014 – bass

This week I have a quick post on some bass programming and processing techniques. Hopefully, this will give you a little more confidence when sequencing/designing your bass sounds, and how to process them – whether you made the sound from scratch or used a loop. I’ve already covered some main components of bass processing in the compression, distortion, and filter/eq posts, so I will be referencing back to those in this post.

It is best practice to work with basses in mono, or at least collapse anything below 100Hz to mono so as to work with a mid/side signal chain. This prevents phase issues, as covered in previous posts and later on in this post.

Getting the “groove” with a bass, kick, and other percussive elements just right could the most important element in a dance music track. Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and sounding good is the most important. I like to start with some premade loops, to establish what I want my groove to sound like, and I’ll often design a sound to work with the loop sound and use a similar groove. One thing to note when programming the loop is that you can often avoid a lot of extra processing later on with a little extra thought into the synth patch and note timing. A short release keeps the notes tidy and helps to avoid a muddy low-end. Keeping bass hits off the kick drum will allow the kick to breathe more – this can mitigate the need for as much sidechain compression, or possibly allow you to forgo sidechaining altogether.

Whether you are using a synth or a loop, distortion is incredibly useful in making the sound seem bigger, louder, and punchier, all without adding to the volume at all. Because of how hearing works, and how tracks can be mixed, some harmonics, or distortion harmonics, in the 500-1500Hz range can be used to clue in the listener to the root bass sound occurring below, sometimes as low as 40Hz. This frees up headroom and allows for more mix clarity, as we have “boosted” the low end of the bass sound simply by adding some dirt in the higher frequency ranges. To get this sort of dirt, I’ll use frequency modulation, analogue filter models with a few dB of drive, a saturator or other distortion plugin, or layer another sound onto the bass.

Filters and equalizers are, of course, also important in sculpting the sound to both sound right and fit into the mix. Be careful about phase issues, as I mentioned in the filter/eq posts, as phase issues can be especially detrimental in the lower frequencies. It is also entirely possible your monitors or headphones cannot go low enough to properly represent lower frequencies as well, and the room you work in can also introduce phase issues based on the room size and geometry. Filtering the ultra-low sounds out of your bass can help with clarity though, anything below the lowest note played can be cut off, but again be aware you don’t lose anything to phase cancellation. Using some gentle eqs on the fundamental frequency, to add some weight, or cutting the top end a little is also powerful – I would suggest doing this after any distortion plugins and before any compressors. A resonant low-pass filter is also commonly used. The typical acid sound comes from a particular low-pass resonance filter circuit.

I will only cover distortion here briefly. Load up your favourite distortion plugin, and start with a little. Sometimes multiple plugin instances at low dry/wet can give a better effect than one instance at full. It depends on the sound, the plugin, and the rest of the mix – but of course, your ears can always tell when it is too much.

Compression is the last main point here, and again probably the least understood. Compression is used to decrease dynamic range, or volume, and can allow us to turn up quieter sounds more. In my experience, basses work best with gentle compression. A low ratio and slow attack work best to compress more transparently but also add some body and weight to the mix. Gain reduction usually isn’t too high here, and I’ll gain-match before and after to determine if the compressor does indeed make the bass sound better. Parallel compression can also be used here – it can sound really good with an analogue compressor model and can add a little extra grit to the sound when it’s overdriven (or clipped). Just make sure to gain-match again if you are going with the parallel compression, and especially an overdriven one. If you aren’t quite sure what I am on about with parallel compression, I’ll cover it in depth next week.

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