Techniques for improving your bass tracks…
By Ray Legnini
The track sounded great when we originally recorded it; now it doesn’t work. The bass player’s not here. The rented synth module is no longer in the studio. The sound is weak and not very interesting. Wasn’t that part tighter sounding last night? This mix needs something. Is there anything we can do to that track to make it a bit more interesting? Let me hear something different…
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? Then welcome to recording in the real world. These things happen—to beginners and pros alike.
What follows is a set of tips designed to help spice up recorded bass tracks and hopefully spark some new ideas for future recordings.
Dance track effect
If you’re working on a dance track, here’s a fun way to add some action to a synth bass part. This works well as a secondary bass part or as a breakdown section.
The source track to be processed should be one with long sustained notes. Synth patches with a resonant filter sweep work especially well. To start, record the long resonant filter sweep notes for a whole note or two, depending on the chord structure of the music.
Next, you need a gate that has a sidechain input. A sidechain is a type of trigger input. Instead of the track you’re processing opening and closing the gate, you use another audio source to tell the gate when to open and close. The processed part then only plays if the trigger source does.
Common trigger input sources include percussive parts like a kick drum, hi-hat or cowbell. Remember, the sound of the trigger track is not added to the source track, just its volume envelope is used.
The gate for this application can be a hardware unit or a software plug-in. Patch the gate into the bass channel as an insert. Connect the trigger source to the sidechain input on the gate. Use an audio cable from an insert point or direct output on the console to the sidechain input on the gate if you are using a hardware unit. If you use a software gate, route the trigger track to the sidechain input on the gate virtually per the plug-in manufacturer’s instructions.
With everything connected, start the track playing. Begin with the gate’s threshold setting all the way up (nothing should be heard at this point) and the attack and release settings set to the minimum (the fastest times). Then lower the threshold setting on the gate until you hear the bass part start playing.
For example, if you connected a 16th note hi-hat part to the sidechain input, the bass filter sweep will pulse in 16th notes. Each successive 16th note is filtered differently from the one before it.
Set the attack and release settings on the gate to achieve different effects. Short gate release times give a staccato effect. A longer release time lets more of the source track’s note through.
To get other effects, try trigger tracks with different rhythmic pulses. Or if no track gives exactly the rhythm you need, program a custom one.
Clean up a busy part
While on the subject of gates, another use for the sidechain input is when you need to simplify a busy part. Let’s say you have a recorded bass part that has way too many notes. Patch a gate into the bass channel as an insert. Use the output from the kick drum part patched to the gate’s sidechain input.
As above, start with the threshold at maximum and lower it while listening to the track. The bass part will now play only if there is a kick drum present at the sidechain input, eliminating the excess notes.
This technique is also handy if the bass part and the kick drum part are slightly loose in feel. By using the kick drum to open the bass track, the kick and the bass appear to start at the exact same time.
Do you ever start writing a tune by fishing around for a cool bass part? Sometimes you just can’t get enough punch; sometimes you over-play. This synth patch programming idea may be just what you need.
The object is to build a patch (or preset, or voice, or whatever your synth calls its sounds) that contains a bass sound and a kick drum sound. By doing this you have a big, fat, punchy sound that you won’t be tempted to play a zillion notes with. Simple yet effective.
Start by selecting a favorite bass patch. Copy it to a new RAM location in your synth so you don’t lose the original one. If you use a patch editor like Emagic’s SoundDiver or MOTU’s Unisyn, not only can you see all the parameters at a glance, but you can save all your patch variations in a library as they are created.
Next, select a kick drum sound to be added to one layer of the patch. Set the kick drum layer so that it plays non-transposed—that is, you hear the same kick drum pitch even when you play different bass notes on the keyboard.
At this point you may need to tune the kick drum sound, depending on how your synth handles the non-transposing layer. With the kick drum tuned, adjust the volume of the layers to taste. All that’s left is to save the preset. Now go make some music.
Punchier bass sounds
While in the synth patch programming mode, another way to spice up a bass sound is by adding some snap to the attack. Again, the fastest way to do this is using a patch editor.
The idea here is to add the transient (the characteristic attack portion) of another sound to the start of the bass sound to make it more apparent in the mix. What you want is something with a good strong attack, like a kick drum. Instead of making a combination patch as described above, you’ll just be adding the initial thwack to the sound. You won’t really hear the kick drum sound as a separate component.
Select and copy your bass sound to a free location as described above. Next, add a kick drum sound to a new layer. Set the kick drum layer to play non-transposed. Adjust the pitch of the kick layer to taste.
The next step is to edit the volume envelope of the kick drum layer so that only its attack is used. You need an envelope that starts immediately and then decays quickly.
Start with just two stages of the envelope—the attack and the decay; set the other stages to zero. Set the release time to as short a time as possible, only enough to eliminate the ticks and pops you may hear from having too short a release time. Lastly, adjust the volume of the attack layer so that it blends nicely with the source sound; save your patch.
Here’s an example table of envelope rates and levels to achieve this effect:
Samplers are a standard production tool in most studios these days. Try using a sampler to create new, unique phrases extracted from a recorded track. This technique is different from the copy and paste method used primarily with a DAW to move parts from one section to another. The object here is to do a performance using sampled phrases that will create a new melodic structure.
As an example, assume that you have an 8-bar section to use as a solo or breakdown. Start with a bass track that has a variety of melodic and rhythmic ideas. Choose a group of phrases, both short and long, to be your source material. Include some fills and special effects, too.
Use a waveform editor like Peak on the Mac or Sound Forge on the PC to cut up and extract the phrases from the recorded track. Save these in a file format that’s compatible with your sampler, usually Wave, AIFF, or SDII.
Next, place the extracted phrases on different keys in your sampler. The order doesn’t matter, but it may be easier to group the phrases according to type—busy, simple, fills, effects, etc. If you have a dozen sampled phrases, for example, map them to the middle octave of the keyboard.
Then copy that group of notes to the octave below and the octave above your original group. Transpose the lower group down an octave and the higher group up an octave. These become extra idea food. The notes will play in the same key, but will sound an octave away form the original. The lower group will play at half speed; the upper octave plays at twice the speed.
Now start to play the samples in different orders to create the solo. Vary the length that a key is held down to edit the sample length. Combine an octave variation with the original. If you’re sequencing, record the performance so it can be edited later.
Many times the kick drum and the bass instrument just don’t seem to blend together well. The two instruments have a common frequency range that can cause the two to compete for space in a mix.
Most pop music these days has the bass and kick drum panned dead center. But there’s nothing to stop you from using a bit of panning to separate the two a bit. Check out a Beatles record. Panning may be more appropriate if you’re mixing jazz or a smaller acoustic ensemble than when mixing a dance track.
To get a bit of separation, try to envision the mix as a live stage. Move the bass player a bit to the left and the drummer to the right. This will open the middle of the mix for the solo instruments. Don’t go overboard with the panning; try something like 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock to start. Watch your output meters and check that the mix doesn’t get too left- or right-heavy. Also check for phase coherence when summed to mono.
If panning is not appropriate for the musical style, then eq to the rescue. Boosting the same frequencies on the kick and bass doesn’t do much for enhancing the clarity. Remember, eq is really another type of volume control; you’re just increasing the level of a specific frequency range. Complementary eq cuts and boosts may work better.
If you’re adding 100 Hz to a kick drum eq, try subtracting a bit around 200 Hz– effectively one octave higher. Or try a cut at around 400 Hz, two octaves higher. If you remember that each change in octave is a multiple of the fundamental frequency, it’s easy to determine the octave relationships when changing eq. Up an octave is twice the frequency; down an octave is half the frequency.
The changes to the kick drum part should have left a bit more space for the bass in the overall sonic landscape. To bring out the attack of a bass part, try adding a bit of 1-2 kHz to the sound. This makes the start of the note more apparent. Many times this works better than just trying to make the bass track louder with just volume.
If you have a DSP processing device with an octave program available, try sending the bass part from an auxiliary send of the console to the processor. Depending on the range of the original part and the desired effect, select either an octave up or an octave down from the original. Blend this with the original sound.
To fatten up a weak bass sound from a synth module, blend in the octave lower sound about 6dB lower in volume. Making the eq darker for the secondary track may help too. If there is a delay between the original and the processed sound, use a gate with a sidechain input as described above on the octave track. Or record the part and slip it earlier in time a few milliseconds to eliminate the delay.
For variety, use the console’s automation to turn the octave part on and off. It’s better to control the return signal (the output) from the processor than the send. The signal level going into the device can be maximized for the best signal-to-noise ratio. And by turning the return’s volume on and off you eliminate unnecessary noise in the mix.
If you’re working without console automation, you may still be able to control your effects box via MIDI. When using MIDI control, check that you are muting the effect, not just bypassing it. If you bypass the effect, you will likely still be sending the dry signal to the device’s output and into your mix. Due to the slight processing delays inherent in all DSP devices, there may be a phasing problem.
Phone your part in. No, not from Hawaii, from the other room! This last effect was created out of frustration one day when the console eq “small speaker” effect just wasn’t quite right for a track. It just didn’t sound funky enough. So the part was phoned in—literally.
To do this you need two phones and two phone numbers (unless you want the dial tone to be part of the recording!). The first phone is the mic; the second phone is the speaker. Put the first phone in front of your sound source (your bass amp, for example). Using the first phone, call the second phone. In another room, answer the second phone and put a mic on the earpiece.
Monitor the backing tracks and play the new part. Record the output from the earpiece of the second phone to tape or disk for a truly rude and funky tone. There’s nothing like the sound of the limited frequency range of the telephone system and a few miles of cable.
Ray Legnini is a sound designer and recording engineer based near Philadelphia.