Synth Bass: The Definitive Guide

Synth Bass: The Definitive Guide Synth Bass: The Definitive Guide

Synth bass has become an essential part of modern music.

From groovy retro synth-pop to heart-thumping EDM, you gotta know your stuff if you want to create a killer synth bass sound. But hey, don't sweat it! Programming your own synth bass sounds might seem like a dark art, but fear not! Even if you're a newbie, you can still whip up some juicy synth bass tones with a little bit of know-how.

So let's dive in and check out the top synth bass styles and how to make them

The 808 Sub

The 808 Sub

If you haven't heard of the sub-bass, well, you're likely living under a rock and missing out on what might be the most foundational sound of synth bass as a whole! The sub has become so iconic that it goes by the name "808," named after its maker, the legendary Roland TR-808 drum machine.

The 808 was only manufactured for two years starting in 1980, but it left a legacy so big it could make your head spin faster than a vinyl record! You can hear its signature sounds all over rap and hip hop, and even in the pop music of today.

Luckily, if you want to feel the bass in your chest and the sub in your trunk, it ain't that hard to make.

How to Create an 808 Sub Bass

The 808 bass is simple to make yet oh-so-deeply satisfying. The original 808 kick drum made use of the sine wave, which is pretty much the plain Jane of waveforms — it only has one frequency, though that frequency packs a punch in the lowest octaves.

The best part is that you don't need to be a sound design wizard to create your own 808 sub-bass. Just grab any synth, and create a snappy envelope with a sine wave, play down around the range of C0-C2, and voila! You'll have that chest-thumping, booty-shaking bass in no time.

If you have a synthesizer without a solid sine wave, you can use a low-pass filter on a triangle wave.

Minimoog Model D

Minimoog Model D

If you're a synth-head, then you have to give major props to the OG of portable synths - the Model D. This hardware legend hit the scene way back in 1971 and changed the game forever by being the first synthesizer with a portable keyboard.

Bob Moog's unique filter design gave it a thick and warm sound that was absolutely bananas for the time. It also just so happened that it was perfect for those fat, juicy synth bass tones.

How to Create a Minimoog Model D Sound

So, you want that meaty Minimoog bass sound, but you don't have a Minimoog? No worries, you can get it with any synth that has sawtooth and square oscillators. Now, here's the deal: creating this sound requires a bit of effort. You can't just slap together any old patch and hope for the best. You need to pay attention to the details .

Start with dual sawtooth oscillators, and experiment with detuning them to get that iconic thick tone. Or, if you're feeling square, you can use a square wave for a different sound. Then, get snappy with those envelopes. You want a fast attack and short decay.

I often like to keep the filter near zero with the contour amount up to about halfway. In doing so, you'll get a snappy transient at the start and a thicker low end at the tail.

Wobble Dubstep Bass

Wobble Dubstep Bass

Ah, the infamous dubstep wobble bass! Its origins date back to the early 2000s, when dubstep was just a twinkle in the UK garage scene's eye. DJs and producers were experimenting with new ways to make basslines sound even more gnarly and destructive. And lo and behold, the wobble bass was born.

Legend has it that a producer named Caspa was tinkering around with some synthesizers when he accidentally turned a knob too far. Suddenly, the bassline started wobbling and pulsating in a way that no one had ever heard before. I can only imagine the reaction was something along the lines of "...filthy!" And thus, the dubstep wobble bass was unleashed upon the world.

As the sound gained popularity, producers began to refine and perfect the technique. They found that the wobble effect was achieved by modulating the cutoff frequency of a low-pass filter with a fast LFO (low-frequency oscillator). This caused the bassline to "wobble" up and down in pitch, creating that signature sound that continues to make dubstep fans lose their minds.

How to Create the Dubstep Wobble Bass Sound

To create the iconic dubstep wobble bass sound, you'll need a synth with at least two oscillators, a filter, and an LFO.

Start by selecting a sawtooth wave on oscillator one and a square wave on oscillator two. Set the filter cutoff low and resonance high to create a deep, buzzy sound. Then, assign the LFO to the synth's filter cutoff to modulate it and set the rate to match the tempo of your track.

The cool thing about the dubstep bass is its flexibility, which allows you to experiment with different LFO shapes, such as a square or triangle wave, to achieve different wobbling patterns. You'll also want to adjust the LFO depth and filter envelope to fine-tune the sound to your liking.

Acid Bass

Acid Bass

Much like how the 808 birthed hip-hop and trap, the Roland TB-303 gave birth to the hypnotic and psychedelic sound known as acid bass. Initially designed as a support instrument for guitarists and keyboardists, the monophonic synth failed to make waves upon its debut in 1981, leading to a glut of affordable secondhand units during the mid-1980s.

However, experimental electronic producers recognized its untapped potential, harnessing its hypnotic sound to create the signature, warbling basslines of acid house. Today, the TB-303's impact on electronic music, particularly techno and acid house, remains immeasurable, and its unique sound is still heard in countless tracks.

The secret sauce of acid bass lies in the distinctive timbre created by the filter. The Roland TB-303 employed a diode ladder filter, which set it apart from the legendary Bob Moog's filter, the transistor ladder.

The resulting sound was a squelchy, acidic tone that contrasted with the smooth, creamy sounds of Moog's filter. Moreover, the 303 wasn't built for live performance, requiring producers to pre-program their tracks.

However, savvy creators added expression to their compositions by playing with the resonance and cutoff levels, adding nuance and character to their programmed phrases.

How to Create the Acid Bass

Crafting an acid sound is deceptively straightforward. With your step sequencer and a knack for programming, you can conjure up the perfect plucky bassline. The key is to dial in the right envelope settings, with a snappy attack, medium decay/sustain, and a brief release.

And if you don't have a sequencer at your disposal, you can still achieve the desired effect by routing MIDI signals from your computer directly to your synthesizer. It's a minimalist approach that proves that sometimes, less is more when it comes to crafting the perfect acid sound.

If you're after that unmistakable filter timbre that only the Roland TB-303 can provide, you have a few options at your disposal.

While you could scour the internet for a vintage unit or invest in one of your many hardware or software emulations available, if that's not feasible, there are still ways to approximate the sound. If you mess around with the settings on your filter pole, it can yield interesting results while finding the perfect resonance level can bring your bassline to life.

The key is finding that sweet spot that complements the rhythm and phrasing of your track.

FM Bass

FM Bass

The FM bass tone is a staple of 80s pop hits and has its roots in a few trusty presets on the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. This groundbreaking instrument revolutionized the music world by making Frequency Modulation, otherwise known as FM, synthesis accessible to a wider audience.

From A-Ha's "Take on Me" to Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone," this iconic bass sound has been the backbone of countless chart-topping hits. And who could forget the haunting melody of the Main Theme to Twin Peaks, where the FM sound lent that eerie, otherworldly quality to the unforgettable opening sequence?

Whether you're a fan of 80s nostalgia or simply looking to add some retro flair to your productions, the FM sound is a must-have in any producer's toolkit.

The bass sound produced by FM synthesis can give you the impression of listening to a bass guitar. Unlike the regular synthesizer waveforms, FM generates sidebands from modulator and carrier oscillators that result in complex harmonics. When the settings are adjusted to create the right level of harmonic complexity, the sound produced is akin to the metallic timbre of a bass guitar, especially when plucked aggressively or played using a slap technique.

How to Create the FM Bass

The first thing you need to craft this bass sound is an FM synthesizer. Fortunately, there are plenty of iconic Yamaha DX7 emulations, which popularized FM synthesis in the 80s.

While programming the DX7 could be a nightmare, modern emulations are much more user-friendly. To achieve the classic twang, you need a snappy amplitude envelope, with a quick attack, moderate decay, medium sustain, and quick release.

You get the metallic sound from the FM effect, which creates complex sidebands from modulator and carrier oscillators. Experimenting with different oscillator ratios can yield a range of metallic timbres. Plus, there are plenty of FM synths that feature an amount control, which determines the audibility of the FM effect.

PRO TIP: If you want an even more authentic electric bass sound, try to experiment with the synth's FM amount using key velocity.

Reese Bass

Reese Bass

There's no denying the power of this next classic synth bass sound and one that's stood the test of time - the legendary Reese bass. Named after the artist who first championed it, Kevin Saunderson's side project Reese introduced the world to this distinctive sonic signature.

Legend has it that Saunderson created the bassline for "Just Want Another Chance," and thus, the Reese bass was born. Fast forward a few years, and the Reese bass had become a defining characteristic of drum and bass and jungle.

This textured, evolving beast that's born from the magic of detuned and out-of-phase oscillators offers a gritty, bass-heavy presence. The sense of movement you got from this bass could certainly spell trouble for mixers in most genres - but the experimental producers of the 90s weren't ones to play by the rules. They embraced the Reese bass in all its sonic glory, using it to push boundaries and create a sound that was truly their own.

How to Make the Reese Bass Sound

When it comes to crafting the perfect Reese bass, there's no one-size-fits-all approach. Kevin Saunderson famously created the sound using a Casio CZ-5000, twisting and tweaking until he landed on something truly groundbreaking.

Thankfully, today's modern synthesizers offer a wealth of options for achieving that wobbly, distorted texture. Simply load up a couple of oscillators, tune them just right, and let the magic happen. With saw or square waves at your disposal, the possibilities are virtually endless.

Top Hardware Synth Bass

Roland TB-303

The Roland TB-303 changed the course of music history when it was released in 1982. When it eventually fell into the hands of innovative producers like Phuture, it found new life as the foundation of acid house music.

The 303's distinctive squelchy timbre and diode ladder filter design, combined with its ease of use and affordability, made it the go-to bass synthesizer of the 1980s underground music scene.

Moog Minimoog Model D

The Moog Minimoog Model D is pretty much synonymous with fat, powerful analog bass sounds. Its classic design and intuitive interface make it a favorite among musicians and producers in a myriad of genres.

Of course, most people love the Model D for its thick, warm, and instantly recognizable sound, which is thanks to three voltage-controlled oscillators, a ladder filter, and an iconic modulation section.

There's no doubt you've heard this analog synth used on countless classic recordings, from funk and soul to rock and EDM, and its one of the most iconic and influential synthesizers of all time.

Korg MS-20

The Korg MS-20 is another classic analog synth that's made a name for itself in the world of electronic music. It earned its spot in the 'legendary' realm with two voltage-controlled oscillators and a self-oscillating resonant high-pass and low-pass filter.

Of course, the other thing that sets the MS-20 apart is its semi-modular design, which allows for extensive patching and modulation possibilities. Top all of that off with the 37 patch points, and it's a sound designer's dream.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully now, you feel like a certified expert in the art of synth bass. So go forth, fellow synthheads, and make those subwoofers thump like there's no tomorrow.

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