How loud should the bass instrument be?

An RP reader wants to know how loud the bass should be, in percentage terms.

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A question from an RP reader...

"When balancing the instrumental, at what percentage (volume) should one's bass instrument be?"

I'm guessing that by 'instrumental', he means the backing instruments of a song.

Firstly let me deal with the concept of percentage. It doesn't really work all that well for audio. For instance, consider a signal at a good, healthy, but not ear-damaging level. Reduce it by 6 dB. You can clearly notice the difference, but the level is still strong. Try another 6 dB. It seems to have gone down by a similar amount, yet is still very clearly audible. Another 6 dB. It has far from gone away yet.

But considered in percentage terms, the signal level is now down to 12.5% of what it was originally. You'd think that the signal would hardly be audible at all, but it most definitely is. A reduction in level of a total of 18 decibels corresponds very well to the way the ear perceives sound. Measuring a change in level in percentage terms isn't wrong, but it somehow doesn't match up with what we hear.

Let's try and put a figure on how loud the bass instrument ought to be. What about 50%?

In terms of decibels, what this would mean is that the bass instrument is as loud as all of the rest of the instruments playing together. So if you look at the level on a meter and you take away the bass, then the level may hover around -9 dBFS. If you take away all of the instruments except the bass, then likewise it hovers around -9 dBFS.

Interestingly, if you combine the bass and all of the rest of the band, the level will now hover somewhere around -6 dBFS. Somehow 50% plus 50% doesn't equal 100%. This is because the two signals are uncorrelated, but that isn't particularly relevant for the issue in hand.

But what would it sound like?

In this case, the bass would almost certainly be too loud, unless the bass really is the most important instrument in the song. So what is the correct percentage?

Well I'd like to move away from the idea of percentage and look at the issue in a rather different way.

Suppose you play the instruments without the bass and the meters are hovering around -9 dBFS. Now raise the bass. Lift the fader until you can just see the meters rise up from around the -9 dBFS mark. This is the point at which one instrument starts to dominate the mix. Now you have to ask yourself, do you want it to dominate, or do you want it to blend in?

You can't mix by looking at meters, but they can give you an interesting indication of the way in which different instruments contribute to the song. This 'point of dominance' is of particular relevance to vocals. Often when a vocal crosses this point, it is too loud in comparison with the instruments. It's a useful quick check when learning how to mix.

In conclusion... Well I'm sorry that I haven't really come to a conclusion. But it isn't the kind of issue where there are hard and fast rules. But thinking around the issue can be very instructive. Those who are thinking carefully about what they do when they mix will create better mixes.

By the way, the photo illustrates a track where the bass guitar is vitally important. Without the bass, this song would just be a lot of hot air!

Publication date: Saturday May 12, 2012
Author: David Mellor



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Earlier discussion on this topic...

Arthur D, Miami, USA

i'm not very "techy" so what i do is rely on loudness perception, presetting my bass and kick, comparing my mix to pros, and listening to my projects on different systems.
Wednesday October 24, 2012

B!, Phoenix, USA

After carefully tweaking compression,EQ and effects (i.e.chorus , distortion) then matching Bass to Kick tonality - I'll always mix Bass hotter in Rock/PoP/Country songs. So when I turn down the mix to barely audible - and critically listen to the song I want to hear Vocals (100%), Snare (90-95%), Bass (80-90%), Kick (tucked right under Bass) then everything else build on that foundation. Note: I also use the Waves Bass Rider Plugin - it is an invaluable tool

Monday May 14, 2012

Fred Krause, Boston, USA

As stated above the level depends on the quality of the player. I do mostly club work and found a heavy bass works. If you can hear the bass outside the club walls, the level is about right.
Friday May 11, 2012

Amit Shtriker, Tel Aviv, Israel

Mixing the bass guitar involves a lot more issues than level, such as EQ, compression, or effects. It also depends on a lot of parameters such as the song, the genre, the player, the mixer's taste etc. The thing is that a bass would sound 'wrong' only if the other elements in the mix sound wrong.

Let's take two different mixes by the same mixing engineer:

On Aerosmith's Cryin', for instance, Branden O'brien has mixed the bass so hot that it almost dominates the whole mix. The thing is that the bass sounds so good, as well as the other instruments and the vocals of course, and most importantly - it sounds coherent, and tasteful.

On the other hand, on Pearl Jam's No Way, for instance, the bass is tucked in the mix to the point that it is almost transparent. In this situation, the bass sounds dirtier and less defined than in Aerosmith's song, but you can still hear it and feel it. It is contributing a lot to the mix so it sounds.. well, coherent and tasteful.

The conclusion - the bass guitar is like the butter of the mix. When mixed in good taste, it contributes to the whole mix. When the other elements in the mix are not quite there, it will be hard to decide how the bass is contributing. Level alone will not determine how the bass is mixed. A mixer needs to also use EQ and compression in order to make the bass sound the best it can, related to all other instruments. Then, the level can be determined anywhere from transparent to relatively loud and dominant. It all depends on how the mix as a whole sounds and feels.

The mixer's taste is crucial to make it work, and the same mixer can use a totally different approach in each mix in order to support the vision of the music.
Friday May 11, 2012

Swen Spitznagel, Loerrach, Germany

I would like to add some considerations to those thoughts of David, to which i would largely agreed. There is definitely no absolute percentage in volume one could name to be the "right percentage" for any single instrument. This depends too much on the material you use, the style of music you want to make and the sound you want to achieve.

If you want to do something dancefloor-oriented you will naturally need more bass than for a acoustic ballad, and those bass frequencies should be much more in the middle of your signal and not so much on its side. If you want to achieve a "wall of sound" for the home listening folks with high-end sound systems bass will have to be tamed and spread much more in the stereo-base. But the mix for the dancefloor might damage your ears over strong headphones and the right amount of time, ask DJ's.

So you got to know or feel how much Bass needs to be in and where in your mix, but most of all, close your eyes and HEAR in a environment that suit the usual hearing situation of your "target group" is vital.

But talking of "percentage" gives us more opportunities to use the term "percent" than just on the volume in db.

One could also scale the moving range of his faders in percent, and given respect that there are the different possible sounds you might like to achieve, and that those will vary from song to song, there are guidelines that could be named. Still those can never be "rules".

Here is my trick, it was tested and used for rock, heavy metal and industrial, and it is used in combination with the "virtual stage" mixing, e.g. giving any instrument a "place" in the mix, vocals in front, guitarist "stands" right of the vocalist, "bass-player" left and all in front of the drums, this will all be achieved through reverb and panning mainly, using up to three reverbs.

Every single instrument must be leveled so if the faders are at null, the signal level of the instrument should be a little below 0db in its peaks.

Then i place all sliders at around 66% of their way, the resulting mix is then usually at 75-80% of the meter, in peaks, and sounds horrible. After that i push the bass so signal strength of the mix gets to around 90%, and then i ride up the faders of the "main" instrument in its loudest parts so it feels right in comparison to the bass and do the same with the rest of the instruments one by one, without looking at any meter at this time, just listing to what comes out at the end. After that i will look at the signal and mostly i find that i get a mix that just needs a little mastering polish but is close to fit. And in most cases i find the slider of the bass instrument at around 70-75% of its way when using "old style" rock bass, and at 80-85% when using ducking/sidechaining technics which i do usually when the song shall be danceable.
Friday May 11, 2012