Psy trance kick and bass is quite a phenomena, it is the fundamental back bone of this highly technical dance music. Simply stated it comprises 2 parts, the kick is normally just a sine wave, downward pitch swept and 3 x 16th note low pass filtered saw wave pulses. The filter closing for each note by using an ADSR filter envelope. (with the first bass note either lower in velocity by some 30pct approx or a side chain plug in like XFers LFO Tool dropping the first bass note volume, or both in combination to varying degrees.) It is however deceptively difficult to produce good psy trance kick and bass. I will refer to psy trance kick and bass as KbBB (small b denoting typically lower note velocity) And by the way feel free to share this written resource with other producers online.
My personal conclusion that the “bass” in psy kick and bass is in essence an “acid” derivative. Which makes sense as it evolved from Goa trance where the Roland TB-303 and SH-101 was ubiquitous. It seems like an acid style bass line which has realized increasing levels of refinement (and emphasis on actual bass frequencies). It also has parallels and possibly roots in Donna Summer’s – I feel love, “industrial” and “high energy” tracks. (also check out the Dr. Who? theme tune)
It will not be possible to provide a definitive guide to making psy trance kick and bass because ultimately the very beauty of the phenomena is the enigmatic quality the desired sound has. I have personally started to achieve the KbBB sound I desire (using synthesis, ISM Bazzism and Spectrasonics Trilian) so at this stage feel have something to offer the community. (In spare time and 10 tracks later it has taken approx 3 years). Every producer is improving their practice and technique so it is a evolving process and sound. It is highly technical and will attract those interested in sound design and those who like an audio engineering challenge.
The knowns :
I am not sure I have a repeatable “knack” or if there is one, over and above practice, persistence and ear training. It takes me about 3 to 4 hours each and every time going through working to get it satisfactory (I start from scratch each time as I enjoy the sound engineering challenge and this allows new discovery and improvements to be found).. and I am not so big headed to say that every time I know what to do to get it.. what I do understand is it is always a combination of tweaking the ADSR envelope setting for filter and volume, kick pitch sweep timing/duration/overlap with bass note 1, velocity of bass notes, relative volume balance between kick and bass notes. In addition and this is the enigma/ambigious element, it seems to be ALL of these things in some incalcuable formula that changes with bass root note and tempo. It may just well be that I discover results I know to be good through persistence. Rather than having some specific exact process I can duplicate every time I start a new kick and bass afresh each time. But there are “techniques” that one replicates to get going in the right direction.
MIDI example image :
Starting out with psy trance kick and bass:
The core of process from start to end is fundamentally about listening in great detail. I will assume for now that this is a single root note bass line as multiple notes bring other potential complications and a single note will provide sufficient challenges.
In the very first instance I would listen to lots of psy trance music to try and understand what kick and bass style you like. If you enjoy one of the sub genres more than another or you plan to produce in one sub genre then it makes sense to try identify 3 or 4 tracks you love that have really great kick and bass to your ears in that sub genre as the styles differ.
I personally enjoy a forwards moving, helicopter blade, horse galloping, hypnotic kick and bass where it is essentially one unit motoring along, this brings a smile to my face. I can sum it up in 3 words, my ideal psy trance kick and bass is a syncopated bubbling drone. To myself a psy trance kick and bass can in some tracks have somewhat of a parallel to a tampura (tambura) in traditional Indian music, as a bass drone. Whilst it is fundamentally simple in structure for me it needs to produce a hypnotic effect, a drone, a good groove and drive the track forwards at the same time. So it is much more difficult to realize than first imagined. I love kick and bass that tests the edge of human timing perception. Super tight timing, a saw wave that no longer sounds like a saw wave so it blends with the kick to produce a single forwards moving lazer pulsation. This simple but precise combination adds up to a sum greater than its parts. My own preference is that the timing should ideally be so tight that your ears and brain can slide gently between a variety of grooves in that same kick and bass combo ! (also being modulated slightly by other sounds and their interaction with the kick and bass. i.e. pads/delays/long decay sound effects.)
If you prefer Full-On, progressive, forest, dark psy or Hi-Tech then choose something in that sub genre where the kick and bass rocks your world.
Some basic practical suggestions and aural observations :
When producing a kick and bass for psy trance you will find that adjusting any single parameter within 1/200th of a knob turn (there will be lots of very fine parameter adjustment) on a virtual synth will change the groove. It is very, very tweaky and fiddly. Couple this with the limits of brain/ear physiology and you can quite literally get lost in the sound and not see the wood for the trees. The process and journey to great KbBB is normally iterative in nature. (You can already see the philosophical analogies creeping in. ) There are connections with hypnosis, drone, meditation and processes that focus your mind and senses on a single moment in time, the here and now, very meditative.
The ideal for producing good psy trance kick and bass is a set of monitors with full audio spectrum from 30Hz to 20kHz and in a very well treated acoustic. Heavily bass trapped so the low end of the room is as flat as possible. Clearly this is not the case for many home studio producers and as such any acoustic treatment will help. (and why mastering trance and psy trance on a full range system in accurate acoustics is 100pct essential)
At this point I cannot understate the importance of good acoustics. It will greatly speed up the learning process as you will not be fooled into misjudgement by poor acoustics.
It will also be very useful to have a pair of decent studio headphones. I have personally found that good psy trance kick and bass should normally work well in both headphones and on speakers. (if it grooves well in both then you are probably onto a winner) Typically it will sound different but it will still have the basic forward moving, tight, “one unit” effect in headphones as well as speakers. If it does not sound good in headphones then most likely more tweaking is required. It will be often that you first think you have good kick and bass and then put headphones on and it sounds radically different. (a disappointing reality check).
In addition it is worth noting that psy trance kick and bass perception (both timing, groove and pitch) can change depending if the KbBB is being heard in isolation or with a few other sounds. In a good acoustic I like to initially start in isolation. I am of the mind that good KbBB should be able to stand alone albeit of course in context of a good track overall. It should be hypnotic and ideally you should feel secure to present the KbBB totally naked in your track or with maybe just the long, gentle feedback decay of a delayed synth patch over it. Many psy trance tracks have a super hypnotic pulsating KbBB for 8 to 16 bars in the beginning as if to show case the KbBB skills of the producer and it also sets up a hypnotic start to the track, getting people into the groove and letting them feel that chugging, pulsating sensation going through the body on the dance floor. It locks the dancefloor community into the trance zone !
Basic considerations and suggestions :
Online you will hear everyone naming their favourite synths for psy bass. The one critical function of a psy bass synth is oscillator start/phase reset or retrigger. This resets the start phase of the oscillator (typically saw) so it maintains precise phase/timing for each note triggered by the sequencer. If this is not set up you will hear a shift of phase randomly for each note start (or each note just starts with wherever the waveform is in the cycle at the moment the note is triggered) and will lose the potential for modern hypnotic forward moving bass.
As a rough guide a good single root note kick and bass will take most people 2 – 4 hours to perfect depending on if starting from scratch and if you have go to synths or a template from which to start. This is an approximation based on my own experiences. It is probably best to do this in short 15-30 mins sessions and rest of for some hours or come back another day so you rest your ears and mind. Sitting for 2-3 hours at a time will probably de-sensitize your hearing faculty. Although as a side effect it can actually have a nice mind emptying and meditative effect.
That gives you some idea of the tweaking required. (if using synth and a kick drum sample, if you was to use ISM Bazzism or Sonic Academy Kick2 synths then you can add an hour or so to get a perfect kick drum.)
For a beginner I would first find good kick samples.. punchy, fat and fairly short is usually what you need. And also do not be afraid to shorten the kick drum at the start or end in a sampler or your DAW to tighten the sub content up (they tend to drop down into the very low 30Hz areas at the end of the kick decay). A psy trance kick and bass is always a bespoke and custom undertaking. And of course you can change pitch to suit bass line root note.. do it by ear and trust your ears. With the provisor of being able to trust your monitors and acoustics.
You will find that any adjustment of any parameter will change the groove, feel and possibly the pitch perception of the kick and bass. This is both essential to effect the right feel and sound and also paradoxically a frustration which can involve some tail chasing and going around in circles. Especially so at first, before your mouse hand to ear coordination improves and your ears become attuned to what you should be listening out for.
Normally psy trance kick and bass is mono. More advanced producers may add a stereo mid range/top end psuedo stereo element (sample dividing/reduction is also common to get a snappy/clicky/inharmonic/weird top end). I suggest staying with mono kick and bass until you are making great kick and bass then you can of course do what you want.
It is common to use EQ on the bass notes (and kick of course). Typically this will involve cutting and possibly boosting a few dB on the various harmonics of the saw bass. There are no rules specifically. It is fairly common to cut some third harmonic as it can sound a little discordant at times. The rest is what sounds good to you and the kind of tone you are aiming for. Do bear in mind that any EQ that is not linear phase (and that has its own issues) will induce phase change through the spectrum (this is how minimum phase eq works and induces tonal change) and volume perception change. As such it will almost certainly change your overall groove slightly between bass notes relative to kick. So keep a check on your relative volume balance between kick and bass.
Equalization is important :
In general any processing or synth parameter change to any sonic element (envelopes, filter cut off, volume, pitch, velocity, note lengths) will mean the “KbBB unit” will need to be critically listened to again.
Slow down, stop and listen.
At some stage in all of this you will need to be able to slow down, stop and listen. Slow down the tweaking of the synth parameters and listen to controls when they are static when you start getting close to the desired sound. If you are constantly tweaking a synth knob there will be changing sound over millseconds and your brain cannot settle and hear what is really there when the parameters are static, which ultimately they will be in your track. The paradox is you are using parameter movement to create something that needs to work when static. (notwithstanding the envelope shaping) to induce that hypnotic kick and bass that we all love on the dancefloor.
You will not be able to judge whether the KbBB is where it needs to be if you are moving the parameters non stop. For me this is what makes psy trance kick and bass meditative in nature (along with its parallels to a tambura/drone in Indian music, which comes as no surprise as Psy trance evolved from Goa trance which in turn originated/evolved in India.)
When it locks in.. you get the “lazer pulsation” which is a phrase I use.. I like bass when you get the 3 attack clicks rolling after the kick transient in a 16th flow.. tacka, tacka, tacka, and then that “in phase” sine/saw overlap.. so it sounds like “1 note psy bass or that known as off beat” but with 3 notes playing.. so you can simultaneously switch hearing focus between “kick durr, kick durr, kick durr” and the 3 bass saw pulses (ideally with a clicky HF snap) When you have the oscillator on retrig with the start phase set up right. And if you get what I personally think is the ultimate permutation you get 3 grooves in one unit syncopating and pulsating the crowd at the edge of their timing perception. When it works perfectly it creates a falling forward sensation (like a rolling wave) that makes the track’s tempo appear higher than it is. (i.e. invoking dancefloor energy and excitement)
Good speakers and good acoustics are really helpful to judge KbBB well for psy as for all sound engineering duties. They take away guess work by eliminating acoustic problems.
There are no easy short cuts unless you try a sample pack with a bass sample and a kick ready to go. There is no shame in this some people enjoy making a great track much more than fiddling for hours on end. Even then you will need to make good judgements by ear to get a good KbBB and make it your own. The groove will not make itself.
Pay close attention to all of these elements:
Always bear in mind the volume level between kick and bass notes, during and after synth tweaking, make it as habit to get them back to roughly the same level to the ear. If you find that you need to change the level to match them after a lot of synth tweaking you may find the groove and rhythm changes again. (part of the tail chasing can be this constant iterative process)
Relative levels of kick and bass notes (relative volume… normally I have kick just very, very slightly louder than bass notes. I like them close so they sound “as one”) This can change the groove. Even 0.1dB’s on fader levels can change the groove ! Side chaining of first note (using LFO tool or something similar, also note velocity)
Bass note lengths and kick drum length – Avoid overlap (other than first bass note with decay of kick) to start off with until you are more practiced with it.
An oscilloscope can be useful to a degree. It can help you understand what is happening between the kick and first bass note interactions (route you kick and bass to a KbBB buss and insert the oscilloscope.) I have personally not managed to achieve a great kick and bass by looking at an oscilloscope plug in alone. I always have done it in conjunction and ultimately with using my ears. Afterall it’s a groove thing ! Even when using an oscilloscope like the free s(M)exiscope – now ported for 64 bit – you still need to decide what cycle in the kick to aim for for the best groove even when you have aligned phase nicely.
Copy/paste this for 64 bit s(M)exciscope: http://armandomontanez.com/smexoscope/
Oscilloscope example image of kick and bass :
Consider tools such as sample delay, multiband saturators such as Steinberg’s Quadrafuzz (Cubase only) and Fabfilter Saturn on your bass line channel in order to create a phase shift between kick decay and first bass note (when you sweep the bands – no actual saturation necessary unless that works for your taste/goal.) Due to the bands not being linear phase it will create a phase shift and change both tonality and groove of the bass line.
Possibly useful tools :
Synths I have personally favoured are Sylenth1, Trilian and NI Massive – old version, Massive X as yet untested. (Some also rate Serum highly for psy bass, though I never had success myself.) Although most likely any synth with oscillator phase reset/retrigger and snappy fast envelopes has been used.
Even with tutorials the videos sometimes don’t quite get a good psy bass IMO. And those that do..you still have to use your ears and judge the sound. The kick and bass must groove and work as 1 unit.. kick and bass are interdependent are not separate from each other. If you adjust the kick, the perception of bass changes, if you adjust bass line, the perception of kick changes..this makes it super fiddly to get right. Often it can 1/200th of a synth parameter, so get that alt/control/Apple button at the ready for fine parameter adjustments. (ADSR on amp or filter for bass notes) to be tweaked to get that groove and roll perfect.
I have personally found if a KbBB is working in headphones and speakers then it is probably ok. If it sounds good on speakers and then in headphones it does not sound so good, probably it is not quite right.
Online you will see many video tutorials, some are very helpful, I would suggest the following.
Jump to the end of the video and listen to the KbBB produced. If it does not sound like KbBB that you yourself would like to produce don’t rest on every word in the tutorial. Find a video where the result is close to perfect for your ears.
People will mention every synth, every type of processing and technique (eq, compression, multi band compression, side chaining, layering, sampling the bass notes, saturation, multi band saturation, use of oscilloscope, other obscure tools etc.) This will change from video to video. What won’t change is the need for you to identify the following for your own taste :
1) What good kick and bass is to you personally.
2) That you will ultimately need to use your ears.
3) That you will potentially misjudge the sound if your acoustics are not good.
4) That your kick and bass will need to sound good on speakers and headphones.
5) An oscilloscope will not take the place of finding the groove you want.
Also consider sampling the bass note and any created kick drums (using a synth) as this can further reduce DAW/ plug in latency and make this is sample accurate as possible. You can also edit out any pre-ring caused by any extreme linear phase equalization (especially evident in high order HPF usage).
Psy trance kick and bass is where simplicity meets complexity. A simple (yet exquisitively crafted) kick drum with 3 synth notes with a complex interdependent relationship capable of a sound and psychoacoustic effect above and beyond the sum of parts.
Good luck, take breaks, try different synths and processes and most of all try and keep the challenge fun. Frustration will not be helpful during this process. Appreciate it will take quite a lot of time and practice. You will be rewarded with nice breakthough moments which will keep you improving track by track.
Feel free to share this resource around online, it is good to have video and written reference !