– Bass as the foundation of (almost) all music –

Ever wondered why some modern songs feel larger than life while others are lacking some kind of “definition?”  Are you a classical music listener that can tell when an entire low-end section drops out of the larger group because it feels different?  Have you ever wondered what the guitar-looking thing with the gargantuan tuning pegs held by a guy not moving very much in the back of the stage is for?  Wondered why hearing a rock show outside a venue sounds like split pea soup?  This blog post about bass (and the corresponding stringed instrument) is for you!

Low frequencies are a significant part of many of the styles of music we listen to.  While there are exceptions to this rule – the soprano-singing ukulele singer/songwriter, for example – we’re going to focus on the impact that the sonic basement has on our listening experience.

The “tl;dr” version of this entire thing is: bass frequencies are good. They make music sound awesome.  Some of this writing is based on actual theory, much of it on perception and opinion. This one definitely hit the “tl” portion though.  Really.  I do hope you’ll stick around.  Bring some popcorn and a beverage maybe.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a bass player for going on 30 years now.  There is some inherent bias in pretty much everything that is to come ahead (read: fanboyism) so please take that into consideration as we go down the sub-frequency rabbit hole.  The bottom end is near!

Why bass isn’t just for fishing anymore

Story time!  Children of the 80s represent.  I grew up with the portable tape recorder and Walkman.  Those machine speakers and walkmans (walkmen?) stock headphones are a very stripped down audio experience.  Thanks to the efforts of an incredible neighbor, I was familiar with the wonderment that was the bass guitar due to his (and my) admiration of the band Rush.  Their singer Geddy Lee also served as bass player and is considered among the better known players in the modern era.  More on that evolution later.

Any stereo systems that I had access to had very little sub capability.  I never knew of the sonic impact that properly tuned and projected low frequencies could have on the listening experience.  It wasn’t until saving up enough KFC money that I was able to acquire a “Boom Box” with a “TURBO BASS” button that my mind was blown. Suddenly all the music I was listening to had a completely new dimension to it.  What was once thin and wispy was thick and powerful.  Kick drums in rock bands had some actual sonic footprint.  The low brass and contrabass sections of the symphonies I was in love with sounded IMMENSE in comparison to Walkman headphones.  It was incredible and only just getting started.

Enter: my first bass guitar

While painting figurines at a friend’s house, he put on a CD by a band named Primus for me to hear for the first time.  A song by name of “Jerry was a Race Car Driver” came on and it featured a sound I had never heard before in the intro.  When I asked what kind of guitar they were playing, I was informed that that was a bass.  After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I vowed that I was going to make the bass guitar my life going forward.  That following summer I acquired a very cheap knock-off bass guitar with action a mile high and a very small amplifier that made the sounds while providing almost no low-end benefit.  It didn’t matter; I was on my way to thinking I was going to be the next Les Claypool.

I spent the entire summer trying to learn to play the thing using a quarter for a pick* and annoying the rest of my family. An entire blog on the process of learning the bass guitar and why it’s so much fun could be written, I wager.  We’re getting off topic though so I’m going to meander back to my supporting story.

* I eventually switched to finger style and never looked back.  Picks sound cool but it’s just not my jam.

Low end discovery continues

Not long after this I went to my first live concert ever. 1993! Dream Theater at Seattle’s Paramount Theater.  Didn’t know I needed ear plugs.  Also didn’t know what powered subwoofers were.  Dream Theater’s drummer made liberal use of Double Kick drums and each and every thump was like knocking the wind out of my stomach.  I went home feeling exhilarated and slightly numb – and partially deaf for the next two days because WOW was it loud – and sought to find a way to get some degree of that experience again in the home environment.

A cheap Sears “Stereo Component System” – you know, the kind where it’s not actually components but just looks like it – was the next fast food money acquisition.  The difference now was that it had a 12” subwoofer built into the cabinet.  Going from Turbo Bass to an actual and proper subwoofer was – once again – an extremely ear-opening experience. Those same kick drums now actually rattled the floor.  Bass guitars rumbled the joists.  Blasting “James Brown is Dead” generating a satisfying thump to the beat.  Parents expressed displeasure, which I now know means I was doing it right.

Everything just sounded so much more “complete.”  What I didn’t realize at the time was I was finally hearing music as it was meant to be heard, not an unreasonable facsimile.  Like a filter had been removed from the listening experience and the gloves were off.  I started discovering that there were different methods of mixing music throughout different eras.  Before stereo upgrades, most everything sounded mixed the same.  Balanced, accurate, thin.  When the larger array of sound reproduction became available, mixing throughout the decades started to be revealed.

Examples of the differences

Huey Lewis and the News didn’t sound mixed anything like Parliament Funkadelic.  Parliament (check out the bass line!!!!) didn’t sound like Ben Folds.  Ben Folds didn’t sound like Nat King Cole.  Nat King Cole sure didn’t sound like Metallica.  Heck, Metallica didn’t even sound like Metallica. Ride the Lightning was a thinner balanced mix.  Justice was bereft of bass guitar due to … well … new-guy hazing and pettiness.  The Black Album was a ginormous wall of sound thanks to the efforts of Bob Rock.  Death Magnetic’s waveform looks like a pancake.

If you’re a Rush afficionado, you’re very familiar with the very sterile and accurate mixes leading up to Roll the Bones.  You were probably as shocked as I was when Counterparts released and suddenly everything was MASSIVE.  We can all thank Kevin “Caveman” Shirley for that shift in direction.

What absent bass can do for or to a song

As an album mixing engineer, I learned the hard way that the absence of low end material leaves a full band mix lifeless and thin.  Like making something sound like Walkman headphones but on good speakers. Mixing my own band’s album ended up with them revealing that I my bass parts too low.  It really only took a few decibels of increase on the bass channel and suddenly everything gelled properly. Low frequency necessity.

Back to Metallica. …And Justice for All had the bass guitar eliminated in the final mixes.  If listen to a video with bass put back in, it’s a more complete experience.  A better one, if I were to opine on the matter.  Thicker, fuller, less sterile and more fulfilling.

As a kid, Prince’s “When Doves Cry” would play and something didn’t feel right.  There are rumors that when he mixed down that track he accidentally left the bass track muted.  Others indicate that it was a conscious decision even though there was a bass line recorded.  Either way, he liked the way it sounded as a contrast so it was kept that way and presented in the iconic form that we all now know and love.

Why the club next door sounds muddy in your living room

I’ll try to condense the technical side of this into something a bit more malleable.  Being outside a club or next to a car that is blasting a song usually sounds like what we call “mud.”  Low and middle-range frequencies just permeating through the atmosphere and giving you an ear ache.  There’s a reason why it sounds like that!

Higher frequencies have tighter waveforms and are not able to penetrate through solid surfaces as easily as lower frequencies.  They bounce back and all around in the car, the club, the concert hall.  Low frequencies, by virtue of their much longer wavelength, can more easily just pass through solid surfaces.  Kinda like Vision in the Marvel movies but with fewer Infinity Stones.  Lower frequencies are not absorbed and reflected like higher ones so they travel further and have a healthy disrespect for boundaries. As such, when you’re outside the club you’re only getting frequencies that can pass through the walls and it sounds muffled.  Stand next to the back door with the security guard and suddenly the clarity returns.  Fewer blockages outside that door!

The bottom (end) line

We are happier campers for having the tools to hear music in all its full sonic glory.  Even ear buds are today tuned in a way that low end frequencies can actually be heard.  Some laptops have “woofers” in them with some wild psychoacoustic encasings to bring out low end from a very small form factor.  Music producers and music listeners are in accord! Listen the way it is meant to be heard.  Maybe in a later post we can get into how mix engineers usually have several sets of speakers for mix tests – including the car test! – to make sure an artist vision stands a chance on modern listening devices.

If you’ve lasted this long, I am grateful that you survived this brain dump!  While there is a technical side of this, it’s a very personal journey to sonic discovery and I thank you for letting me share it with you.

Until next time!

-= george =-