Written by Michael Heeley
I’ve got that boom boom pow…Bass! How low can you go?!…I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, no treble…
Bass has a beautiful connection to all music genres, from the thwack of a double bass in jazz, to the trunk rattling bass drop in hip hop, to the four on the floor kick drum in dance music, bass is what gets people moving. It is the low end, chest bumping, heart pumping sound that your mix needs. It’s what separates you from the amateur. So, how do you get bass? How do you know if the bass sits in your mix properly? Well, do you have a subwoofer? Do you need one? Let’s explore…shall we?
A subwoofer is a speaker that is designed to play bass frequencies only. Most home studio engineers prefer to use powered speakers, that is, speakers with the power amp built in. Powered subwoofers will also have the crossover built into the subwoofer which will route the low frequency to the subwoofer, and the remaining frequencies to the stereo monitors. The set up guide that comes with your subwoofer will tell you how to determine what volume level you should set your monitors and subwoofer by using an SPL meter (Sound Pressure Level) and a pink noise generator. If you don’t have either of these items, you can download an SPL meter app from your phone’s application store, and download pink noise samples online.
“Look at all of these cool people downloading SPL meters and pink noise generators…And shopping for skinny jeans and fake glasses.”
Once you set up your subwoofer to the manufacturer’s specifications, be sure you listen to several songs that you know really well. This will allow you to be sure you have the correct volume ratio between the subwoofer and the monitors. If you have the ratio in favor of the monitors, you will probably try to overcompensate the low end while you are mixing, causing you to have too much bass in your mix. If your volume ratio favors the subwoofer, you will hear too much bass while mixing, causing you to back down on the bass in the mix. When you listen to your mix in a neutral place (IE your car stereo) your mix will be thin and lifeless.
“With an incorrect volume ratio between your subwoofer and monitors, your mix can be as thin as this guy’s hair. And no, this is not a self portrait.”
Although I began this article referencing pop and hip hop songs, it is important to realize that a subwoofer should be used for mixing any project, even voice only projects. Subwoofers don’t just play bass notes, they play bass frequencies. Therefore, the sub-harmonics that occur in the notes, non bass instruments and voices play would still be present in the subwoofer. It will allow you to have a more complete sounding mix, not just for your bass instruments, but for all of your instruments in general.
If money were no object, and I’m sure for most of you high rollers, it isn’t, you would probably be best served with several different monitor set ups for reference. Since the easiest and most popular set up with a subwoofer routes the signal from your interface into the subwoofer, and then sends the high frequencies to your monitors, if you were to mute the subwoofer for reference, your monitors would not be playing a full range of frequencies. Since you’re getting a loan from uncle Visa for your subwoofer, you may wish to purchase another set of monitors and a speaker selector switch in order to give yourself a full range monitor reference. Speaker selectors can be a simple passive box which takes your stereo signal from your interface and gives you several outputs to different monitors, to active boxes which also include a headphone amplifier and talk back mic. Having several references allows you to make adjustments to your mix that you may not make with only one studio monitor set up. Each company’s speakers will be tuned differently, so different frequencies will be more pronounced with different brand monitors. The same goes for different sized monitors as well. Having a speaker selector would also allow you to hook up a cheap pair of computer speakers so you can have a set of speakers that are not tuned for mixing so you can hear how your song may sound in a real life situation.
In short, a subwoofer is necessary for all types of mixing, not just hip hop and pop, and should be considered an essential part of your recording set up. If you are able, your monitoring set up should include a set of reference monitors with a subwoofer, a second set of full range monitors, and a set of cheap speakers to provide a real world reference for your mix. You should use tools such as an SPL meter and a pink noise generator to get the proper sound balance between your subwoofer and your monitors. This way you can create a better mix and a better sounding product for your audience.