Sub bass that makes your wheels fall off
Good day, everyone.
In this post, I’m going to pass on a few tips and tricks that we’ve learned over the past few years with regards to getting sub bass up to standard, giving it clarity, movement and weight within a mix, and also some pitfalls to avoid when processing and creating your tone.
First off we’d like to say thanks to everyone who checked out our last post ‘How we master our music for DyAD‘ Part 2 will be out soon. We’re really happy that these articles are adding something back into the community 🙂
Sub Bass production
At the risk of sounding like Aoki, I’m not going to sit here and explain what sub bass is and what it does. If you’re producing music of any kind then fingers crossed (please) you should have a nodding acquaintance with low frequencies and the principles behind them. (Power tip: It’s to the left on your spectral analyser).
That being said, there is one thing that one must remember when considering subs. Keep it simple. A Sine wave is the purest and easiest form for a speaker to reproduce, meaning if you keep your subs sine-esque, you get dem fat lows with minimal hassle. Effects like saturation, harmonic excitement, excessive filtering and what not are best used sparingly (if not at all), due to the (and this may sound surprising) unwanted harmonics they can give your sub. Overuse of the listed previous can really push your sub into the unwanted areas where your kick and snare need space to sit. I’ll go in to some bits later about how sometimes you can use effects to your advantage with sends, but for now when creating the tone, keep it simple.
Getting the Sound.
I’ll be using Spectrasonic’s Trillian to create my initial patch. Please note however that these techniques are usable within any synth, I just like the vintage sine waves contained within Trillian. So, to give you an idea of how simple this patch is, I’m using two oscillators. Osc 1 is set to a sine with a short attack and release time, along with maximum sustain and a low pass filter applied to it at around 200hz. This should give you a nice clean sine sub.
Osc 2 is a simple noise generator, with a very low ADSR setting. The noise has been pitched down an octave (12 semitones) and the volume has been lowered substantially. This will help to add a small “punch” to the beginning of your sub tone, emulating the sound that many producers love so much, the 808 kick. You can play with the ADSR of the noise to get the desired punch you want, or even try a small pitch envelope on the noise to further accentuate it. In this instance, I’ve opted to leave it as it is.
Also, just to finish the synth patch off, I’ll be reducing the number of voices on the synth to 1, and adding some legato glide 🙂
Cool, so in theory you should now have a nice powerful sub with a cheeky bit of punch on the beginning. Next step is to grab a note where the sub is feeling particularly awesome (in this case I’m using E) and sample a good few bar loop of it out.
Next step, get this into a sampler. I find it’s generally best to do it this way for sub as the note volume can easily rise and fall when playing in a synth vst. This way means you get a nice, powerful note that can move up and down your desired melody with a minimum of change. Sub bass is all about consistency!
OK, so you may or may not think that’s too little processing on the sub…but for the plain core sound, honestly, that will do! Now in theory, you could leave it at that…it’s a solid bass sound, it’ll shake some floors…but to be honest, it’s going to sound a little bit boring with just a solid note droning over your track. Theoretically, you could use Side-chain compression to give a groove to the sub with your kick and snare track, but as a rule of thumb you should always look to create interest within the sub first before seeking dynamic signal reduction. This is where (drum roll please) the creative process comes in!
Creative Sub Processing
Righto, so as new master of the subiverse, you’ll be wanting to get dem wobz going hard. At this point, some school boy fellow might pop a Low Pass Filter on the bass and do all sorts of jiggery pokery modulating a resonant filter. NO. NO. NO. When processing a sine wave, adding a filter and moving it about is only going to create a frequency based gain boost at wherever you move it to. So as lovely as that idea of a resonant 1/16th triplet lfo may sound, lose it. It may sound great on harmonically rich content, but when you are literally working with a sine at a fundamental frequency, it will flap your sub into infinity.
The best way (that I have found so far) to create interest with your sub is a subtle combination of volume modulation, pitch modulation and glide. Pitch modulation and glide is a fairly easy one….have it on legato, do your classic up an octave, down and octave, etc. etc. It’ll sound pretty sweet. The main area I’d like to focus on is how I modulate subs to create a varied, interesting movement within a track.
This is a pretty simple technique, but it can really help your track to move and groove if you get it right. I’m literally going to copy our sample with the sub in it a few times, then add a rather nice free filter called TAL Filter 2 to each one →
But wait>!>!!>?! I’m sure I said no filters…well, this is because the TAL Filter 2 has a really handy, bpm based volume modulation on it. Modulating the volume of your sub will ALWAYS provide more consistency and stability than reaching for side-chaining and filters, at least in the first instance.
Above is the TAL Filter set at the volume modulation type, with a BPM factor of 8, which means it will cycle every half a bar. Now all I’m going to do is program a selection of curves across each TAL, allowing us to create 3 different sub movements.
I guess maybe this may seem a bit idiotic to some, as you may be thinking well I can just automate between various curves, or with an LFO, or whatever. I guess the reason I use this method is because it allows me to be faster and more creative with my sub lines.
Having three, four, five or however many individual sub lanes, each with a cool, different movement on allows you to really experiment QUICKLY with different sub patterns, and can often lead to variants that perhaps you wouldn’t have come up with if you were just arduously automating your synth or an external filter. The beauty of the TAL is that it just cycles through and stays in time no matter what, unlike some synths and automated lfo filters. You can literally drag and drop sub lines from one channel to the next, creating more creative opportunities at a faster pace.
For those who may be worries about CPU, realistically thinking, all you’re running is a sampler (for example, Ableton’s sample is stupidly low latency) and a tiny filter plug-in on each channel. Currently, 6 instances of this on my pc uses up less than 6 percent CPU when playing. Not bad considering how much control you can maintain over the way you want your sub to move. I know some DAWs offer clip automation and whatnot, but not all do, so this is a great workaround if you’re pining for the curve control of Cubase’s VSTExpression or the like. Also, like I said before, it’s a kind of set it once and leave it thing….you don’t have to copy and paste, or draw and redraw automation every time you wanna try something out.
Also, don’t forget this can all be folder tracked/bussed to a single group post-movement, allowing you to keep things tidy, as well as the usual bumpf of sidechaining, eq rolloffs, etc. One manageable sub bass comprised of many interesting parts! Very Zen.
Creative Sub Strangeness
It wasn’t until I got some stems for a Phace sample pack competition that I noticed there was a channel called “Stereo Sub Processing”. After I picked myself up off the floor, I began to look into this further…here is one technique that I find myself using more and more.
N.B: Adding stereo effects and whatnot to your sub is like playing with fire. Interesting, enlightening and it looks fucking wicked, but ultimately unless you treat it with respect, you will get burned. Please bear this in mind when employing this technique, and always check your mono compatibility to ensure that you don’t lose the low end you’ve worked so hard to attain!
Oki doki, so y’know how I said early you don’t want a sub that too harmonic? Yup, that’s right…but, with the right application, you can create some interesting harmonic and stereo based additions to your sub line part, without destroying your kick and snare. I guess every rule is meant to be broken.
Right, so first off I’m going to create a return track and send the signal of our sub bass group to it.
To this send track, I’m going to add a nice saturator (in my case SPL’s TwinTube), a chorus/flange module (Valhalla UberMod) and a very, very accurate EQ (I’m using the Waves H-EQ in this). I’m not sure if I’ll get hate for this, but this is an application where I would normally avoid the use of my trusty Fabfilter Pro-Q. Normally I use it on everything, but I just find when you roll bass off at a higher Pole (48db, etc.), the Fabfilter really starts to sound plastic and the very areas that we want to process are the ones that end up sounding the most muddy. Pick the highest quality EQ you can, as this requires some surgical cuts.
OK, so now I’m really going to drive the saturation and harmonics on the SPL. I know it may sound ridiculously flappy in the low end, but we are only really interested in 100hz – 3/400hz and will be Eqing later. Again, this is totally subject to ear, you’ll know when you’ve found the right level of drive and harmonics…
N.B As a note, a similar technique can be attained by going back to your original bass line and adding a nice, smooth square to give it those extra harmonics…I prefer to do it this way, simply because you still get to retain that nice, pure sine quality of your original tone, and are only adding to the overall sound with this process. Alternatively, you could duplicate the sub channel, add a square wave to the sound, High Pass Filter it and follow the rest of this process in that manner. It’s up to you!!
Next up, I’ll be adding a subtle chorus to the sound. Again, you’ll probably be questioning my sanity, but bear with me. I’m not setting the chorus mix to 100%, and I’m keeping depth and width out of the Pseudo Stereo (Speakers Behind Your Head) zone. Ideally, you’d like to push the sound you’ve got up to full stereo, with a very slight modulation between left and right. Check this in headphones if you can, its always good for understanding the scope of your panning. Also, play about with your delay time on the chorus….too much or too little can lead the waves to cancel themselves out, so mess about with it until you find a fairly sweet spot that retains as much of the sub frequencies and depth as possible.
Finally, I’m utilising some fairly harsh EQ to carve out the area I want this to sit in. Ideally, you want to roll off ALL of the sub frequencies, right up to 100Hz. This is where an accurate and transparent EQ comes in handy…some EQ’s don’t respond well to being used like this. Note how I’m rolling up past 100hz with a HPF, then just giving a gentle roll off to the harmonics above 250hz with a smooth LPF. Again, you need to use a combination of listening and a spectral analyser to get this right. If it sounds shit, it probably is shit.
This is a fairly interesting way of helping your sub to represent on less than adequate systems. Just having a slightly saturated overtone of your sub line, with mild effecting and 95% of the sub frequencies removed can really add that extra whomp, making the difference between just feeling your sub, or hearing and feeling it.
There are a lot of ways you can experiment with this, and because it’s on a send the possibilities are limitless. You can try resaturating or distorting after the EQ, then Eqing again, then perhaps adding a deep side-chain to the send via the kick and snare. Or swapping your chorus for a flange, maybe pitching the send up an octave to give that higher overtone. Don’t forget as well, you can always bounce this send out later and do some extra bits and pieces. Always check this process with a phase meter, and keep the phasing as negligible as possible. A few cents left or right is OK, but any more than that and it’s going to sound inconsistent.
N.B This is an area where I would recommend you do go in on side-chaining. We are pushing frequencies in and area where a lot of kick and snare energy is contained, so providing that gap in the sound is essential if you don’t want your drum’s low end turning to mud. However, it does help give a sense of wholeness to that 100-250hz mark that is sometimes hard to find.
So, I hope this article has helped in some small way to give you some extra ideas to get the creative juices flowing. Again, by no means are these gospel techniques, but they are methods that I’ve picked up from a long time of pondering and experimentation.
Of course, alongside these techniques comes a whole plethora of extra bits and pieces. For example, rolling off your sub at the frequency below your fundamental frequency is always a great help. (e.g. If I’m playing an E1 at 41.20hz, I would generally roll my bass off at the multiple below that, which would be 20.60hz. This can help to clear up any unnecessary headroom your bass is using up, and provide a bit of extra definition and clarity over big systems.
Anyway, next time I’ll take a look at mixing your kick into subs and sends of this nature, the importance of kick tuning, side-chaining, etc. etc.
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Hope you enjoyed!