Synth Bass for Bass Players, Part 1

Increase Your Versatility and Get More Gigs

Bassist Robert "Bubby" Lewis with the Roland GAIA SH-01

Bassist Robert “Bubby” Lewis with the Roland GAIA SH-01 synth.

In today’s music world, the vast influence of EDM and other electronic styles has crept into the fabric of nearly every popular genre. The core of EDM is a driving rhythm groove, with the low end held down by synthesizer bass. To cover this essential sound, traditional bass players are now called upon more and more to double on keyboard both live and in the studio. If you’re a bassist who’s looking to increase your musical versatility and gigging opportunities, read on to find out the things you should know when getting into synth bass.

The Right Musician for the Job

Bassist_SmallEven if your keyboard chops aren’t fully developed yet, your experience as a bassist already gives you an edge over most keyboard players. As bassist Robert “Bubby” Lewis (Snoop Dog, Dr. Dre) relates, “Bass players are often hired to play key bass because the MD or producer knows that the bass player will understand how to play lines and voicings. Someone who only knows keyboards may not know how to play lines and voicings like a bass player.”

Additionally, with so much synth bass in modern music, the need for a bass player to cover keyboard bass live has now become a necessity to play certain styles accurately. In fact, many touring bass players we’ve talked with say that getting bass sounds that are very close to the original recordings is often a requirement for a gig.

Of course, bass players have been doing double duty on keyboards for decades. Going back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, players in bands such as Genesis, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Rush, the Police, and the B-52s used either analog synth bass pedals or analog keyboards to enhance their live sound. However, these instruments lacked the modern features we enjoy today, such as easy patch backup, onboard multi-effects, and USB connectivity.

Roland’s extensive lineup offers a wide and unique selection for today’s bass players, with the stability, durability, and essential functions needed to keep up with the contemporary music scene. Most importantly, Roland sounds are essential to EDM itself, having played an important role in defining the genre’s sound from the beginning.

Playing Synth Bass: Knowing the Important Sounds

In putting together this post, we talked with a number of top bass players and asked them to share the most requested synth bass sounds they’re asked to play. It’s no surprise that the number one sound called for is a super-low bass with lots of subharmonic content. Often, this sound serves as a pedal tone, or is used to double other bass sounds to provide that extra wall-shaking low end.

Three legendary Roland Keyboards Noted for Synth Bass Sounds: the SH-101, SH-2, and JUNO-106

Three classic analog Roland synthesizers noted for their bass sounds: the SH-101, SH-2, and JUNO-106.

Other frequently requested sounds are analog-style synth basses using sawtooth or square waveforms, and “wobble” basses which feature movement created by a synthesizer’s LFO section. Some of the most popular signature synth bass sounds come from classic Roland analog synths such as the SH-2, SH-101, JUNO-106, and Alpha JUNO 1 and 2. These sounds and many others can be recreated with most modern Roland synths.

Finding and Adjusting Sounds Quickly

Another thing to consider is the ability to get to different sounds fast. This is important not just for stage playing, but also in rehearsal, when it’s critical to be able to audition different sounds to discover which works best with the rest of the band. After you find the sound, being able to adjust it in real time is another factor. When choosing a synth, look for dedicated knobs that allow you to adjust basic synth parameters like cutoff, resonance, attack and release—these are very important for shaping the sound so it sits right in the mix.

FA-06 Sound Modify Section for Controlling Synth Bass Parts

Controls like these in the Sound Modify section of the Roland FA-06 synth provide real-time access to essential synth parameters.

How Many Keys Do You Need?

The number of physical keys needed to play synth bass parts depends on the genre of music. For most styles, 25 or 37 notes should be adequate. Sometimes, even a 13-note keyboard will work fine. A larger keyboard provides more range, and makes it easier to play chords with two hands. But this may not be needed, since most synth bass parts are single-note and often use monophonic sounds.

Play Synth Bass with the Roland GAIA SH-01

A three-octave keyboard like that found on the Roland GAIA SH-01 provides more than enough keys to play synth bass parts on stage.

Also note that a larger keyboard is heavier and takes up more floor space when gigging; weighted-action (piano style) keyboards are the heaviest and usually have the largest footprint. For touring, the added size/weight of a large keyboard can increase travel costs, and add time to set up and tear down. And don’t forget the expense and additional weight of a heavy-duty flight case. Since you’re probably going to be carrying your regular bass gear too, you may want to go with a smaller keyboard if it covers your needs.

Look out for Synth Bass for Bass Players, Part 2, where we take a look at the top Roland keyboards for bassists doubling on synth bass.