as ideally u want the kick to punch through but not notice that the bass is being reduced.
- Get creative
Once You have the EQ, compression and side chaining down you will have a really nice sounding bass that will be sitting in the mix really nicely. So, this is the main basis of your bass set up and ready to go, so you can now look at creativity of the bass and keeping the listener interested throughout the song. So, we can do this in a few ways:
- Distortion is a tool that will add upper harmonics to your bass sound. These harmonics will add more presence to the bass and can completely change the character of the bass. So, pick a distortion plug in and start messing around with pre-sets to find what kind of distortion you like on your sounds.
- Pitch shifting
- In all DAW’s you can easily shift the pitch of the sounds using automation. A good technique when using this is the pitch up the very end of the note to give it a sense of movement that will keep the listener interested and will provide more character to your entire bass section.
- Try plug ins
- A good thing to do is to mess around with plug ins that you wouldn’t usually use on your bass to find some hidden tricks inside these plug ins to make your bass sound unique. Be aware that most of the plug ins will sound crap but every so often you will find a hidden gem that becomes a staple part of your mixes.