Bass Compression: The Ultimate Guide

The bass is the foundation of almost every mix.

While a great bass sound will rarely draw attention, getting it right is one of the keys to crafting records that sound thick and solid. Screw it up, on the other hand, and you’ll be on the fast track to a boomy, muddy mix.

So how do you achieve a world-class bass sound in your mixes? Proper compression (among other things) is often an important part of the process.

Consider this article your step-by-step guide to conquering bass compression, once and for all. This will help you achieve a bass that sounds consistent and even—so you can craft mixes that compete with the pros. Enjoy!

Click here to learn 6 ways to use compression like a pro.

What’s the goal of bass compression?

Compression will make the bass sound more even and consistent. By turning down louder notes in a performance, it will help each note play back at a more equal level. This will add solidity to the bass and help it sit better in the mix.

What’s the best bass compressor plugin?

There are a variety of great bass compressor plugins available. One of the most popular choices is an 1176-style emulation like Waves’ CLA-76. The 1176 has variable attack and release controls, which makes it flexible enough to get the job done in a variety of different circumstances. This compressor also has a bright, edgy character that tends to help the bass cut through the mix.

Waves' CLA-76 compressor on bass

Waves’ CLA-76 compressor on bass

Another popular choice is an LA-2A-style emulation, like Waves’ CLA-2A. Compared to the 1176, this compressor has a warmer, smoother sound that works well on downtempo tracks.

Waves' CLA-2A plugin—great for bass compression!

Waves’ CLA-2A plugin—great for bass compression!

In my own mixing workflow, I prefer compressors that offer continuous, variable control over attack, release, ratio, and knee. The Oxford Dynamics plugin is one of my favorites for this reason.

You can get a great bass sound with just about any compressor, if you know how to tweak the parameters to achieve what you’re looking for.  And don’t forget about your DAW’s stock compressor—it can often do the job quite well!

Pro Tools' stock compressor

Pro Tools’ stock compressor

Should I compress the bass?

It depends on how the part was played, as well as how it fits with the rest of the tracks in your mix. If the part was played well, its dynamics will likely be fairly consistent to begin with. This means it will need less compression.

If you find yourself continually adjusting the bass fader during the course of the mix, this might be a clue that you need to compress the bass. If certain notes are getting lost in the mix, while others are too loud, this is also a clue that some compression might be needed.

Programmed bass parts may not need any compression. They’re often dynamically consistent enough as-is. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

How much compression should I use?

Again, it depends on how the bass part was played, as well as the mix you’re trying to fit it into.

Modern, more aggressive genres will often warrant heavy compression. On the other hand, softer styles like jazz and folk typically need less. There are no hard-and-fast rules here—use as much as you need to achieve the sound you’re looking for.

Be on the lookout for some of the negative side effects of compression, such as the pumping and breathing that might occur when the compressor grabs onto and pulls back from a note. In general, these artifacts are a sign that you need to back off on your threshold or ratio. However, in genres like EDM, they can often be desirable—if carefully timed to enhance the groove.

Click here to learn 6 ways to use compression like a pro.

How do I dial in the right settings?

When you’re dialing in bass compression, it’s important to listen to the track in context with the rest of your mix. Remember—you’re trying to make the bass fit with everything else, so you need to listen to everything together in order to make the right decisions!

Getting Started

Set your compressor to the following:

  • Ratio — 4:1
  • Attack — moderate
  • Release — fast

Then, turn down the threshold (or turn up the input gain) until compression starts kicking in. Flip the compressor in and out of bypass, and add makeup gain until there is no difference in level between the two.

Next, adjust the threshold and makeup gain in tandem until all of the notes in the performance sound fairly even and consistent.

If you’ve turned the threshold down very low but you still can’t hear certain notes, turn up the ratio. If the compression sounds too aggressive, turn down the ratio.

Choosing The Right Attack Time

Next, adjust the attack time while listening to the front end of the bass notes.

To make the bass more punchy and percussive, slow down the attack. This can help the bass cut through a mix, and it’s often a good approach for parts that are highly rhythmic.

If you want to make the bass sound smoother and softer, speed up the attack. This can push the bass back in the soundstage, and make it sit more evenly in the mix. It can also make a performance sound flat and lifeless, so be careful!

Choosing The Right Release Time

Finally, adjust the release parameter while listening to the sustain of the bass notes. There are really only two choices for this control:

  1. Set the release time as fast as possible. This will enhance the sustain by bringing out low-level details in the performance. This approach will make the bass sound denser and thicker—a sound that works well for many styles of music. Look out for distortion, which can creep in with fast release times. To get rid of any distortion, slow down the release time until it goes away.
  2. Time the release to follow the natural envelope of the performance. You can use your compressor’s gain reduction meter to pull this off. Tweak the release time until the gain reduction meter bounces back to zero right before the next note hits. This will help even out the dynamics of the bass, while retaining more of the natural ebb and flow of the performance. It can often sound more transparent than option #1. This approach typically works better for softer, mellower styles of music.
You can use your compressor's gain reduction meter as an aid to help set the release time

You can use your compressor’s gain reduction meter as an aid to help set the release time

Dialing In The Knee

Some compressors will offer independent control over the knee. This parameter adjusts how aggressively the compressor kicks in. If the compression sounds too obtrusive, a softer knee can help make the transition between no-compression and compression more subtle. This can make the compression gentler and more transparent.

Hard knee vs. soft knee

Not all compressors will give you control over this parameter. Many, like the 1176 and LA-2A, have a fixed knee.

What should I watch out for?

Here are a few pitfalls to avoid when compressing the bass:

Using too much compression

Too much compression can suck the life out of the bass, making it sound flat and one-dimensional. This can be particularly problematic in softer, mellower styles of music, where some degree of dynamic range may be desirable. Listen closely for negative side effects of overcompression, like pumping, breathing, and distortion. These will often serve as indications that you’ve gone too far.

Being misled by room acoustics

If you’re mixing in a room with poor acoustics, it can be difficult to determine the appropriate amount of bass compression to use. Room modes can make certain notes appear louder or quieter than others, causing you to add more compression than you need.

Always double-check bass compression decisions on headphones. Since headphones remove the sound of your room from the picture, they can often help you make better decisions.

Headphones can help!

Headphones can help!

Misusing the solo button

Avoid the temptation to solo the bass while tweaking your compressor. This will often lead you to decisions that sound great in solo, but don’t hold up in the rest of the mix. Remember—the goal of mixing is to try to make all the tracks in your mix fit together. You’ll get much better results by dialing in your bass compression in context with the rest the tracks in your mix playing.

Avoid the solo button!

Avoid the solo button!

Setting an attack time that’s too fast

Ultra-fast attack times will suck the life out of a bass performance by destroying its punch and impact. This will make the bass sound flat and lifeless. In most cases, a slower attack time is a better choice. This will ensure that the impact of the bass comes through clearly.

For more pitfalls to avoid, check out this article on compression mistakes.

Bass Compression Video

Want to learn more about bass compression? Here’s a great video on the topic:

Click here to learn 6 ways to use compression like a pro.

At this point, you should have a solid grasp on how to compress the bass like a pro. Now load up your DAW and get to work! But before you do, what are YOUR favorite bass compression tips? Let me know by leaving a comment below.