26 tricks to unleash the power of your basses.
Updated: Jun 3, 2019
We can read a lot of things here and there about how to mix a bass well, what effects to apply; how to compress it, equalize it, widen it, give it depth or even sit it in a mix. The bass is for the music producer, what the grail is for the knights of the round table. All of us, are searching for a killing bass, a wall of sound. And, you will see as you read this article, that plugins and effects of all kinds are not the "joker" answer to all issues. To get a stunning bass, this happens from the first steps of your song's composition. Obviously don't use this article as a list of magic recipes, but rather as an opportunity to complete your producer's toolbox. Your own experience will always be the best. But here are some ideas, some ways to inspire you with new insights, techniques and strategies.
1. From composition to interpretation.
Many of us compose directly on our DAWs using the "MIDI Draw" mode whether on FLStudio, Logic Pro X, Ableton and others. This composition technique has several disadvantages that can affect the final result of the bass in your production.
Velocity (All at 127).
The first mistake made when composing directly with a pencil is to have a uniform velocity on the one hand, and a maximum velocity on the other hand (127). Here are several reasons to vary the velocity of your bass line:
Gain in naturalness: Giving life and movement will catch the listener's attention on your bass, you will no longer need to over-mix it for it to be heard.
Gain in sound richness: Most modern synthesizers and samplers apply a different timbre for each velocity, to simulate a musician's natural play. Use this advantage to add depth.
Don't throw yourself on the compressors, sometimes a dynamic problem can be solved by simply changing the velocity of a note. Moreover, unlike the compressor, velocity allows you to modify the volume without modifying the attack, and therefore to keep the transients.
The rhythm (groove).
The second mistake made when composing in drawing mode is to compose a rigid rhythm. Not making this mistake will save you a lot of trouble in the mixing process. Here are some reasons for this:
Getting more natural: At the risk of repeating myself, you will see that by not placing your notes right on the grid, but by shifting them a little before or a little after, the musical perception of your composition will completely change.
Masking resolved ahead of time: Some of us still struggle at the mixing stage to manage the Kick/Bass balance. If all your bass notes and kick shots are triggered at the same time at the grid you will not simplify the task, a slight delay will allow the bass to develop better.
Sequencer VS Controller.
Be careful, it is not because the title is seductive that you have to take it at its word. These two tools are not opposable and can coexist within the same production. Personally, I strongly encourage you to use a controller to compose, for several reasons:
Getting more natural: Well, it's okay, you got it, I think.
Improvise to compose: The controller allows you to experiment, to stop thinking and to play simply. You will compose more instinctive bass lines, and above all, it is your personality that will pass through your performance.
It's time to break a bad habit: DO NOT SYSTEMATICALLY QUANTIFY EVERY TIME YOU RECORD SOME THINGS.
Why the sequencer? The sequencer can also be a good source of inspiration and a field for experimentation. Rich ideas can emerge from it.
Yes, but the sequencer is rhythmically rigid? Yes, it's true, you may find that I contradict myself, but mixing stiffness and rhythmic flexibility will bring a new groove to your composition.
Important aside: It's not because I say you shouldn't hesitate to de-quantify that you have to de-quantify everything in the same way, otherwise you fall back into the trap of all the sounds that are triggered at the same time, and you end up with the same problem as systematic quantification. Put some notes a little early, others a little late, in a word, vary the pleasures.
What do you expect from your bass line?
It is important to ask yourself some questions when adding a bass line to your composition. The bass can play different roles in a music and sometimes even play more than one at a time.
A bass that supports harmony: Sometimes the bass can be discreet but bring the listener's emotion to its climax.
A rhythmic bass: The bass has a strong percussive potential, thanks to it you will be able to increase the dynamism of your production.
A melodic bass: And yes! Why not give the melodic part to the bass?
While listening to your favorite music, I am sure that with this in mind, you will find many examples of the different uses of the bass.
Act accordingly: Depending on the role you have chosen for your bass line, the sound you choose will be completely different. Play on attack, sustain, filters etc. Vary the way you play, hold or detach notes, use the glide, an arpeggiator. In a word, invent, play, experiment.
The right octave: Choose the octave at which you will play your bassline and don't fall into the trap of absolutely wanting to play it on the infrabass.
Now that your bass line is perfectly satisfying for you, it's time to move on to the next step to transcend it.
2. The right sound for the right emotion. (the arrangement phase)
Choosing the right bass sound is a very important step, and I advise you not to settle for the presets provided by the synthesizer brands but to make them your own. Touch all the buttons, even if you don't understand them until the sound makes you shiver. Above all, don't work on your synth sounds in solo, what matters is that the bass sounds correctly with the other elements. Let the bass sound good on its own, we don't care a little bit.
Efficient and free bass synthesizers.
Obviously to synthesize a bass, you will need a synthesizer. You can easily use the basic synthesizers present in your DAWs. But if you want to go further here are some free VST/AAX/AU. Try them and find your happiness:
Synyster - Earthquake or tsunami? (VST/AU)
Open source, easy to use, it integrates its own step sequencer and has 3 oscillators. Create and save your own presets and let's go break the boomers.
TyrellN6 U-He - A sharp Swiss knife. (VST/AU/AAX)
If you are looking for an analog sound, this synthesizer is your future toy. It is equipped with 2 oscillators, a noise generator, a ring modulator, 2 LFOs with 8 waveforms that can be synchronized with the tempo of your DAW. Overdrive, filters, ADSR envelopes. And, for the laziest of us who don't want to touch the knobs too much, more than 580 presets.
TAL Elek7ro - A wide range of tones. (VST/AU)
A virtual analog synthesizer with features such as synchronous oscillator and frequency modulation. It includes 2 oscillators with Pulse Width Modulation and FM oscillator. Envelopes and LFOs with a wide range of values from 0.1 Hz to 400 Hz. This synth is useful for a wide range of sounds from percussion to deep bass sounds.
Model E Steinberg - Light as a feather. (VST/AU)
The Model E simulates classic analog synthesis and contains a whole host of features such as the ability to use it in multi-output mode (x16) or to play 64 notes at the same time. Basic but complete.
This is obviously a non-exhaustive list, they are only hints and I leave it to you the care of finding your favorite synthesizer using your faithful Google friend.
Mono vs Stereo.
You can hear everything and anything on the bass in mono or stereo, and personally the best answer I can give you is a question: What works best with your composition? In general don't listen too much to the sound extremists (you know who I mean?) who will tell you, a bass is mono, a snare is mono and it's in the middle of the mix. To that I want to answer them two things, on the one hand if we make music it's to be creative, it's not to respect unfounded rules. And, on the other hand, I want to tell them that you have two ears, and that when you listen to a bass player playing on stage or in a room you can hear him in stereo. The information that reaches our left ear is not the same as the information that reaches our right ear. And it's the same when you hear a drummer banging on his snare; if you're in the same room with him, you'll hear him in stereo.
It is true that stereo basses can cause some problems, as low frequencies are more likely to have phase problems. Choosing a mono bass is a sure way to avoid this kind of problem during the mixing stage. But, there are some tips to correct this problem that we will see in a future article.
Stacking & Layering. (The what and the what?)
Basically, it is a very simple principle: Combining or stacking two or more synthetic or non-synthesis sounds to obtain a more powerful and richer result than what a single source can achieve in isolation, by creating the perception of a denser and deeper sound.
There are a few rules to follow to avoid destroying your mix with this technique because it is easy to create a mess when you mix several sound sources, especially when they have similar characteristics. Frequency and masking conflicts can easily confuse your mix, especially in the midrange; in other words, you can have the opposite effect to what you originally intended: dynamic inconsistencies, lack of precision, phase cancellations, fuzzy results and an amateur mix as a whole. How can we avoid this disaster? Follow these two tips:
Enough is enough: Choose sounds that really add something extra. Always be sure to mute your layers one by one to make sure they improve the sound. Don't cover your main synth, it's the one you chose and love.
Pitch : When all the instruments are too well tuned together, it can give a feeling of platitude and a plastic sound. Feel free to lightly detune one or more of your layers, and you will see that your sound will take on a whole new dimension.
You have understood this, the stacking or layering technique will allow you to sculpt your sound, to appropriate it and to bring your personality to your bass. Now no one will be able to tell you "ah! You used that Nexus preset!"
3. The bass mix. (Take out your compressors! Not yet)
Equalization is perhaps the most subjective part of the bass mix. There are no miracle recipes that work for all basses, because you will agree that some basses are dark while others are brilliant. The EQ settings you make will vary from one production to another, but the basic principles will remain the same. After creating your bass sound, it's time to start cleaning up the problematic frequencies. Since each synth layer adds a unique texture, it is preferable to treat each track individually.
First of all, I say it and I repeat it, make your adjustments in the overall context of your music. Always, always, always, always. Even if I can't tell you exactly what to do to properly equalize your bass, I can at least prevent you from making these few recurring mistakes:
Boost low frequencies: It's a recurring mistake, I'm not saying you should never do it, but if you do, do it sparingly because too much subs will make your mix completely soft and blurry and on top of that, on mainstream listening systems your bass will just disappear from the mix. At best if you find that your bass is missing lows, turn down the high frequencies slightly with a shelf.
Cut off the high frequencies: To be reproduced on all listening systems, the bass needs to keep its harmonics. Thanks to harmonics our brain can reconstruct the fundamental by illusion.
Exaggerate low cuts: Using a low cut to remove subs and those that are too full of useless energy is good, but go easy on yourself because too much cutting will give you a sound without depth and tiring.
Too many corrections: I thought you chose your bass sound well and that you loved it? If you start to crush your sound with the EQ it is because you don't have the right bass sound, in this case I advise you to go back to the arrangement step.
Sometimes we spend a lot of time adjusting this bass, and after that, we realize that it still doesn't come out of the mix. In this case it is time to think that the problem comes from the other instruments. To go in search of the one who poses a problem to you, the mute will be your best friend.
The compression. (Well, there you go!)
Compression should not be used systematically. Especially if you spent time at step one of this article and you have defined your velocities well. Be aware that if you compress your bass signal, you will lose the dynamism you created. Nevertheless, a good use of compression can give depth, consistency and solidity to this bass that you appreciate.
Again, each case is unique, and it is better to adapt to each situation than to develop habits that work once in a while. Here are the few mistakes to avoid when using a compressor on the bass.
Compress with your eyes: Compress the signal to the ear and not by looking at VU meters and other visual indicators. VU-meters can often visually slow down gain reduction. As always, you must take music into consideration.
Place the EQ before or after the compressor in the chain: Once again there will always be those famous sound extremists who will tell you "the EQ always before the compressor" and others who will tell you absolutely the opposite. All these tactics are acceptable, provided that the sound calls for tactics. The big mistake here is to subscribe totally to one process rather than another. It's the sound that counts, not your approach, not your ideology.
A threshold too low: Especially if you use analog compressor emulations, when the threshold point is too low, you will color the sound and lose a lot of frequencies (which may be an artistic choice). In addition, you may overwhelm the dynamic movement.
Wrong attack and release: Improper use of the attack and release time can pulverize a sound, while appropriate settings can pleasantly underline the rhythm. To find the right "attack & release" settings I have a little tip that I will reveal in a future article.
Finally on compression, compress only if you hear a problem related to dynamics, and even, we will see later, some dynamics problems can quite easily be solved by other less destructive tools.
A bass yes, but wide please.
If you have followed the point seen above on layering and stacking you should already have obtained a very wide bass at least if you have taken care to pan left and right some of your underlay.
There are a lot of tricks to give the feeling of a wide and englobing bass, including the use of reverb and other temporal effects, but here is a very common and simple trick if you want to keep a bass dry while expanding it.
Duplicate your mono bass track twice. Pan one track left bottom the other right bottom. Group these two tracks and apply a low cut to the group to remove the bass which is stereo from the mono one. You can already feel this new dimension you've just brought to this pretty bass but you can go even further by applying effects like chorus that will widen the signal even more. Remember to check your phase meter from time to time to be sure that you are not leaving completely in peanuts.
Saturation, a powerful ally.
Saturation and distortion are powerful tools to add weight and power to the bass. Saturation will generate harmonics that will greatly enhance bass perception, giving them an increased presence in the mix as well as on smaller listening systems.
To conclude, do not use all these techniques every time and at the same time, let your ears guide you, that is the key. Only correct what you hear, never do anything out of habit. I am sure that all these tips and tricks have enabled you to enrich your range of technical and musical possibilities and that you will be able to thrill your listeners.