Want to write amazing MIDI bass lines? Follow these 7 steps, no matter what kind of music you make.
Your bass will sound more exciting, authentic, and "greasy." Watch the video above to listen to the audio examples.
Keep reading this article to boost your MIDI bass line production skills.
From boring to unique bass lines
Today you're going to expand your bass line vocabulary.
No more straight 8th notes or sustained root notes that last a whole bar.
You don't need to simultaneously use all the techniques below, as I did in the audio example.
I usually don't unless I'm going for that funky groove.
The 7 steps to an exciting bass line
Sometimes alternating between the root, third and fifth notes of the chord is enough to make a thrilling MIDI bassline.
But it could be so much better with these seven techniques:
- Passing notes;
- Ghost notes;
- Pitch bends and slides;
- Humanization of timing and dynamics and;
- Chord Inversions.
I used the Native Instrument's Scarbee Pre-Bass sample library for this demonstration.
It has the superb sound of the bass I've been playing for over 15 years.
But if you don't have any Bass Library, you could use a Synthesizer or the samples that come with your DAW.
It's up to you and the kind of music you make.
If you're in Ableton Live, this Electric Bass Sampler preset sounds alright with some equalization.
Ready? Let's start with the basics.
Say we're working on a simple chord progression like I-V-vi-IV.
This progression is perfect for pop music.
In the key of C major, that's C-G-Am-F.
Our starting point will be sustained root notes that last a whole bar each. That's as simple as you can go with MIDI bass lines.
And it's played against a straightforward drum loop. The cheesiest drum loop ever, so we can focus on the bass and make it enjoyable.
Midi Bass Line Step #1. Passing Notes
Let's add some movement with passing notes.
We'll play these notes for a short duration in weak beats or off beats.
So they won't draw attention.
It's okay to use notes that don't belong to those chords and even notes outside the C major scale.
As long as they help connect the important notes. We'll still play those on the strong beats.
I added a "D" and "E" in this example to connect "C" on the first bar with "G" on the second.
Then I added a short "G#," a chromatic note.
It doesn't belong to this scale but adds a nice flavor: micro tension.
It's spicy. And it connects "G" to "A."
Then there's this "C" up here by itself, pretending our bass line will keep going up in pitch.
But the following accented note is "F" — way lower in pitch.
After these changes, the MIDI bass line already came alive a little.
Midi Bass Line Step #2. Syncopation
Let's add some syncopation now.
What is Syncopation?
Syncopation is a shift in the rhythm to make offbeats or weak beats feel strong by accenting their notes. The effect is even more substantial when you let the note ring over the next beat.
Look at that "C."
Notice how it's a long note that doesn't start on the beat?
Instead of starting on the third beat of that bar, it begins before, on the offbeat.
Besides that, "G" starts right after the third beat of the second bar, on another offbeat.
Again, on the fourth bar, there's another syncopated note. The "F" between the second and third beat.
The fourth bar actually has a typical syncopation pattern: Hemiola.
If you divide the bar into 8 parts, these notes form a 3:3:2 pattern.
This syncopation pattern is all over pop music.
Midi Bass Line Step #3. Rests
Let the bass rest between some of these notes for a much more exciting groove. That allows them to breathe.
In the example, I made some of these notes shorter.
Look at the drums pattern: the Kick and Snare play by themselves on some beats.
The bass stops so that the snare can shine. And it does it again, every now and then.
Use rests for shifting the emphasis in our groove between bass and drums.
I even removed the bass from the first beat of the third bar.
That's a technique called "One Drop." It's widespread in reggae music.
Reggae music always gives the bass line special attention.
Midi Bass Line Step #4. Ghost Notes
You may have noticed that some parts became kind of empty. At least I felt that way.
But that's on purpose: leaving some room for the ghost notes.
What are ghost notes?
Ghost notes are brief, sometimes muted notes that almost turn the bass into a percussive instrument. I use them to anticipate the snare and kick. Occasionally it works well right after the kick hits. They add so much to the groove.
Some VSTs have a specific MIDI note designed to recreate the sound of a real bass player performing ghost notes.
Although if you make the note short enough, it will also work as a ghost note.
This already is a good enough MIDI bass line. But there's more polishing we can do.
Midi Bass Line Step #5. Pitch bends and slides
When I play my bass, I always perform pitch bends and slides.
It's the natural way of playing, right?
So why not do the same when programming MIDI bass?
How to create MIDI pitch bends
Drawing a pitch bend is different in every DAW.
But if you're in Ableton Live, you could simply draw it in the Clip Envelope.
Click the Envelope tab > MIDI Control > Pitch Bend, and alter the blue line.
You may have to adjust the pitch bend range in your instrument to get it to sound how you want.
This sampler had the maximum range of 2 semitones by default. Then I made it 12 to draw longer slides.
Midi Bass Line Step #6. Humanizing MIDI timing and dynamics
Now, as far as bass techniques, that's pretty good already.
The next step is humanizing the MIDI pattern.
That will make your MIDI bass line convincing. It will sound like a human being playing the bass live instead of sounding computer made.
Recreating the timing and dynamics of a real player
There's no way a bassist can play all the notes with the same intensity.
No matter how good the bassist is, there's always some intensity variation.
And that's easily controllable through MIDI Velocity.
Before, all the notes were at 100 Velocity. They were all played at the same level.
With some tweaking, you can make some notes sound like they're played more aggressively than others.
I use this to emphasize accents and make ghost notes more noticeable.
Go ahead and emphasize the notes you want. Whatever works for your groove.
A basic example of this technique would be emphasizing the first beat of each bar.
And if you're using a good bass patch, MIDI Velocity doesn't just affect the volume but also the timbre.
You'll get more of the high-mid frequencies when the bass strings are played more intensely.
The transient is louder. Even the pitch goes slightly higher since the string vibrates at a different frequency.
However, you don't want to exaggerate this. Especially if you produce pop music like me.
A bass with too much dynamics disappears in the mix — when all the other instruments are super loud and compressed.
I like to keep it subtle, but it makes a difference.
The next step to humanizing the MIDI bass line is adding slight timing deviations.
After all, no bassist can play at perfect timing, always.
So try not to quantize the notes to fit perfectly in the grid.
I usually move them around until it sounds like they were played loosely.
See how they're not landing precisely on the beats?
Ableton Live Groove Pool
Another way to humanize timing in Ableton Live is to apply a groove.
You can select pre-made grooves from the Groove Pool and apply them directly to your MIDI or Audio Clips.
That will affect how your notes are played.
In this example, I picked a groove preset. If I click "commit groove," it changes the placement of the notes.
I also applied that same groove to the drums so my bass line would match them and stay tight.
Again, it's a very subtle change visually that makes a lot of difference for the ears.
Any too straight MIDI bassline landing perfectly on the grid sounds robotic, unnatural, and a bit boring.
Midi Bass Line Step #7. Chord Inversions
The last technique for a great bass line lies in music theory — chord inversion.
What is a chord inversion
A chord inversion happens when the bass emphasizes a note other than the root of the chord. Usually, the third or fifth note of a given chord.
In this example:
On the second bar, "G" is the root note of the "G Major" chord.
Instead of playing "G," the bass plays "B" — the third note of the "G Major" chord.
That's an inversion. It will change the feeling entirely.
Then we play "B" again later.
This time, it lasts longer than most notes, so we're placing the accent on it. That's called an agogic accent.
Later, on bar three, we're playing "C" on the third beat, another strong beat.
So we're shifting the focus to "C," the third note of the "A minor" chord. Instead of the root note, "A."
Turning a 4-bar loop into a full song bass line
Now that you know the seven techniques to create captivating MIDI basslines:
- You can create as many variations as you need;
- Your songs won't loop the same bassline repeatedly.
- Say goodbye to monotonous basslines.
Here's an example, taking the same four-bar loop and duplicating it.
Now it's an eight-bar loop with some tweaks, so it doesn't repeat itself exactly.
The fundamentals are the same, but the notes and timing are slightly different.
Use contrast when writing bass lines
Alright, now you have all this dangerous knowledge on your hands.
You know how to make incredible basslines, and that's a risk.
A risk of making all your basslines too active and attention-grabbing.
I've done that — it's contagious. That's why you can't leave this article yet.
Understanding how to use contrast between sections of your song is vital.
You don't need busy basslines everywhere. Unless you're making a song like "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk.
A busy bassline in verses contrasted with a sparse one in choruses often helps your music sound dynamic and compelling.
Match your song's narrative to convey the intended emotions. Going from a simple bassline to a busier one and vice-versa.
A bass line that's too hyper, with lots of staccato notes and rhythms, causes a feeling of acceleration. There's more tension.
A bass line that relies on sustained legato notes will feel like slowing down or even resolution.
This back and forth — this contrast — will also keep your listeners engaged.
Now it's your turn
Use these 7 steps to write basslines that match your lyrics' feelings and help take the listener on a journey.
That's the emotional rollercoaster of a good song.
By the way, check out this article on how to turn any idea into an entire song. It goes hand in hand with the bass line secrets you learned.
If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below.
For more music production guides, visit my website.