Dubstep for Dummies

Whether you think it’s the flavor of the month or the next generation of dance music, there’s no denying that dubstep is hot right now. Here are a few basics building blocks of the style if you want to start creating your own.

Obviously you should start by listening to a lot of music by Skrillex, Deadmau5, and other artists in this style. And if you’re looking for a step by step tutorial on creating a wobble bass in Massive, there are hundreds of them on YouTube. This is just an introduction that will hopefully give you some notes on what to listen for and where to start.

Drums

Dubstep grew out of the “big beat” sound of groups like The Chemical Brothers and Crystal Method. You want big, aggressive kick and snare samples for your foundation. One way to get this is layering an acoustic kick sample – often compressed and/or distorted – with an electronic 808 or 909 sample. Tempo is usually from 120 to 160 bpm or more, and often plays with half-time and full tempo variations, sometimes from bar to bar. Add some triplets as well here and there, maybe at the end of a bar, and try some 32nd or 64th note rolls by repeating the attack portion of your kick.

Aside from kick and snare or clap, you can add a high hat or crash track. Scary Monsters and Cinema by Skrillex have a crash playing constantly, nearly every quarter note of the chorus. You can try layering a drum loop or glitchy hat track, but kick and snare should be the main focus. 

Wobble bass

Wobble bass is the “wub” that most people associate with dubstep. It starts with a metallic sound source, often from Native Instruments’ Massive or FM8 softsynths, and gets filtered with an LFO synced to tempo. Change the syncopation from 16th notes to 8th note triplets and you have a basic wobble.

In Massive, try some of the digital-sounding waves like Digi Cook, Rough Math, and Chrome. Add distortion in the insert, in the FX slot, or both places. The Sample & Hold effect is also a fun way to add distortion.

Apply the Scream or Daft filter, and modulate it from LFO 5. Click the sync and set the ratio to 1/8 or 1/16 to start. You can modulate this ratio from MIDI to change the wobble from one beat to the next. You can also use a performer instead of an LFO in Massive, this can change the syncopation on each beat just by holding down a key. Also send the modulator to the WT Position, one of the wave amplitudes, FX parameters, and anywhere else you like.

The performer on the bottom will add syncopation without needing MIDI automation. You can save a few copies of this sound and alternate between them on different MIDI tracks to add more motion.

Talk bass

The “talking bass” is a sound popularized by Skrillex in particular. This is similar to the wobble bass but has a vocal resonance to it. I begin with the “Gentle speech” waveform in Massive, sweeping the wavetable and a highpass filter with one of the performers. Play that into a vocal-sounding EQ looking something like this:

Vocal-sounding EQ curve

I sweep band 3 to get more motion to the sound. You can use automated filter sweeps like Audio Damage Filterstation instead or in addition, and more distortion as well.

Leads

Dubstep leads can be as harsh as alarm clocks. Again start with a metallic sound source like Massive or FM8, and use a tempo-based filter sweep to chop it up. The lead below uses a Massive LFO turned up to top speed modulating the pitch of one stock oscillator. 

Drop syncopation

The most important part of dubstep arranging is to keep the elements constantly moving and changing. Play one of the above sounds at a time, but only for a quarter note or so before moving to the next. Alternate the grove from 16ths, to 8th note triplets, to 32nd note kick drums, constantly keeping people guessing. Don’t get lazy with cut and paste – repeat some elements but keep each one fresh with new edits. 

Then start doubling. You might double each talk bass with a kick drum hit. If your wobble bass and/or talk bass sound thin on their own, double that track with a simple sub bass note.

Creating a good drop can take all day, but it’s more rewarding to build it yourself than using prefab loops. And even if dubstep goes out of style before I reach the end of this sentence, you’ll learn techniques that you can apply to your other productions as well. 

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