The Bottom End Blues

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Is there anybody out there who gets their mixes’ bottom end right every time, with no problems whatsoever? I didn't think so. 

Most of us are either fighting the erroneous balances of our headphones; or our monitors; or our room’s construction; or our insufficient bass trapping; or our subwoofer’s implementation; or ear fatigue ... and the list seems to go on and on. What really makes nailing the bottom end such a task, though, is trying to figure out what clients really need down there in the sonic depths.

So, as I guess just how much thump and chunk my client needs in today's unruly Wild West of audio without norms, I've come up with the following observations:

For clients under 21: 

This crowd has never even seen a playback system without a sub and expects to get thoroughly ‘thrubbed’ whether facing a 2.1 or a 5.1 system, or wearing their ever-present ear buds. These young’uns are looking for tons of 80 Hz and below and aren't afraid of chunk around 200 Hz. Get the bass where it sounds right to you, then crank it up an extra two clicks and subdue the high end, too; that way, screaming loud playback on earbuds isn't irritating. At that point, you're there, partner.

For clients between 21 and 40: 

Some in this bunch remember the thin old days of vinyl, but they've been turned on by the modern thump, too. Give 'em a pumped up, rock solid fundamental, but keep it punchy. Watch out for the mud at 200 Hz and let 'em have some normal top end. This client is not as likely on cheap earbuds; they were born before the boom-boom era, and probably don't listen at deafening levels (anymore). 

For clients over 40: 

This crowd is the trickiest to figure out (and therefore, the trickiest to satisfy). If they still listen to lots of older music, then their systems are set up with a boatload of bass boost and it will likely fart like crazy if you hit it with suped-up, modern bass levels. If they listen to newer stuff they might like it all thickened up, but do give 'em that sweetened top end (as their tastes and tinnitus require it).

Beyond these simple bass level rules of thumb, efforts to satisfy may still be in vain unless you do as the method actor does and immerse yourself. Join your client for a ride in the car; ask them to play back some of their favorite productions (especially if it's your work); note where their EQ is set and give it a tweak yourself. Now you have a chance to shed the bottom-end blues on your next mix, regardless of your clients “bass age.”

BIO: Rob Tavaglione is the owner of Catalyst Recording, Charlotte’s premier indie music recording studio.