Ten Tips For Better Basslines
From synthesis to mixdown, we offer ten tips for producing punchy, powerful basslines. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be well on the way to low-frequency perfection.
If there’s one thing which unites almost all electronic music producers, it’s the quest for the perfect bassline. It’s hardly surprising when you consider how many things there are to get right: the melody itself; the synth sound; effects; compression; EQ; interaction with the kick drum and other elements. No wonder producers of virtually every genre of dance music obsess over bass. Here we’ll offer ten bass tips which will make life easier for producers of any genre of electronic music. From synthesis to mixdown, here’s how to approach the bottom end.
Note that these tips aren’t in the order – every bassline needs a slightly different approach. We’re not suggesting you should (necessarily) follow all the tips in this order for every bass.
1. Start with the right sound
It’s far more difficult to process an inappropriate sound in order to make it sound good than it is just to get it right at the source. This one might sound obvious, but it’s one of the most important guidelines when creating bass sounds: don’t make life difficult for yourself by starting with a poor sound and then trying to fix it. Take a step back, get the sound right in your synth or sampler first, then move forward.
Exactly what constitutes a ‘good’ sound is, of course, totally subjective. Some tracks might call for a super aggressive bass sound which dominates the mix. On other occasions, something more subtle and mellow works best. It’s good to have a rough idea what kind of sound you’re aiming for before you start so you’re not just fumbling around aimlessly until you discover something suitable. It also means having an awareness of the genre within which you’re working, and the bassline’s context in relation to other mix elements. We certainly aren’t suggesting you should be a slave to genre conventions, but having an understanding of them will help you figure out what tends to work best – and allow you to break the rules to create something new.
In terms of sound sources, one of the simplest approaches is to take an audio sample of an existing bass note and load it into your favourite sampler. Here’s a simple example in Logic’s built-in EXS24 sampler plugin:
The downside to this approach is that while you can make some tweaks (depending on the capabilities of your sampler), you can’t easily alter the subtleties of the tone or make the sound longer – so limitations are apparent from the start. As such, sampled bass sounds tend to be most suited to cases where you absolutely must use a sound from an existing audio recording.
Perhaps the most obviously versatile source of a good bass sound is a decent subtractive synth – whether hardware or software. Here we’re using Steinberg’s Retrologue, one of the excellent synth plugins built into Cubase:
As you’d expect, a synth provides a lot more flexibility than a sampler, allowing you to tailor the sound to suit the track by applying processes such as filtering and modulation to your choice of oscillator sources.
For example, let’s start with a sawtooth wave…
Now apply a low-pass filter and adjust the filter envelope to make the sound more punchy and less bright:
The ‘shape’ of the sound is as important as its overall harmonic make-up. Subtractive synthesis (as used by all analogue or analogue-style synths) is generally best for more traditional bass sounds. This was the main synthesis approach used during the 70s, so there’s an inherently retro character to many (if not necessarily all) subtractive synths.
Massive has been particularly popular in dubstep over the last few years, providing the bottom end for hundreds of tracks. By modulating the wavetable oscillator with an LFO we can create all kinds of wobble effects:
Synthesis approaches like Massive’s wavetable options or FM8‘s frequency modulation architecture are generally best suited to more modern, aggressive sounds.
If you’re creating bass sounds from scratch, remember that a bassline doesn’t exist in isolation – it has to fit well within the context of a track, and this has an effect on what you can do with other elements. Thinking about the bigger picture of the track is essential as you start to create the perfect bass sound to fit.