How to Build a Bassline Without a Bass?
Read this approach to designing a bassline from scratch, resulting in a pop-oriented, harmonic DnB track made with Beatmaker VOID and Finisher NEO. Learn more about sound design basics!
So, you just got the new Beatmaker VOID, played around a few hours in your DAW, pushing around MIDI clips and intensively tweaking the unique Vortex slider until you realized; there is no bass to carry the drums! But how do you build a bassline for Drum and Bass without an actual bass at hand? How can we get a low, wobbly, and fat bassline to fit into Beatmaker VOIDs heavy syncopated drums?
Keep in mind, DnB is extremely various, from dark and spherical ambiences with deep and continuous sub-bass to very fast and accentuated styles that remind more of modern pop music.
With this in mind it is also important to say that there is no ultimate way to get your bass working. You can use nearly any instrument, sample or synth that you think fits your music. That is also the reason why, even if I work on Ableton Live 10, the principles work on every other DAW too.
But even though you’re basically free to use whatever you want, there are some sounds and characteristics that are used quite often and thus it is nice to have them in your repertoire.
In this blog post we are going to talk about a few of these general Sound Design tricks to get you started.
How to create a Basic Bass Sound?
The key to a wobbly DnB bass is to have a fat low end combined with some angry high frequencies. A fast way to get this is the “FM-Synthesis” (FM = Frequency Modulation). While in additive synthesis you simply add oscillators to each other and with that define your sound, in FM-Synthesis you let at least one oscillator manipulate another in order to get complex overtones. As the complete explanation of the way this works is fairly difficult, we just focus on the outcome, which are multiple harmonics and added high frequencies. The first sound example starts with a 100 Hz sine wave and transitions to FM over time. The second oscillator is set to a 150 Hz sine wave. If you take a look on the spectra you can even see the difference.
Different waveforms create different overtones, so let’s use a squarewave as a manipulating oscillator and a sine wave as the base waveform in order to get a different character. The next sound reminds me more of electronic music than the one before.
In order to fatten things up we can layer these simple FM-synthesized sounds together. Try using different waveforms combined to get the sound you want. For the next sound I used a saw-wave with a coarse (=multiplier for the played frequency, relative to the MIDI Note’s frequency) of 0.5 manipulating a square-wave with a coarse of 2. These then manipulate a triangle-wave AND a sine-wave with a coarse of 1. So in the end you have two oscillators sounding at the same time (triangle / sine), both manipulated by the first two oscillators (saw > square). I’ve added some MIDI notes and used the “glide” parameter to make the sound a bit cooler.
You can go on and add more oscillators if you want but take care to spread the frequencies a bit. The sound before could use some more low frequencies for example, so I layered this sound to the example above (first the lower layer, then both together). CAREFUL: the higher layer is a bit louder than the lower, turn down the volume!
How to Add Effects That Support my Bassline?
Now that we have our basic sound, let’s add some effects as this is where the wobble is happening. The most effective tool for wobble bass is an LFO. It is an oscillator but working mostly in inaudible frequencies. Its output is used for controlling and manipulating parameters in many different ways. We will use it to control a filter’s cutoff frequency. So at first we need a Low Pass filter. For our use case a one with a “drive” parameter is working best, but you can add distortion separately if you don’t have one including this feature. Finisher NEO is working perfectly for this as it gives you a pre-built combination of different effects saving you lots of time tweaking around. I’ve set the filter to around 600Hz with a resonance of around 40%. After this I’ve included a Chorus, just to give the sound some movement and space. Now we map the LFO to the filter’s frequency and set it to “sync” mode, meaning that its manipulation frequency always orientates itself on the current tempo. After adjusting the “depth” or “amount” parameter to roughly 50% we should hear something like this.
Now we can actually use it in our track. Grab your Beatmaker VOID and throw in some drums. When you have some nice bars it is time to make your wobblebass fit rhythmically to your drums. This is possible by automating e.g. the “rate” parameter of your LFO. Play around with the effects you have, try different chains (e.g. distortion before or after the Filter etc.) and get a feeling for the outcome of your specific effects. The next example is the same example as above but with added effects (chorus, distortion, flanger) and an automated LFO.
Note how the characteristics of the sound vary according to the LFO’s automation. If you use this in a creative way you can let your drums and bass interact nicely. Now you can play around, use different rhythms or automate further parameters. The amount of the LFO and the filters basic frequency, which we set to 600 Hz in the beginning are a good point to go on.
To showcase everything together, here’s a short clip of how all the above can be used. I even added a third bass layer, introducing the fifth to the respective base frequencies, which makes the sound more pop-like.
Some Additional Tips for Further Tweaking
- Use “SideChain Compression” to get your low end cleaned up a bit. To do that, put a compressor on your bass track but let it be controlled by the kick drum of Beatmaker VOID. This leads to the bass being “pushed away” when the kick kicks (pun intended), making sure you really hear and feel the kick drum. And don’t be afraid to use relatively extreme settings on your compressor. Especially when using SideChain compression in modern electronic music it is not unusual to have e.g. a compression ratio of 12:1 or even infinity : 1. Unfortunately not all compressors are able to use a SideChain though.
- Flanger, Chorus and Phaser are simple to use effects with a high impact on your sound. Play around with them and / or chain them together to see if it can maybe add something to sour sound.
- A “Waveshaper” is a really useful but crazy tool. These are very powerful but can also be very destructive, so turn down your volume when playing around with them. But by carefully adjusting its parameters they can offer very interesting forms of distortion-like effects.
- If you have a bitcrusher or other deconstructive effects, don’t hesitate to use them too! They can give very nice and “digital” results, but again; be careful as they can really mess up your sound too.