We are resuming our posts on electronic music theory this week with a new series analyzing some classic dubstep basslines. We’re going to look at how to use the tools of music theory to look at what makes some of these basslines tick, and how they might have been created. We will look particularly at their notes, rhythms, and phrasing.
In this first post we’re going to check out the track “Root” by dubstep pioneer Loefah (DMZ, Tectonic, Deep Medi Musik, Swamp81). Loefah is a true master of crafting subterranean subbass parts that are both extremely simple and very effective musically, and the bassline from “Root” is a perfect example.
Electronic Music Theory?
Before diving into some deep bass with Loefah, I just want to say something about music theory in general as we resume this series, and how learning about it can help us as producers of electronic music. It seems like the mere idea of music theory can be a big hang-up for a lot of electronic musicians, especially for those with no background playing the piano or another instrument before they started producing beats and designing sounds, so I want to take a second to try and demystify it a bit.
What is music theory anyway? Wikipedia tells us quite simply that “Music theory is the study of how music works,” and goes on to add that music theory seeks to identify common patterns across a genre or style by analyzing the fundamental parameters of music: rhythm, harmony, melody, structure, timbre, and so on. What is ‘electronic music theory’ then? The way we are using it here, electronic music theory is just the analysis of how electronic music works, learning about the characteristics of various electronic genres and what makes them tick. It’s about listening to a track and asking questions like these:
- What kind of beats and rhythms does it use?
- What types of sounds are present?
- Is there a melody?
- Is there a bassline?
- What notes are used to make up these parts?
- What chords and harmonies are used (if any)?
- What is the form of the arrangement, what sections are present and in what order and are they repeated?
Even if you have never studied music theory before, you can learn a lot by listening to your favorite tracks, asking yourself some of these questions, and trying to recognize patterns and structures in the music. This is how you build your understanding and learn new musical vocabulary to use in your own music.
Classic Dubstep Bass
Now let’s try and apply the perspective of music theory to a particular topic: let’s look at a classic dubstep bassline and see what makes it work.
The most common problem I hear students having with constructing basslines in any genre of electronic music is simply that they use too many notes and make the bass pattern too complicated. For this reason, I decided to focus here on a powerful yet simple dubstep bassline that uses just a few notes and very simple phrases to make its impact. Next time we’ll look at a more recent example and check out some of the more complex bass construction techniques that are popular now.
I want to leave aside for now the question of what sounds or synths are used and focus on the notes and rhythms instead. I have had a lot of students in my Dubspot classes ask about how to make dubstep basslines, and the most common question is simply “how can I make those heavy sounds?” The discussion that follows usually focuses on what synths to use, how to create wobble and rhythmic effects with LFOs and filters, how to make the sound fatter and beefier, and so on. However I see a lot of students having problems with a much more basic aspect of bassline construction: the actual pattern of notes that is played. Many aspiring producers seem to get absorbed in the sound design side of things but when it comes to using the sound in a track, they aren’t sure what to do with it or what notes to play.
Let’s clear up this topic by looking at an example and see what notes and rhythms are actually used.
Loefah – “Root” (DMZ 2005)
“Root” by Loefah is a classic DMZ track released in 2005 (as the A-side of a 12″ that featured the perhaps better-known “Goat Stare”), with a simple subterranean subbass guaranteed to shake and rattle the walls of any venue. Click the video link below and pay special attention to part from about 1:01, just before the bass drops in for the first time:
If we break this part down and analyze it by playing along on a MIDI keyboard and recording it, we find that it uses a simple one-bar bass motif for the whole track, playing only one note, the root. This is actually the reason why I chose this track to analyze, to show how such an effective bass part can be made out of just one note. The sound used here is basically just a subby sine wave.
Most likely, this is all that Loefah played on the keyboard himself to record this part, just these four notes, all on the same pitch G. (Alternatively he might have just drawn them in there with a pencil tool, the part is simple enough.) Notice also the basic rhythm — if you look only at where each note starts, they are spaced perfectly evenly — one note is played and the next starts exactly SIX sixteenth notes (or three eighth notes) later. My Live note grid is set to sixteenth notes in this image, so each little block is equivalent to 1/16 of a bar. This is a common rhythmic device in dubstep as well as other kinds of dance music, rhythmic groups of three played at the same time as rhythmic groups of four in another instrument (usually the drums), and you will soon recognize this type of pattern in many different tracks once you start listening for it.
Now let’s look at a whole phrase of Loefah’s bassline, the entire repeating pattern. If we listen to a bit more of the track after the bass drops in at 1:10 or so, we hear that the above pattern repeats exactly seven times, and then on the eighth repetition, the last note is dropped.
This leaves a little breathing space in the pattern in bar sixteen, just before this entire group of bars repeats again. This is another common rhythmic device in a lot of dance music genres, dropping out one or more parts in the last bar of a phrase in order to set up the next section. Creating these larger patterns and phrases out of simple building blocks is one way of maintaining interest in a track and avoiding boredom, as well as giving your arrangement a larger sense of unity and structure.
If we keep listening to the track as it continues, we will hear that this whole sixteen bar phrase is itself repeated three times, and then there is an even longer break that sets up the next section around 2:32. Following this, Loefah repeats this same sixteen bar bass pattern again, but adds another higher G to complement it, using another bass sound with a bit more edge to it. You can see how this added bass part works with the first to form a whole phrase in the following image, where the new sound appears as G1.
Notice that Loefah only uses this new sound every four bars, helping to divide the subbass part into four-bar subphrases of the whole sixteen-bar bass loop. The more you analyze music in this way, the more you will notice this kind of nested binary structure everywhere: 2-bar groups that form 4-bar groups that form 16-bar groups that can be arranged into an entire track:
Sidechained Bass Rhythms
Now although I said I wanted to concentrate on Loefah’s notes and rhythms in this analysis rather than the sounds he uses, there is also one common production technique he most likely used in this track that affects how we hear the rhythm, and that is sidechain compression. Although many of the notes Loefah uses in the bassline for “Root” are sustained and long rather than short and percussive, he creates a subtle internal groove in each one through the use of sidechain compression on the bass; when the kick drum hits, the bass drops in volume a bit and then swells up a bit again after, and this makes the two parts groove together much better if done right.
Listen to the examples again and try to hear how this works. Although showing how to use sidechain compression is beyond the scope of this post, it is important to recognize that this is one of the main factors that makes the bassline groove with the drums the way it does. For more on sidechain compression and how to use it in Live or Logic, check out these past tutorials from Dubspot:
Bass Science Continued
In any event, we hope you learned something here about how we can use musical analysis to understand how a heavy bassline can be extremely simple yet still interesting and extremely compelling. You don’t need a lot of notes or a complex rhythm to make a groovy bassline, in fact many times the opposite is true, and “Root” is a great example of this. Remember, in many cases less really is more.
Stay tuned for more electronic music theory from Dubspot, we’ll be looking next at some more basslines from different styles of dubstep to see what makes them work.
Dubspot blogger/instructor John von Seggern has been producing and performing music with computers since his first DJ gigs in 1999 with his Hong Kong-based group Digital Cutup Lounge. Since then he has played techno at massive underground parties in China, remixed major Western pop artists for the Indian music market (and vice versa), designed orchestral electronic sounds and effects for the Pixar film Wall-E, and presented his anthropological research on music technology at academic conferences. He has authored two instructional books about computer music production and performance as well as the manual for Native Instruments’ popular software synthesizer Massive.
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