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In this article we’re going to cover some general types of bass you might find in an arrangement, so that you may better identify the bass part, and quickly decide how to work with it. This isn’t a per-instrument list, mind you, but an organization of characteristics—functions that we can associate with different bass parts, no matter the instrument.
Following this overview, we’ll get more specific, listing specific instruments, applicable genres, and examples taken from available tunes.
1. Melodic bass
In melodic bass playing, the instrumentalist—be they synth-player or string slinger—goes beyond the root note to play melodies that slink between chords, providing a counterpoint to the lead singer. You’ll frequently find these bass parts in songs with sparse arrangements. Later on, we’ll examine two examples: “One Mo’Gin” by D'Angelo, and “thank u, next” by Ariana Grande.
When mixing bass parts, make sure you leave enough room around them. Pay attention to the other instruments. Make sure nothing masks its frequency content when the bass is doing its thing. If you do find a troublesome offender, use something like Neutron’s Masking Meter to locate the best places to cut the offender. If it’s more of a timing issue, consider sidechaining the offending instrument to the bass, so it ducks down in volume whenever the bass holds sway.
2. Rhythmic bass
What separates a rhythmic bass part from a melodic one? Imagine a bass holding down the root note, playing straight quarter notes. This is not, strictly speaking, a melody; the bass’s rhythm contributes more than harmonic content. We can define this bass part as rhythmic, as it’s not offering a valuable melodic counterpoint—its harmonic function is to help delineate the chord. Its rhythm does propel the tune forward, however.
Now, here’s where it might get complicated: think of your typical blues/boogie-woogie bass figure, the one that seems like a hallmark of the 1950s. You can hear it in that famous dance scene from the movie Groundhog Day, for instance.
Is this melodic bass line, or a rhythmic one? I’d argue it depends on the other instruments. If a guitar is doubling the bass, and the piano’s left hand also fits in the pocket, the bass could be rhythmic, because it’s coheering with the other instruments. If it’s standing out, while other instruments play sparsely around it, then it could be melodic, as it contributes a discernible melody.
Consider mixing a rhythmic bass part so it complements other rhythmic instruments, such as the drums. If it could “feel” better—evince more “swing” or “groove”—try sidechaining it to the snare or the kick. This will give the part a bounce in response to the drums, and it can be a quicker way of massaging its timing than editing. Another trick: pass the drums and the bass through the same bus compressor; this can help glue them together.
Whatever you do, make sure other instruments aren’t covered up by the bass. Dynamic EQs sidechained to the kick’s fundamental could help. Implement static cuts at places that muddy up the snare or the vocals.
If the actual attack—the plucky front end of the note—could be emphasized for the sake of groove, consider sending the bass to an aux track for parallel compression with high-midrange emphasis, either through equalization or harmonic excitement. Edge the parallel track into the mix so that it helps the bass to cut through, but not so much that it draws attention to itself.
3. Percussive bass
Is there really a difference between percussive bass and rhythmic bass? Yes, at least how I define it. Whereas rhythmic bass helps define the rhythmic feel, percussive bass gives you a noticeable drum-like transient; it’s almost a tuned drum. Examples include many hip-hop and trap tracks with 808 kicks carrying the bass, and also metal-leaning fare: remember Fieldy’s bass playing in Korn? His slap playing could be thought of as percussive bass.
Your main responsibility with this type of low end is to keep other instruments out of its path. If you’ve got a giant 808 kick, move harmonic instruments out of the way with some high-pass filtering. You could also automate the frequency response of the 808 to assert itself when necessary, and fade into nothingness when not. Try automating a high-pass filter on the 808, one that comes in as the note dies down, so the tuned-drum doesn’t interfere with any other bass parts.
If the bass is essentially occupying a “kick click” role, make sure other instruments don’t mask the high-midrange cut—and also, keep it clear of the actual kick drum.
Your second responsibility is to make sure this part cuts through on laptop speakers and earbuds, and for this purpose, try sending the part to an aux, adding some harmonic excitement that vibrates the overtones of the fundamental, EQing it for midrange emphasis, and edging the aux into the mix. Check the results on both your main monitors and on earbuds.
4. Unobtrusive bass
Think of this bass as propelling one function, and one function alone: to establish of the lowest note in a chord. You’re not going to see a lot of rhythmic variance here, nor melodic trickery. Whether it’s a simple synth or a plainly played electric, this bass exists to extend the chord to its low end.
Here the idea is to make it heard, but not overly defined. If the unobtrusive bass lines up with the kick drum perfectly, as it does in sections of Halsey’s “Without Me,” make sure there’s no rhythmic inconsistencies. Listen to “X” off black panther to hear impeccable timing in action.
If the kick and the bass fight for frequency space, try sidechain compression, tying the bass to the kick so it ducks down when the drum hits. Harmonic distortion? Only enough to cut through on laptops, of the kind I’ve described earlier—and keep it subtle!
Now, let’s move on to some examples of each.
5. Aggressive picked bass
Type: either rhythmic or melodic
This bass stands out by its pinched, upper midrange quality. Often the lows are much more muted than what you’d expect from bass, and reasonably so, given the genres, you find this instrument inhabiting. In metal, for instance, the guitars often extend quite low, so the bass doesn’t have to.
I think a great exemplar of this tone can be heard in the song “Luminol,” by Steven Wilson.
How is it achieved in your mix?
It has to start with the bass itself—hopefully, it has that special plectrum attack and scooped low-mid sound. You won’t be able to get the timbre you want an overly woofy bass without significant salvaging. You can exaggerate the pick attack in a parallel chain (we’ll get to that later), but you can only mix mud so much.
In terms of frequency, try attenuating between 150–400 Hz, depending on the mix. Add a boost bell in the 800 to 1 kHz range. This boost can also be dynamic, tied to a blooming bass band, so that it expands more the harder the bass player digs.
If you’re given a DI and an amp signal, first, make sure they’re in phase. Next, see whether you’re getting what you need out of the amp. It may be enough, and you won’t have to do a heck of a lot.
If it isn’t, try applying the aforementioned frequency technique to the DI signal, and use the amplifier to secure some grit. I’ve been known to cut lows on the amp channel—in fact, to EQ it aggressively—to get that upfront, high-mid sound. In these cases, I tend to treat the amp channel almost like a parallel, harmonic distortion track. I may even put a little chorus on it, in parallel if I can.
If you want to get more pick attack, try sending the bass to a parallel aux. Compress a little on this track, then try running it through amp-like distortion, which you can do with Trash. Next, a bit of modulation. Sometimes a little chorusing goes a long way in changing the perception of that attack, making it more pronounced, as it’s now divorced in time from the original signal. Try Nectar 3 for chorus, but a dab will do you. Sometimes I add a bit more compression to really constrict the dynamic range. Then just edge it into the mix.
6. Pillowy, funky bass
There’s a light, pillowy, funky tone that i think is best exemplified by players like Pino Palladino in tunes like D’Angelo’s “One Mo’Gin.”
Here, unlike the previous example, the high mids aren’t as pronounced. Instead, we have a healthy amount of lows and low-mids, as the bass jauntily lounges around the tune.
Indeed, feel is very important to this kind of playing. If the player isn’t hitting the pocket just right, it can be within your purview to move the playing around on the grid, usually ahead of the downbeats, so it feels more relaxed.
If you’re given a DI, or the amp sound isn’t working, try using some harmonic distortion subtly in the lows and low mids to beef up some tone. Amp emulators are all well and good, but you don’t necessarily need them for this purpose. Some curtailing of high harsh mids, some emphasis in the midrange, and a big, fat bottom can be enough—especially when paired with tasteful harmonic distortion.
If you’re not getting a sense of the player’s fingers hitting the strings—if it’s all woofy and beefy—you can try to use compression to make this happen. Try Neutron’s Vintage Compressor with a medium attack and a medium-fast release, so the transient passes before the compressor clamps down, and the compressor recovers before the next note.
Moving onto synth basses, I want you to get out of thinking of square waves, triangle waves, and wavetables for a moment, not because they’re unimportant. They are—for producers. We’re looking at the mixing standpoint here, and how to make them fit within their intentional context. A song like “Lost in the Fire” sports a different aesthetic and programming technique from “Dancing with a Stranger”; however they share employment of modulations and sidechaining. So keep that in mind as we progress.
7. The growly portamento synth
This neo-soul favorite can be heard on tunes like “thank u, next,” and it’s distinguished by the way the synth line forms distinct melodies, ones that slide and glide between notes.
Here you want a solid bass component that still lets the kick through. You want a bit of meat, but not too much; you want to suggest distortion without calling attention to the heft and resonance of such a process—without adding a heightened buzz incommensurate with the genre.
One avenue of approach: stick the bass to a separate track and high-pass filter it to 100 or below, effectively creating a pure bass tone. Edge this into the mix very sparingly, for you subharmonic content. This should sit below the kick’s fundamental.
Now, turning back to your original bass part, edge out the low frequencies that conflict with the kick’s “knock”, doing so either statically or with a dynamic EQ sidechained to the kick.
I’d probably go for harmonic distortion next, before the compressor, so that it can add tonal complexity that might change the compressor’s behavior, and give the compressor something extra to grab a hold of. The order here is up to you. As for compression, use it to give a slight emphasis to the transient or “front end” of the note, with a medium attack time, and a release time fast enough to repeat the process for each note. You could use a transient shaper, but for a greater degree of control, I’d play with the compressor first.
After this process, you could send the bass to an aux track and give it a little more harmonic distortion—with an exciter from Neutron or an amp-like setting from Trash—to emphasize the high mids for pick attack. This is optional depending on the track, and you’d want to edge in only as much of it as you need.
8. Clean, sustained synths
In a tune such as “Without Me” or “Dancing with a Stranger,” you’ll note the presence of a relatively clean, undistorted bass tone that doesn’t hold any real melodic function. It simply sounds the root note of each chord, usually in a rhythm tied to the kick drum.
Here we are not so concerned about a defined, high-midrangey attack note, so we forego the parallel distortion process. More important is a low end that appears a little below the kick, and a midsection that, although prevalent, stays out of the way of your harmonic instruments. This bass part indicates the fullness of the low end without calling undue attention to any fancy playing.
When listening to those two racks, you’ll also notice some sidechaining; the bass ducks when the kick hits. Here I would avoid dynamic EQ or multiband compression and opt for a global compressor, one sidechained to the kick. Start by setting a relatively conservative ratio, and then tweak threshold, followed by attack and release. If you’re not getting the bounce back that you’d like to hear, then try adjusting the ratio to higher values.
Don’t discount parallel routing for clean bass such as this. It may not be necessary for a high-mid attack, but in two other instances it could be useful:
For low-mid cut, parallel processing can help reproduce the bass on laptop speakers and earbuds. Use the tips outlined above for that purpose.
Sometimes you’ll notice a slight amount of chorusing or modulation on these bass parts, to liven up what is otherwise a pretty boring waveform. Try sending the track to a parallel aux and playing around with nectar’s chorus module for interesting, subtle effects here. You could also route some of the parallel, “low-mid cut” aux into the chorus as well, to give everything even more excitement.
9. Stereo synth-bass
In pop tunes and many EDM productions, you can hear a reliance on stereo bass for an extreme, ear-catching effect. Listen 1:44 into “Without Me”, for an example.
But one must always be careful when porting such an important element into stereo, because the mono-fold down could leave a big low-end hole. In general, avoid flipping the polarity on one side of the bass to achieve stereo effects, as it will do more harm than good. Instead, rely on stereo EQ adjustments, mid/side EQ adjustments, and small delays.
Between you and me, I prefer the delays over EQ—or a combination of delay followed by EQ. You will get flamming (a small delay slap) in mono fold down, but you shouldn’t lose low end.
Here’s a screenshot of a synth bass made stereo with delay and EQ adjustments. You can see it’s bass content folded down to mono in the readings of Insight 2, included in the screenshot.
If we fold it down to mono, we still have a fair amount of bass, as evinced in this picture (It also still sounds good, but you can’t tell that from the picture).
However, opt to invert the phase of one of the channels to create a stereo effect, and you’ll see we’re getting far less bass in mono.
Hopefully, this illustrates why we want to avoid flipping polarity for stereo bass purposes.
Unfortunately, we don’t have space to cover more examples—maybe we could keep going in another article (Gospel, driving hard rock, EDM, and stand-up bass all had to be cut for space). What we do have, I hope, is a collected, organized methodology for breaking down and mixing bass parts by their innate function. With the organizational aspects handled, you’re freer to act creatively, which is the ultimate goal.
To speak to creativity, a final word: I’d like to remind you that one style can easily transmute into another. Again, consider “Without Me” by Halsey, because it makes use of multiple styles in one song. This helps tell the story on a mix level. Anything that helps sell the journey of a song is up for grabs—so go forth and make it happen!