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Yes, it’s all the rage: Lo-fi music, where you mess up sound not because you lack experience or can’t afford good gear, but because you want to mess it up—and mess it up good. In this month’s column, we’ll consider when bad things happen to good basses, and why that can be fun.
I like lo-fi sometimes, but there are limits—I still want the bass, along with the kick, to be the driving low-frequency force behind a tune. However, a lot of lo-fi boxes, while delivering cool effects, take away the rich low end we need to preserve.
Lo-fi works best for me when placed “on top” of the main bass sound, like chocolate syrup on a sundae. This requires a parallel effects connection so that the effect is added to the bass.
With hard disk/plug-in effects-based recording, you often end up adding effects on mixdown. The simplest solution here is to copy your main bass track to another track, and use plug-ins to process the copied track.
If you’re using a mixer (hardware or software), you’ll probably want to pan the two sounds to center, unless you use stereo bass and stereo effects. There’s one caution: Some lo-fi effects might affect phase enough to thin out the bass sound. Flip the phase switch of the channel with the effects, and listen carefully in mono. If the sound is fuller, leave the phase flipped. If it’s thinner, go back to standard phase.
Here are some of my favorite effects for turning basses into instruments of mass destruction.
Distortion.You can always obtain distortion by overloading an amp, but distortion boxes and plug-ins are often more flexible. For hard disk recording applications, guitar and bass amp simulators like Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig, IK Multimedia’s Ampeg SVX and AmpliTube 2, Waves GTR, Universal Audio’s Nigel, and iZotope’s Trash are ideal for this task. And of course, when it comes to hardware, there are a zillion options for distortion.
The biggest problem with distortion is that it generates a ton of harmonics, which can tilt your instrument’s spectrum too much into the treble zone, thus producing a thin sound. I recommend following distortion with a high-cut filter so you have some control over the high-end/low-end balance.
Ring modulator. A ring modulator has two inputs. You plug your bass into one, and some other signal source (anything from a steady tone – the usual choice – to drums or program material) into the other input. The ring modulator output then generates two tones: the sum of the input frequencies, and the difference. For example, if you’re playing A = 110 Hz on the bass and feed in a 500 Hz tone into the other input, the output will consist of two tones: 610 Hz and 390 Hz. Because these are mathematically (not harmonically) related, the resulting tone is “clangorous” and has characteristics of a gong, bell, or similar enharmonic percussive instrument.
Ring modulators are good for having crazy sounds going on in the background of your main line. They add a sort of goofy, non-pitched effect that uncenters the tonal center of whatever you’re playing. Hardware ring modulators aren’t easy to find; probably the best is the Moogerfooger Ring Modulator. But software plug-ins are plentiful, including free ones. Go to the net and search on “Ring modulators” and “plug-ins,” and you’ll find plenty of options to try out.
Bit decimation. I don’t know of any hardware box that performs this function, but bit reduction is a fairly common plug-in type for digital audio (Fig. 2). The concept is to reduce the number of bits used to represent a signal. For example, 16 bits gives over 65,000 steps of amplitude resolution – good enough to encode a signal with excellent fidelity. Cut that down to 4 bits, and you have only 16 steps of resolution. This turns nice, round waveforms into weird stair-step shapes that generate lots of strange harmonics. There’s also a certain “graininess” to the sound, and a kind of bizarre, ringing effect.
Sample rate conversion. High sample rates give better fidelity, but conversely, really low sample rates give worse fidelity. The Redux plug-in shown in Fig. 2 has a “Downsampling” option that works similarly by arbitrarily removing samples. For example, if it’s set to “1,” every sample at the input passes through to the output; if set to “4,” three out of every four samples are discarded on their way to the output.
Pitch shifting. Technologically speaking, pitch shifting is a hard effect to create; with budget effects, the sound quality is usually not all that great. But with newer effects (Fig. 3), by setting the pitch shift to one octave lower and playing high up on the neck, you can get a “growl” that definitely has its uses. The sound may end up being somewhat diffused, but when you need a huge bass sound, this could be the ticket.
As to software, there are plenty of pitch-shifting options, but not all are real-time. Your best bet is to use octave divider effects found in amp simulator software.
Demented plug-ins. Software plug-ins have inspired a wide range of nastifiers. Some of these add vinyl scratches and pops to sounds, some are designed to emulate overdriven analog tape, and some have no real hardware equivalents (one of my current favorites is Native Instruments’ Spektral Delay). The more complex the plug-in, the greater the odds that you can push the controls into creating crude, lewd, and rude effects.
...would anyone want to make ugly sounds? Well, maybe you recently joined Slipknot, or maybe you just have a sense of humor. Or maybe you’re tired of excessive attention to detail and want something more raw and rough. In any event, relax your standards from time to time – you may discover some unusual sounds that end up being “keepers.”