Searching for the perfect bass patch can be an odious task. With such a plethora of synths and libraries out there, flicking through the almost endless presets to find what’s right for you is like finding a needle in haystack.
Getting something that works with any samples or chord progressions you’ve got, that sits nicely with your kick drum and still carries enough weight to shake those subwoofer cones can seem like a juggling act.
In this tutorial we’re going to explain how to create bass sounds and lines with powerful subs, thick mids and tops that cut through on any system. Download the project used in this tutorial here.
There are a myriad of dos and don’ts out there and you can spend more time tweaking than actually making music. In this article we’ll take a forensic look at how to build your basslines from the bottom up, from creating a penetrating sub bass, layering the mids and tops, getting it to bite in all the right places and processing it with your kick and rest of the mix.
Due to the low bass frequencies in these audio examples we suggest listening through good headphones or studio monitors to appreciate the nuanced programming.
Depending on which genre of music you’re working on, the bass might perform a different function; in house and techno, a weightier kick drives the track along, dictating the pace and feel. Basslines in these genres might contain more mid-range frequencies to cut through the mixes.
Drum ’n’ bass, dubstep and other bass-heavy music can contain much more bottom end and sub frequencies, underpinning your loop. Balancing your kick and bass can be an essential part of getting your track working. With weak foundations, you’re going to struggle to get the rest of the mix sitting comfortably.
To understand bass properly, there are a few key terms you will want to get your head around: amplitude, harmonics and phase. Amplitude is simply a term for volume, but it’s not to be confused with decibels (dB). It’s more akin to relative volume or power.
Harmonics are the name given to all the frequencies that go into making up a sound. The lowest, loudest note in your bass sound is the first harmonic (or fundamental). Any frequency above this will normally be a harmonic.
Harmonics are integer multiples of the fundamental frequency. If that didn’t mean anything don’t worry, the maths is simple. Let’s have a look at Live’s Operator instrument using Osc A. Below is a low A note (110 Hz) and I’ve adjusted the Waveform Editor, bringing in the next four harmonics one at a time. They are the frequencies, 220, 330, 440 and 550Hz.
Just above Operator we can see Voxengo SPAN mapping frequency across our X-axis and amplitude across our Y-axis: you can quite clearly see each harmonic creeping in relative to the fundamental. To the right is an oscilloscope by Laidman & Katsura, this displays time across the X-axis and amplitude across the Y-axis.
The other concept we need to familiarise ourselves with is phase. There are primarily two places we’ll come up against this, the first of which is the start phase of an oscillator. Below we can see eight notes with their phase free running (the default of most synths) and with their phase locked to restart at 0º when a note is played:
As you can see without restarting the phase, each note has a different start position within the oscillators cycle, causing irregularities in volume and nasty clicks and pops.
The second instance of phase we’re likely to come across is relationship between the left and right channel. It’s highly recommended to keep your frequencies below about 100Hz in mono: any disparity in stereo spectrum here can be very noticeable, causing phasing issues when summed to mono and more irregularities in volume.
Creating a Sub Bed
While we might tend to think of basses as one sound we can sometimes separate their spectrums up further into complex composites – containing as many as three or even four layers – each requiring different programming, processing and treatment.
Flexibility with the sub, low-mids and mid range can be key in getting the right amount of punch, the bass cutting through the mix and retaining that all-important stereo image. Let’s start off with our sub frequencies.
The only way your bass is going to move air on the dancefloor is getting a good, meaty sub. Making a competent sub isn’t rocket science, as it requires very little understanding of synthesis and sound, but making a great sub just takes a little more. Let’s stay with Operator for now.
Osc A defaults to a sine wave, a waveform that contains only the first harmonic. This is good for sub bass as it’s clear and uncluttered. Ensure the phase restarts on 0º (0%) and change the Voices to 1 in the Global Shell.
If you’re leaving the sub as the sole layer for the bass part then you can almost leave it untouched. I’ve added in -30dB from Osc B, which is modulating the frequency of Osc A. This adds just a few harmonics into the sound helping it cut through a busier mix and on smaller speakers.
Do this by enabling Osc B and turning the Level up to -30dB, or wherever you feel the sweet spot is. It’s good to check on a spectral analyser, though, as frequency modulation can sometimes overpower the fundamental frequency if you add too much in.
Osc B introduced
By increasing the level of Osc B we can create a brighter, sharper tone. You can shape the overall FM by reducing the sustain of the amplitude envelope of Osc B. With the level around -13dB, and changing the Coarse tuning to 4 (fourth harmonic), we can get an archetypal garage/UK house sound:
Shaping the Low-Mid Tone
Once we’ve got our foundations laid we need to move on to the lower mid range, which is going to shape the body of our bass. Click on the Operator and hit cmd + G (or ctrl + G if you’re on a PC) to group the Operator into an Instrument Rack. Instrument Racks allow MIDI to be distributed to various different chains of synths and samplers and their combined signals to be processed and mixed individually.
Click on the Show/Hide Chain List and rename the Operator “Sub”. It can be muted for now while we concentrate on our midrange.
Ctrl + right-click in the panel where it says Drop an Instrumental or Sample Here, click Create Chain and name it “Mids”. We’re looking for a synth that has a couple of oscillators and, while most any subtractive synth will do, I’m opting for Native Instruments’ Massive. Drag and drop it on to the Mids chain.
Massive’s default preset is using Oscillator 1 with a wave that’s harmonically halfway between a square and a sawtooth. It’s running into filters 1 and 2, and Envelope 4 is controlling our amplitude. Let’s set about getting it to a place where we can design our sound.
Move the WT-Pos (wavetable position, highlighted in green) fully clockwise to Squ and set the routing of the oscillator to F1 (yellow). Now click on the 4 Env panel and reduce the Attack to minimum and increase the Level to maximum (blue and red).
You can repeat these steps oscillators 2 and 3 if you want.
In the Osc panel, click to Restart via Gate in the Oscillator Phases box. Much like Operator, Massive allows us to select the start phase of our oscillators each time a new note is received. If we were designing a pad or poly synth patch with unison detune it might not be necessary to take these steps, but for a lot of modern bass sounds it’s recommended.
Finally, in the Voicing tab, change the Voicing from Polyphon to Monorotate and the Trigger from Always to Legato Triller. These steps ensure the bass is monophonic and that envelopes won’t retrigger if two notes overlap.
Next I’m going to enable Osc 2 and load a sawtooth in. There are a few two choices here, the Squ-Saw and Squ-Sw II. Ensure the WT-Pos is in the right place and turn the amplitude up to just half way. This gives us a richer sound that is dominated by the odd harmonics provided by the square wave – plenty of middle and top end for out filters to bite on to.
Route Osc 2 to F1 and turn your attention to the filter section. I’m going to add the Lowpass 2 filter – this has a weaker slope than the Lowpass 4 giving it a smoother sound – which will sound great later on down the line when we start modulating it.
Set the Cutoff to about 8 o’clock and leave the Resonance as is. Before moving on I’ve added the Ktr (keyboard tracking) Macro to modulate our filter. This tracks the position of the filter according to the pitch, opening it as the pitch gets higher. Lastly set the >F2 to Series and the Mix to Mix1.
At this stage you can add a third oscillator in tuned up an octave or two if you want to. This won’t really add anything to the weight of the bassline but it might help it come across on smaller speakers.
In addition you could add some Sine Shaper from the Inserts. Experiment with their position before or after the filter in the Routing panel.
Filter Envelopes for Bite and Punch
Modulation comes in all shapes and sizes and by far the two most common sources are LFOs and envelopes. Let’s look at each in turn, starting off with LFOs.
LFO stands for low frequency oscillator, and this is a control value that falls within the 0.01 Hz to 20 Hz spectrum. We wouldn’t be able to hear these waves on their own, as they’re subsonic, but when applied to filter cutoff or volume we can hear their effect.
Their value is determined by a ‘rate’ and their modulation is bi-polar i.e it has a positive and negative part to the cycle. LFOs are great for tempo-synced modulation like dubstep wobbles, filter and frequency modulation as well as stereo tremolo on pads and rhodes-type instruments.
Envelopes on the other hand are unipolar and whereas LFOs are free running envelopes are gate triggered. Massive contains four envelopes and number 4 defaults to modulating the amplitude.
Commonly there are four stages in an envelope: the attack (time in milliseconds it takes to reach the maximum level from a MIDI note on signal); decay (time in ms after the attack has passed to reach the sustain stage); sustain (value at which the note sustains at); and release (time in ms the sound takes to reach zero again after a MIDI note off is received).
I’ve used envelope 1 to control several parameters in our mid-layer. Here, I’ve used the shortest attack available and dropped the level (Massive’s terminology for sustain) and set the decay parameter to a value of 11 o’clock. The decay time might differ drastically depending on your tempo, where at higher bpms you might want a shorter decay time and at slower tempos you could get away with letting the envelope’s modulation breath a little more.
We can add this envelope to as many different parameters as we like. Firstly let’s add it to our filter (which, if you remember, already has some modulation from the keyboard tracking). Setting the amount of modulation is key to controlling the harmonics that come through and therefore sets the tone of your transient. Having more modulation means the initial hit is brighter, and less, duller.
I’m also adding the same modulation to the Drive circuits on the two Inserts, for which I’ve used Parabolic and Sine Shapers. These add harmonics into the signal by folding over the upper portions of a waveform. One of these is placed before the filter and one after.
Lastly I’ve used Massive’s powerful Modulation Oscillator tuned up 19 semitones (one octave plus a perfect fifth above the MIDI input) and set to Phase modulate Osc 2. Sonically phase modulation is very similar to frequency modulation, and again adds a nice blast of complex high frequencies to our transient.
We want this bass to be as flexible as possible so I’m going to set up some Macros within Live’s Instrument Rack to control our mids. Click on the Unfold Device Parameters and then click Configure.
Now, anything you touch in Massive will populate this list. I’m going to add the filter cutoff, the drive and dry/wet from both inserts, the phase from our modulation oscillator and the level from envelope 1. If you’ve done that correctly it should look like this:
Unclick the Configure button and assign these to Macros. I’m going to give the filter cutoff it’s own Macro named “Cutoff” and the dry/wet and drives of both inserts will be mapped to Macro 2, “Drive”.
The envelope level will be mapped to Macro 3, named “Env Mod” (because cleverly reducing the Marco to 0 will remove all of the envelope modulation), and lastly the phase will be mapped to Macro 4 named, “FM”.
Once they’re named and colour-coded, click Map and carefully set the ranges for each parameter. It’s good to have a MIDI loop running in the background whilst you do this. You want to set a minimum and maximum that are musical but allow some space for interesting automation later on down the line.
Now we’ve put the work into our mid-range let’s concentrate on the top layer. I’m going to duplicate my instance of Massive for mids by clicking on the chain and hitting cmd + d (or ctrl + d for a PC). Rename this new chain “Top” and solo it.
Aside from the patch being duplicated you’ll notice all of our hard work that’s gone into tweaking the Macros has been retained. Let’s edit this patch to get a more suitable top end. Firstly I’m going to disable the Oscillator Phases to Restart via Gate. I’m going to experiment with Unison Detune in this patch. Restarting the oscillator’s phases can sometimes create a nasty flanging sound when combined with unison detune.
I’m setting both oscillators to sawtooths now, matching their amplitudes and detuning them ever so slightly. The wider the detune amount, the faster beating we get. Beating is a fluctuation we hear when two oscillators are playing the same note but out of tune (you hear a similar effect when tuning two adjacent strings on a guitar together).
I’ve opted for +/- 20 cents. Next add in Osc 3 selecting the Scrim (Screamer) wavetable. Use envelope 1 to modulate the wavetable readout. I’ve gone for a range of 10 o’clock-5 o’clock.
Lastly for our oscillators, add in the Noise oscillator with envelope 1 controlling the amplitude. We want a blast of noise at the transient of the sound but having too much noise in the sustain stage will quickly muddy the sound up. I’ve chosen the Tape Hiss option here.
Let’s turn our attention to the filter. I’ve left the settings intact but changed the algorithm to Bandpass. This works by isolating a band of frequencies, leaving us with a more aggressive but thinner sound perfect for our top layer. Set the Bandwidth and Resonance to about 9 o’clock.
In the voicing tab change the number of Unison Voices from 1 to 4 and enable the Pitch Cutoff and Pan Position, adjusting their values to taste. Pitch Cutoff will add some detuning to each voice and Pan Position will spread those around the stereo spectrum. Now our layer is starting to sound the part.
There’s not much more to do but turn our attention to the FX tab. I’m adding in a Classic Tube and Dimension Expander while shelving off some bottom end in the EQ tab. Keep a close eye on the Master as all of these distortions and unison effects can easily clip the sound unpleasantly.
Processing Layers Together
Now we have our three layers in place, we need to think about separating them so there’s as little overlap as necessary and each part occupies its own space in the frequency and stereo spectrum. As our sub is fine let’s start with the mid layer. Solo it and add Live’s EQ Eight.
I’ve high-pass filtered it fairly abruptly at 80Hz using the 48dB/Oct slope: this stops it interfering with our sub. I’m also going to add some compression to even out the level a little more and some limiting to deliberately clip the layer. You could add more distortions and modulations here but I’m going to reserve them for our top layer.
Solo the top and add an EQ Eight. Add Live’s Pitch plug-in from the MIDI Effects tab and tune it up an octave. This will transpose any incoming MIDI up an octave automatically – a great time-saving device! I’m again going to high-pass the sound, this time using the standard 12dB/Oct slope and high-passing at 180Hz.
I’ve also added Live’s Auto Filter (adding some extra low-pass filter envelope modulation), the Simple Delay (using short unsynced values of 30 and 80ms), some Reverb, Compression and Limiting. Here’s the top layer on its own now.
Lastly I’m going to map the levels of each chain to a Macro, allowing me easier control over each layer, and the dry/wet of the top layer’s FX to my last remaining Macro.
Multi-Band and Parallel Processing
Now our synth is balanced internally we can think about processing it as a whole. The way Ableton nests Instrument Racks is clever but it means in order to contain any effects we now apply with our three existing layers we’ll need to re-group (cmd + G / ctrl + G) our current three layers into another Instrument Rack. Alternatively add an Audio Effects Rack after.
While we can use filters or EQ to separate frequency bands, it’s safer to use Live’s Multiband Dynamics as the bands are phase coherent and will minimise the amount og delay to any part of the spectrum. I’ve added three chains, each with a Multiband Dynamics, each soloing one of the Low, Medium and High bands. Ensure you label your chains for ease of use at a later date.
Now we can process these bands individually and adjust their crossover if you choose. STart by adding a Utility to the Low chain and reducing the width to 0%. It’s recommended to keep your bottom end in mono for nearly all applications and this plug-in can ensure that. I’ve also added Live’s Compressor with a slow attack and release with high ratio to tame the dynamic range a bit.
On the Mids chain I’ve adjusted the high crossover band to 1.5 kHz to narrow this range a little. Adding another Utility I’ve kept the Width at 60% and added some more compression with a much faster attack and release to match the quick envelope modulation of this band.
Lastly in the High band I’ve adjusted the Width of a Utility to 120% to spread the sound a little and added some light low-pass filtering around 8.5 kHz. After the Audio Effects Rack you can add in any further EQ you might want (to balance the patch specifically with your track), any compression, limiting and sidechain compression.
The patch is designed to be a jack of all trades and will require some tweaking of the Massive instruments and processing to get it to sit just right, so be liberal with adjustments. Hopefully this acts as a springboard to inspire you to create your own bass sounds too. Download the project used in this tutorial here.