This is, once again, the 10th time I have tried to write this article. My biggest problem with this whole blogging malarkey is that it is meant to be about the philosophy of sound design through bass guitar technology and the application of that philosophy. The thing is, that can become very long and very boring and regularly does; as such I go through the process of writing and deleting over and over again, get bored of it and sack it off.
This time, though, I’m going to finish!!
This article is about the use of multiple signal paths. So-called ‘Bi-Amping’ (the use of two amplifiers at the same time) is an example of this, but I want to focus on a more effects-based approach.
The idea is that you take a single sound source (ie: your guitar) and rather than having one signal (guitar > pedal > amp), you split the signal somewhere in the chain and eventually sum them together towards the end.
A distortion pedal with a blend control is effectively utilizing multiple signal paths as within the pedal the signal gets split, one signal gets effected whilst the other doesn’t, then the signals are summed. The philosophy of this distortion pedal is the same as a more complicated setup in that the user wants to create a sound that is more sonically rich than one can achieve with a single signal path.
As I’ve said in a previous blog, electronic music layers numerous sounds to create a rich, undulating (I like that word) sonic texture that is continually moving and changing. I must reiterate that trying to carbon-copy sounds on records is doing yourself an injustice. If we are going to engage in this foray into acoustically-created electronic music, then we have the opportunity as pioneers to shape the way our music is formed in a new and unique way.
That said, using familiar sounds as our starting point is useful, and utilizing some simple philosophies and technologies to achieve this is a rewarding experience.
Splitting and Summing
Splitting and summing forms the core philosophy of the implementation of multiple signal paths and is also the root of all problems in this field.
I spent a long time experimenting with a variety of setups and I’ll briefly describe a few:
I started with the notion of a rich sub with a chorused distorted lead on top. I didn’t want to spend anything so I used a Boss TU2 and a Line 6 DL4 that I already had. The TU2 has both muted and bypassed outputs which can be used at the same time. This means the pedal splits your signal: Yey!
As for summing, the Line 6 DL4 has both looper and delay functionalities. The pedal is designed to be used with both guitars and keyboards and as such has both stereo inputs and outputs. The thing is, the looper doesn’t have stereo functionality so when in looper mode, the pedal sums the stereo inputs to the mono (Left) output. That’s right: Summing!
So thinking about the TU2 and DL4 as functional tools rather than tuning or delay pedals opens up opportunities and creative possibilities that we didn’t know about and this is the attitude and philosophy that we must pursue to be the pioneers we perceive ourselves to be.
Using the TU2 as a signal splitter and using two amps as signal destinations is another implementation of the multiple signal path concept that I have used on a fairly regular basis with a variety of electronic/art-rock trios, using one signal path with my bass board (OC2 > Mammoth > CEB3 > LPF > VT2 > DL4) and sending the second signal path to a Line 6 M13, pitching the signal up by an octave, EQing out the bass and adding a variety of modulation and synth effects then sending it to a guitar amp. This makes my bass sound HUGE, especially when using the OC2 with the bass signal as I effectively multiply my sound over 4 octaves!
All these uses can sound a bit complicated, and if you want to simplify things the Boss LS2 is your friend. A second-hand Boss LS2 is an amazing tool to have in your arsenal and can be found for around £40. The far right rotary controller on the LS2 changes the function of the pedal and for the purposes of multiple signal paths, we will use the setting ‘A+B Mix’.
This setting splits and sums your signal, allowing you to use one source (guitar) and one destination (amp) with two separate and blendable signal paths. I cannot recommend this pedal enough.
If the LS2 is your friend, phasing is your worst enemy. If you’ve ever tuned your bass with harmonics, you can use the pulsing, phasing sound to check whether you’re in tune. This is one of the few times when phasing is not a massive problem.
I’ll apologise to anyone who understands the real complexity of phasing but I’ll briefly describe what it is and why it is a problem. Imagine a speaker moving back and forwards to create sound. Phasing is caused when two identical or similar signals move in opposite directions and effectively cancel each other out. This means your sound will appear weak and hollow; the complete antithesis of the reason why we’ve chosen this.
Phasing can be a problem if you’re using multiple signal paths and using delay or if the multiple paths sound too similar (hence my TU2 / M13 implementation using very different sounds). If you’re sounds are too similar, then you’re also going to compromise the effectiveness of the rich and changing sounds you’re trying to create.
There are lots of different ways to use this concept of multiple signal paths:
Using the paths across different pitch ranges can form a rich harmonic texture, filling out the sound and allowing other band members space for them to add their own sounds.
Using waveform generators can avoid some phasing issues as they replace the signal with a new sound. They can also recreate a very synth-like sound. I’ve used a Freqbox and SYB5 in the past but I’m currently using the M13 and Mammoth to this end.
Using modulation in one of the signal paths can create a modulating and shifting texture that can retain interest over long, held notes. Tremolos, flangers, phasers and choruses work really well. I use an Adrenalinn 2.
By having sounds that contrast in their attack and decay and don’t overlap, you can create the illusion of different sounds weaving in and out of each other. The EHX Bass Microsynth has an ‘Attack’ slider, which can cause the notes to swell in over time. By combining this with a LFO on the other signal path, you can create two independent sounds that’ll intertwine and create a powerful sound.
When I started using multiple signal paths, I had a variety of problems. The thing is, I didn’t care because I could create rich and interesting sounds and by experimenting I’ve created a way to make sounds that are HUGE.
I currently use two LS2s and two amps to create this sound but I’ve had custom pedals built and have used a combination of the setups above. The thing is, when you start on this path it can change your approach to playing and thinking about sounds. Experiment and enjoy it!
New remix of Pride & Prejudice
Like it or not, luddite, electronic music is here to say and yes, I know bands are still in the charts, but largely those bands are McFly or The Script whose songs are written and recorded using, yep, computers.
I’m a bass player but god dammit I love electronic music. As a teenager I went into every shop trying every synth pedal they had in stock. The problem was, they only ever had the Boss SYB-3, and there’s only so many times I actually want to hear my bass sound like a laser cannon from ‘Space 1999’ (am I showing my age). I was listening to subsonic rumbles on ShyFX CDs thinking “I want that”, but hearing a bad 70s Sci-fi show. So I started to experiment.
I played with octavers and chorus and filters and delay and all manner of digitally emulated pedals (I only had a POD to start with). I bought an EHX Bass Microsynth (I miss you!) and it was a step in the right direction, but I could never compete with Liam (my synth player) who always sounded how I wanted to. So I bit the bullet, researched and spent a ridiculous sum of money.
I went *cue dramatic music* MIDI.
What is MIDI?
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was created by a genius with a very unassuming name, the great Dave Smith. In the halcyon days of Prog-Rock, keyboard players built themselves turrets from synthesizers, enclosing them on all 4 sides and several keyboards high. They complained to the manufacturers that when playing all these synths, they used exactly the same keyboard interface, but if they wanted a new sound they had to add yet another keyboard. What they wanted was many sounds, but just one keyboard; they wanted a way for their keyboards to talk to each other and as such, MIDI was born.
MIDI is a collection of digital commands that the interface sends to the device. The interface might be a keyboard or guitar, the device might be a synthesizer or MIDI-module designed to recreate the sounds of a trumpet. In practice, neither the interface nor the device matter very much with MIDI as the same commands are sent out. When you hit a keyboard, or pluck a string you output two key commands: ‘Note-On’ and ‘Velocity’.
Think about it. All you really want to know is ‘What is the pitch of the note?’ (Note-On) and ‘How loud is the note?’ (Velocity). When you take your hand off the keyboard, or your string’s vibration stops, then a ‘Note-Off’ message is sent, which determines the duration of the note.
So far, our simple MIDI commands have told our device what the pitch, volume and duration of our played note is. If we are used to playing the guitar then we’ve missed the most important element: Timbre, or the actual sound of our instrument. The thing is MIDI doesn’t dictate that, the device does. It is the device that says what our note sounds like and that is an entirely new article.
What can allow me to use MIDI with my bass?
This one’s actually fairly straight forward and usually dictated by budget.
The Sonus B2M [link] requires only a jack cable from your bass to the box. The problem is, it is monophonic (meaning it can only send one MIDI Note-On message at a time) which means that if its limited processing capacity accidentally thinks that you have plucked a new note, it will send a Note-Off message, killing your current note. In my experience us bass players regularly lightly brush a finger on a string as we move our hands, hammer on a note a split second before we pluck it and pull-off when we’re moving position. None of these matter when our drummer is thrashing away but if we’re triggering a monophonic synth, all these can lead to a stuttering, messy, unusable sound.
The Roland GR20 [link] requires you to install a new pickup (the GK3b for bass) which sounds like a big job, but is actually fairly easy and highly recommended if you’re planning on making a foray into MIDI. The GR20 also includes a device for generating sounds in the box, so there’s no need to buy a separate synth. At least that’s what the blurb says but I don’t want my bass to sound like a cheap keyboard, I want great wobbly, phat, synth sounds so I’d buy one anyway. The GR20 comes with mixed reviews, some people moan about the latency (the time lag between plucking a note and hearing a note) whilst others claim there is no problem.
The Axon Terratec AX100 [link] is the box I own. It requires you to have a MIDI pickup installed, but the reviews are largely more positive when compared to the GR20. The way these boxes convert your bass into a series of MIDI commands is quite complicated, but it’s worth knowing:
When you pluck a string, it vibrates back and forth over the pickup. How fast it vibrates determines the pitch of the note (faster is higher, slower is lower). The problem is that the motion of the string isn’t just back and forth, it also moves up and down, and the motion is more like back, back a bit more, up a bit, down a bit, left a bit, all the way, repeat ad nauseum. That’s why playing at the bridge sounds different from playing at the neck (same pitch, different string motion), and it’s what can cause massive problems in converting from guitar to midi. The convertor needs a few full vibrations to calculate what is pitch information and what is other information and this is where the AX100 excels.
The computing part of the AX100 uses some clever bits of technology to not just extract the other bits of information quicker, but also use the other bits of information (such as picking position) and convert them to MIDI data too so you can use them to control elements of your sound; I’ve used picking position to control an LFO on a wobbly dubstep synth. It’s not entirely accurate, but it’s cool as hell.
The Hipshot Ghost system [link] really is worth a mention here. It replaces your bridge on your bass and uses the saddles to output the signal from the instrument. In effect it replaces the MIDI pickup (such as the GK3b) but in practice, it can also speed up the tracking of the notes and reduce latency.
The Holy Grail of MIDI Bass has taken many forms over the years; it was once the Wal MB4, then the Peavey Cyberbass, and now the Industrial Radio MIDI Bass [link]. This system is different from the previous examples because it doesn’t rely on the string’s vibration to detect the pitch of the note. This means no latency issues, no tracking issues where the brain gets the calculations wrong, no monophonic restrictions, no problems! With this system, each fret on the bass is actually 4 isolated frets; when you hold the string down, the fret detects this and this dictates the pitch. That way when you pluck the string you are only getting the velocity (volume) information, eliminating any lengthy calculations. I would love one of these, but at $4000USD it’s a bit expensive for me.
There are always going to be problems with using your bass as a MIDI controller. The bass guitar just isn’t meant to do this, and the sounds you’d use and the wider applications are fraught with problems. Wrong notes, interrupted notes, double-triggered notes, more cables to break, more gear to carry, all of this can cause huge problems but in my mind it is worth it.
When playing MIDI bass, you have to develop a technique that mutes the strings you aren’t playing (thereby reducing the risk of extra notes). Your plucking has to be cleaner and more consistent in position and volume and you have to get used to programming synthesizers to make the information you produce compatible with the sounds you want to hear. All of this takes practice.
I’ll say again, you can’t produce the sick DnB sounds that you hear on released tunes with just audio effects. You can do some other, equally interesting stuff, but if you want to go down the electronically-produced music route, using MIDI conversion will help you in a big way.
So I’m assuming you read my previous article regarding modular synthesis and it lead you to think about how your setup includes certain elements of this theory but that you wish to extend it further. This article is, in effect (no pun intended), the second part to that so if you didn’t read it then please do.
Here I intend to demonstrate how I apply the modular synthesis approach and what purchases you can make to achieve the same.
Firstly, I have already spoken about my passion for electronic music and in doing so it would be a shame not to mention my technological nemesis and very good friend Liam Maloney. When we were growing up, I was always jealous of Liam. We would both get into college and enthuse about our night’s dedications; I had spent many hours locked in a dark room practicing scales, whereas Liam would present some weird concoction of sounds that he’d created using a tape delay as a primitive looper.
Why is it that us effects geeks are more associated with The Edge than Christopher Columbus? We’re exploring new territory and new sounds and instead of cramp-ons and warm jackets, we’ve got Supersonic Fuzz Guns and Xenographs. Here is a guide to tools you might consider using and how they’re linked to the previous article:
VCOs: Just a quick note on VCOs. VCOs dictate two key features of the sound: Pitch and Timbre (waveform). Both can be described as the initial building blocks of our sound but both are (at least in principle) mutually exclusive.
VCO – Octavers
When we consider electronic music we think of bass sounds that you physically feel as well as hear. We assume that this is because the bass sound is so ‘bassy’ (sic) that the sound is unbelievably powerful. The truth is that there are more variables than just volume and pitch that make the sounds you want to hear. Your octaver will not produce the sound are hearing in your mind’s ear, but it is the first step in producing it.
When first using an octaver, it is tempting to turn up the -1 Oct and -2Oct dials and play and open E string to try and create subsonic sounds. The problem is that neither your standard bass amplifier nor your ears are designed for fundamental harmonic content at that extreme of the audio spectrum. Try playing the same line 1 or 2 octaves above the pitch that you wish to hear it; the sound will open up and depending on your octaver you’ll hear some interesting tonal colour coming out of the pedal. Use pedals such as:
MXR Bass Octave Deluxe
A favoured approach is to turn down your original guitar signal and turn up the -1 Octave dial, then play one octave higher. This can create a very sine-like sound which is a good starting point for electronic-style bass.
VCO – Waveform Generators
Older synthesizers would allow you to select the waveform that you wanted to hear (sine, saw tooth, triangle and square were the most common found waveforms). Each waveform has its own characteristic sound from smooth sinewave to aggressive square wave. These waveforms were, however, much simpler in their makeup than our basses can produce. As such, we are left with two options:
1. Modify the bass waveform
2. Replace the bass waveform
We can do both of these with pedals. Modifying the waveform can be accomplished by something as simple as adding a distortion pedal; distortion is simply clipping of the original waveform, making it more like a square wave. Use pedals such as:
Z-Vex Woolly Mammoth
Death by Audio Supersonic Fuzz Gun
Replacing the waveform can be achieved with a more complicated pedal that listens to your bass sound, assesses the pitch and replaces it with a predetermined waveform. For this, use pedals such as:
4ms Nocto Loco
Boss SYB 3 or 5
Waveform Generators add extra harmonic content (well, kinda…) which can drastically alter your signal and make your bass sound much more like a synth. One key benefit of adding extra harmonic content is that before a VCF, a Waveform Generator can really add to that rich, physical bass experience.
VCF – Sweepable Filters
I discussed VCFs in my previous article but Liam said I should explain what each filter does. I’m not, but I’m going to just explain one and hope that you will extrapolate the information (or Google it if you’re lazy).
As an electronic bassist, the Low Pass Filters is your best friend. Low Pass Filters (or LPFs) serve many practical functions but the way they work is they let the ‘Low’ sounds ‘Pass’ through it. That is – they remove the high sounds from your signal. At which point in the audio spectrum they do this depends on the filter’s cut-off point, determined by the ‘Cut-off’ control. The ‘Resonance’ control creates a boost at the cut-off point, making it more pronounced. If the LPF is your best friend, the ‘Resonance’ control is their bad breath. Watch out!!
We’re going to use the LPF in two main ways: the first is to create a static, ‘sub’ sound. If we ‘close’ the filter so it only lets very low frequencies pass and boost the resonance a bit, we are effectively turning the treble and middle knobs on our amp right down to 0 (or -15db as is more commonly found) and turning the bass control on our amp up to 10 (or +15db). This is the sound that will shake glasses off shelves and irritate neighbours 4 streets away. We like this! Remember to be careful of that resonance control though. Turning it up too high will be like turning the bass control up to 20 or 30 and can totally annihilate speakers, PAs and eardrums.
The second use of the LPF is to create filter sweeps. This is where we move the filter cut-off point across the audio spectrum creating a wah-wah like effect (but one that doesn’t sound rubbish). You could sweep the cut-off over an 8-bar build or across single notes, the best thing to do it experiment. To do this though, you need to be able to move the filter cut-off whilst playing your bass with your hands. As such the sweep is usually done via an expression pedal operated by your foot. Use pedals like:
Moogerfooger MF-101 Low Pass
Electrix Filter Factory
Iron Ether Xenograph
Robot Factory Brain Freeze
In Part 1 I pointed out how VCA is a constituent part of synthesis that doesn’t equate clearly to anything in the bass world. I did point out, however, that combining an LFO with a VCA does have a clear parallel: tremolo.
When I was collecting my setup, I strongly wanted one piece of equipment that I saw as integral to realising the sounds in my mind’s ear: tempo-sync’d tremolo. Tremolo pedals usually have depth and speed controls. The depth control alters how much you signal is turned down with each cycle of the tremolo whilst the speed control dictates how fast the tremolo cycles. Old surf music uses a fairly shallow depth with a fast speed, creating a wobbly sound that works very well with reverb. Old organs cabinets (produced under the name ‘Leslie’ and generally referred to by this name), use a rotating speaker that can be simulated with a deep depth and a slow speed.
Both of the above uses are traditional and can be very effective to add depth and colour to a signal. I, though, loved ‘How soon is now?’ by The Smiths and the choppy guitar at the beginning: I also loved Taio Cruz’s off-beat synth stabs and syncopated lead ‘blips’ and ‘blops’ and the only way to get these sounds is by judicious use of square wave tremolo sequences.
A tremolo traditionally uses a smooth up-and-down sine wave to generate the way the signal is altered whereas modern tremolos allow you to use other waveforms. By selecting a squarewave and maximum depth, the signal is effectively turned on and off by the tremolo instead of up and down. This is how we get the stuttered sound. Modern, more complex tremolos also allow you change the speed of the tremolo in relation to note values. To do this you need a tap-tempo, tapping crotchets (quarter notes for our American friends) with your foot and allowing your tremolo to dictate the note integer (16ths / semiquavers for ‘How soon is now?’). Pedals to use are:
Line 6 Tap Tremolo
Line 6 MM4
Lightfoot Labs Goatkeeper 3
Seymour Duncan Shape Shifter
Roger Linn Adrenalinn
A choppy tremolo needs in the middle of your effects line. Just before or just after a phaser can add some really cool synthy sounds, whilst just before a reverb can really open up the reverb cloud.
Liam’s going to call me up on this one, but I’m going to specify delay-based modulation effects as the equivalent for this section of a synthesizer.
Chorus duplicates your signal and makes the copy slightly out of tune. When you tune your bass with harmonics, do you hear a wobbling sound? That’s chorus. Chorus can really add richness to your sound and is an essential part in creating DnB bass lines; especially when recreating the famous ‘Reece Bass’.
Phasers and Flangers are popular with Dubstep bass producers, but layering the effects is important. Too much can, in my opinion, sound too 80s for its own good!
Pedals to use include:
Boss CEB3 Bass chorus
Analogman Chorus and Bi-Chorus
Guyatone PS3 (Thanks Shep)
Unfortunately, I don’t use flanger and phaser effects and I’m reluctant to recommend any pedals that neither I nor my peers use.
What I use:
I have a complex routing system that will be explored in Part III of this series, but my main board has:
Boss OC2 Octaver
Z-Vex Woolley Mammoth Fuzz
Boss CEB3 Chorus
Moog MF-101 LPF
DHA VT2 Dual Valve Preamp/Distortion
Line 6 DL4 Delay
I also use an Adrenalinn 2, Line 6 M13 and have used many more.
Wow, that was long. It contains a lot of stuff and a lot to get your teeth into. You will not know everything by reading this, but you might know a bit more!
My ‘Modular Synthesis’ post elicited a great deal of interest from the wider community of musicians I belong to (my synth player, however, pointed out my inaccuracies!) and it made me think: there are a great number of bass players I know who also want to distance themselves from the ‘quiet-but-reliable guy at the back’ image constructed by the media when writing about bassists.
These players want to make big strides towards new and interesting sounds in the same way I do, but the distance we put between ourselves and the perceived norm seems like a caricature of teenage rebellion. We might buy instruments that look different, play through amplifier setups more akin to small PA systems rather than Ampeg 8x10s and build small forts for ourselves out of pedal boards and synthesizers, but is all of this necessary to create our sounds or is it indicative of the elitist attitude amongst us as a community? We try hard to make sure that when we get on stage, people know we’re different from the band on before us before we’ve even played a note. Perceived distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’ allows us to engage in the hierarchical nature of live music performance and revel in our own stature.
I strongly believe that I am as guilty as the next person and when I’m gigging the live DnB scene and a bass player brings onto the stage their Ashdown combo and Boss GT-6B I glow a little inside. I am a gear snob, and this blog is a chance for me to challenge my own perceptions and cognitively engage with the truth – I play a cheap Yamaha bass and I’m probably snobbed at too. We’re all in the wrong.
On www.basschat.co.uk and www.talkbass.com, the new Squier ranges of guitars and basses are very highly thought of. A standardisation of key desirable features combined with a high standard of manufacture and quality control means players all over the world have embraced these instruments with an attitude akin to reverse-snobbery. Players revel in the fact that their guitar only cost £150 and sounds better to them that the £2200 Gibson Darkfire that the accountant in the previous band was playing. This is an interesting phenomenon which I believe to reflect Britain’s constant class-struggle and is an observation I continue to enjoy in our competitive environment. I suppose that this kind of snobbery is probably a bit healthier than other forms simply because the owner of the cheaper guitar elevates their status based on a knowledge of the market and community rather than simply a bank balance, but it still reeks of hierarchy and our need not to be better than anyone, but to be seen to be better.
The next stage of this article requires some patience, but please stick with me.
I recently met an old friend. He was the guy who first handed me a bass guitar and asked me to join his band. As such, I’ll always have a subconscious respect for the guy. He taught me about GAS without even knowing what it meant (Gear Acquisition Syndrome for those of you who haven’t been hit by it) when he showed me his 1999 Christmas present of an Epiphone Les Paul.
He has been hit by the pedal bug and I realised that all I wanted to talk about with him, was pedals. What reverbs was he using? In what order were his effects? What was he powering them with? Jay, I know you’ll read this and please remember my earlier paragraph about the fact that I’m a snob and trying to deal with it.
I asked those questions because I wanted to tell him what he should be using and how and why and how to power it and I had a moment of revulsion at my behaviour. Then I thought (and I’m sorry everyone) “At least he’s using a board rather than a multi”
I bet you’re thinking ‘so what’; well if that’s the case, you are blessed because all of us know that when someone tells you they love the Zoom unit, you think ‘good for you’. ‘Good for you’ like you’d say to a paralympian or Evelyn Glennie. ‘Good for you’ like an ignorant fool would say as if someone has ‘overcome’ a disability. ‘Good for you’ means “well done, you idiot”. Do you understand my revulsion?
So what have I done? Well, since my partner so regularly points out, I have a pedal problem. Last year for my birthday my partner spent a lot of money on a Moogerfooger MF-107 Freqbox for me. I needed that pedal and I couldn’t afford it. Neither could she, but she really made a massive gesture that I’ll never forget and bought me that pedal. I was elated, and so appreciative (I still am), but yesterday I sold that pedal and I realise that that probably reaffirms your perception of me as a selfish idiot but I sold the pedal and I bought a Multi Effects.
This article was originally a technical explanation of the positives and negatives of Multi vs Separates, but as I started writing I realised that there was something else I needed to talk about: snobbery, hierarchy and how we are all slaves to a consumerist society and the systems that govern it, as seen through guitar effects.
I’ve always loved the low-end on electronically produced music. It’s so rich and dynamic, constantly changing and morphing. Unlike the sound of a P-bass being uniformly pummeled with a pick or the machine-gun semiquavers of the latest Fodera exponent, synthesized bass is designed as a physical experience more than a display of dexterity. I like this concept, and when used in Drum & Bass, I love the results. For a long time I dreamed of recreating these sounds on my bass and I’m sure that a similar thought process has brought you here. I’m sorry to burst your bubble but the short answer is you can’t. In this article I’ll show you what you can do.
I’ll never forget watching Roni Size Reprazent in 2004. It was the beginning of my exploration of live DnB and I was so excited about watching a band of professionals show me how to realise my goals. The disappointment was crippling. Sequenced drums, sequenced bass, sequenced everything despite there being live players on stage. Si John did play ‘Brown Paper Bag’ on his Electric Upright Bass (the first one I’d ever seen) and he was rocking what I’d later discover to be a Peavey Midi CyberBass, but the layering of syncopated rhythms and counter melodies present in the music were only achievable through sequencing.
Stick on any DnB tune and you’ll hear many different sounds playing many different lines at many different levels. In the modern music shop there are a number of devices that can help us take a step in the right direction to creating these complex sonic landscapes but ultimately we’re limited by the simple and unchangeable fact that we only have two hands. Sure, there are ridiculously complex signal routing concepts we can implement and some modifications we can do to our instruments to make further advances towards this sonic ideal but remember my first paragraph about synth bass being a step away from ambidexterity and the approaches of traditional musicianship? Do we really want to go down that route again?
So what can we do? Well, we have to do things differently. We have to carve our own space within the perceptions of DnB bass and this is where we begin to challenge ourselves.
Back in the old days before your phone had more power than NASA, synths were huge walls of black and silver, created by crazy wartime scientists. To them, sonic sculpture was a scientific process and as such their approaches reflected this idea. We must also adopt these processes and begin to think of our instrument as not just the bass guitar, but also everything else we use to create and shape that sound. We start to consider our bass guitar and all the constituent parts as a form of modular synthesis.
Early analog synths used the signal path VCO > VCF > VCA. VC stands for Voltage-Controlled (another way of saying changeable), whereas ‘O’ is for Oscillator, ‘F’ is for Filter and ‘A’ is for Amplifier. In DnB, this ‘VCO > VCF > VCA’ approach just won’t cut it, but as a starting point it serves as a building block for what will become our sound.
If we consider the bass guitar as the initial sound source then this is your VCO: the first step in your analog synth setup. On a synth, the VCO section can be changed in two main ways: pitch and waveform. Pitch is easy; we just play higher or lower on the neck or use an octave pedal. Waveform is different. To alter the waveform there are a variety of techniques and equipment we can use. Simply opening or closing the tone control on your bass will alter the waveform. Distortion will also create change. Even the octave pedal our ‘pitch’ section will alter the waveform. We don’t, however, want to think of any modulation effects here. Forget chorus, phaser or flanger for now.
We want to think of all the things we can do which make changes to the sound that we put into the chain that are static and not moving. I’m sure that you can think of many ways to do so. If you have a multi-effects pedal, scroll through your sounds and start to contextualize this information within your own gear setup.
There are a number of different types of filter: Hi-Pass, Low-Pass, Band-Pass and Notch. For simplicity we are going to only focus on Low-Pass here. To recreate the sound of a Low-Pass Filter, hum a long note and shape it through the sound of the vowels (uh > oh > eh > ah > ih). You are sweeping a Low-Pass filter with your mouth. Filters contain two main controls: Cut-Off and Resonance. Cut-Off dictates the point in the audio spectrum that the sound content gets cut off, whereas resonance dictates size of the boosted ‘hump’ at the cut-off point. A high resonance means you will be able to hear the sweep better, but too high and you’ll start ripping speakers with artificially high harmonic content.
The first diagram details cut-off and resonance, the second shows a filter curve with no resonance:
On a synth, if you do not change the VCA then the note you hold will be as loud at the beginning as it is at the end; this is not so on a bass guitar. On a bass, the loudest part of the note is the beginning and it trails off as it sustains. This is a good and bad aspect of the bass guitar. Sustain matters in synthesis and without a way to increase sustain you may find frustration.
Compressors are a common way to add sustain to a bass guitar. They do this by turning down the loudest parts of a signal, then turning up the overall signal, thereby creating the illusion of sustain.
LFO / Modulation
In early synthesizers, LFO (Low Frequency Oscillators) could be used to add motion to a sound. LFOs are effectively little gremlins in your synth which are gradually lifting a lever up and down. You dictate to the gremlin the speed at which he moves this lever, and then plug the lever into any number of parameters. Attaching the level to the VCO would create a siren-like sound of constantly changing pitch, attaching it to the VCA would create a sound that gets louder and quieter, like someone breathing, whilst attaching it to the VCF will create that famed dubstep wobble!
In later synthesizers, these LFOs have become more complicated and known collectively as modulation. Chorus, Phaser, Flanger and Tremolo are the four commonly found guitar effects that we can implement. Chorus multiplies your signal and changes the copy a bit so your signal sounds richer and the depth changes over time. Phaser and Flanger produce strong motion in your sound. Tremolo is just like connecting an LFO to a VCA.
All four effects are useful in different ways and can add depth and motion to a static sound.
Building your modular synth
By combining your effects within the concepts of a modular synth, you will find new sounds that you’d previously never heard before. ‘Octave > Fuzz > Filter > Chorus’ is the common combination amongst the electronic bass player clique. We now see that as ‘VCO > VCO > VCF > LFO’ in our new framework.
Try it out. Listen to players such as John Davis of Nerve, Radek Bednarz of Bond and Miloopa and (of course) me, Dan Owens of thebrokendoor. See how they do it and reinterpret it yourself.
Next in the series – what effects to use and how!
Big thanks to www.basschat.co.uk for much of the support that led to the formation of these concepts!