Why bass matters: The beginner’s guide to low end

Getting low frequencies right can make or break your mix – and your entire track. We dive straight into the deep end and go back to basics to explore the development and varying sounds of bass instruments. Time to get low, low, low.

While it might not be entirely true that it’s ‘all about that bass’ – as the wise philosopher Meghan Trainor once implied – bass is a pivotal ingredient of any track, and is often the second element to be set in the mix, once the rhythmic components have been dealt with.

This tried-and-tested approach will likely stand you in good stead but, if you want what Nicki Minaj calls that “super bass”, you’ll have to approach the low end with care – the way we mix low frequencies largely depends on the style of music we’re working on and the type of bass we’re using.

Pick ’n’ mix

Though bass comes in many shapes and sizes, it mostly falls into three shades. The double bass is the grandaddy of them all. Dating back hundreds of years, its look is akin to the much smaller violin but it tends to stand at about 180-190cm, depending on the make and model. Its flared body acts as the instrument’s resonator, in much the same way that the violin and acoustic guitar’s does. The double bass features acoustic sound holes – described as ‘F’ holes due to their similarity to the letter – on either side of the strings.

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The player’s left hand is placed upon the fingerboard that rises past their left ear, and is used to apply pressure to the strings to form select notes. Unlike guitars and more conventional bass guitars, it does not use frets, so is entirely reliant on the player placing their fingers in the correct place on the ’board.

Upright Bass
The double bass has been around for centuries, and is an integral element of classical music and rockabilly – but they’re a nightmare to get on the train. Image: Shutterstock

While its history stretches back to the beginnings of western classical music, it has been redeployed and exploited in many commercial settings, going back to its rebirth as an instrument associated with jazz and, later, blues and rock’n’roll. Now we see the double bass employed in styles as diverse as folk and bluegrass to drum ’n’ bass.

Its playing style is typically informed by the music it’s servicing. In classical settings, multiple double basses might underpin an orchestra and play “arco”, a term used to request the use of a bow. A bow is a long piece of wood lined with horsehair, which is dragged across the string to induce a vibration that creates sound. In most contemporary commercial settings, however, the norm is to play pizzicato, which means plucking the strings with the fingers of the right hand. This is used to create the identifiable sound heard on many jazz records. More vigorous slapping pizzicato techniques are often used to create entire rhythmic tracks, as heard in rockabilly.

Owning a double bass is something of a lifestyle choice; you’ll not be getting one in a small car anytime soon. However, bass players have been known to put a wheel on the bottom of their instrument’s spike, which sits on the ground when played, and wheel it around. Despite initial impressions relating to its size and because it’s largely hollow, the double bass isn’t overly heavy. But it’s a cumbersome beast nevertheless.

Compared to its acoustic ancestor, the electric bass guitar is a relative newbie. Developed in the 1930s, it didn’t enter mass production until 1951, when Fender produced the legendary Fender Precision Bass, or P-Bass for short.

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Electric Bass
Bass guitars are de-rigueur for rock, pop, funk, jazz and soul bands. Its fretted neck makes it easier to play than the double bass. Image: Shutterstock

Unlike the double bass, the bass guitar usually has a solid body, and relies on pickups to capture the tone of the instrument, delivering an unamplified signal to the outside world. Through the use of amplifiers, the electric bass can be as loud as you like, which has enormous benefits for live use – the lack of microphone necessity means feedback isn’t an issue, unlike with the double bass.

The bass guitar is comparatively easy to play. Being a descendant of the electric guitar, it features frets and is simple to tune. Fretless bass guitars do exist, however, and allow for a playing style not possible with the fretted alternative. Many legendary players are known for their use of them, including Les Claypool, Jack Bruce, and Rick Danko.

Like the double bass, the electric bass has four strings, tuned in the same manner: the lowest note is E, which is one octave below the lowest note on a guitar.

The convenience of the instrument did not go unnoticed, and it became the go-to for the vast majority of bands from the 1960s onwards. Playing styles have altered over the years, with the emergence of hybrid genres such as jazz-funk bringing new methods. The technique that comprises the slapping and pulling of strings is largely credited to Larry Graham, who played with Sly And The Family Stone during the late-1960s.

The bassist remarked that he wanted to create the sound of a drum kit on his own instrument, which might have informed the tight connection between both bass and drums that proliferated throughout the funk music of much of the late-1970s. Graham and his peers’ style inspired many notable contemporary players, such as Level 42’s Mark King and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Flea.

Flea
Though it’s simple to recreate the sounds of the electric bass digitally, it’s not as easy to emulate the distinct character of players like Flea. Image: Jim Bennett / FilmMagic

Going synthetic

The arrival of the synthesiser altered attitudes to bass once more, in much the same way as the bass guitar had with the double bass. Notable synths such as the Minimoog began to infiltrate many quarters of music and, as they were initially monophonic by design, lent themselves perfectly to playing basslines. Moreover, they could do so in a sustained and powerful way.

Gary Numan famously went into a studio in the late-1970s with the intention of recording an album with his punk act The Tubeway Army. There, he heard the Minimoog for the first time, and couldn’t believe its power. In an epiphanous moment, punk had become new wave, and Numan reworked all his intended punk anthems around the newly discovered synth. Even prior to this life-changing moment, artists such as Stevie Wonder and Georgio Morodor were already ditching the guitar and bass in favour of the synth. Its use in commercial music still applies today.

Gary Numan
Gary Numan’s conversion to the Church of Synthology changed everything. His influential approach to synth-bass is evident in the sawtooth riffs of Are Friends Electric?. Image: Lynn Goldsmith Corbis / VCG Via Getty Images

As the 1980s wore on, the synthesiser became increasingly passé in commercial music. But it roared back to life to become a mainstay throughout the fledgling house and dance-music phenomenons of the late-1980s and early-1990s, with Roland’s transistorised bassline generator the TB-303 defining the era of acid house. Throughout, electronic drums sat side by side with the synth bass, a potent combination that’s still in play today.

TB-303 - Why Bass Matters
The TB-303 didn’t sell well and was a commercial failure for Roland. However, second-hand units were snapped up by acid-house pioneers and its squelchy sound went onto be a vital component of the era

Another benefit of the synth bass is its ability to slip lower than the sound of the conventional double bass and bass guitar. Traditional players, however, happily fought back. Traditional electric bass companies realised they would need to do something drastic to remain current. Five and six-string basses were developed long before synths first appeared in this frequency range but had never quite caught on. Songs written in keys that might go down to C, usually the lowest note on a synth keyboard, forced the hand of many bassists, who picked up the five-string in an effort to go low. Further six-string designs would introduce an upper string to encourage lyrical playing in the upper register.

Volca Nubass - Why Bass Matters
Korg’s Volca Nubass is a fantastic example of a hardware synth bass, a fun tool with which to recreate classic dancefloor-friendly riffs

Bottom-end credentials

When it comes to mixing bass into your track or production, identify first where you want the bass to be: prominent and upfront, sustained and supportive, accentuated and cutting or even verging on the soloistic?

When it comes to recording double bass, the chances are you’ll be dealing with something acoustically derived, in which case you’ll probably require a natural sound. Before hitting record, step back and listen carefully to the instrument and think about how to get the mic in the right place.

IK Multimedia Modo Bass - Why Bass Matters
IK Multimedia’s Modo Bass is an extraordinarily convincing software bass player that enables you to build realistic-sounding electric bass tracks without having to pay a session bassist

Often, placing the mic close to the acoustic ‘F’ hole will yield a good sound and capture some of the pizzicato and plucking timbre, which is common in jazz, folk and old-school drum ’n’ bass. Another good ploy is to capture some form of direct signal, referred to as a DI (direct injection). This will be dependent on the bass player having some form of pickup; most players have their preferred pickups fitted to their bass, and it’s a good idea to take advantage of this, as it will yield more sustained low tones, leaving the mic to capture all of the acoustic harmonic overtones.

Blending the two signals together can produce something special but, be aware of the upright bass’s mischievous other moniker: trouble bass. The double bass can be notoriously difficult to get right in the mix, as it offers such an abundance of low frequencies. You might want to employ some bottom-end roll-off with your EQ, especially if your monitors or headphones cannot manage frequencies below 50Hz or so. Rest assured, you can eliminate an incredible range of frequencies from the double bass signal and have its sound remain as you want.

When mixing the bass, it’s essential to share the space with the kick drum, by making sure the two frequency bands don’t collide. This is a dependable formula for all bass mixing but should be tweaked according to the style of music you’re working with. More commercial electronic styles may give more sonic space to the kick, whereas jazz styles may favour the acoustic bass.

Basics

Bass tones can also be exploited to underpin harmonic textures. This is a regular pursuit for many soundtracks composers, who might employ orchestral sounds but choose to shore up the overall mix with some form of low tone, most commonly from a synth – although some composers, such as Hollywood favourite Thomas Newman, use the five-string bass.

The overall effect we’re trying to achieve is that of a foundation, not only in the mix but in the overall musicality of your piece. In much the same way that a building needs a foundation, the bass may require one too, which is where compression comes in.

Squeeze it

While compression is a vital component in the use of just about all bass sounds, a classic combination that might prove useful is the UREI 1176 compressor and Teletronix LA-2A compressor. In their vintage form, these hardware compressors will set you back thousands but, thanks to plug-ins, you can find models from companies such as Waves and Universal Audio. You’ll also find unbranded versions of these in the basic compression settings of many DAWs, with the 1176 often described as an FET compressor, and the LA -2A described as an optical (or opto) compressor.

It might seem strange to employ two compressors simultaneously but there’s a method to the madness. While the LA-2A has a slower reaction time that makes for the nice sustained backend sounds of a compressed signal, it also introduces a certain colour into the signal path. The 1176, however, reacts faster while also introducing its own colour, which always seems to support the signal’s bottom end. This method is perfect for sustaining a signal too. A synth such as a Minimoog serves well as a musical foundation or support thanks to its ability to sustain a note without decay. This combination of compressors will help you achieve the same trait with the electric or double bass by inducing a greater level of sustain.

Electric bass guitar recording tip

If you’re recording an electric bass, be aware that, unlike electric guitar amps, bass cabs benefit from a greater distance between the speaker and your mic. The minimum distance you’ll want in order to achieve a decent tone is about five inches, but longer distances can yield excellent results too.

Bass in place

The use of a bass can be virtuosic in manner but it should typically be instructed by the musical style in question; a dance track will not feature the five-minute bass solo that a jazz piece might. The mixing concepts, however, remain the same – employ EQ to nestle alongside associated elements, with compression to help the low tones settle in. In contemporary music, the top and bottom end of mixes often feel hyperextended.

Listening to your mix on different systems will help you get a complete and rounded sense of it, helpful when you’re experimenting with finding the right amount of bass. It takes practice but few things are more important to your mix than having that bass in place.

Ace of bass

Talk to any good bass player and they’ll tell you which bass, preamp and amplifier they prefer. But for us DAW types, one of the most notable bass packages in software form is Trillian by Spectrasonics. It’s a one-stop-shop for all things bass, from its plentiful collection of deeply sampled synths to its range of electric bass sounds.

Its most prized instrument, however, has to be its acoustic double bass, which clocks in at about 2GB of sample data. We used this particular bass to demo some cues for film and when it came to re-record the tracks with live players, we saw a well-known professional bass player’s jaw hit the floor when he found out that he was listening to a virtual instrument. The important thing, as with all sampled bass instruments, is to play it like a bass player would. That way, it’ll give you the goods again and again.

Want more? Check out our top picks of the best bass plug-ins here. And read more features here.

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