How To Mix Bass For Small Speakers

mixing bass for small speakers

I remember a while back waking up to listen to one of the mixes I finished the previous day at dusk, just before night time.

As I was listening to the mix, I was expecting it to have some minor issues that I’ll need to fix but couldn’t hear anything that needs to be fixed.

So, that’s when I thought I should check the mix on different sound devices.

The first device I used to test the mix a smartphone and when the bass kicked-in I could hear it as clear as day.

I got excited because that’s not what I was expecting. Then I tested the mix on my laptop speakers and I could hear every bass note clear.

Note that when I say I could hear the bass I’m not saying I could hear the low-end, NO, all I’m saying is that I could hear the bass notes in the midrange frequencies.

So, I asked myself if I could replicate this on every mix that I work on.

That’s when I became obsessed with getting the bass to sound great on small speaker devices such as the smartphone, bluetooth speakers, airpods, headphones, etc.

Then I started developing some great techniques that help me achieve that goal on every mix, which I'm going to share with you on this post.

This tutorial should also help you understand how to make a bass sit well in a mix and sound good on all sound devices.

Before we get started, please make sure that your bass is well recorded, and the sound design is on point before jumping straight to mixing. One other important thing to check is phase issues, especially if you're layering sounds.

Whether layering live recordings (Amp, DI, etc.) or virtual sounds, always check that everything is in-phase. Make sure that your sounds are well aligned and hit the polarity reversal button a couple of times to check that everything is in-phase. 

If your sounds are not in-phase they’ll cancel each other and all the processing will be for nothing.

Mixing at Lower Volumes

One of the most important things to take note of when mixing music is the monitoring level.

The secret to getting a big and punchy low-end is to mix at lower volumes. If you can hear the low-end at low monitoring levels then it should sound good in most (if not all) sound devices.

Most people are mixing in untreated rooms with no acoustic treatment and the biggest mistake you can make is to mix at loud volumes in an untreated room.

The untreated room will always interfere with what you’re hearing.

The best thing you can do for your mix is to monitor at lower volumes so that the sound of the room doesn’t interfere with what’s coming out of the speakers.

Get the Bass to Cut Through a Mix With EQ

Before you can even dream about getting your bass to cut through a mix, you have to understand frequency pocketing.

What this means is that you have to find the right pocket in the frequency spectrum for all the sounds that are in a mix.

This differs from song to song. It also depends on the genre, the ultimate goal, sound design, microphones, and many other factors.

So, you’re going to have to make this decision based on what the song needs.

Here are some frequencies that will help the bass become audible on small speakers:

  • Around 700Hz: This will bring up the body of the bass
  • Around 1.5kHz: This will add presence to the bass to help it cut through, especially if you’re working on a dense mix.
  • Around 4kHz: This frequency will increase the snap, string sound, and make the notes more audible.

Don’t make the mistake of bringing up all these frequencies at the same time. You only add these if the bass sound you’re working on needs it (only if these frequencies are lacking).

Always remember that there are other sounds in the mix you don’t want to end up create unnecessary bass build-up in the midrange because this will cause frequency masking, and the mix will lack clarity.

The next thing you need to do with EQ is to cut frequencies on other sounds to make space for the bass. Not only in the low-end, even in the midrange frequencies as well.

Sometimes you don’t even need to boost anything, you just need to carve out some space for your bass by using subtractive EQ on other sounds to help your bass cut through.

One other important thing is to always use wide boosts instead of narrow boosts.

Remember, the bass is dynamic so notes will change. If you use narrow boosts you’ll only affect a few notes and other notes won’t get affected. So you’ll hear certain notes while other notes won’t be clear.

To avoid all that, you need to use a wide bandwidth when you boost frequencies on a dynamic bass sound.

Mixing Bass For Small Speakers

Make Your Mixes Mono Compatible

Most small speaker devices are mono, things such as bluetooth speakers usually come with a single mono speaker.

To make sure that your bass doesn’t disappear when your mix is played on these devices you always have to make sure that your mix is mono-compatible. That means, if your mix is played in mono the bass shouldn't disappear, if the bass disappears then you might be having some phase issues.

You always have to keep switching between mono and stereo when mixing. You can use a plugin to switch between mono and stereo but many reputable DAWs come with this feature built-in.

There are others who like to claim that mixing in mono is the secret to getting great-sounding mixes.

But, it’s not.

It’s just that when you switch to mono you’re able to hear the height much clearer. The height of a mix is simply from the bottom to the top, in terms of EQ or frequency spectrum.

So, listening in mono makes it much easier to hear frequency masking/overlapping and phase issues. It will help you get a great frequency and level balance.

But you still need to hear the mix in a 3-dimensional feel, and that includes listening to how the song sounds in stereo.

You need to get a good balance between mono and stereo to make sure the bass will be audible in different speakers and sound devices.

By now you're probably asking yourself the classic old question; "should a bass be mono or stereo?"

I would say mono, not because there's anything wrong with a stereo bass.

Having your bass in stereo is just risky, you can't predict where the song will be played or what devices the future will bring. I mean, some classics sound horrible on smartphones because engineers back then never thought music will be played on a phone, so I say mono because it's safe, not because it's better or anything like that.

In this tutorial, I reveal some of my latest tips and techniques about mixing bass for smaller speakers.

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Use Compression to Control Dynamic Range

You always have to keep in mind that mobile devices are limited when it comes to dynamic range capabilities. If there is too much dynamic range in the music, these speakers simply distort or bottom out.

That's the biggest reason the bass will fall flat when a song is played on small speakers. So, you have to use compression to control dynamic range.

I’m not saying you should squash the signal and kill the life out of the bass. You simply just need to keep the loudest peaks well controlled and make sure that all the notes are clear.

The best approach is to compress in stages. Instead of using one compressor to control everything, you can use serial compression.

Serial compression simply means using multiple compressors in series (ie, one after the other). It’s also a great way to get different flavors and characteristics from different compressors.

If the notes are still not evened-out by the compressor, what you can do is to add a limiter to even-out the notes. But always be careful when using limiters because they can be aggressive when used wrong then end up destroying a good bass performance. But a limiter will definitely help you control dynamic range.

The goal is to use compression to get a good balance between loud and quieter notes.

Parallel Compressing a Bass

If you're mixing something like a jazz record then you'll want to keep the bass dynamic with very light compression, in those type of situations then parallel compression will come in handy.

The benefits of parallel compression is that the loud peaks on the parallel channel will be squashed and the quieter parts will be at the same volume as the loud peaks. That means you won’t have any dynamic problems on the parallel channel because all the bass notes will be playing at the same volume.

So, you get the best of both worlds (a well controlled bass and a very dynamic bass). Blending the 2 together should help small speakers produce the bass very well.

With parallel processing, you always have to make sure that you're not causing any phase issues, always switch to mono to check that the bass doesn't disappear because compression changes the time of a sound and that can cause phase issues.

When it comes to parallel compression, I stay away from high-pass or low-pass filters (they cause phase problems), instead I use shelf filters.

If your bass is too dynamic, it will be quieter in the loudest parts of the song, so automate the parallel track to make sure that the bass is audible throughout the entire song without getting loud in certain parts and fall flat in other parts of the song.

Adding harmonic distortion on the parallel channel is also effective at bringing out upper harmonics, provided the distortion does not become too apparent. The upper harmonics are what you'll be able to hear on small speakers.

Parallel compression should help you if you want to keep the purely natural sound of the bass.

Saturate The Bass To Add Harmonic Content

In most cases, especially if it’s a dense mix, the bass will struggle to cut through simply because it lacks harmonic content.

BUT…

Please be careful when choosing a saturation or distortion effect because MOST of these effects (plugins) will cause aliasing problems. Use plugins that have oversampling, this is also labeled HQ in some plugins. That will help you avoid aliasing.

I don’t add saturation directly to the bass sound (nothing wrong with adding it directly), I always add it on an Aux/Fx channel so that I can have flexibility and control. This helps me control the saturation effect to make sure that it fits the mix I’m currently working on.

If you choose to add saturation or distortion effects directly on the bass, then I would recommend using a multiband saturation/distortion plugin so that you can have more control and flexibility. 

Adding harmonic content, in most cases, is the only thing you’ll need to make the bass sound great on small speakers.

Saturation is a powerful tool for balancing low frequency elements in a mix, adding weight and power to bass.

Frequency Splitting Technique

Another technique that I find works very well is to split the bass in two.

I learned this trick from Michael Brauer, he always splits his bass so that he can have more control. You can split it around 500Hz just like Brauer or choose whatever frequencies that work best for you.

Splitting the bass at 400Hz always works best for me and I know that many small speakers have a frequency response of 400Hz and upwards so that’s why I choose 400Hz.

The best thing about splitting the bass is that you can get away with a lot of compression and heavy saturation on the higher bass part of the sound. This will also help you reduce dynamic range in the midrange of the bass, which makes it easier for small speakers to produce the bass sound clearer.

This makes things easy because to hear the bass on small speakers you simply crank up the volume on the higher bass channel without messing up the balance in the low-end.

What I would advise you to do is to process the top and bottom bass separately, especially when it comes to saturation and compression. When it comes to EQ and any other processing tools then you can group the 2 and process them as one.

Wrap

I bet before reading this blog post you thought this was going to be a complicated thing to achieve.

The main key thing is to make sure that there are no sounds in the mix that are preventing the bass from shining. So, no matter how much processing you make on the bass, as long as there are other sounds that are masking the bass it will never sound clear.

Always make space for the bass, especially in the midrange not just in the low-end.

If you’re recording the bass live, then I recommend that you record a bass amp along with the DI so that you can use the bass amp to help the bass cut through and have more flexibility.

Now, let me know in the comments below which of these tips you're going to test today.