So you want to add a bass line to your song…but you don’t have a bass guitar. What to do? Thankfully, there are a number of alternatives available to you. In this quick guide, I’ll teach you about digital bass patches you can add to your tracks and how to make them sound realistic.
4 Digital Alternatives to a Bass Guitar
There are actually several options for adding bass to your song without needing to buy or learn a bass guitar. But keep in mind that none of these will sound exactly like an actual bass guitar, but some of them come quite close. Also if you are making music with a more modern and digital sound, then your fans probably won’t mind hearing a synth-y bass line.
Here are the four simplest digital plugin alternatives to using a bass guitar:
- Bass guitar VST
- Soft synth patch
- Pitch shift
Bass Guitar VSTs
A VST is type of synth that uses samples instead of computer-generated tones. An actual instrument is recorded note for note. Then those notes are mapped to MIDI so that you can play the sounds back using a keyboard (or painting them in manually in your DAW).
The sounds originated from a real bass guitar, so you can still get some of that clinky growl from a pick scrapping against roundwound strings. However, the coding and mapping expertise of a VST will weigh heavily on how good or realistic the resulting virtual instrument will actually sound in a final mix.
Here are a few free bass VSTs you can test out (and some of these companies also offer more advanced versions or variations for a price):
A trick that I personally use with VST basses is to run it through an amp sim. It lets me add more grit and color to the sound, which makes my bass parts sound fuller (to my ears, at least). I use Amplitube for amp simulation; they offer a free version that can get you started.
Soft Synth Patches
Most software synthesizers (soft synths) come with a variety of bass presets. Bass guitars aren’t all that common in certain genres (like trap, electronic, pop, synthwave, etc) anyway. So, unless you are trying to record a more traditional rock or indie pop sound, I recommend testing some bass presets in your synth program of choice.
If you want to try programming a simple and pleasant synth bass from scratch, all you really need is a single sine wave and some light distortion to boost the harmonic overtones.
Square and saw waves will work too, but they are quite abrasive sounding. They work great for raucous 80s bops but may sound a bit goofy in other genres.
Pianos can play bass notes. In fact, a full-sized piano usually goes all the way down to the note A0, which is lower than even the E string on a bass guitar.
Piano bass can work extremely well for some genres, like: indie pop, bedroom pop, ballads, and even chill-hop style rap.
If you don’t have access to an actual piano for recording, that’s fine. Most soft synths have a piano preset and there’s a huge selection of piano VSTs on the digital market.
Here are some free piano VSTs you can test out:
- LABS Autograph Grand by Spitfire Audio
- LABS Soft Piano by Spitfire Audio
- Claustrophobic Piano by Christian Henson (this is my go-to personal favorite piano VST)
Pitch Shifting (Can You Record Bass with a Guitar?)
I’ve heard some people suggest that you record the bass line on a guitar and pitch shift it down. But I’ve tried this many times and it usually sounds bad. Or, at least, unrealistic compared to a real bass guitar. For that reason, I wouldn’t personally recommend pitch shifting a guitar.
How Realistic Should My Bass Line Sound?
Now that you know your options for digital bass patches, you need to understand how a bass line should sound.
You could simply write in some root notes, copy and paste them throughout your song, and call it a day. But that could end up sounding boring or obviously fake to listeners.
First, you need to consider the style of music that you are making. Some genres will need a realistic approach to bass composition, while others embrace the digital fake-ness of a bass synth.
Let’s review a few common styles:
- Rock and indie – commonly uses actual bass guitars, so you’ll probably need a sampled VST and to follow the tips below. These bass lines tend to follow root notes with occasional fills and turnarounds, but some indie styles will include more melodic phrases. Rhythm often follows an eight-note pattern.
- Mainstream pop – usually employs synth patches that obviously sound synth-produced. Likely follows the root notes of the chord progression with variations in rhythm.
- R&B pop/hip hop – mostly played on real bass guitars, so go with a VST. The bass line moves a lot more, playing through scales and maybe adding counterpoint against the chords or melody.
- rap/trap – increasingly uses 808 bass synths that are clearly digital reproductions. The bass line follows the root notes and the rhythm closely follows the kick drum pattern.
- Electronic/synthwave – uses synthesizer patches that ignore most the rules outlined below. Follows the root notes with little variation.
Tips for a Realistic Bass Line
Now let’s talk about the actual composition practices for realistic bass lines.
- Keep it monophonic
- Keep it simple
- Use Dynamics (vary the intensity of notes)
- Space out notes (vary the length of notes and don’t let any overlap)
For the most part, bass lines are monophonic; this means only one note plays at a time. Except in the higher registers, chords sound muddy and harsh on bass guitars. So program your bass to never play more than a single note at one time.
If using a synth patch, you can switch the synthesizer to mono mode, which is sometimes called “legato” mode.
Keeping It Simple
Don’t go overboard with notes in a bass line. The bass is meant to support the rest of the track. It’s usually not meant to draw much attention in the song.
Bass lines tend to cover a small range as well, so there’s no need to jump around octaves or write a grandiose arpeggio sweep for a bass part. Tonic notes (the root note of each chord) with occasional ornaments (filler notes when changing chords) should work for most genres.
Because bass lines tend to be sparse on notes, the real magic in a good composition comes from the use of dynamics and rhythm.
Dynamics refer to the intensity or loudness of a note. Even if you only play a basic eight note pattern on the bass, adding dynamics (changes in volume) between notes can imply a rhythm.
This is done by adjusting velocity in your synth. In more digital audio workstations (DAWs, the program you use to record and mix music), the velocity of individual notes can be modified with a few mouse clicks. Some DAWs even offer a velocity randomization feature.
Space Out Notes
Another point to mention is that bassists will not naturally hold every note to the end of each eight note measure. A real bass player will have to pick up his/her fingers when changing positions, or shorten a note to accent rhythm. You can liven up your bass lines by adding a bit of spacing between notes, especially when moving from one note in a progression to another.
In this example, I added some exaggerated spacing so you can see what I mean:
If you lack a real bass guitar for recording bass lines, you’re good. Many styles of music rely on synth patches to cover the low end. Even if you seek a realistic bass guitar sound, there are a number of free and paid virtual instruments to choose from. Just remember to add a bit of detail to your note programming to make it sound like a real player.
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