Sometimes when you’re mixing a song, you’ll notice that the drums and bass are clashing and it’s difficult to distinguish between them. I recently ran into this issue when mixing a rock song that was recorded from a live performance (which presents a whole world of pain, the kind of pain that leads you to ask yourself existentialist questions like “why me God!” with your hands in the air).
So how did I fix this? Not the questioning my existence bit (I’m still working on that) but these blasted guitar bass and drums that can’t get along?
This is the most straight forward way to fix sounds that are clashing and muddying up your mix. What you basically do is in one sound where you boost and cut frequencies, you do the opposite to the competing sound. If this makes no sense, here’s what it looks like when you make the kick and bass compliment each other using eq.
The reason you do this complimentary equalization is so that those two sounds fighting at say 175hz stay out of each others way and only one sound is prioritized. It’s sort of like when your kids are fighting and make them sit on opposite sides of the house (it never works does it?).
For more advanced mixers, we can pretty much do this bob and weave with all the sounds in our mix. This form of audio tai chee (when they go left, we go right) allows us to ensure that frequencies aren’t battling each other for supremacy, thereby causing for an unclear and muddy mix.
The hard part is prioritizing which sound you want where. For example, with the bass and drums clashing, it should be pretty obvious you want the bass boosted or flat at the lower frequencies and the drums cut at those same frequencies. But then if you cut too much out of the kicks, they wont be kicks anymore. So you really have to get in their and sculpt both frequencies so that they not only stay out of each other’s way but so that they also fulfill the creative vision of the song. You see while we’re diving into these small details, we can’t lose sight of the big picture: what is this song supposed to sound like?
Last week I was mixing this film score and it was very cinematic and had so many strings, brass and percussion all clashing with each other, it was a challenging mix to get right and what I couldn’t help but think was, “Why don’t we cut some sounds?”, which is a good trick most of the time to get rid of the waste. But then I took time to really listen to what the client was trying to accomplish, he didn’t want all that sounds at the forefront, he was just producing in way where he was stacking the sounds to get a desired sound. So if you’re ever mixing one of these kinds of songs, try to understand the artist’s vision first.
Every budding EDM producer is infatuated with sidechaining. How do I know? Every time I mix an EDM song, I’m asked to sidechain something or other. One producer even asked me to “just sidechain everything man”. Ah okay.
There’s nothing special about sidechaining, it’s basically automated complimentary equalization. Because what you’re doing is telling a certain sound to move out of the way when another sound is present. That’s why when you sidechain, say a synth with the drums, you’ll get that ducking sound in the synth.
If your bass and drums are clashing, you can use sidechaining to prioritize which sound is the focus. However, the drawback is that the effect can sound unnatural and may not be suitable for rock (or pretty much any genre other than EDM), where it’s likely complimentary equalization should solve the issue.
Choose Different Sounds
The final way to fix your drums and bass from clashing (or pretty much any sound) is to simply choose different sounds. If you look at the best hip hop producers, or really the best producers from any genre,they almost never have the bass and kick clashing, they’re usually very distinct. When I work with really experienced producers who don’t really know how to mix, they naturally will choose kicks with the an attack time that compliments the bass. This makes sense as they’re fixing the problem at the source, in other words, solve your mixing issues at the production phase. This is something that comes with time and I only learned this when I started audio engineering full time for 4 years.
Another thing I want to mention, and this is obviously for the producers reading this, is to choose good quality sounds. If your song has high quality sounds and you send it in for mixing and mastering, it’s going to sound so much better than a song with poorly chosen sounds and that song with poorly chosen sounds may sound even worse because the mixing may expose just how bad those sounds are to begin with. Why does this happen? Because when you get your song mixed and mastered, it’s going to be made more clearer, well defined and louder, which makes it easier to hear all the flaws.
I’m going a little off topic here, but I remember when I first started hearing all the flaws in my own music and was worried normal listeners would hear them and then I realized that normal people don’t listen to music the same way as the artist/producer does. So I don’t want you to get bogged down in trying to fix every single flaw because you can drive yourself crazy if you do. I recommend, aiming to fix 80 to 90% of the flaws you hear. This will maintain your sanity and avoid regret when you hear your song a year from now and think, “hey why didn’t I fix that small thing?”.