Programming Bass Sequences
Where would Madonna, Giorgio Moroder or Stock, Aitken and Waterman be without sequenced bass lines? Rudi Cazeaux provides some guidelines and practical examples to help you create better bass lines.
One of the most important elements in modern music is the marriage of drums and bass, and whilst there are a number of books dealing with the intricacies of drum programming the same, alas, is not true of bass programming. In this article I shall attempt to provide pointers of a practical and more general nature on the gentle art of bass sequencing. I shall also share some tips which I have found useful in my own programming.
This article is divided into two distinct sections - the body of the text explaining what to look for in a good bass line and some music showing bass patterns for you to input into your sequencer. Don't worry if you haven't got a computer or sequencer, as the patterns aren't technically too demanding and can be readily adapted for live use.
Careful listening to any Top 10 chart material will reveal the importance of the bass line in giving 'feel' to a song (after all, where would Madonna, Michael Jackson or Giorgio Moroder be without sequenced bass lines?). One of the earliest types of bass programming was using the dreaded 8-step analogue sequencer much beloved of certain German electronic groups - see Example 1. Whilst this made a welcome contribution to modern music, the limitations of the 8-step sequencer soon became all too obvious. Until the advent of more flexible sequencing equipment, with real-time input and quantisation features, too many programmed bass lines ended up looking like Example 2. This is known in certain quarters as the 'pulse' bass line.
Take a few chords, play the root note of each as eight quavers to the bar, and voila! Instant Ultravox.
Whilst lending a driving feel to a piece of music this type of sequence can soon become repetitious. A bit of forethought and care, however, can avoid that trap. Try Example 3 for instance - still a pulse-type bass line but this time adding some rhythmic interest. This is created by leaving rests between notes to allow the bass line to 'breathe'. The notion of space in a bass pattern is very important and can be put to great use to add not only rhythmic interest but contribute to the overall feel of a piece as well. For this to succeed it is important to understand the relationship between drums and bass in providing a rhythmic foundation in modern music. Too often the temptation is for drums and bass patterns to compete for space - ideally, what should be developed is an interaction between the two. So avoid any patterns that are too busy, and try to make the bass part complement the drums. It is a difficult concept to put into practice but here are some pointers:
First of all, set up a simple bass/snare drum pattern as in Example 4a, then programme the bass line shown in 4b. Notice how the two elements play against each other. Like drum programming, it is important that some form of variation be introduced to sustain interest throughout the piece. There are two approaches to take here: melodic and/or rhythmic.
Examples 5a and 5b show two Minimoog bass patterns taken from a certain 'thrilling' world best-seller album. Notice how similar the two patterns are rhythmically. The difference here is melodic. One more point of interest is that although pattern 5a is played under three different chords - F#, G# and A - it contains notes common to all three chords; this adds an element of tension to what could be an otherwise hackneyed chord change. In contrast, Example 6 uses a simple root note played at different octaves and relies on rhythm to add spice to the track.
Another element of bass playing is the 'walking' bass (Example 7). Usually it is a straightforward pattern making use of 7th chords, starting on the root note, going through all the notes in the chord in turn and returning to the root note. This is a favoured device on scores of portable keyboards which sport various auto-accompaniment features - depending on what chord is held, the automatic bass 'walks' its way through the constituent notes, usually in time with a rhythm box. This approach can be given a fresh twist by the inclusion of simple rhythmic variation, as shown in Example 8.
One interesting development is the slap/pull school of bass playing, as exemplified by Mark King of Level 42. This immediately adds a contemporary/funky feel to any track. The secret here is in the rhythmic feel created by the contrast between the two types of bass tones used. The playing is usually very fast and extremely percussive in nature. Whilst it is very difficult to accurately synthesize the actual tone of a bass guitar played that way, the effect of it can be reproduced by judicious use of an accent facility and alternating high and low octaves. In Example 9, the < symbol indicates where the accents should be placed.
"But, how do I create my own patterns?" I hear you cry (I have got very good hearing). Use some of the pointers I have given you, try reading one of the few good electric bass tutors around and adapt it for your own use. Listen to records - any records - and try to see how the bass parts are put together. One good way to develop your feel for keyboard bass playing is by playing along with a record. I found that my fingers soon started to 'think' like a bass player (very handy that). Perhaps most importantly, try to analyse what's happening: how does a good bass line work, how does it fit in with the rest of the instrumentation? You will more than likely find that various bass sounds inspire you to play or programme in a different way. Don't be afraid to experiment, especially if you have taken the precaution to only use headphones. Alternatively, ask a bass player you know to play some bass riffs and try imitating them. Above all, think bass.
Whilst originally my main reason for sequencing was that I had only (only?) one pair of hands and needed to play various sounds at the same time, it soon became obvious that many new avenues were opened up to me through sequencing. One of the great things about programming is that you are not limited by physical constrictions (no, I don't mean being put in a strait-jacket) or lack of playing skills, but as adverts are so fond of reminding us, "the only limit is your imagination".
One technique when programming bass sequences is to record using a quantise feature. That way your playing is tighter, especially if you record at a slower tempo. Personally, I like to set up a very simple rhythm pattern, similar to a metronome beat, against which I then play. I think it's vital that you get a 'feel' for the rhythm and try to play around it. Some of The Police bass lines, although technically fairly simple, have that special relationship with the other instruments that makes for great tracks.
Another avenue to explore is steptime programming, and this is perhaps one direction in which great strides can be made. You are free from the restrictions which apply to a real bass player. See Example 10.
Here, there are in fact two bass patterns which are layered together, and unless your fingers can move like lightning they would be impossible to play by hand. Another effect of using step-time input for bass sequencing is time-keeping. Just as drum machines have affected our perception of regular drum playing, programmed bass lines have likewise added a new dimension to acceptable timing and 'tightness' in modern music. It is an interesting reflection that it is an accepted technique in the studio to record a basic drum track using drum machines and then overdub percussion by hand to add a 'human' feel. An example of Art trying to imitate Nature perhaps? The same principle can be used with bass lines to add feeling to an otherwise staid track. The best way to develop your bass programming is really through hands-on experience and by using every musician's friend: your ears.
So, how do you spice up that tired bass sequence you have been working on for two hours? First of all save it before you do anything else, take a five minute walk and come back to your steaming hot sequencer. Listen to the bass in context within the overall track and try to find out why it doesn't sound right. Is it too busy, too fast, wrong rhythm, boring? A good trick is to tap along to the rhythm - yes, tap along - to try to get a feel for the 'right' rhythm. Try to notice where the emphasis falls as you tap along - is it between the beat and behind the back beat or slightly ahead of the snare? This way you can get a useful indicator of where the accent should fall on the bass.
It might be that the bass is 'clashing' with another instrument, probably one of the drums. Either remove the bass note on the offending beat or, alternatively, the drum. Add an accent where the bass ought to come to the fore. Provide a break by changing the pattern or doubling the bass drum. This can be a very effective means of adding energy to a track.
Other oblique strategies to try are to replace one bass sound with another totally different one. I have had some good success in replacing an electric bass by a marimba-type sound. With MIDI it really is easy to change patches on your synth or sampler, etc. You could also try transposing the sequence for a change in feel. A simple bass line could also be further enhanced by careful use of portamento or glide, to give a 'fretless bass' feel. Be even more adventurous, try editing the offending sequence by removing or replacing notes at random (make certain you have saved your work beforehand). Not for the faint hearted: try merging a couple of the percussion tracks on your sequencer and reassign the merged track to a bass sound. The order of the day here is experimentation.
Finally, it might be that the bass track is just all wrong and too prevalent to sit in the final mix. Try re-programming a simpler pattern that will support your music track instead of fighting it. Dynamics, too, are important and judicious use of them will help lift a track along. If you have access to effects units you could try adding some tasteful or outlandish treatments, but it is unlikely that they will cure a 'dead' sequence. Subtle flanging might add some movement to an otherwise plain bass line but is unlikely to make it into a great one I'm afraid.
Another important factor in bass sequencing is the actual sound itself. How many times have you heard of record producers going to incredible lengths to create the ultimate snare sound along with a 'killer' bass? After all, remove the bass line from Frankie's Relax and what are you left with?
It is interesting to notice how the bass sound itself has evolved in modern music. Until fairly recently, 'bass' meant string bass. The early string bass was the acoustic double bass much beloved of the jazz fraternity and notable for its deep resonant wooden tone. The next development was the electric bass, which has remained much unchanged to this day. Due to the amplification, its sound was much different to that of the acoustic bass and when coupled with electronic effects gave way to an even greater variety of tones.
Then came the Big One - the Minimoog - and with it a truly new bass sound. This was based on the combination of three independent oscillators coupled with extensive modulation facilities, a brilliant filter design, glide and syncing. In fact, so prized is the sound of the Minimoog synthesizer that it is still used today for its bass sound. Of perhaps even greater significance is the fact that, with additional hardware, it could be sequenced. Its introduction also signified the public recognition of the electronic bass sound as a valid one. This acceptance opened the door to the search for an even greater variety of bass sounds, which is still in full swing today.
The next major development was an intriguing one caused by the introduction of the Yamaha DX7 in 1983. Here was a return, in some degree, to an 'acoustic' quality to bass sounds. It was also the birth of that electric bass sound, heard since then on countless hit records. In fact, so prevalent is the DX7 bass sound that to many people today it is the bass sound. What gives the DX7 its distinctive character is its sheer clarity of tone and the way in which its harmonic structure moves in time, creating an aggressive and gut-wrenching sound. Coupled with clever programming, velocity sensing, and some sympathetic playing, no wonder it has become a classic in its own lifetime.
But don't worry if you don't have access to the delights of velocity and touch-sensitive keyboards. Bass-type sounds tend to be severely compressed in the studio anyway and often end up with a limited dynamic range. So, where to next?
The most recent episode in the continuing saga of the search for that perfect bass sound is the digital sampler. Of particular interest is the MidiBass module from 360 Systems. It is a dedicated, monophonic sampled unit, responsive to velocity and offering a variety of controls. A number of bass sounds are available for it in the form of interchangeable ROM chips including conventional, string, slap, FM and even grand piano bass sounds.
Recently, a number of drum machines have appeared offering bass sounds in addition to their normal drum samples. No doubt this is a trend which is likely to continue and has already filtered down to the budget drum machine market in the shape of the Kawai R50, amongst others. When you think about it, it is a logical development, as the bass is such an important part of the rhythm section and a bass sound is generally less demanding in terms of sample memory. So, if you can't afford that sampler you've promised yourself, don't despair. Only a few years more and some enterprising manufacturer will no doubt bring out the all-singing, all-dancing MIDI wonder expander with onboard sampled drums, multitimbral sounds and bass at a laughably low price. What d'ya mean, Roland already have one out? Then maybe you should buy a Roland MT32... or you could always MIDI together a couple of DX7s, an Akai S900, and a Roland D50... Failing all this, you could always get a real bass player to play for you!
Feature by Rudi Cazeaux
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