Philthy Thoughts

It’s Not About the Bass

This Article Was Originally Published On: April 15th, 2016 #Issue 18.

My love of bass is no secret. I play it. I pay attention to it. I turn it up all the time. But when it comes to bass tone, it’s not so much about bass, it’s really about midrange.

Midrange, in bass instrument terms, is really from 400Hz to 1,800Hz, more or less; 800 being the functional center of that spread. Over 2kHz, you have some “character” sounds, and clacking and buzzing that can add dimension to bass tone, but those frequencies are the first to disappear in a mix with other instruments.

Under 200Hz we find the fundamentals of the lowest bass notes on the instrument. We think we want them, but in reality, we really don’t. If you accurately reproduce those notes, to actually hear – or more accurately, “experience” them – the wavelength has to travel pretty far. You have to be a distance away from some pretty high fidelity reproduction equipment to engulf yourself in those notes. In the end, they move slowly and muddy up things quite a bit.

So, if you actually experience true fundamental bass tones at the bottom of the instrument, you are swamping out most of everything else – not just on the bass, but in the rest of the mix or ensemble, as well. Bass becomes undefined mud in a hurry.

What draws bass fans to the bass isn’t really the low E fundamental around 42Hz; it’s more than two octaves, and then some, above it. That’s where the punch and power lives. 250Hz, 500Hz, 800Hz, 1,000Hz, 1,200Hz; these are EQ points on many a high-end bass amp, and for good reason. Goose your sound in the appropriate midrange frequency and it punches through, claims it’s own space, and in the same way, provides a luscious foundation for everything stacked up on it.

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The only thing that really lives below these midrange frequencies are keyboard sounds and the kick drum. Even when addressing the kick in a mix, the engineer will focus on low mids to give it clarity and punch, as well. Some EQ fanatics will split midrange into “low mids” and “hi mids,” centering their EQ points 300-500Hz for low mids and 1.0-1.8kHz for high mids. The venerable SVT midrange control has a switch that almost everyone centers on 800Hz for a boost. One could argue that Ampeg’s 40Hz bass, 800Hz midrange, and 4kHz treble EQ centers are the de facto standard for bass EQ. I will sidestep this debate, but focus my rant on the idea that midrange is the true goal of bass tone.

What this all means in the world of bass instruments and instrument design and construction is that we all might be better served focusing on the valuable “bass midrange real estate,” rather than everything else.

All too often, I hear bassists reaching for bass knobs for thump and treble knobs for clack, and then they wonder why they keep getting asked to turn down. They are bleeding into the mic stands and mudding up the stage, because they keep raising the volume to hear some semblance of the midrange they just scooped out. Tail-chasing at it’s finest.
Some of the most coveted basses in bassdom are Fender Jazz Basses from the early ’60s through the ’70s. If you dial up one with no EQ through a really flat-sounding studio monitor rig, you’ll hear a ton of midrange, and not a whole lot of low end. Depending on the strings, you might hear some clack and zing, but that disappears immediately after other things enter the sonic picture.

In those times, the artists attending to the sound may roll up some low end to give it heft, but not so much that the tone of the instrument disappears (most of the time). You see, it’s always easier to turn up the bottom if it’s missing than try to figure out how to get rid of it if there is too much. In the end, if you focus on midrange, everything else works itself out, one way or another.

So players, watch your knobs, and make sure you’re not robbing yourself of the very thing you need to claim your space in the mix. Amp and speaker makers, please attend more to sweet punchy midrange tones, instead of the mess of swampy low end that destroys a mix. Instrument makers, give us wood and pickups that emphasize a complex roaring midrange presence that chews up the mix between 400Hz and 1,200Hz.

That’s our spot to really make our statement.