Video: Why Every Working Bassist Needs a Sub-Octave Pedal

Modern rap, funk, and electronic music has changed what audiences expect today’s bassists to do. A lot of low-enders have picked up keybass to recreate these expected subby textures, and it is a noble pursuit to be sure.

But for those of us who feel most comfortable on bass guitar, sub-octave pedals are the best and most efficient alternative to a keybass rig. Other than saving players the anguish of lugging around another instrument, sub-octave pedals (with the help a few trusty sidekicks) are capable of generating any bass timbre you can imagine.

With a vast array of excellent new and vintage sub-octave pedals, bassists have ample options to choose from. From legendary units like Boss’ OC-2 to newer standouts like 3Leaf Audio’s Octabvre, these stompboxes are the backbone of any good synth bass guitar rig. Here are a few effective ways to use these capable machines in the context of the genres we know and love for their synth bass elements.

Rap and Hip-Hop

Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble" prominently features massive pitched bass 808s, which have become a watermark for producer Mike WiLL Made-it. First popularized as a bass sound by Rick Rubin, these sounds — though far flung from the wheelhouse of Leo Fender’s original bass guitar design — are easy to produce using a bass with the right tools.

For 808s, I exclusively use 3Leaf Audio’s Octabvre MKII in addition to a slight boost from Aguilar’s Agro overdrive.

The Octabvre’s sub isolation footswitch is a miracle for anyone who’s had to wrestle with their OC-2s mid-song to switch to a synth bass texture. 3Leaf’s CEO and engineer Spencer Doren is a synth bass obsessive, electrical genius, and a fantastic bass player in his own right. The Octabvre, developed alongside Tedeschi Trucks Band bassist and acid-jazz hero Tim Lefebvre, is an ingenious device that truly sounds amazing.

The real trick to achieving the 808 sound is in technique. Though adding an LFO would add a descending envelope to the formant, I find that approaching my target note from a half-step above the note with a pull-off is a fantastic way to get the same descending envelope that has been busting subwoofers for decades.

Funk

As a devoted follower of the ministry of Stevie Wonder, I believe that there is a significant arrangement difference between keybass and bass guitar. Stevie’s legendary use of both Moog bass and The Original New Timbral Orchestra (T.O.N.T.O) synth is genre-defining. From the clean brushstrokes on “Living for the City," to the quacking chirp on “Boogie on Reggae Woman," Stevie’s synth bass is impactful and easily replicated with a sub-octave pedal combined with a familiar cast of characters.

Let’s take “All I Do," for example. Try using a Boss’ OC-2 with the Direct knob turned completely counterclockwise and the OCT 1 knob turned completely clockwise. The OCT 2 knob is tragically useless for bass, so turn that completely off as well. Immediately, you’ll start to hear the similarity between your treated bass tone and the Moog bass.

I like to add a small amount of envelope filter to replicate some of the original sound’s envelope characteristics. Use an envelope filter that is either specifically geared to bass frequencies, preferably one that allows you to select the filter’s shape. I swear by my 3leaf Audio Groove Regulator (predecessor to the Proton and Wonderlove) partially because of its range selectability and filter-shaping. Adding a slight downward-clamping envelope with low sensitivity will perfectly shape the edges of your clean bass tone.

For grittier sounds — like on “Higher Ground" — add in a bass-optimized fuzz pedal (preferably with a blend knob) between the OC-2 and your envelope filter. Crank up the wet signal on your envelope filter, and behold. You’ll probably end up playing “Chameleon" for a half hour, as one typically does in these situations.

Electronic

For a while there, I was afraid of dubstep bass. It’s unwieldy, and for the past few years, it has been inescapable. When I figured out how to emulate two important electronic bass sounds, my productions and performances took on a new life.

Try adding a phaser or ring modulator, like MXR’s Phase 90 or Moog’s Moogerfooger MF-102, at the end of your chain for some clubby, house-esque textures. Modulation effects like flangers, ring modulators, and phasers add a lot of movement to static bass lines, and a tonic-driven bass line takes on a dancier tone with the simple addition of a modulation effect.

Alternatively, if you’re looking for a dirtier dubstep wobble, chain in a tremolo pedal after your sub-octave and fuzz pedals, but before your envelope filter. This addition will trigger your envelope filter at the start of each tremolo repetition, effectively producing a wild “wub-wub-wub" sound. Being able to produce a dubstep wobble is a great dynamic card to play in a live set, especially to underscore the energy in a frantic climactic section.

Though there are quite a few synthesizer pedals devoted to bass guitar on the market, pedal chains like the ones described above give you much more to work with and a whole lot more stops to pull out in a live setting. As genres collapse into each other more and more, we’re hearing these varied bass textures blend into each other. It takes some adjustment, whether in tone or technique, but I promise that the road to synth bass is not only a fun way to explore your instrument but is also immensely rewarding creatively.

Did we miss your favorite synth bass pedal chain? Let us know in the comments.


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