by KCLau Pianologist
Although I seldom play bass using the keyboard on stage, but I program the bass track for almost every song I arrange. In this post, we are going to discuss how to play or program great sounding bass track by using the MIDI keyboard. Here are some tricks compiled through days of research and my own experience.
Play with both hands
Do you play the bass track using right hand or our left hand? I used to play it with my left hand because ergonomically, the lower register is on the left. Bass part is normally monotone, which consist of only one note at a time. It makes sense that playing with my left hand is the most comfortable setting. In fact, my left hand fingers play a bit slower than right hand’s. I guess most keyboardists have swifter fingers on the right. When it comes to improvising the bass part, left hand seems not powerful enough to carry the load. Now, I play the bass part mostly with my left hand for simple movement, but occasionally involve the right hand fingers when doing some improvisation or faster passage. Real bass players can hop from string to string, enabling them to play a wider interval. So please put your right and on the keyboard too. You will be able to play a very wide interval jump feasibly.
Study the bass guitar
Trying out the bass guitar will definitely help you understand it more. The range of a bass guitar is about 3 octaves. When you are immitating an electric bass guitar, remember that the bassist generally use open string notes (E, A, D, G, low B on a 5 string) a lot as passing tones to fill in gaps when he makes big leaps. On stage, the bassist will play open string too when he wants to free his left hand to do other things such as flipping scores, scratching nose etc.
It helps a lot if you can listen to other records to analyze how a great bass line projects itself.
What to Play?
- Play a mix of legato and staccato.
- Simple rule is to start the bar with the root (or the specific bass notes), then you can do something creative during the rest of the chord. For example, a bar consist of G major chord – play the bass G on 1st beat, and add other notes to fill up the bar if necessary.
- occasional bend or tied note does a lot to help the bass “sit”.
- The 1st note and the 5th note normally won’t make you wrong.
Recreate the slurs of a real bass guitar
Hammer-ons and pull-offs are also known as slurs. They help to create a smoother sound between notes. It is the equivalent of a saxophone player playing a group of notes with one breath, and not tonguing each note. Or a violin player playing some notes with one bow stroke. That is the way that those instruments slur and get a smoother sound.
A hammer-on involves 2 different notes. A note is plucked, then a second note is sounded by slamming or “hammering” another finger onto the same string at a higher fret. A pull-off can be thought of as the opposite of a hammer-on. Before starting, you will need to have both left hand fingers that are involved already placed in their perspective frets. The first note is plucked, then a second note is sounded by pulling that finger off of the string with force.
In order to simulate this action, you can
- play the line with fast passing notes (acciacaturas)
- play a long note, and use pitch bend to slide the pitch
- simply use the audio samples that play hammer-ons and pull-offs. It is more convenient if you program the sample player to play the slurs at high
note velocity (120 and above)
Groove or Melody?
Bass is a rhythm instrument. Sometimes, it sounds good even if repetitive notes were played rhythmically. Occasionally, add in some fills and melodic runs to spice it up. The best bass line I heard is both groovy and melodious.
Easy guide to have a groovy bass line:
- follow the kick drum – play a note whenever kick drum is hit (not necessarily every single kick drum hit)
- avoid snare drum – I find it neat to cut off the bass sustained note at snare drum hit.
Getting the Right Patch
Turn on the radio and you will probably hear 70% of the songs with synth bass line. Getting the right sound before you start tracking the bass line is important.
A quick guide:
- Monophonic setting -
bass should be played one note a time. Sometimes can be doubled notes 3rd apart, 6th apart, 5th apart, or octave. More often that double notes will sound muddy.
- Glide/Portamento Function – glide is a function that is available in certain sound module/sampler that allow a notes to slide to the other note. This function is useful to imitate the fretless bass. You can use glide feature for synth bass too.
- Layered bass patch – lay a few patches for very thick bass, if that’s what you are looking for.
Practice with a Rhythm Track
Throw in a drum loop and practice to play along. It helps to get a chord chart and try to improvise according to the chord progressions.
Do you use sustain pedal for bass?
I don’t. You have 10 fingers but the bass line only requires one finger to hit the right key at the right time. Do you really need sustain pedal? the only reason to use a sustain pedal while playing bass line is probably to ride the note for longer decay rather than a sudden stop.
Use Expression Pedals or Aftertouch
You can program the aftertouch or expression pedal
to do pitch bending or vibrato modulation. Instead of shaking your legs while playing, you might as well put it to good use. This won’t require your other hand to leave the keyboard to use the pitch bend and modulation wheel.
Split your keyboard
Most modern synthesizer keyboards allow zone mapping, or keyboard split. Some keyboardist split the keyboard to play bass on the left hand and piano on the right.
Use a Bass Amp
When you are playing keyboard bass live, route the output into a bass amp instead of your normal keyboard amp. This can be done if you have multiple outputs instead of the normal stereo main outs.
Turn off the Reverb
Bass should never have massive reverberations. Reverb can blur the bass timbre and make it sound muddy. To make the bass sound big, try chorus effect or add layer to it.
I heard some producers say that Nathan East plays the bass without the need to compress. This shows that he is a great bassist who can control the dynamic perfectly. When you are not that good yet, use slight compression to tame the peak. Your bass track will sound smoother and sustained.