Dubstep is an electronic dance music genre that started in the late 90’s and evolved throughout the first years in the new millennium. It is influenced by reggae, 2-step garage, trance, dub and drum-and-bass genres. Dubstep has some very recognizable characteristics and we will in this tutorial series have a closer look at the genre and its specific sounds, how to produce them, the general arrangement of Dubstep tracks as well as mixing and mastering techniques for Dubstep.
History of Dubstep
Let’s talk a bit more about the history of Dubstep first. In the beginning of the new millennium, El-B, Oris Jay, Zed Bias, Steve Gurley and some other artists from the English underground scene created a new genre by mixing genres like 2-step garage, dub and reggae. Around 2002 the term “dubstep” was being used by labels such as Big Apple and Ammunation.
In 2005 Dubstep was further evolved by artists such as Benga and Skream and became more and more popular. Artists like Apparat, Britney Spears and Snoop Dogg were influenced by Dubstep and started to use this genre in their productions.
In 2010 and onward, Dubstep became more mainstream and evolved into quite a popular music genre like pop, rock and house. Some artists who contributed to this development are Skrillex, Chase & Status and Nero.
This was an ultra-short introduction, but if you are interested, you can read more about the history of this genre on other sources (try Wikipedia).
Characteristics of Dubstep
The main characteristics of Dubstep include the Wobble Bass, Heavy Bass Drop, Syncopated Rhythms and its fast tempo.
As for the wobble bass, this is a rhythmically manipulated extended bass note, most typically achieved by sending the sound through a filter and manipulating the filter’s cutoff frequency with an LFO. Have a listen to the following. This sound was generated using FL Studio’s 3xOSC generator.
Talking basses – also referred to as vowel basses - are quite a popular sound in Dubstep as well. They’re called talking/vowel basses because they’re produced using vowel sounds and they simply sound like they’re talking.
The heavy bass drop is another distinct feature of Dubstep, typically heard at the beginning /main section of a track and then repeated for the second main section. The drop’s intensity is a result of the silence and build-up that precedes the drop. Have a listen to the following on YouTube and I am sure you will understand what I mean:
Dubstep also uses syncopated rhythms, which are unexpected and deviate from what you would normally expect (with strict, regularly sounding beats).
Dubstep is produced at beats around 138-142 beats per minute.
Now that we know Dubsteps characteristic sounds, let’s have a look at how to produce them.
Now, each DAW has its own plugins and generators and it would be beyond the scope of this post to explain precisely how a wobble bass can be created in each and every one of them (stay tuned for other DAW specific posts on this topic). Instead I will explain this ‘on paper’. It is then up to you to absorb this information and try it out in your favourite DAW.
As I already explained, a wobble bass is most typically achieved by sending the bass sound through a filter and manipulating the filter’s cutoff frequency with an LFO. Now, this may sound a bit intimidating, but it really is quite simple. First of all, as you know each sound covers frequencies in the total spectrum of audible frequencies. Some instruments primarily occupy lower frequency ranges, whereas others occupy higher frequency ranges.
Now, by applying a low pass filter to a sound, you can cut off higher frequencies, whereas lower frequencies are allowed to pass through (hence the name low pass filter). What frequencies are allowed to pass through and what frequencies are not allowed to pass through depends on the cutoff frequency. See below:
Now, the trick with the wobble bass is to dynamically alter the cutoff frequency through an LFO (low frequency oscillator). In other words, to let an LFO automate the cutoff frequency of the low pass filter. See the illustration below:
You can see that the original sound is routed to a low pass filter which cuts the high frequencies (the yellow and red sine waves). The cutoff frequency is automated by an LFO, which means that it automatically varies with the LFO wave. It is this automated, oscillating cutoff frequency that gives the wobble bass its ‘wobble’. Pretty simple right?
Again, how to achieve this effect depends on your DAW, but the concept is as described above. Simply route your bass sound through a low pass filter and automate the cutoff frequency using an LFO.
Now, an LFO with a constant frequency generates a constant, rhythmic wobble bass. That’s nice, but in Dubstep variation is key and you really want your wobble bass to be dynamic. In other words, you want change the speed of the LFO (or rather its frequency). If we extend the previous drawing a bit, then this is what it looks like:
Here we’ve added some symbols to illustrate that we’re automating our LFO, which in turn controls the cutoff frequency of the low pass filter.
The bottom line is that you want your cutoff frequency to pulsate, but at changing speeds. There are many ways to achieve that and you do not necessarily need to do it exactly the way described above. Note also that many VST’s have filter and LFO capabilities, which makes life very easy for Dubstep/wobble bass addicts.
I will not explain a whole lot about how to produce talking/vowel basses here (again, stay tuned for other DAW specific posts). There are lots of VST’s that can help you with that. But in general, one very straightforward way to create such a ‘talking’ sound is to use a bitcrusher, which is an effect that reduces the bit depth of the audio signal.
Use a clean, less aggressive bass. Route the sound through a filter with a fairly low cutoff frequency and modulate this cutoff frequency with an LFO. Use a bitcrusher effect to degrade the audio and you’ll have your ‘yah yah’ sound.
Another way is to use formant filtering, which allows you to emulate the human sounds. Formants are peaks around particular frequencies in the speech wave and if you know where these peaks should be you can simply route your sound through multiple narrow band pass filters to achieve the desired effect.
Heavy Bass Drops
Heavy bass drops are not a specific technical characteristic like the wobble bass, but rather a matter of how to arrange and build up your track. A drop involves a sudden build in sounds/textures as opposed to a slow build up. In Dubstep this involves a heavy full bass line and typically the wobble bass or vowel bass accompanied by a strong, shuffling beat.
The drop really is one of the most important parts of your song. Even if the other parts in your track are excellent, if your drop is not good enough your song may sound dull.
We will talk more about the arrangement in another post in this series.
We will talk much more about this in another post. But the thing is that in Dubstep you want your groove to be catchy, unexpected and you should avoid the repetitive nature that you can hear in some other dance genres. Some guidelines on how to make such a syncopated rhythm will be covered in another post in this series.
That’s it for now. Next post we will talk more about samples and sounds, usage of effects and general arrangement of the various elements in a Dubstep track.