Production Central: The Basics of Bass

The unsung hero of most modern productions is the bass part. But without understanding its multiple roles and functions, it can muddy and choke your mix, create compression and volume issues, and take the life out of what could be a stellar production.
Image placeholder title

The unsung hero of most modern productions is the bass part. But without understanding its multiple roles and functions, it can muddy and choke your mix, create compression and volume issues, and take the life out of what could be a stellar production.

In all of my productions, I ask myself these questions: What is the genre of music to be produced? Where will this production be most listened to? Who is the audience? The answers will drive the characteristics of the song''s bass part.

I usually divide the possible bass elements into live or programmed. Genres such as rock, metal, jazz, and roots reggae generally use live bass, while genres such as hip-hop, dub-step, and reggaeton use programmed bass. There are, of course, plenty of sub-genres and exceptions to this rule. In many situations, I''ll layer a live bass with programmed bass to create a really big sound (see Web Clips1a, 1b, and 1c).

The most important element of recording live bass is a great bass player. Forget the gear; a large portion of tone, compression, and movement comes from the hands of a master. An experienced bass player will create movement and variation in a performance without drawing attention away from the vocal melody or solo instrument. That being said, it''s my job to find the right sonic space for our amazing bass line.

For rock or metal, I''m not usually concerned with sub bass, so I''ll use a highpass filter between 40Hz and 65Hz to eliminate any string rumble or hand noise that might interfere with the clarity of the mix. I try to use compression sparingly in my DAW, maybe employing a 4:1 or 6:1 ratio. If I''m using an analog compressor, I''ll push it a little harder to grab a bit of that analog overdrive.

I prefer to record direct, either through my Neve preamps or an amp emulator like the Line 6 Bass PODxt Pro. If the bass line was recorded clean, I often add a little bit of overdrive, followed by EQ, to get the bass to sit nicely with the guitars. I exaggerate the gain on my EQ and sweep the frequency until the midrange sits in with the rest of the program, and then reduce the amount of EQ gain once I''ve found the sweet spot.

If I need to clean up a sloppy bass passage, I''ll use a noise gate on the bass with a quick attack (about 20ms) and a slightly longer release (about 175ms) to eliminate unwanted fret noise or amp noise. To give a little extra warmth, I''ll sometimes use Waves MaxxBass or another bass maximizer to fatten it up.

For reggae, the bass is felt and heard, so I''ll highpass the bass at a lower frequency, 30Hz to 34Hz, and focus my EQ efforts on the low end and less on the low mids.

An interesting technique the bassist from Tortured Soul uses is to play a passage an octave above the desired frequency and then use an octave pedal to pitch it down to the correct frequency range. I''ve experimented with some pedals that let you add subsonic frequencies as well, creating dub-like tones.

I have a couple of different basses so I have some tonal choices. One has an amazing tone but questionable intonation, so some of the notes I play on it are slightly out of tune. I''ll use Celemony''s Melodyne to pull those notes into tune while retain the tone and feel of the passage.

Always remember: Live bass is not perfect. It has movement and coloration, and that''s what makes it so interesting to the ear.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 1: You can get a really full bass sound by combining several sources. In this case, live and programmed bass sounds are layered.

Unlike live bass, where the tone and feel has a lot to do with the player, programmed bass relies on the programmer to add movement, volume, and tonal nuances. Therefore, I often combine or use multiple bass sources to create the proper bass passage (see Fig. 1).

Genres such as drum ''n'' bass, dub-step, and electro-house are dependent on complex and multisonic bass sections. To create these passages, I break the bass line down into sub bass (30Hz-60Hz) multiple mid basses (80Hz-250Hz), and an upper-mid bass (250Hz-600Hz).

The sub bass comprises a basic sine wave or 808 tone that is more felt than heard. A common mistake is to make your mix overly bass-heavy because the sub bass is too loud. This will decrease the mix''s overall volume and can mess with your mix-bus compression. Yes, hip-hop is bass-heavy, but the mix is usually relatively even, with the drums and bass playing off of each other. Your audience will most likely have a sound system with lots of bass, so let them turn the bass up to their liking rather than make your mix too bottom-heavy.

A 3dB increase in bass may not be that noticeable in your earbuds, but it will be on a large, bass-heavy system. I usually normalize the volume of the sub bass because it''s harder to notice its volume fluctuations when you''re monitoring it in your studio, and too much of a fluctuation in volume in the sub frequencies can be a nightmare on a bass-heavy sound system. I sometimes find it hard to distinguish the notes of a sub-bass line, so I''ll program that line an octave or two higher and then transpose it down to fit in the sub-bass range.

Let there be space. Don''t feel that every second has to be filled up with a sub-bass passage. Sub bass is fatiguing on the ears, and constant sub tones can be nauseating on a large sound system. By allowing space between the notes, the mix will have better movement and the listener will focus on the lead elements of your song.

The sub is also where a lot of the bounce to the electronic music comes from, so be playful with the programming. The head-nodders and dancers will thank you.

In dub-step or drum ''n'' bass, the grinding bass lines or chopped-up melodic staccato lines occur in the mid and upper-mid frequencies. I often double the mid-bass line with the sub bass to create massive, gut-busting passages.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 2: This screenshot of a section from a MIDI bass part shows the technique of quantizing only parts of a measure (typically the downbeats) to keep the feel from being too mechanical.

Sweeping envelopes, highpass EQ, distortion, and resonant filters are great to use on mid bass. A technique I often use is to make duplicates of a single bass source. I then apply different effects to each of the copied tracks, creating new bass sounds. I''ll program a melodic passage using one bass sound, and then chop up the MIDI passage and spread it across the different bass sources so I can modulate the bass line with the different effects. Quick filter sweeps, envelope modulation, or a diving bass wobble are easy to accomplish with this technique.

Mid bass is great to run through a sidechain compressor. Set up a compressor with the kick drum as the sidechain input, and run one of these bass lines through it to create that pulsing wamp characteristic of electro-house.

Timing is everything and a locked bass line is important, but I don''t quantize the whole bass line. I''ll play a bass passage in real time until it feels good. If some notes are noticeably out of time, I''ll select the offenders and bring them nearer to the grid by either quantizing them or dragging them closer to the desired moment in time. I usually quantize the first note of a passage and the notes where other important rhythmic elements are hitting such as kick drums. This technique helps retain the feel of a good passage while lending a little punch to your mix (see Fig. 2).

I use upper mid-bass for quick melodic phrases that grab the listener''s ear but don''t necessarily act as the main melody. This helps create a little more interest in a bass line that may repeat in multiple sections.

Ming is a NYC-based artist, producer, and DJ. He owns Hood Famous Music and co-owns Habitat Music.