You know that floor-shaking sound you hear in a club? That’s the sub-bass.
If you’re making electronic music, sub-bass is integral to powerful low-end and professional sound.
But how do you get it sounding good, without overpowering, distorting, or ruining your track?
That’s why you’re here. So in this guide, we’ll answer:
- what actually is sub bass (in comparison to ‘normal’ bass)
- the simple sound design secrets of sub bass
- layering techniques to get a solid bass sound (and avoid weakening your mix)
So get your headphones on (you’ll need ’em) & let’s take a look! 👇
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So, what is Sub-Bass?
Sub-bass is the range of frequencies that sit below the ‘typical’ range of bass that you hear on a song.
This is typically in the range of 25-80Hz:
For this reason, synth sounds that feature notes in this frequency range are also called ‘sub-bass’. The function of sub-bass is to:
- reinforce the low-end for subwoofers and club systems
- ‘glue’ the existing bassline to the track
- provides a harmonic base for the song to exist on
Sub-bass sounds were popularized by genres like dub and reggae, which influenced a lot of modern electronic subgenres like dubstep, drum & bass, garage, and house.
Bass vs Sub Bass
You usually won’t hear sub-bass on most speaker systems. This stands in contrast to bass (or mid-bass), which is designed to be audible on most systems.
Sub bass is usually used to reinforce existing bass sounds if they’re already there. Although many modern styles of electronic music feature purely sub-bass and no mid-bass.
So what is the right note range for sub-bass?
The best keys for Sub-Bass (The Power Zone)
Certain keys work well for subs, while others don’t.
For example, notes between F0-A0 in the sub-bass range are a good balance between good subwoofer reproduction and audibility. In other words, you feel it AND hear it.
I like to call this ‘The Power Zone’
This is why many songs featuring heavy bass are typically in F Minor, F# Minor or G Minor.
Even if you don’t end up using specifically one of those scales, writing your notes to ‘anchor’ around this range will help your mix cut through in the low-end (super important in trap, dubstep, drum & bass and other genres).
It’s fine to go lower (C0-E0) but these sounds are not reproduced by all subwoofers.
It’s also fine to go higher, but you’ll start to lose the shaking effect you get with that main note range.
I used to do this and I always wondered why my songs lacked that weight.
Never sacrifice what a song calls for, but it’s good to know the science behind this frequency range so you can make good decisions.
But what kind of sound should you use for your subs?
Types of Sub-Bass: From Clean To Dirty
Because sub-bass is so common in modern electronic music, different varieties have popped up. Let’s take a look at them:
Clean Sine Sub
This is literally just a sine wave playing in the 25-80Hz region.
Nothing else, just a sine.
(Seriously, it’s not complicated).
It’s so common because a sine wave is perfect for moving a subwoofer. It just shakes the room at the precise frequency it plays.
Even more complex subs with harmonics sound good, but they don’t provide the most energy.
The problem with clean subs is that they disappear on smaller speakers, meaning you have to have something else in the upper low-end to compensate.
I could write a whole article on 808s. But to give you a brief rundown, they are the huge low-end ‘booms’ you hear on trap and hip-hop records.
Check out this iconic track from Flume that uses a heavy, distorted 808:
Traditionally they are derived from the 808 kick drum sample. This can have any amount of processing on it to make it fit the track:
However in modern music production, an 808 is basically any bass sound with a decaying tail that fills out the sub frequencies. These are typically made by a synth.
808s usually have some harmonics above the fundamental to give it more ‘weight’ in the lows. It also helps give the illusion that sub frequencies can be heard on smaller speakers.
Saturated/Soft Square Subs
These typically feature more harmonics than a standard sine sub, and are ideal if your sub-bass is the only bass sound in your song (common in bass music genres).
You can approach this one of two ways. First, you can start with a sine, and use some sort of harmonic distortion to dial in the harmonics.
I’m going to do this in Serum. Let’s load up the ‘Basic Shapes’ sine:
Then let’s head to the FX section and flick on the distortion unit. Let’s choose the Soft Clip mode to add subtle saturation (instead of crazy distortion).
The second way you can do this is to start with something more harmonically complex and filter it down.
A square wave is a great starting point as it’s technically ‘perfect distortion’ packaged up in a waveform, so you can get a similar sound.
In Serum, select the square frame from the ‘Basic Shapes’ wavetable and run it through the low-pass filter. This will take off all the top-end.
Then, simply tweak the cutoff and resonance to taste. Different filter slopes and models will affect the sound differently. Here’s where I got to:
You could combine both approaches to get some stronger harmonics (filter plus distortion) but I’ll leave it here.
Either way, you’ll want to be careful with these types of subs. The fundamental tone (the original sine) often gets weaker with more distortion and harmonics. So either back off with the drive, or add in a second clean sub layer.
And speaking of layering…
Layering Sub-Bass: What you need to know
It’s one thing to add a sub into your track, but another to get it blending well with your other elements, whether it be kick, bass or other instruments.
Here are a few things to consider:
Are you really using the right note?
Because sub-bass is often ‘felt’ instead of ‘heard’, it’s important to double-check the key and notes you’re playing to ensure they’re in key.
The best way to do this is briefly move your MIDI notes up the octave (or sometimes 2). Then you’ll hear the exact notes in a more audible range.
If it sounds good, transpose the notes back down. If not, fix the problem up the octave, then transpose back down.
It’s a simple check, but it will save you embarrassment when you later play it on a bigger system like in a club or car (which magnifies any imperfection).
Sidechaining your sub-bass to your kick is an essential trick in most subgenres of electronic music.
So why do it? It cleans up your low-end so your kick and sub don’t clash, creating mud. Instead, you’ll get a continuous flow of low-end that blends nicely.
Simply start by adding a compressor onto your sub-bass:
Next, you’ll want to use a fairly fast attack to get the immediate ducking effect. However, if it’s too fast you’ll hear an audible clicking.
This happens when the attack time is faster than the time needed for the sub to complete a full wave cycle. So I fine 3-10ms to be a good range.
Having a fast release also ensures that your bass doesn’t stay quiet, so aim for 50-150ms.
Now you’ll have clean low end that allows both your kick and sub-bass to shine!
Phase cancellation is a huge problem when layering basses, and it’s a common reason that many people can’t get their subs to hit well.
Monitoring phase in isolation doesn’t make sense, but when layering with other bass sounds, it’s essential.
As you can see, this bass and the sub-bass reinforcement share the same fundamental. But they are 180 degrees out of phase, meaning we’ll get no low-end.
We can fix this by moving the phase of our sub, which is possible in most modern synth plugins (like Serum).
Now our sub will be power, if not too powerful. At this point, you can mix the two layers to taste, assured your bass will stay strong.
Carving sounds with EQ
To create a clean low end for your sub to sit in, you’ll want to do quite a bit of high-passing on other elements with an EQ.
Instruments and synths can have noise, rumble, and other low-end artifacts that can eat up your headroom:
So depending on the sound, you’ll want to use a high-pass filter to clean these up:
Now your sub-bass has clear space to shake that subwoofer!
Tools, Plugins & Synths for creating Sub-Bass
You can create subs in pretty much ANY synth (I’d highly recommend starting with your stock tools or go-to synth).
However, there are dedicated tools that allow you to engineer your low end exactly how you want.
Let’s take a look at what’s on offer:
Future Audio Workshop SubLab (Paid)
SubLab is designed to create 808s and sub-bass exactly how you want to.
One thing I love about this plugin is the ability to create the exact amount of harmonics you want. The visuals show you exactly what you’re getting.
Plus, it’s insanely fun to use.
- Sampler to layer in existing 808s
- Versatile distortion engine
- 100’s of high-quality sub presets to use
Rob Papen SubBoomBass (Paid)
A classic option that excels in creating great low end. It looks like a standard synthesizer, but it’s meticulously designed for sub impact.
- Includes unique tuned percussion samples – great for unique low end
- Easy edit and quick browser for simple selection and tweaking
- Waveforms sculpted for low-end impact
HexLoops X-Sub (Free)
If you’re looking for a simple and free sub-bass plugin, this one’s it.
It’s packed with solid presets and an easy-to-use interface.
- Simple interface with gain, balance and reverb knobs
- Quick ADSR tweaking
- Easy sound selection based on presets
I hope you can walk (or click) away from this article with a deeper understanding of sub-bass.
But as you might have guessed, that’s only part of the picture.
In fact, if you’re a new producer, this might be one of the hundreds of articles and videos that you’re looking through right now.
While I’m glad you’ve read this, there’s a chance that you need something a bit more comprehensive. Something that gives you exactly what you need to get started in electronic music production.
That’s why we have our free video training that you can sign up for:
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Anything I missed? Drop me a line at [email protected].