3 Paths to Big Bottoms

Guitarists are infamous for overdubbing massive numbers of guitar tracks—typically recording combinations of different guitars, amps, speaker cabinets, and/or digital models—and mixing the stew into a gargantuan armada of 6-string power. Sometimes, the studio zealots outsmart themselves, and actually craft guitar layers that make the instrument sound smaller, due to issues with phasing, mismatched tones, and goopy signal processing. But the goal is to document tones that roar with impact and girth, and, for the most part, layering is a pretty successful way to get there.
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Interestingly, this technique is not a path often traveled by bassists, even though stacking disparate bass sounds and kick drums have been components of dance and urban music for years. But why wouldn’t you want to immerse yourself in the thunderous bliss of mixing and matching low-end tones? Put yourself into the headspace of the cat who does the subwoofer mixes for a big action film, and discover some new ways to rumble. Of course, you’ll be producing musical parts, rather than cruise-missile explosions or death-ray drones, but putting some cinematic resonance into your bass lines couldn’t hurt. Here are some ideas for beefing up your bass.

Keyboard Klones

Doubling bass lines with a synth patch can add a mammoth wallop to the low end. Better yet, you can punch up or lay back on the rhythmic intensity by selecting a buzzy and edgy tone, a clean and transparent patch, or a droning sound. There’s also a certain mechanical precision that gets transmitted when you’re performing a bass line on keys, rather than busting it out on a fretted (or unfretted) electric bass guitar. The so-called typical method for blending the tonal layers is to feed the synth bass just under the electric bass. The idea is to let the original bass track provide the groove and movement, while the synth timbre provides a little more sizzle or boom. This is a very good and very safe mix option that preserves the original intent of the basic rhythm track.

A more “risky” option is to determine which track best serves the song—a move that might inspire you to blast the synth bass, and tuck the electric bass under it. Either way, make sure that the attacks—pick to bass string, and key-to-synth sound—line up exactly or your groove will get messier than a drunken drummer who keeps smacking his drumsticks together during fills.

Another advantage of sweating the time it will take to precisely match pick attacks with the keyboard performance is that you can do something crazy like panning the original bass hard left, and the synth bass hard right. There are certainly no rules that a bass—or basses—must be positioned in the dead center of the stereo mix, unless the final result will end up on vinyl. In fact, putting the kick drum dead center, and surrounding it with left/right bass lines often delivers a feral roar that could upend an armored truck at 100 yards.

Laying Low

Of course, you don’t need to double a bass part with a synth—you can simply layer the lows with another bass. This can be a bit dangerous, as, once again, you need to nail the overdub precisely so that you don’t have “dueling” pick or finger attacks. (Guitar doubles sound kind of cool if they’re a bit fuzzy—basses, not so much.) If you’re timid, you can always just copy your original bass track to another track. Whichever path you choose, the goal is to utilize both tracks to construct a thick, punchy freight train of low-end mass. There are a number of ways to accomplish this feat. For example, you can treat the original bass track as if it were to be the only bass track. Make it sound fabulous. Then, depending on the needs of the song, EQ the overdub higher (boost the 3kHz range by 6dB) or lower (boost 80Hz or 100Hz by 6dB). I tend to compress the overdub pretty viciously to produce an unyielding dynamic pulse. Experiment leaving the overdub clean, or adding a bit of overdrive via a guitar plug-in such as Line 6’s Amp Farm. Now, fade in the overdub ever so subtly until it provides the desired boom, drive, or snap. The cool thing is that you haven’t compromised a well-recorded bass track, you’ve simply added a new dimension. You should also try cutting all the lows from one bass track and boosting the attack, and then adding some subsonic lows to the other. Then, mix the two tracks fairly even, and perhaps experiment with some slight panning. An expansive, animated bass line might be just the thing to really energize your mix.

Oct-a-vate

An easy way to layer bass lines without risking phasing problems or performance stutters is to route the original signal through an octave processor such as a Boss OC-3 Super Octave or an Electro-Harmonix Micro Pog. Various multi-effects boxes and plug-ins include octave functions, as well. In this instance, you simply play your bass line, and adjust the unit to generate a higher or lower octave note (depending on the parameters of the processor and whichever direction makes sense for the groove of the song). Obviously, you can also apply this processing to an already recorded bass line, and bounce the effect to another track in order to blend in the octave. However you apply the octave effect, it will add height and/or weight to a conventional bass part.

Bada-Boom

There’s no reason to fear radical (or slightly edgy) bass enhancements. For one thing, you can always default to the ho-hum ordinary. But crafting some supersonic lows or killer punches should illuminate just what you can do to rock a groove. And exhausting all options to make a mix more exciting is exactly what savvy home-studio cats should commit to.