8. Adding Effects
As a rule of thumb, effects should be your last port of call in the world of bass. If in doubt, avoid them entirely!
Basic processors like compressors, filters, distortion (including bit-crushing) and tape saturation have their place, but things start to get much more difficult to manage as soon as you introduce anything which affects the stereo image or introduces any kind of ambience.
Let’s look at the usual suspects one by one.
A number of 80s hardware synths included built-in chorus effects to beef up their sound. A classic example of this effect in action is the bouncing Juno bassline of Mr Fingers’ 1986 Chicago house classic ‘Can You Feel It’ (we discussed the bassline itself in a previous Passing Notes feature).
TAL’s U-NO-LX plugin offers a virtual recreation of the synth used by Larry Heard on that legendary bassline, including the two-stage stereo chorus option:
The problem with chorus is that it’s designed to thicken a sound (hence why Roland added it to the single-oscillator Juno series), but can easily make a sound indistinct and unfocussed – not an issue when creating ethereal pads but potentially a major problem for bass sounds. The conversion of a mono signal to stereo can also be a problem; low frequencies should generally be kept in mono and panned centrally.
Simple, single-note basslines can sometimes benefit from some delay to add interest. Rolling off the low end of the delay return can help to avoid cluttering the mix.
A tempo-synced delay time is usually essential here to keep timing tight. The effect is much more likely to work nicely on simple, tightly quantised bass parts.
Reverb can be very problematic on low frequencies and is best avoided unless you’re very clear about the sound you’re trying to achieve.
If you do add reverb, keep it short. As with delay, removing some of the lower frequencies is the best way to avoid a muddy mix. If your reverb plugin doesn’t offer enough control, route the bass channel to the reverb on an effect send, set the reverb’s output to 100% wet and add an EQ plugin straight after it on the channel strip to shape the sound of the wet signal.
Making effects work on bass
For layered basslines, you could try applying effects only to the higher frequency layered elements. Here we’ve applied reverb to the layer on the higher octave only, leaving the lower octave untouched:
Chorus and other stereo effects can sometimes smear the low frequency stereo image and give the bass less impact, so tread very carefully. A stereo management processor, which mixes everything below a specific frequency to mono, can help avoid some of these problems.
The iZotope Ozone 5 Imager plugin offers this feature (as well as stereo widening):