Have you ever been at a live show and realized you can only hear each instrument clearly when the player is taking a solo? Have you also heard where one person takes a solo and everything else drops out? While these situations are not necessarily bad things, for instance a band that creates a “wall of sound” can be tastefully heavy. Creating separation between instruments can really help an audience appreciate the nuances of each band member’s playing and improve dynamics.
One of the most basic, effective ways to do this is through adjusting equalization. While dialing in your tone on your own is normal, it is very beneficial for guitarists and bassists to set their equalization controls collaboratively, while listening to each other in the context of the band’s overall sound. Doing this helps to prevent overlap in certain problem frequencies ensuring the guitar and bass fill the complete sonic spectrum optimally and supporting one another without clashing.
For example: a bassist with a lot of attack and punch in his tone boosts high mids around 800 Hz, and a guitar player dialing in a jangly clean sound with lots of mid frequency presence, will result in a sound that's excessively sharp. The same goes for a guitar player dialing in a huge bottom end, when the bass player has also boosted the bass on his amp. The overall sound will likely be muddy and indistinct, in this case. This is not to say you should avoid ANY overlapping guitar and bass sounds, rather, that you should avoid excesses. It is definitely possible to have too much of a good thing. Figure out where in the mix the guitar and bass should sit and treat the two instruments like different components of a full sonic palette. If the bassist has a full, fat sound with a lot of low mid presence around 250-400 Hz and a rolled off high end, the guitar player can try decreasing the bass and increasing the mids and treble to taste, and complement the bass.
Bass amps like the Carvin Audio BX1600 that are equipped with three parametric mid controls and a graphic equalizer are very useful in dialing in a bass sound that stands out from the guitar. It allows for extensive fine tuning of key frequencies. While guitar amps do not usually have parametric mid controls, the master bright, mid cut, and deep controls on the Carvin Audio V3 can help you find your pocket in the mix. Choosing an amplifier with good EQ options is critical to a great sound.
Things get a little more complicated when overdrive, distortion, and fuzz are involved. The reason why bass overdrive so often gets lost in a band mix is because it can make the bass sound blend into the guitar sound. This is due to the increased compression, loss of low end and in some cases, more pronounced midrange (there are ways to address this, which we will discuss in a future article). If the guitar player is using a heavy distortion and doing a lot of chord work and the bass player is looking for separation, it may be in his best interest to dial in a clean tone and lighten up on the drive gain. Song structure and playing style are also another factor to consider. For example: a band with a guitarist who does a lot of solo/ lead work high up on the neck ( as opposed to chord work lower on the neck) will be able to get away with a bassist using more gain and heavy distortion. The bassist here would be filling in the spectrum missing from the guitarist playing higher.
These are some of the basics of mixing. If you don’t work on this ahead of time with the band, the sound guy at your show or the recording guy in the studio will be adjusting your sound for you trying to clean up the mix. If you leave it all up to them, you may not get the sound you wanted.
There are no hard and fast rules here, as every band is going for a different sound. Really digging into the band’s overall tone using EQ, can yield great results for both your band and your audience. You may have to adjust a little for different rooms, as the acoustics of each venue will change. The practice of listening to one another and figuring out the best EQ for the band is a very crucial skill to have. Your audience, live sound guy and recording engineer will appreciate you more.