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November 26, 2021

Sub bass w/ Jimmy Douglass




How low can you go? In this excerpt from "Start To Finish - Ill Factor Episode 14: Mixing with Jimmy Douglass Part 4,” Jimmy takes a synth bass part and manually doubles it with a MIDI 808 bass sound that goes even lower in the sub-bass range.

Manual Dexterity

Manually layering a MIDI part on an audio track and matching it precisely isn’t always easy. Fortunately, it’s a pretty simple part. The sound Jimmy uses is from a plugin called Sublab by Future Audio Workshop. It’s a virtual instrument that lets you dial up 808 sounds and other contemporary sub-bass tones and import your own samples.

The existing bass in “Light Shine Through” is a sawtooth-wave drone bass that ill Factor programmed using Ableton’s Wavetable synth back in Episode 2 of this series. Not only does Jimmy’s layered part add to the thickness on the bottom of the bass, but it also gives it an 808 vibe, as well.

The sound he dials up in Sublab is typical of an 808 bass sound in that it’s got a percussive transient beginning and then a sustaining tone. As he plays along, he says that he wants to reduce that transient part. He doesn’t want it to get in the way of the existing kick drum track.


Jimmy doubles the bass line with an 808-like sound generated by Future Audio Workshop’s Sublab.


808 101

If you’re not familiar with the genesis of the 808 bass sound. It started with the Roland TR-808 drum machine, which was introduced in 1980. The unit wasn’t initially popular, and Roland discontinued it after a few years. However, its tones—often played from a sampler rather than an actual TR-808—caught on with producers and eventually became iconic in hip hop and pop production.

One of the most characteristic sounds from the TR-808 was its kick drum, which consisted of a hard transient followed by a sustaining tonal part that reached into the sub-frequencies. Because it was so tonal, people started sampling it and using it as a bass sound. Nowadays, you’ll hear 808 basses—either sampled or synth-emulated ones—in many music genres, but most commonly in the Trap subgenre of hip-hop and the newer EDM version of Trap.


The sound of the Roland TR-808 has long been a staple in hip hop and pop music. (Image by Brandon Daniel. Derivative work shared under Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.)


As he’s going along, Jimmy periodically compares the mix with and without his added bass part. He likes how it fills out the bottom end. He describes its effect on the bass as “really nice, warm and welcomed.”

If you’ve watched this video series or even just the free excerpts, you’ll have noticed that Jimmy likes to experiment with different ideas as he goes. He doesn’t stick to a formula. Each mix is an unscripted experience, guided by his highly developed musical and technical instincts.

Subbing Out

As Jimmy demonstrated, one way to add more in the sub-range is to layer on a lower part. He had to actually record a double because the original track was audio. However, if your initial part is MIDI; it’s an easier processs; you can duplicate the part and change the sound.

Another option, if you’re looking to fatten a low-frequency instrument, is to use a subharmonic synthesizer plugin. It creates subharmonics, which are below the fundamental frequency of a note. It won’t add an 808 style sound like Jimmy’s layered bassline did, but if you’re just looking for more sub-frequency “oomph,” it’s a good option.

One of the best plugins for adding synthesized subharmonic frequencies is Brainworx bx_subsynth. It’s available in a native version distributed by Plugin Alliance, and there’s also a UAD version. It’s handy for fattening instrument sounds, most notably (but not limited to) bass and drums.

Brainworx bx_subsynth

It’s not the only plugin of that type. Some others on the market include Waves Submarine and Avid ProSubharmonic (for Pro Tools) and Metric Halo MH Thump..

Waves Submarine.

The image below is taken from the Spectrum Analyzer meter in the new multimeter plugin decibel from The image on the left is a synth bass with no subharmonic synthesis processing. The image on the right is after processing by bx_subsynth. You can see from their highlighted sub-frequency ranges how much additional sub energy the plugin created.

In this example, you hear the bass and drum tracks from a mix without processing from bx SubSynth.

Bring on the Undertones

Next, we’ll apply bx_subsynth. We’ll insert it on both tracks and create individual settings for each.

The first thing you want to do when using this plugin is to play your track and turn up the Trim knobs for the three subharmonic frequency ranges until you see the white light at the left of the meter turns on. That ensures that you’re getting enough signal into each.

The arrows highlight the Trim knobs.

Next, you turn up the level controls for whichever frequency range (or ranges) you want to synthesize, and the plugin does the rest. It’s usually best to experiment with each of the three frequency-band level controls until you find what sounds best for the particular source. Just turning all three fully up will not sound good. It often helps to finesse the levels of the three frequency bands. Sometimes you might only boost one or two.

If you think you’ve overdone it but like the blend between the three frequency ranges, you can back off on the Subharmonics knob or the Mix knob to reduce the effect. It will sound cleaner if you keep the levels from hitting the top of the red, either in the frequency bands or the main output meter.

Bx_subsynth also offers additional modifiers such as Drive, compression, filtering and stereo width control, among others. You can even dial it in as a parallel processor by lowering the Mix knob.

Here’s just the bass line. The first time the bx_subsynth is bypassed. When it repeats, it’s active.

The setting on the bass track.

Now just the drum track. Again, the first time the bx_subsynth is bypassed. When it repeats, it’s active.

The setting on the drum track.

Finally, here’s the bass and drums—the first time without bx_subsynth and the second time with it.

Although it’s not the same as adding an 808 double as Jimmy did in the excerpt, bx_subsynth or a plugin like it can significantly improve the thickness of your bass and kick drum.