Your bass, always a hassle to get right. It lacks boominess, power and doesn't seem to fit right with your track. What can you do about it?
For starters, just finding the right bass preset, or creating the right bass can be a hassle. The presets in your sound banks sounds great on their own, but just misplaced and too spaced-out in your track. And using a simple sinewave is boring, right? You want something beefier, heavier. Something that you know could blast the crowds out of their shoes on concerts.
Struggling with the bass is a part of the learning curve for every producer. However, there are very simple but effective techniques you can apply to make your bass sound amazing. And shh, don't tell anyone. These secrets I'm about to tell you about will make an insane difference in your tracks. Don't take them lightly.
Let me give you some production secrets…
So, before we start. I'm just going to assume that after some searching, you found/created a bass preset you think fits your track great. It sounds good, but you feel that something is lacking…
Then proceed with these 5 golden tips:
1. Limiting your bass
What? A limiter on a bass? You heard me correct. It's kind of a cowboy move, production-wise, but it's very effective. When your bass plays in different notes, the volume of the sound may change. This happens mostly because of lowpass filters on bass sounds, which cut off higher frequencies. This causes higher notes to lose their power and volume.
Use any limiter (the built-in ones in your DAW works fine) with the ceiling at -1dB and crank it up until you see a maximum of 6dB reduction. Then listen. Voilà. All your sweet bass notes are at an even, maxed out level. Full power.
Some pointers for limiting your bass:
- This technique is best for a sub and electronic bass with smoother attacks. Using a lot of limiting on plucked acoustic basses could mess up your transients and make it sound too squashed. Use a nice compressor instead.
- Don't overdo it - or you'll risk squashing your bass too much. Just a bit is enough.
- Put the limiter last in your effect chain, or first. Adding distortion, EQ and effects on the limited bass signal could work better than using it last in the chain. Try both and see what sounds best.
- Sidechain AFTER limiting – you want to sidechain the limited signal and not the other way around. Do this for the best amount of control.
- Try using soft clipping instead of limiting - soft clipping also keeps the volume under a ceiling, but adds some extra distorted flavour. Ableton's soft clipping in the Glue Compressor works well for this - turn on the "Soft Clip" function and crank the Makeup Gain.
2. Saturation and distortion
SATURATION! DISTORTION! Sorry for shouting. The caps letters are kind of what these two effects sound like when you think about them. You think about what your distortion pedal does to your electric guitar. It makes it sound angrier, grittier and just more heavy metal.
Starting off, distortion and saturation are similar, but different...
Easily put: distortion is an angry saturation. Distortion, as it sounds, is meant to distort your sound, while saturation colors it. The effects can be used to boost perceived volume and power. Both are priceless tools to have.
Saturation is a kind of distortion, but when we talk about the distortion and saturation effects, they are very different animals indeed. Let’s explain.
Distortion is an extreme effect that is commonly used for electric guitars, producing a growling, gritty sound. It works by pushing the audio signal through the roof (also called hard clipping), which adds sustain, overtones and compresses the sound almost flat.
The most notable things that stands out are the harmonic and inharmonic overtones that comes from the distortion effect. What result you get varies from type of distortion used to amount of effect applied. But it can range from a mild fuzz to a crazy overtone buzz.
- Gritty, buzzy, biting
- Very compressed (hard clipping)
Saturation, which also is a form of distortion is thought of as gentler. Introduced in the good old analog days, engineers discovered that they could make sounds warmer and more pleasing by overloading their amps, preamps and tape machines.
The result is a much less aggressive and extreme form of distortion where the characteristics of the sound are left pretty much intact. Saturation nowadays is commonly processed digitally, where plugins emulate the overloading effect of tubes, tapes or transistors, with strikingly similar results.
- Less compressed (soft clipping)
Why use distortion or saturation on a bass?
A warm, nice sounding bass is fantastic, that’s just a fact.
Whether you produce chillout, trance music or hell… even blues music, you want your bass to be as powerful and sweet as possible, while still fitting nicely in your mix.
Yeah, some musical genres tend to be more bass heavy than others, but I promise you… no one will ever complain of great bass. It more a matter of having the right bass and the right volume for your track and genre.
Distortion and saturation add upper harmonic content to the bass signal to make it sound richer.
Used in excess, these effects can alter the bass sound in a profound way, making it almost synth like. This is especially true for distortion, which completely transforms the signal when the effect is maxed out. Plenty of saturation does similar things but acts a bit more civil.
Too make your bass sound better – use in moderation
You can use a little distortion to make it sound just slightly more angry, gritty and more defined. Bussing your bass to some distortion can also layer it nicely, giving it a buzzier edge.
Saturation is amazing for warming up, nicely compressing and rounding up your bass sound.
You may also try lowpassing the bass after distortion. This may result in more powerful lower frequencies, while the higher frequencies will be left for other elements of the track. Some overdrive plugins have built-in functions for this.
When to use saturation
- A mild saturation works wonders on smoother basses
- If your bass sounds a bit cold, use saturation to warm it up
- Use it to increase volume, compress slightly and rounding it up
When to use distortion
- A bit of distortion is great for dubstep, experimental basses and ‘heavier’ music
- If you want to transform your bass into something new, use distortion
- When you want an edgier, buzzier feel
- Use a small amount, or buss your bass to some distortion for a grittier dimension
3. Stereo Bass effect
As you probably know, the lower end of your frequency spectrum (bass and sub-bass) should be in mono. If you didn’t know that already, I’ll repeat…
Frequencies under 100 Hz should almost always be in mono!
But why? There are three main reasons:
- Phase issues
- Lack of power
- Lower frequencies are perceived as less directional
To start off, phase issues are a big concern, especially with lower frequencies. You don’t want a loss in power or definition of your bass because of phase issues. While on the topic of power and definition – your lower frequencies play best in mono. Having one source of audio information for these frequencies directly translates to your bass sounding more direct, and powerful.
Also, you can barely make out the direction of frequencies under 80Hz. Well, maybe in headphones… but you probably want your tracks to rock a club somewhere on fat sound systems.
Keep your low frequencies centered and your lowest in mono. The more centered the better.
This brings us to the more fun question…
How do you achieve a stereo bass effect if your bass should be in mono?
- The lower you go in the frequency spectrum, the more centered the sound should be.
- The higher you go in the frequency spectrum, the wider the sound should be
This means that we can play around with the higher frequencies of the bass. If we leave the lower frequency part in mono, we don’t have to worry about widening the wrong frequencies.
If only there was a way to separate the frequencies of the bass into two channels…
Oh, but there is a way! Do this:
- Create an audio track next to the midi track containing your Bass VST
- Choose your Bass VST track in “Audio From”, on your new audio track
- Voila! You now have your bass playing in two channels.
- On the new audio track, high-pass and start playing around with effects/widening
When you have successfully separated the frequencies of your bass, play around with the mids and high ends. Try a widener, a chorus effect or a slap delay. Maybe even some distortion? It’s amazing how this trick can bring your bass to a new level.
The most powerful thing to take away from this though, is...
The higher frequencies of your bass CAN be wide
But not unless you don't want to… of course. It’s a neat trick that works wonders for making a dull bass more interesting.
4. High-pass your bass
Using a high-pass filter on your bass is controversial. I mean, why would you want to remove the frequencies that your bass is mostly about?
What if I told you that high-pass filtering your bass could make it sound even better?
Let me explain…
Human hearing is remarkable. We can hear frequencies ranging from 20 Hz to 20 kHz on a good day, which is cool. With old age and too many rock concerts, the frequency span we can hear is lessened and could look something like 40 Hz to 6 kHz. The upper range often goes first, as higher frequencies require more delicate tuning by our ears.
Compared to a dogs hearing, which ranges from 67 Hz to 45 kHz, us humans are not too bad. I myself cringe at extremely high frequency sounds and I'm quite content to not hear 45 kHz sounds.
We can’t hear sounds below 20 Hz, but we can feel it. If you were to play 15 Hz in a huge subwoofer capable of such low frequencies, the room would be quiet but shaking.
Ultra-low frequencies can be too powerful
The problem with extremely low frequencies is that they take up a lot of amp power, which is why many subwoofers and speaker systems cut off below 30-40Hz. It just takes too much power to process and play back. These lower frequencies take up a lot of signal information which can be unnecessary.
Some debate that the difference can be heard on the dance floor, but I disagree…
High-passing your bass to 20-30 Hz allows you to increase volume – and power
An increase in volume of the bass increases power.
When you get over 20 Hz (especially 40, 60, 80, 100 and 120 Hz) you get a tone with your bass sensation rather than just the sensation. I’d rather have that in higher volume, than ultra-low rumble eating up my headroom…
Another thing… high-passing may notch your sound, boosting a bit at your chosen cut off destination. This accomplishes two things, you will both get a cleaner sounding bass and a louder fundamental frequency. Good stuff.
5. Use a sine wave as a sub-bass
The last and final tip is one to increase your bass power and smoothen out your lower frequencies, by using a sine sub. This is tremendously powerful, as a sine wave in lower octaves is pure bass information. Pure bass goodness.
Layering your bass
Similarly to layering a kick drum (or any other sound), with low, mid and high-end, you can layer your bass as well. Since bass is generally lower/more mid focused, a sine wave playing the same notes as your main bass gives you fantastic, smooth low frequencies.
For the best result, you want to high-pass your main bass a bit. You do this so that the sine sub can play around on its own (at around 20-80 Hz) and complement your higher frequencies nicely. High-pass your main bass to 80 or 100 Hz as a starting point, but feel free to experiment and see what sounds best.
The easiest way to get a playable sine wave oscillator in Ableton Live, is to use the built-in synth “Operator”. It’s a very simple but effective synth that will give you a sine wave right at the start-up. Copy and paste your bass notes to the channel containing your sine sub-bass. Then listen.
You can also use a small amount of saturation or distortion on your sine wave sub. Use with caution.
Bonus tip: Don’t forget to side-chain your sub as well, to avoid clashing with your kick.
So there it is. Five excellent tips to make your bass sound better. As always, experiment and try different things.
- Limiting your bass – use a limiter or soft clipper on your bass to make the volume even and more powerful
- Saturation and distortion – use these two effects to increase power and make the sound more pronounced
- Stereo Bass effect – separate the frequencies of your bass and use widening/effects on the higher frequencies, leaving your low end in mono
- High-pass your bass – high-pass the lowest frequencies to get more bass headroom, and a notched lower end
- Use a sine wave as a sub-bass – layer your bass with a sine wave playing the exact same notes as your main bass
Hope these tips helped you as much as they have for me. Now go make some sweet basses!
Thanks for reading.
About the author
Pelle Sundin is a Swedish music producer and freelance copywriter, currently active with his chillout project PLMTRZ. He also produces psychedelic trance. When he's not producing music, he surfs, skates and chugs coffee.
Skype sessions: http://bit.ly/pml_s_one2one
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