So I was wondering about how better to add value to this site for musicians, and I thought, well, why not get super specific about it?
It’s great to have how-to guides for genres, or tips on productivity and creativity (and, in fact, I like doing all those things, too, as I find articles like that quite helpful) but also, I decided it might be good to get into dissecting the real-world methods of actual musicians…
I decided to do a dissection of a song that I think it representative of (some of) the modern glitch hop / edm I’ve been hearing lately…
I mentioned in an earlier article how it can be good to sit through your favorite tracks and write down specific things about the track, to give you an in-depth idea about what you’re hearing… so, on that note, I decided to give an example of such an exercise.
One difference, though, is that this is an article, and not a series of bullet-points. I feel it will be better to write it in paragraph-format so that I can get into more detail on each point. I decided to go really in-depth on it, too, because I figured that would be the most helpful way to go about it…
Some of the techniques I mention might seem obvious, but I’ll try to mention them, anyway, because they could, potentially, be very helpful.
I dissected Bassnectar’s ‘Bass Head’ tune. It’s a fun little track. The song starts off right away with a basic three-note melody that reminds me of some of the melodies in British grime music… It plays out for a bar, and then repeats a second time, but lower in melody, maybe an octave or two lower. At the end of the second bar of notes you hear the vocal phrase, ‘base head,’ and then, the next time around, just, ‘base,’ with some fx assigned to it. It’s been placed at the end of each bar, which is a common hip hop sampling technique.
While the melody is going, there is also a beat tying the notes to the ground, with a basic 4/4 hip hop or dubstep type of rhythm structure, with an emphasis on the clap. It sounds like there’s more than one layering to the clap, giving it a thicker sound. I think that’s one of the secrets of modern funky production in music – layering up, and an emphasis on the hi-end clap or snare sound on the 2 and the 4…
Also, I noticed that there is a lead up to the second snare. The affect is almost a glide-like sound, and he could’ve done a number of things to produce that type of technique… You can emulate that sound with a double-up of the snare or a reverse echo rising in volume to meet the snare, or some mix or combination of the two. It’s like a tiny build-up. Bassnectar is all about the build-ups.
Also, concerning the rhythm, the high hats are playing in double time, typical for a dubstep-type style beat.
It takes about a minute to get to the first breakdown (oh, I mean ‘drop,’) with a riser leading up to it. At the end of the riser you hear, ‘base-head,’ one more time, and then comes the drop and the wobbles. There’s definitely a touch of some reggae or Jamaican sounds and influences, (the “boom” vocal, off in the background, adding texture) as well as the synthesized sustained-bass note at exactly one minute into the song.
A more melodic-sounding wobble appears, involving a synthesized melody that is similar to the original three-note synth we heard in the beginning. Though it is similar, it isn’t identical, but it’s close enough that it takes us back to the original catchy three-note grime melody that starts up very soon thereafter, and without too much contrast – though before the original melody comes back in, there is a slightly different variation of it that plays out for a little while, in what sounds like a bridge section.
Also, I’ll point out that something I always noticed about Bassnectar was the diversity of different styles and sound structures he employs in any one of his tunes. He’s not against using dub techniques, hip hop sampling methods, glitch hop sound aesthetics (and any other old rave-centric techniques) all in the same tune, sometimes layered on top of one another. I think the affect is that it sounds less ‘niche,’ and probably makes it more accessible. It’s also the reason, in my opinion, why so many people who are new to electronic music tend to like his sound. You don’t have to know anything about electronic music to know that Bassnectar sounds good. That’s not a cynical judgment on his fans, either; his music reminds me a lot of Fatboy Slim and his eclectic mixing. It’s just something that’s worked for him.
If you ask the typical Bassnectar fan what kind of music the dude makes, you might hear something like, “oh, he makes dubstep…” (Which is partially true) or, more often, I’ve heard people say things like, “oh, Bassnectar is impossible to explain, he mixes everything into his music!”
I always found that anyone who says a style or a musician is “impossible” to explain or articulate, is always – with no exception, ever – wrong; but at this point, I’m digressing a lot, and I’ll save that tangent for another day…
I think the overall style for this song is more or less about the balance of bouncy and light mid-tempo grooves with hard / bass-heavy sounds. It’s definitely not as dark as some early Benga-style dubstep, but it’s not as light as most pop music you’ll hear on the radio. That being said, if I were to hear any Bassnectar tunes played on the radio, I wouldn’t really be surprised at all if this were one of them.
It definitely gets into dubstep, and explores a few different wobble aesthetics, but overall, it sounds a lot poppier than a lot of dubstep. Again, not saying that’s a bad thing, but merely saying it’s a thing.
I’ve barely even gotten to the bass, yet! Most people might argue that the bass is the most important aspect of his sound, but I would disagree. I think it’s in the overall layering of different types of electronic sounds in a basically-poppish structure.
At first, I thought I heard more reverb on the higher-pitched version of the melody (the one that’s played first) as compared to the second set of notes… I think this might be wrong, however; I think the volume is turned down for the second set of notes to make room for the sub-bass kicks that played out…
Now, I could be wrong about this next point, but it sounds to me like the bass notes that play out in the first section of the song (the sub-bass) have no variation in melody. If there is variation, it isn’t very noticeable, at very least.
A lot of subbass plays throughout the song. Probably an uncessesary thing to mention, but figured I would, anyway. Though some of the bass notes are sustained, the overall sound is quite agile, and the bass kicks or subbass sounds have no problem stopping, on an instant, for a half second of silence in between bars. This seems like another hip hop technique he uses. There is an interesting contrast in a lot of Bassnectar’s tracks of thinness and thickness.
Concerning the riser that leads to the first drop – there appears a tribal-sounding two-tone drum sample that rises in volume along with the synth riser, and it starts to double up near the end. There’s also some odd-synth sample (not sure what that sound is, actually, @ 0.56 onward) that is played in what sounds like double-time compared to the rest of the build-up, which helps create more dramatic tension, which, in turn, helps create contrast when the drop comes in.
Without getting into what “patches” or instruments he used for specific wobbles and low frequency oscillators, I’ll definitely point out that the hip hop groove is still intact, and that the wobbles layer over the beat in a style that sounds as close to hip hop as it does to dubstep – which I think is another secret of Bassnectar’s success… He takes all the elements of the last twenty years of electronic music and hip hop, and puts it into a basically-very-accessible format.
There are mainly two different types of wobbles (or “wobble patches”) used, with other occasional wobbley-sounds thrown in here and there, for a moment or two… Plus, did you notice at around 1.41 or 1.42, there’s a drum n bass / jungle sample added, right before the next bar? I didn’t notice that, the first time around! It’s subtle, but it definitely adds something to the mix. It hints at speed, and at…uh, ‘hardcore-ness’ for lack of a better word…. (and hardcore-ness really is a stupid word…)
Anyway, the wobbles bounce around for a bit, with variations on the basic sequencing here and there, with a slight build-up around 1.52 or 1.53. (Bassnectar loves adding slight-build-ups… ) After that, we hear a wobble that contains more melody (not really ‘more’ melody, but a melody that is higher pitched than in previous wobbles, and something that sounds closer to a conventional melodic octave) and this melodic LFO is contrasted by the new wobble sound, which is angry and grimey… Here again, you get something more poppish, and then, right after it, something hardcore and angry – and then the whole thing repeats, over and over…
A lot of meticulous cuts are played, here and there – especially in the middle of the mainly-wobblish sections, and often with touches of other metallic / industrial LFO sounds. It’s a glitch technique (or, arguably, a breakcore technique) to add meticulous little cuts like that, and it adds a sense of complexity.
From here, the song seems to repeat itself. Though there are variations on everything. Around 4.10 there is a series of rubbery, wobbly triplets. But by and large, the song is more or less through coming up with new sounds. It knows it doesn’t have to, and so it doesn’t.
One difference, though, is that the ‘base head’ sample almost sounds like it’s being whispered near the end of the song. The song seems to try and calm down near the end, with a final riser that leads to another vocal, this time saying, ‘robot…bot…bot… bassss,’ which will inevitably lead into the next drop (in the next song) when played live.
Alright, so there you have it. I could’ve taken even more notes, but I feel this is a pretty good example of just some of the techniques employed in Bass Head by Bassnectar. If you have comments, or feel like I was dead-wrong about something, feel free to leave comments. I figure that understand some of the ideas that went into the construction of a song like this could definitely help people who are trying to figure out electronic music production.