Technique of the Week: Make Your Sub Bass Pop

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In our latest technique of the week, Erin Barra takes a look at sub frequencies; a tough thing to control if you don’t understand a few basic things about them…

sub frequencies

First things first, low frequencies carry a lot of energy and have to have a high amplitude for them to be heard very well relative to other elements in a mix. Think about when you’re in a club; high pitched sounds are easy to hear and cut right through a mix without any effort, but when you’re hearing sub frequencies well your body is usually shaking. The lower you go in the frequency spectrum, the higher amount of amplitude (loudness) is required for a more balanced mix.

When you have loud frequencies down low, you leave very little headroom for the rest of your mix and it can be difficult to wrestle with the frequency spectrum in that situation. 
Sub basses and 808’s are usually made from Sine waves, which only output signal at a fundamental frequency and contain none of the upper harmonics like a Square wave would. This lack of upper harmonics is a big part of why subs can be harder to hear.

Most people are listening on low-quality headphones or speakers which don’t have very good low frequency response, so those people aren’t hearing the entire range of frequencies anyway.

sub frequencies

A simple Sine wave outputting at its fundamental frequency


sub frequencies

A Square D wave outputting at its fundamental frequency and then every other upper harmonic



In order to make sure that people can hear your sub frequencies on whatever playback system they happen to have, the key is to create representation in the upper harmonics. Here’s two specific ways to do it:

1: Layer your Sine wave with a Square wave – copy the MIDI sequence, drop in an instrument outputting a square wave and mix it in so it’s adding that extra oomph without taking away from the phatter bottom of the Sub.

2: Overdrive your Sub Bass using the Drive knob on whatever native Saturator is in your DAW. Through Saturation you’re clipping the signal which adds harmonic distortion and in the case of a Saturator you’re adding ‘vintage warmth’ since it’s a Tape emulation. You could also do this with an Overdrive or Distortion plug in or hardware pedal.

sub frequencies

The same simple Sine wave, this time run through a Saturator with the Drive knob up. Compare to the first image and notice how the level on the Master has stayed the same, but the track fader on the bass has been reduced 8.6db.



By doing either of these you’ll create more texture above the fundamental frequency as well as be able to pull down the fader on your sub bass or kick track, giving your overall mix more headroom.

Click here for the previous Techniques of the Week


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About Author

Erin Barra

As an Associate Professor at the Berklee College of Music, Erin is an authoritative voice in music technology education as well as an independent solo artist. Erin is heading up a new series looking at contemporary production techniques using a wide range of tech.

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