The bass line of many genres is often one of the main driving elements that can be heard throughout a record. Therefore it’s sonic characteristics play a huge part in the vibe of the final mix. Here’s a small collection of sound design techniques to inspire you to make more powerful, interesting and versatile bass sounds.
LOWER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER
There is a common misconception amongst new producers that lower is better. Whilst low-end sub does sound good. It also eats up a lot of valuable head room and most of this energy won’t even be heard on smaller speakers. You can add higher harmonic frequencies to low subs in a very strategic and acoustically calculated way to trick your ears into thinking that the bass is deeper than it actually is. Good plugins for this are the waves Rbass or waves Maxxbass plugins. If you don’t have access to these plugins then any form of soft saturation or distortion will help to increase the amplitude of those extra harmonics.
Ideally your bassline shouldn’t go lower than 30hz as this is going to be hard to be reproduced by even the loudest of speakers. Aim for around the 40-70Hz mark for a nice deep low end that can be heard on different speakers without interfering too much with your kick drum.
Instead of a monophonic bass line, Try playing your bass line polyphonically by playing a note an octave higher or lower at the same time. If the resultant sound is too bright then either reduce the velocity of the higher note to compensate or apply a low pass filter.
We can also achieve the same result by tuning an extra oscillator an octave higher or lower. This now eradicates the need to draw in multiple notes and also gives us the option to detune these two oscillators for a ‘phatter’ sound.
KNOW YOUR OSCILLATORS
try out different oscillator combinations to achieve the character and timbre that you want. Different waves have different timbre and brightness. Here’s a bit of basic information on the standard oscillators
Sine – the purest sound available. contains one frequency and no harmonics. Good for sub basses and smooth instruments such as flutes or organs. We can also apply pitch envelopes to sine waves to synthesize kick drums
A Sine wave as it cycles over time.
The frequency spectrum of a sine wave
Triangle – in between a sine and a square wave but with slightly less amplitude on the extra harmonic content. Good for adding body to a signal.
A triangle wave as it cycles over time.
A triangle waves frequency spectrum
Square/Pulse – these can also be known as pulse waves and can have they’re width modulated to create a fuller or more nasal sound which lends itself towards string instruments. contains only odd harmonics – has a hollow sound to it which is very good for reproducing Wood instruments.
A Square wave as it cycles over time.
The frequency spectrum of a square wave.
Sawtooth – the most harmonically rich waveform, this contains all the harmonics and is often filtered down to form big chords, leads and super saw style synths.
A sawtooth waveform
The frequency spectrum of a sawtooth waveform.
A White noise generator is usually included in many synths. This generates every frequency in the spectrum and maximum amplitude and is useful for hi-hats, adding crack to snares, cymbals, effects and filter sweeps.
As we can see on the frequency analysis, white noise occupies all of the frequency spectrum at the same amplitude.
The tuning and transposition of these different wave shapes in comparison to each other will make a massive difference to the sound.
Wavetable style synthesisers such as Zebra and Native Instruments Massive are also really intuitive. The wavetables can be manipulated or modulated to add movement to your bass. Try out the presets included with these plugins as you can mix and match them to create some really unique and sonically pleasing results.
If your bass sound is lacking an initial punch then try setting the pitch of all of your oscillators to be modulated by an envelope. set the envelope to rapidly drop in pitch. A good time for this is between 10 – 70 ms and you will hear a noticeable drop in pitch that will improve the punchiness of your bassline. You can weaken or accentuate this punch by increasing or decreasing the amount of semitones that the pitch drops by. 12-24 semitones is a good ball-park figure. Using this technique on a sine wave is how Roland created their infamous 808 Kick drums.
We can use filters to subtract harmonics from sounds, this is the basis of subtractive synthesis. Considering we are dealing with bass sounds here. We will predominantly be using low pass filters. Try to use different types of filters to induce different sonic flavours on the sound such as ladder like many Moog filters, or formant & comb filters to recreate weird vocal sounding basses similar to Skrillex.
Also play around with the different types of drive and resonance when adjusting the filter envelope for adding bite to a signal.
This is an important factor into making your bass have a natural flow to it and to stop it sounding static or boring. Try to use lots of small amounts of modulation. This can range from filters, LFOs, velocity, pitch, after touch and pitch bend.
One of the most common modulation methods in basslines is to automate the filter cutoff, this is shared between all genres of bass such as Deep house, drum n bass, jackin and Dubstep to get those warped sounds.
Slow pitch modulation (below 20 Hz) is also known as vibrato.
- Here’s a small list of a few other modulation possibilities:
- Pitch envelopes
- Tremolo modulation
- Pan modulation
- frequency modulation (FM)
- Amplitude modulation (AM)
- Pulse width modulation (PWM) when using pulse waves
- Phase & offset modulation
- Wave modulation using wavetables
- Filter cutoff modulation
FM synthesis can create more complex timbres than subtractive or analogue synthesis. It’s main uses are for emulating the complexities of metallic, glass or bell sounds. The fundamental theory is that a oscillator (also known in FM as an operator) can be set as a carrier. Other operators can be set as modulators and they’re job is to frequency modulate the carrier resulting in rich textures that can then be filtered down. Usually a carrier wave will be a sinewave but there’s no reason why you can’t choose a more complex waveform. Fm synthesis is a good way of getting that deep house hollow bass sound used in many future and deep house tracks. It is also a very good way to synthesise kick and snare drums. To get started wit FM synthesis try ableton lives operator plugin, or the goliath of Software FM synths, Native Instruments FM8.
We can accentuate the bass lines width and tonality using plugins such as chorus, saturator, mild distortion and reverbs. Also try parallel compression and saturation. A common practice when making basses is to layer them so that the low ‘subby’ bass is in mono whilst the mid or top bass is providing the stereo image information with the use of dimension expanders and chorus.
If you want to try getting out of the confines of your DAW then try some hardware such as the novation bass station ll. Or if you have a bit of cash and are after that warm analog sound and amazing filters then splash out on some Moog equipment such as the sub Phatty or little Phatty. These can be connected to your DAW to allow you to program midi notes, freeing up both hands for further live tweaking of parameters.
Using sound design to synthesize synth basses can be a daunting task as it requires a broad knowledge of synthesis types, Oscillators, filters, modulation and effects. Once you grasp this knowledge you will be able to reverse engineer almost any sound and then rebuilt it into your a creation of your own.
We hope you have learnt something from this article and can go on to make some impeccable grooves.