It can’t be understated how essential bass is in every form of electronic music. The bass is as important as the beat, and when done properly will energize the listener to shake their ass and dance to the beat.
Bass performs two functions in music, complimenting both the rhythm and melody at the same time, locking into the tempo and groove of the track with the kick drum while holding down the lower register notes and adding weight and movement to your track. There are several different styles of basslines that can be used to various effect in the different sub-genres of dance music.
With the advancement of Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) and the ability to automate LFO envelopes, filter cutoff frequency and effects, the bass has stepped into centre stage and become the focus of many dance music genres like Drum & Bass, Jungle, Bass House and Dubstep. The style of baseline isn’t exclusive to these genres and can be interchanged or fall into multiple styles of baseline, making for some creative cross-genre flavours.
There are a few best practices that are used across all genres that lead to effective bass parts and sounds. As always, starting with the composition is essential for a strong bass part. If you’ve selected a kick for your track, take note of the weight and power of the kick. Is it a boomy 808 style of kick with a lot of low end? If so, keep the bass out of the lowest octaves so that it doesn’t fight with the kick and eat up all of the headroom in your mix and make it challenging to find a balance during mix down. Alternatively, if your kick is tight and punchy without a lot of sub bass, writing a baseline that fills the bottom octave and adds low end energy that’ll make the room shake and dance floor move.
Bass and the low end of your mix should be monophonic, with only one note playing at a time in the lowest frequencies. Both hardware and software mono synths perform this duty extremely well and some legendary pieces of gear have been designed specifically for low end rumble. Look no further than the legendary Moog family of mono synths for their distinct filter sound and growl, or the modern analog Novation Bass Station II, Korg Volca Bass, or Arturia Mini/MicroBrute. Many of these hardware synths have been digitally reproduced as a software plugin with great results and come at a fraction of the cost. Technology and sound modelling has come so far that the software versions are 80-90% of the way there towards sounding authentic and can easily sound just as good in a finished track. If you’re just starting out and don’t have the money to throw away on a single piece of gear keep in mind that it’s not necessary to own the hardware version. While they’re fun and inspiring they come at a cost and that money can be spent on better monitors, a better audio interface, or more essential gear and software. In other words, you don’t need an overpriced hardware synth to get you where you want to go… Look at these soft synths that have become industry standards and appear on your favourite artist’s tracks: Native Instrument’s Massive, Uhe’s Repro 1, Xfer’s Serum, Rob Papen’s Predator 2 or Sugar Byte’s Cyclop.
Most analogue synths and their virtual emulations are designed using subtractive synthesis. These synths start with an oscillator that contains a harmonically rich waveform which is then processed using the synth’s built in filter and then shaped to subtract the harmonic frequencies resulting in the finished sound.
Synths have several waveform shapes that can change the way a bass sound comes across in the low end, providing an opportunity to sculpt the tone and clarity of the bass right from the start.
- A square wave is made up of the fundamental frequency plus odd harmonics which can be used for smooth bass tones.
- A sawtooth wave is more harmonically rich than the square wave and provides a more aggressive tone and can be used for basslines that are more upfront and centre stage in your track.
- A triangle wave has less harmonic frequency, which flow in and out quicker than the sawtooth waveform. The triangle wave is smoother and is great for subtler bass tones than using a square wave and can also be used for sub bass.
- The sine wave (or sinusoidal wave) is the purest waveform and contains the fundamental frequency only with no higher frequency harmonics. This is the go-to for sub bass and layering underneath another oscillator for a powerful effect.
Many synths provide a dedicated sub bass oscillator built right in and can be tweaked by selecting the oscillator wave shape, octave and volume level. Keep in mind it’s best to use this sparingly on an already powerful low register bass sound, as the sub will fight with with your primary bassline.
CREATING KILLER BASSLINES
1. Start with a single oscillator on your monosynth, finding the root note of your chords and then lowering the note to the octave that sounds best. On a DAW’s piano roll editor this will usually be Octave 2 or 1 (the number that appears after the note). PRO TIP: Another oscillator can be added to the upper octave and even detuned for melodic effect if you’re going for a more melodic house or progressive style of bass track.
2. Experiment with different waveforms next, listening to how the tone changes based on which shape you’re using. Listen for how the harmonic frequencies in the waveform either compliment or distract from the other elements of your track. If you’re starting with the bass keep it simple and find a waveform that has the power and energy you’re looking for that will compliment the type of track you’re making, and always use reference tracks to model your choices as a guide (never copy another artist’s work, you’re better than that and people notice it).
3. If you’re using more than one oscillator try raising one or both oscillators an octave, and alternating them in the upper and lower positions. Notice how the waveform sounds in an upper octave compared to a lower octave. This is a simple way to find the best placement for the oscillator and will take you a long way in creating your perfect bass sound. Each oscillator will have a coarse tuning adjustment that can be used to dial in melodic frequencies. There’s also a fine tune adjustment that can be used to slightly detune one of the oscillators, creating a thickening effect and even rhythmic pulses when the oscillators wobble out of sync.
4. Modulation can then be applied using pulse waves from an LFO or envelope to create movement in your sound. This will automate movement by using Pulse Width Modulation (PWM), shifting the timbre and causing detuning over time. Experiment with the sync function, where one oscillator can be synced to the other and will result in asymmetrical patterns between the oscillators and rich textures.
5. The next step is to pass your sound through the filter section of the synth, subtracting certain frequencies from the sound and shaping the sound in destructive and desirable ways. The filter shape can be selected for intensity and will sound more intense with a steeper slope, which typically adjust the slope in 3dB increments from 12 - 24dB. Common slope shapes found in most synths are 6dB, 12dB (2-pole), 18dB, and 24dB (4-pole), and are used to subtract frequencies per octave by the amount shown. The Cutoff Frequency of the filter can be adjusted to reduce the harmonic frequencies to shape the sound and can be controlled live or programmed into your DAW using automation or an LFO using modulation to add interest for the listener. Use Resonance control (also known as Peak on soft synths) to further alter the shape of the filter by routing some of the filter’s output back into the filter circuit path. Additionally, experiment with the key tracking feature which will follow the notes being played and automatically increase the filter cutoff accordingly.
6. Adjusting the Envelope will now allow you to precisely adjust the way the notes sound by shaping the initial attack and release of the sound, creating a solid sound that doesn’t overlap or clash with itself. An envelope generator is a modulator that provides controls over different segments of the sound as you play a note. Vintage analog gear used Voltage Controlled Amplifiers (VCAs) to control amplitude, allowing the user to make these adjustments and are commonly called ADSR envelopes (Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release). Modern soft synth emulations use this style of envelope (among others) and provide the following controls for shaping the sound: Attack controls how long the sound takes to go from silence to maximum level when a note is initially pressed. Decay controls the time it takes to drop to the sustain level. The Sustain controls the level that the note holds at. Finally, the Release controls the time it takes for the sound to return to silence after the note is let go.
7. Finally, modulating any of the above parameters using automation and Low Frequency Oscillators (LFOs) will create movement and interest in your sound. If you’re automating using LFOs, experiment with the shape of the waveform, speed, depth and phase adjustments for subtle to extreme results. Try the Re-Trigger function which signals the LFO to reset every time a note is played. Additionally, add Glide if you want the synth to sweep up or down during transitions between notes.
FINISHING TOUCHES ON BASS
Once you’ve gotten your bass to sound how you want it and it compliments the other elements of your track (most importantly the kick drum sound) consider the following additional effects processing to enhance what you’ve already got. These will add spice to what’s already there and is not meant to replace any of the previous essential steps.
- Overdrive, Distortion and Saturation will excite your bass sound and add upper harmonic frequencies, providing clarity and definition, allowing the bass to cut through the mix. Don’t forget to EQ after the distortion to sculpt the distortion effect and remove any unwanted frequencies. Try paralel saturation for even more control.
- Equalization is essential for producing professional bass sounds and a EQ few tricks are essential for building powerful low frequency sounds. Cut low frequencies below the fundamental note, as most sound systems can’t reproduce frequencies lower than 20Hz but will affect your mix down and chew up valuable headroom with inaudible frequencies. To find where to cut the extreme lows, use a frequency finder chart to locate the exact frequency of the lowest note of your bass note and apply a High Pass Filter to remove everything below this frequency.
- Using EQ to separate the low frequencies from the mid and high frequencies will add further power to the bass, ensuring the lows are in mono. Experimenting with mid/side EQ in the mid and higher frequency bandwidths can add width to bass sounds that have harmonic content un the upper frequencies. Splitting the bass like this will provide more control and prevent muddiness in the low end.
- Special modulation effects can be used on the top end of the bass to create wide stereo sound that’s become popular in modern Electro, Jungle and Dubstep genres. This is achieved by splitting the bass frequencies the same way as EQ and then applying modulation to the upper band using chorus, flange and stereo widening effects.
- Sidechain Compression is used to great effect and allows the bass to duck when the kick is heard. This cleans up the low end and creates space for the kick, and is used to compliment the groove and feel of the track. It’s essential for creating the pumping effect that’s essential in most four-on-the-floor genres. Adjust the attack and release to enhance this pumping effect and adjust the ration and threshold to increase or decrease the amount of pumping. PRO TIP: create a midi track with a click that’s muted and only used to side chain to. The short click is better for sjidechaining to and will provide more shaping options.
- Finally, adding Reverb or Delay to the upper frequencies after splitting will add space and life to the bass sound and bring it into the mix. Be sure to EQ before the reverb to remove the low frequencies below 100Hz and highest frequencies above 8KHz, creating reverb that sounds natural. Also time the reverb to the tempo of the track so that the reverb tail length is in time with the pulse and groove of the track. Sidechain a compressor to the kick to duck the reverb out of the way of the kick.
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