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Divide & Conquer: Optimizing The Kick Drum-Bass Guitar Relationship In The Mix

Balancing the kick drum/bass guitar relationship is crucial to the level of emotion or excitement a mix can convey.

Focusing On The Tone

The sound I want to get from the bass guitar is a bit more complicated and nuanced. Ryan Stasik of Umphrey’s McGee is a great bass player and loves using effect pedals to create unique tonal textures. When I began mixing the band, Ryan was playing through an Ampeg SVT Classic amp driving one Ampeg 4 x 10 cabinet and one Ampeg single 15-inch cabinet. That rig had a hard time playing at his preferred volume, in addition to sounding muddy and indistinct.

Ryan asked me to help improve his tone and power, so I played around with a few things and arrived at my ultimate bass guitar rig. After his pedalboard, his signal goes to a Gallien-Krueger 2001RB amp, which feeds the same 4 x 10 cabinet, but with B&C 10CL51 PA drivers replacing the old 10-inch Ampeg woofers. This greatly improved the midrange tone. Measured distortion on the 10-inch speaker was reduced from 15 percent to less than 2 percent.

Octave dividers and sub-harmonic generators are among Ryan’s favorite pedals. To help reproduce those, we chose a pair of Bag End SE18E-I single 18-inch subwoofers powered by a QSC CX702 amplifier, processed with a Bag End ELF-M2. This combination does a phenomenal job of reproducing his thunder tones. The 18-inch subs cover from 8 Hz to 80 Hz and the 10-inch drivers take over at 80 Hz, continuing out to about 5 kHz. The Bag End ELF is fed from the XLR direct out on the GK amp.

Capturing the full range of his tone also takes a divide and conquer approach. I divide the audio spectrum into two frequency ranges, treat each differently, and mix them back together for the final result.

From about 250 Hz down, I prefer the accuracy and low distortion of the direct signal from his direct box, a custom tube DI based on a Telefunken ECC83. In the console, I use a low-pass filter to roll off those higher frequencies. For the midrange portion, I prefer the sound of his 10-inch drivers. The amp and speaker impart a pleasant “hairiness” and texture to the midrange of the bass guitar.

A beyerdynamic M88 hypercardioid microphone on the upper right 10-inch driver, with high-pass and low-pass filters set to trim the bandwidth, passing signal from 250 Hz to 5 kHz only. Both signals are compressed with onboard Midas compressors. The ratio and threshold are set to act more as mild limiters to keep the level in check when he turns on all of his pedals. Most of the time he’s only tickling the compressor, with 0 to 3 dB of gain reduction. I add 0.33 milliseconds of delay to the DI so that it aligns to the microphone signal.

Ready To Go

The big advantage to this approach is that I can use my faders to quickly change the tone of the kick and bass by varying the ratio of the midrange and low-frequency parts of each. If the song will benefit from more kick drum attack but less bass guitar midrange, it’s an easy change in fader level without upsetting any EQ or compressor settings.

Umphrey’s McGee is known for prodigious use of improvisation and a wide song selection. I don’t use scenes but need to be ready for any song style at the drop of a hat. I personally prefer to have a lot of beater attack from the kick drum, without being clicky, and speaker midrange from the bass guitar in almost equal amount, high in the mix. The subkick and DI should combine effortlessly. The subkick signal has a peak at 38 Hz, well below most of the range of the bass guitar.

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When Ryan does use his sub octave pedals, the parallel compression of the kick drum signal allows them to be heard equally in the mix without resorting to subtractive EQ to allow them to coexist. Some engineers will sculpt the low EQ of the kick drum and bass guitar, applying complementary cuts aimed at preventing a muddy result.

I don’t do that, but my kick drum and bass guitar are well defined with power and nuance. The kick drum drives the downbeat, perfectly timed with the strumming of a bass guitar string. The thunderous low-frequency decay of the subkick melds seamlessly into each sustained bass note, dropping in level just enough to usher in the next kick drum downbeat.

I get excited just thinking about it.

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