I have always planned to write a Production Advice post about how to achieve clean, powerful, natural-sounding bass in your mix.
This is not that post.
This is a post to give you ideas on how to achieve monstrous, un-natural, trouser-wobbling bass like the band Pendulum – bass that goes against nature and puts you in fear of your life, bass that endangers the structural stability of your home and gently eases the fillings from your teeth.(*)
(*) Some of these claims may be slightly over the top.
[Edit – This is another old post, but is still one of the most popular I’ve ever written. If you’ve already seen it, apologies – if not, I hope you like it!]
It was inspired by a question posed a couple of days ago on Twitter by @JCLemay:
Pendulum – “Showdown” how do they get such electrical energy (hear the lows) and massive sound ?
And I thought – “I can answer that” – after all, Pendulum use exactly the same formula to achieve this result on every one of their tracks. Rather than a sequence of tweets or an email to answer JC’s question, I decided to put my suggestions up here for him – and you. So, without further ado:
How to get insane, enormous quantities of deep bass into your mix
Lets start with the bleedin’ obvious:
It’s a synth
I know, it’s hardly an earth-shattering insight, but it needs to be said. The trademark Pendulum bass sound is a synth, not a real instrument. There are real bass guitar sounds in Pendulum’s mix, but they aren’t the reason the neighbours are calling the police. The subsonic foundation that is Pendulum’s trademark is a synth sound – and by the sound of it, it’s exactly the same on every track. It’s a very pure and sine-y, with very few high harmonics, often just the root and an octave above – I’ll come back to this later.
The kick doesn’t kick – much
In contrast to the bass synth sound, which is huge, the kick is quite restrained – not that loud in the mix (compared with the snare, say) and with a very focused, punchy sound – much more energy in the 80-100Hz region than the 50-60Hz area. This is a technique The Prodigy also use. The relatively dry kick sound doesn’t really matter – the bass line fits closely with it rhythmically and adds it’s subsonics to the drum sound, rather than fighting it.
There’s nothing else down there
Try this – add a low-cut filter over a Pendulum mix, at about 80Hz. All that amazing, deep bass will disappear, as you might expect – but almost nothing else will be affected. This is a fairly extreme example of the technique of “frequency sculpting” – restricting instruments to specific frequency ranges to avoid them getting in each other’s way. Often this is used as a way to make a confused arrangement work, but in the case of Pendulum, it’s a fundamental aspect of the mix. Just listen to any of the sections where the bass and drums drop out – there’s no bass in any of the other instruments, especially not down below 80 Hz or so. This gives the bass and kick freedom to completely dominate the bottom end.
While we’re listening to the sections where the bass and drums aren’t in the mix, it’s worth commenting on another aspect of the arrangements. The bass and drums are LOUD in the mix. In “Showdown”, when they pile in the overall level of the track lifts by a hefty 3dB RMS. They even use a quieter bass line to start with to add to the effect.
Which means, if you’ve put the CD on, adjusted the volume to a good healthy level and sat back down, when the bass and drums eventually cut in, they’ll knock you straight back out of your chair again. This “ambush” effect is added to by the bass-light aspect of the other instruments – our ears get used to the mix and accept it as reasonably balanced… and then the bass arrives.
Often this kind of strategy might lead to a muddy, confused effect, but the fact that the bass sound is very pure, without many high harmonics, means that it doesn’t interfere with anything else in the mix, and vice versa.
Parallel parts, or doubling
Pure, sine-wave bass sounds have a disadvantage though – they don’t have much attack or clarity, and they don’t come across well on smaller speakers. Pendulum deal with this by almost always having the bass-line doubling with another instrument – either a real bass, or a high, cutting synth sound. This gives clues to our ears about what the bass is playing on small speakers, and (along with the kick) adds an impression of attack and impact to the soft, subby bass sound.
Finally, the fact that the bass parts are doubled in higher octaves gives a great depth and richness to the sound. This isn’t a new idea, though – classical composer Ralph Vaughan Williams uses the same technique in his string arrangements. Doubling in octaves creates lush, spacious textures without cluttering up the sound – many metal groups do the same with guitar parts.
Another thing to notice about the bass part is the incredible precision of it’s notes – unlike a real guitar where the sustain decays throughout the note, the synth maintains a constant level through each one, and ends at just the right moment to give a little air before the next note. These carefully judged, seqeunced gaps in the sound add to the impact.
Let’s face it – Pendulum is loud. It’s highly compressed, with a dynamic range of less than 6dB when going full tilt. My guess is this is achieved with some multi-band compression at some point, probably in the mastering, and this coupled with the careful arrangement and mix decisions allows the bass to be even more consistent and powerful, without causing pumping or distortion (most of the time).
So, what are you waiting for ?
That should give you some pointers towards achieving the “Pendulum” bass sound – my questions is, do you really want to ? It’s not a natural sound by any means – the sequenced synth bass gives a very controlled, electronic, almost robotic feel – and to me, the surgical frequency sculpting sounds very clinical and stylised. It’s a highly distinctive sound, and the danger of copying something this specialised is that you end up just sounding like a bad parody.
Of course you don’t have to use them all at once the way Pendulum do, though – in fact, any of these techniques can be used on it’s own in a more “normal” mix with great success. Listen to the last chorus of U2’s Beautiful Day, for example – there’s an extra subby bass synth added in there an octave below the normal bassline to give everything a little extra lift at just the right moment. Proceed with caution though – adding deep bass like this can be risky if your speakers can’t reproduce it well enough for you to hear what’s going on.
And when the neighbours come knocking, don’t blame me.
PS. I mentioned multiband compression above – this can be an invaluable tool for getting loud, punchy mixes without crushing the life out of your mix – to find out more, click here.