Last week I posted part 1 of Satoshi Tomiie’s dance music production tutorial series and it focused on kick. Here’s part 2 and in this part the veteran house music producer discusses that most crucial element of club music: bass.
Here it is:
Let’s talk bass.
Bass is probably the most important part of a dance music track. Bass is a really important part of a song in general. It is fundamental along with the rhythm.
Since electronic music is played in an environment where bass is emphasized and music is played very loud, you generally hear bass with your whole body. Without a good kick drum or a killer bassline, your experience in a club would be much less enjoyable.
Since we listen to electronic music so loudly, it’s important that bass is placed in exactly the right way.
What are the rules?
Bass should always try to work in tandem with the drums and percussion, as the rhythm section is the foundation of a track.
For the relationship to work between bass and drums, it has to work in drum patterns. In the past, bass worked sometimes with the melody section of a song, but in recent times as bass sequencing has become more advanced it has become more used as a tool for working a dancefloor.
So bass should talk to your drums. It’s kind of like a harmony, not between notes, but it terms of timing and placement. Sonically as well, bass has to fit with the drums and percussion, and sound treatment, such as EQ and compression, is important here.
How do you create the perfect bassline?
There are so many ways to work with bass. I prefer to play my bass by hand. Some use a computer and a mouse to place bass notes on a sequencing grid. Others use arpeggiators. It’s really the choice of the producer.
How do you play bass “by hand”?
I use my fingers and a keyboard. Once I’ve picked my kick drum for a track and I’m happy with it (see Satoshi’s guide to creating the perfect kick drum) I play around with the sound and pattern of my bass on a keyboard.
It’s all about finding the right placement for the bass. Its relationship to the kick drum is very important as they occupy the same frequency range and if you’re not careful they can cancel each other out.
Sometimes the bassline can be the hook of the song, sometimes it’s really the support act. I don’t plan the process of my productions, I just go with the flow and sometimes basslines become melodic, and sometimes they are just sub notes.
You can also use multiple basslines to work together, but that’s not easy as you need to find the right balance. One tip – try marrying a mid range bass to a sub bass. That can work nicely.
When bass and kick drums play together you have to ensure that they don’t sonically cancel each other out, so you have to really play with the phases of the bass – where it peaks, where it dips, so it doesn’t ruin the kick drum. Ultimately though, you have to judge with your ears.
What do you mean by the bass and the kick drum can “cancel each other out”?
If you play a kick drum or a bassline by themselves, they sound fine. But sometimes when you play them together, you lose some of the bass due to a weird phasing effect.
Back in the days of vinyl, a record could actually sometimes skip due to the producer using stereo bass (for vinyl cutting purposes, it’s better if bass is in mono). The needles just couldn’t handle the phasing.
Interestingly, if you have perfectly out of phase bass, then you hear no bass at all. Sometimes you come across the occasional DJ booth where they have miswired the monitors and no matter how loud you turn it up you get no bass. That’s why I always go to soundcheck.
If you have a sub woofer in the studio, you might want to play around with the phasing switch at the back of the sub, as sometimes your sub bass actually takes the bass out of your studio due to the same reason.
Let’s talk gear. What equipment or software would you recommend for creating monstrous bass?
Over the years I’ve used a lot of gear. Keyboards wise, first there was the Roland MKS-70 aka the Super JX, which is the rackmount version of the JX-10.
I also still have a Roland JX-8P at my parents’ house which was one of my first ever synthesizers. Back in the early days of house Marshall Jefferson used that one a lot. His signature bass and pad sound actually came from the JX-8P.
I was so excited to find this machine because by the time I had even began making music this synth was already discontinued.
For my track ‘Tears’, that I made with Frankie Knuckles in 1989, I used the MKS-70. I still have the patch for that track at home.
I have to mention the Roland SH-101 too. I’ve got a Roland Juno-60 which I have used for a long time. The Roland Jupiter 8 is amazing but it’s massive.
I like my set up to be like an aeroplane cockpit, so I can reach everything without moving too much, so the Roland SH-101 is perfect.
For bass I like to have knobs and sliders to tweak a sound. The SH-101 is really fun to play with. These are the main machines that I’ve used over my career.
I always wanted a MiniMoog but I could never afford it so I only ever got to use one when I hired a studio. Eventually I bought a MiniMoog Voyager which combines the classic MiniMoog sound with the convenience of MIDI. I love it, it’s so phat!
So much of your music was made on hardware. What do you think of all the software that producers use today?
Let me tell you a story. Finnish producer Sasse, who runs the respected Mood Music label in Berlin, is known for his love of hardware, analogue gear, and synths. But when I met him he says that even though he owns all of that stuff, he still tends to use the digital emulators when he writes music.
He will only use the real, physical synths if he feels that the digital version isn’t as good. Very occasionally soft synths do not sound as good as the real thing, but a lot of the time, they do.
It’s nice to have everything analogue in your studio, but I remember the days of total recall and it was a pain in the ass. Mixing out of box is not as bad as it used to be.
What soft synths are you fond of?
Arturia’s plug ins are good for bass. Native Instruments’ FM8 is also good for bass, and at the moment that seems to be a ‘trendy bass’.
When choosing soft synths, I think it’s important to choose ones that are emulators of a real bass synthesizer. Arturia’s stuff is all software versions of real instruments.
I’m trying to go down the software emulator route. They’re not exactly the same as the hardware versions, but they’re good enough.
The fact is, physical synths are fun and awesome but they are quite annoying to use sometimes as you can’t recall sounds that you were working on previously and have to start all over again. But that’s what happens when you use circuits and wires to create electronic sounds.
Does EQ play an important role in bass?
I try to create bass that sounds good enough without any EQ effects so that I don’t have to go crazy later on with EQ.
Try to make your bass sound as good as possible without EQ. Sometimes bass can actually be too bassy, so a lot of the time I will use EQ to take away some bottom end if necessary.
My way of using EQ with bass is not to change the sound, but more to polish it. Sometimes you can’t tweak bass but you can add a little more bottom end or mid end. I only tweak the EQ when it is needed.
You said earlier that bass and kick drums have to work in tandem so as to not cancel each other out. Should bass be EQ’d above or below a kick drum?
A good tip is to peak the bass EQ and move it around the frequency range to find the sweet spot. Use your ears to find where it is most potent.
Also bass usually moves around the frequency range, whilst a kick generally stays at the same frequency.
You have to listen to both therefore, and tweak the EQ of both to avoid clashes. Sometimes I have to replace my kick drum as I find it doesn’t work with my bassline anymore.
One other thing – you can sample bass, but it is much better to control it with a synthesizer as EQ can only change so much. It’s about building the right sound from scratch rather than mashing an already existing sample into a hole it won’t fit.
Why is compression important for bass?
You need some experience with a compressor before you use one as it’s not the easiest thing to play with. It depends on the sound of a track, but generally bass improves with compression.
Sometimes after you’ve built a bassline in a track, one section will sound louder and one section will sound quieter. Compressors fix that problem – they equalize the level so it moulds better into the song.
Again you have to use your ears and must know what you’re doing. There is no universal rule for compressing bass. You have to discover when to use it.
I pretty much compress everything. Sometimes light, sometimes heavy, it depends on the sound. Some stuff doesn’t need compression at all. The universal rule in the studio is experiment and find your own way of using compressors.
What compressors do you use?
Actually my favourite just changed recently. My favourite is 6030 Ultimate Compressor, made my McDSP. This basically emulates a classic compressor, it sounds amazing, and is very easy to use. It’s also not very heavy on the processor so you can use a lot.
When choosing the right bass sound, there are often sound wave options, such as SAW or Square waves. Which one is best for club music?
Any sound wave works good for house music bass. SAW waves or square waves are the basic ones. Oscillators in modern synths can actually change anything into anything so it doesn’t matter too much which one you begin with.
Finally, how do you create a bassline that you can feel?
In clubs you feel sub bass. You can’t hear it though, but you can hear the highest frequency of a sub bass sometimes, which is the melodic part.
If you listen to a sub bass unit by itself, it’s just a muffled sound, you don’t really hear anything. Together with the music however, you can feel the bass.
Here’s an interesting fact about MP3s. In order to reduce file size most of the time MP3s actually remove frequencies below 10HZ and over 20KHZ. So MP3s lose their super sub bass and super highs. Human ears don’t just listen to what comes out of the speakers, they also hear things that you don’t consciously hear.
It’s like the same with dog whistles. Those high frequencies over 20K you can’t hear but they still affect you. MP3s get rid of those super high and super low elements to reduce file size, and that alters the sound. If I could, I would only play uncompressed files.
That’s it. Watch out for part 3!