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Whether you’re making pop, hip-hop, or EDM, chances are your music is going to include sub-bass. For those who aren’t familiar, sub-bass frequencies are low-pitched notes below approximately 60 Hz, and often go below the lowest frequencies that humans can actually hear. In other words, you often can’t hear sub-bass; rather, you feel it.
For example, if you’re seeing a concert and the DJ builds to a drop, then the whole room starts vibrating with low frequencies, that is sub-bass. As electronic drums and MIDI instruments continue to play a bigger and bigger role in popular music, the use of sub-bass is becoming standard. But since humans often can’t actually hear frequencies that low, producers have to come up with ways to bring out the pitch.
So, we compiled five secrets to making your sub-bass audible.
1. Double the Bass Line with Another Instrument
One of the most obvious ways to make your sub-bass melodies audible is to just double the melody with another instrument that cuts through the mix. For example, if your bass line is A, C, D, G over four bars, create a synth line that plays those same notes in the same time. Make sure the synth is audible — like a saw or reese sound. You could also do this with a guitar or piano.
But, remember that if your music doesn’t call for big noisy synths, don’t make your doubled bass line too prominent in the mix. You want to make it just loud enough that if someone is listening to your song on laptop speakers, they can still hear those note changes. Otherwise, the dynamic structure of your song is going to be lost unless the listener has on nice headphones or a good sound system, and that isn’t always the case.
For example, French producer Stwo doubles his sub-bass line with a higher synth line in his popular track, “Lovin U.”
2. Bring Out the Midrange
Sub-bass is all about the low frequencies, however, if you can use an EQ plugin to bring out the mid-range frequencies, it will help to make your bass more audible. For example, on Vince Staples’ hit song, “Blue Suede,” producer Hadler uses a hard-hitting sub-bass, and the mid-range is front and center along with that booming low-range. This can be done by simply using an EQ plugin or utilizing a saturator plugin that focuses on beefing up the mid-range.
3. Bring Out the Distortion
Distortion? Isn’t that for, like, metal? Well, yes, but it can also be used to make your 808s audible to listeners without good headphones or speakers. The appropriate use of distortion will help bring out those notes. iZotope’s Trash plugins are excellent for giving you a diverse range of options for adding distortion to your sub-bass. But the key is not to go overboard or else you’re going to blow your listener’s speakers apart. Keep the distortion to a minimum, like the fuzz on Tyler, The Creator’s new song, “Who Dat Boy.”
4. Slide into Higher Notes
A popular technique in hip-hop has been pitch sliding. Rather than going from an A up to C in one clean step, producers will slide the pitch, giving a new effect to how the bass line rides out. So, while those low frequencies might not be audible, if you slide an octave up very quickly between measures, it will bring out the note you’re actually playing. For example, in Drake’s “Back to Back,” you can hear the low bass do several very quick slides up to higher notes. It gives the beat a grimy feel, and it also brings out the pitch.
5. Add Oscillation to Give the Bass an Audible Rhythm
Adding a phaser or utilizing LFO oscillation to your sub-bass can help bring it out where it would otherwise be absent in certain speakers. What do we mean by oscillation? Think of a singer who holds a note with vibrato, such as Adele belting out “Hello from the othersi-I-i-I-i-I-i-I-d-e-E-e-E-e.” She’s technically singing one note, but her vibrato is oscillating slowly between micro-pitches. You can also do this with a tremolo or panning effect. But if you use it on your sub-bass, those little gaps between notes will create a rumbling sound that can be picked up on sound systems that are less receptive to low frequencies.
For example, James Blake’s popular cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” is literally built around a monstrous sub-bass line. And while it will never be the same listening to the song on iPhone speakers versus hearing it in the club, the filter he uses on the bass makes it subtly audible to listeners without a good speaker or pair of headphones.
Sub-bass is a great way to make your songs sound and, more importantly, feel full. But if all you have is a sub-bass and a drum beat, depending on what notes you’re playing on your synth bass, listeners might not be able to hear those changes. This creates a conflict because if your bass line has movements that only certain listeners can hear, not everyone is going to be able to understand your song’s vision.
So, use these five secrets to make your bass lines audible, and remember, you’re not trying to make them scream — just make them audible so whether you’re listening on an alarm clock or state-of-the-art speakers, everyone can hear your music as it’s meant to be heard.
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Sam Friedman is a Brooklyn-based electronic producer and singer-songwriter, creating under the moniker Nerve Leak. Praised by major publications such as The Fader and Bullett Magazine, his unique blend of experimental and pop music has earned him hundreds of thousands of streams across the web. An interdisciplinary creative, he also works as a journalist for music publications such as Sonicbids, ReverbNation, Samplified, and Unrecorded.