How to Craft Bass Synth Sounds for Electronic "Bass Music" Genres

Automation curves and layering tracks help you achieve a huge, crackly, wobbly sound
Author:
Publish date:

The overall category of “bass music” breaks down to many flavors: dubstep, trap, neuro, and others. In any case, distinctive bass synths characterize the sounds. You could, no doubt, find some instrument presets and sample packs that will help you make this music, but creating the sounds yourself will help you find your own style. These tips deal with layering the basses, including a granular synth top layer, and automating the pitch for some of that trademark wobble.

As always, start with these suggestions and fiddle around for your own results!

Fig.1. A three-oscillator Massive patch with OSC1 pulse width and shape synced to LFO, OSC3 set to square and pitched an octave below, and tube amp effect. BASS LAYERS

Image placeholder title

For the main bass part, you can use just about any three-oscillator synth. We want to start with a buzzy bass line, so make the first two oscillators variations of sawtooth waves if possible. Also if possible, use an LFO to modulate the pulse width modulation of one of the oscillators. Make the third oscillator a square wave and pitch it an octave below the other two oscillators. Don’t use any filters, and turn Unison mode on with a voice setting three if available. Finally, put a tube amp effect on it with the overdrive set to about halfway (Figure 1).

Create a track group or instrument rack with the main bass and a sub bass patch in it, so that whatever notes you play will trigger both bass parts. Check your instrument presets for a suitable sub bass patch; it should have a long sustain, and its oscillators should be heavy on square waves. Also, use EQ on the two bass parts so they don’t interfere with each other’s frequencies.

AUTOMATED PITCH BEND

Record a simple bass line of 8 to 16 measures. In fact, for these purposes, it could be a single, long-sustained MIDI note. Then run the track through a multiband EQ plug-in, where the EQ has a single bell curve of about +10dB. Set the starting frequency for that bell around 150 Hz, and then write an automation curve in your DAW for the bell, so that as it moves along the automation curve, it pitch-bends the sound. Using different geometric repetitions in the automation curve is a good way to get the very mathematically tight bass “wub-wub-wubs” you hear in electronic bass music.

Fig. 2. Syncopated automation curves are modulating the EQ bell curve frequency band, amp simulator wet/dry and chorus wet/dry all at once. To accentuate the effect, take that same automation curve and copy it to other effect parameters (Figure 2), such as the amount of a distortion effect, ring modulator, etc.

Image placeholder title

To make the bass patch sound even bigger, duplicate it twice, and pan one of them hard left, detuned down a few cents, and other panned hard right, detuned up by a few cents. To save processing power, you may want to bounce the bass track to audio before duplicating it.

GRANULAR LAYER

For the granular top layer, use one of the many granular synthesizers, like Granulator II in the Max for Live portion of Ableton Live 9 Suite, Camel Audio Alchemy, Steinberg Padshop, the low-cost Sound Guru The Mangle or the free Sknote Grainz.

This layer will be an atonal sound to put on top of the bass to add texture. We’ll load a found-sound sample into the synth to turn it into a crunchy, squishy high-end layer. You can find a lot of ambient sound samples that may work for this. As one quick suggestion, you could record your own sample of tearing a long sheet of paper to get a few seconds of tearing sound.

As this sound will go on top of a bass sound, filter out its low frequencies using the EQ or filters your synthesizer has. If there is a highpass filter, use that and set the cutoff to about 800-850 Hz.

Fig. 3. Max for Live’s Granulator II in Ableton Live 9 with the shape set to Fall, the Spike turned up for a sawtooth effect, the Spread turned up to widen the sound, and an LFO modulating the grain size and start position. In most granular synthesizers, once you load your wavetable sample, you can choose the position in the sample you want notes to start on, the grain size (or amount of the audio to play before looping), and the shape of the loop, which is similar to the oscillator shape in other synths. To get more of a crackly, choppy sound, set the shape to something like a sharp sawtooth. In Granulator II, this is called the Fall shape, with the Spike setting turned up a bit. You may also have an LFO at your disposal, which you can use to modulate the grain size and start position to add further texture to the sound. Finally, use the Spread setting in Granulator II (or equivalent) to widen the stereo sound of this layer (Figure 3).

Image placeholder title

To combine this layer with the main basses, copy the same MIDI notes from the bass track into the granular track. Also, copy the same effects and automation curves that you used for the basses above and paste those into the granular track.

Bounce, Chop, and Stretch

Bounce all three layers to audio and save that clip in a folder. Now when you load that clip into a session, chop up different parts of it that you like the best and place them in an arrangement, leaving some silence between them and using varying amounts of time-stretching on some of them to get that, glitchy, stilted, and hyper-chaotic feel of bass music. Repeat this whole process with different bass sounds and automations curves.

Markkus Rovito is a contributor to DJTechTools.com, drummer, electronic musician, and DJ.