If creating synth bass sounds results in sounds that don’t make the earth move, here are 5 tips to help…
Synth bass sounds form the bedrock of nearly every dance music track, and plenty more music besides. Nowadays, nearly every synth available comes pre-loaded with countless preset sounds of all kinds, including a plethora of bass sounds.
If you want your track to have a truly unique character, then really, you need to program your own, however. For the beginner, it can be difficult to know where to start.
To help you on your way to synth bass heaven, here are five top creation tips.
Know your oscillators…
The building blocks of the vast majority of synth bass tones are the simple waveforms you’ll find on just about every synth: Square, Sine, Triangle, Saw.
These are (with the exception of the Sine wave, which is just a simple, single fundamental harmonic) made up of many different harmonics of different frequencies. This means that some waves are ‘richer’ harmonically than others, making them both brighter, and also better suited to layering over other oscillators and detuning.
The order of ‘harmonic richness’ is as follows (simplest to most complex):
For this reason, a sine wave is great for very simple, smooth sounds and for reinforcing other oscillators with ‘sub’ frequencies. It’s also the reason that filters don’t seem to have any effect on sine waves, other than reducing the volume at certain frequencies.
Conversely, because of their rich harmonics, Saw waves and Square waves are great for stacking together.
So, if you want a brighter synth bass sound, look to the more complex waves, and if you want a simpler, smoother sound choose a simpler wave.
Stack ‘em up, and detune
One of the most common techniques to make bass sounds thicker is to stack up oscillators, and use a bit of detuning. This is ideal for use with multi-oscillator synths, such as the Roland GAIA, or Novation Bass Station II.
As an example, in Reason’s Thor synth, we create three analogue oscillators. Choose a saw wave for the first two, and a sine for the third.
On the two saw waves, nudge the ‘Tune’ control up very slightly on one, and down very slightly on the other. Click all three buttons to route them to filter one. The result is a thick, warm bass that can be bright, with phasey high frequencies with the filter open (Low Pass), and warm and punchy with the filter closed.
Don’t throw the bass away!
In the above example, I use a low pass filter. This is for a very good reason – it lets the low frequencies past (duh…) It you want your bass sounds to be bassy, then a low pass filter is usually the best option.
You can also use band pass filters and set cut-off frequency to a low setting- when swept, this can be really effective, as huge frequency bands can be dramatically removed. However, you’ll probably find that if you want to retain bass frequencies, high pass filters aren’t really of any use. However, if you’re layering oscillators that are pitched octaves above, and filters on your synth can be applied to individual oscillators, then high pass, low pass, and vowelizer-type filters can be very effective.
One of the most difficult things to do when creating synth bass sounds, or any synth sounds for that matter, is creating a sense of movement within the sound. This is why detuning stacked oscillators is so effective- the difference in phase adds shifting changes in tone.
Another way to do this is by using LFOs. If you’re creating bass sounds for dubstep or drum and bass, this is practically essential. Assign an LFO to filter cut-off frequency, and synchronise the speed to tempo- suddenly, you have a classic, warping bass sound.
Try changing the LFO speed or waveform whilst the bass part plays back for instant Dubstep. It doesn’t have to be filter cut-off either- FM, resonance, even pitch- all can be used to add movement to bass sounds.
If you want the classic, bass synth squelch, the key to achieving it is using resonance. Use a sound with complex waveforms for best effect. Turn the filter cut-off down, then boost the resonance. Modulate the cut-off with an LFO, and squelchy bass tone should ensue. You can also use a filter envelope to add some squelch. Set a fast attack time for Minimoog like bass, or set something slower from Drum and Bass style tones.
There are so many ways of creating bass sounds, there’s no way of including every useful technique here. However, if you’re just getting started in the world of synth programming, these five tips should have you rattling the rafters in no time 😉
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.