Holiday 2012: Tools for Creating Dubstep

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Dubstep is a fairly new style of electronic music that’s dominated by sparse, reverberated beats and overpowering synthesized bass lines. In most forms of music, bass is pushed toward the back of the mix, but in Dubstep, it’s the unchallenged star of the show. Most of the melody, rhythm, drama and emotion of this music can be found in the bass lines alone, but this style is also punctuated by strident “screams,” which are higher frequency synthesizer riffs, and dramatic “drops,” which are sonic build-ups that explode and attack. Dubstep was created in the underground electronic music scene of South London, and its evolution can be traced back over a decade. It took a while to catch on, but now its energetic sound is invading the mainstream.


Bass lines that “wobble” are a common characteristic of Dubstep. Imagine a synthesizer with heavily tweaked parameters and bass notes that churn out something that sounds like “wub wub wub.” Different combinations of these sounds are often chopped together into a composite, and heavily processed along the way. The result is an unruly clatter that can sound both chaotic and symphonic at the same time. Dubstep has been king of the underground for a few years now, and recently cracked the Billboard Hot 100 in the USA with Alex Clare’s Number Eight hit, "Too Close."

Part of the gritty charm of Dubstep is that it’s entirely possible to create bone-shatteringly intense music without a single piece of fancy equipment. A meek kid with a cheap pair of headphones and an underpowered computer can quietly sit and compose an original Dubstep track that could potentially be heard by hundreds of thousands of people around the world the next day.

Even though Dubstep can be created with next to nothing, there are a number of amazing tools that can help you push it further. In this article, we’ve rounded up the most popular commercially available tools for producing Dubstep, and sprinkled in tips on how to use them effectively.

The Canvas: a Digital Audio Workstation

In many ways, Dubstep is a product of the technology of its day. It’s safe to say that few, if any, Dubstep producers are using multi-track tape machines to create their recordings. The cutting, processing, virtual instrument use and meticulous manipulation inherent in Dubstep makes using a Digital Audio Workstation a necessity. The term “Digital Audio Workstation” may sound like hardware, but it’s just a name given to audio/MIDI production software.

When choosing a DAW, be sure to pick one that lets you run third-party plug-ins. Most of them do, so your choice really boils down to personal preference. Some people love using the instruments that come with FL Studio, others prefer making beats in Reason, while the real-time workflow and easy remixing abilities of Ableton Live attracts others. Use the program that you understand the best, so you can concentrate on the creative aspects of music making.

Outfitting your computer with a good audio interface will greatly improve the sound quality of everything that you hear, as well as help the analog sounds that you record sound their best. A good pair of nearfield monitors will also be immensely beneficial, because you’ll be able to hear what your tunes sound like accurately. Adding a subwoofer can help you monitor the bass frequencies in your work, which is a pretty critical ingredient in electronic music. Recording vocals and other sounds into your computer is key ingredient for making original tracks, so having a large diaphragm condernser microphone to plug into your audio interface is very useful. Lastly, having a good-quality pair of studio headphones is about as vital as it gets.

The Paint: Plug-Ins, Synthesizers and Samples

No discussion of Dubstep equipment is complete without mentioning Massive, by Native Instruments. Massive is a Mac- and PC-compatible software synthesizer that can produce a wide range of sounds, but it’s most well known for being the source of menacing Dubstep bass lines and screams. Massive combines different elements of synthesis with a rich sounding audio engine and intuitive, yet powerful controls. Best of all, there are loads of tutorial videos on YouTube that explain how to make different Dubstep-related sounds with Massive.

Massive is available as part of Native Instrument Komplete 8, which is a collection of 27 instruments and effects. This bundle also includes FM8, another popular instrument for creating Dubstep wobbles. FM8 is a synthesizer that utilizes FM synthesis to create icy tones that juxtapose nicely with the syncopated rhythms and textured sounds of Dubstep. Reaktor is also included, which is a musical universe unto itself. Reaktor includes more than 70 instruments and effects, and more than 3,000 additional ones can be downloaded. It enables you to build your own instruments and effects, or tweak existing ones, such as Lazerbass, an included additive synthesizer that’s popular among Dubstep producers. Komplete 8 Ultimate is another version of this bundle that comes with 50 Instruments and effects, all of which come loaded on an included USB 2.0 portable hard drive. Razor, another favorite synthesizer among Dubstep artists, is among the included instruments in the Ultimate bundle.  

Creating wobbly bass lines usually requires manually routing a synthesizer’s LFO (low frequency oscillator) through low pass filters and other parameters in order to achieve the desired effect. As I mentioned before, there are many helpful tutorial videos available online that can teach you how this is done, but another way to go is to pick up a synthesizer that was built for these sounds. Wobble from SONiVOX is an instrument that’s been designed from the ground up to create Dubstep bass lines. It’s compatible with Mac and PC, runs as a VST, AU or RTAS plug-in or stand -alone, and comes with 200 preset sounds that you can jump into right away. You can tap into its tempo-synced modulation generator and fully automate your wobbles with its pattern generator, and save your own patches.

Wobble Dubstep

If you like the idea of having a software instrument designed specifically for Dubstep, but you want a few more noisemakers to define your sound, you should check out the SONiVOX Dubstep Destruction Tools. It’s a bundle of four virtual instruments that includes Wobble, a spectral morphing synthesizer called Twist, a synthesizer called Vocalizer that lets you input vocals and transform their sound into electronic instrumentation, and an MPC-style, beat-making instrument called Pulse.

Another software synthesizer that was designed to deliver hefty Dubstep goodness is Cyclop by Sugar Bytes. Its interface may look busy at first, but it’s really centered around four knobs, and it’s intentionally designed to be easy to use. The big knob on the top left of its graphical interface controls the wobble section, which means that it’s an LFO controller. Another knob lets you jump through various sets of parameters, so you can achieve the sharp sonic shifts that are associated with Dubstep. A third large knob lets you control the effects in Cyclop, the sound of which are decidedly extreme. The fourth knob is for assigning to parameters that you want to control. Cyclop is a unique monophonic synthesizer for Mac and PC that runs stand-alone or as a VST, AU, RTAS or AAX plug-in. There are more than 800 presets to explore, and it has a built-in robot-themed video game—for extra fun.

The more instruments, samples and effects that you can draw from, the more variety you will have in your sound. One of the best things you can do is to create your own samples with a portable digital recorder and build your compositions from there. Combining sounds from the outside world with the digital realm of virtual instruments is a key component in many Dubstep productions. Using hardware instruments is another really effective way to add dimensions to your work.

Dubstep has grown in popularity to such an extent that it’s beginning to impact the design of hardware instruments. The Novation Mininova is a good example of this. It’s a keyboard with 37 mini keys, an included XLR gooseneck microphone for using its VocalTune and vocoder effects, and a set of hardware controls that make it prime for use as a performance instrument. Eight well-spaced backlit Animate/Arpeggiate buttons sit directly above the keys, and pressing each one augments the sound in different ways. The buttons make it possible to quickly chop up a sound as you’re playing it, and they let you create patterns for arpeggiations. You can use the Mininova as a traditional synthesizer, and you can connect it to your computer and control it as a plug-in for your DAW as well, for the best of both worlds.  

The Brush: Hardware Controllers

It’s 100% possible to make Dubstep with just a QWERTY computer keyboard and a mouse or a trackpad, but many people prefer the feel and workflow of incorporating hardware controllers. Making beats by double-clicking boxes in a MIDI editor and tapping out melodies on a computer keyboard just doesn’t have the same musical vibe as pounding out rhythms on bouncy drum pads and riffing on a responsive set of piano-style keys. Even the simple act of turning knobs and pressing buttons becomes much more musical when you’re doing it with physical controls as opposed to software approximations. This is why USB MIDI controllers are so widely used in Dubstep production.

Many people have different needs when it comes to MIDI controllers. Some want really compact devices that can easily slip into a backpack, and squeeze onto desks that are already crowded with other equipment. Other people prefer larger controllers with a wealth of keys, buttons, faders and knobs. A well-rounded option for larger controllers is the Novation Impulse 49. The Impulse can act as the control surface of your DAW, meaning that it has dedicated Stop, Play and Record buttons, and the included Automap software will assign these controls to your audio software automatically. The eight velocity sensitive drum pads are illuminated and can be used as a grid controller for Ableton Live. 

As tempting as it might be to sketch out a quick beat in your DAW so you can get right into chopping together monster Dubstep bass lines, it’s important to spend a bit more time on your beats before you move on. One way to incentivize beat programming is to hook yourself up with a Native Instruments Maschine, which is a hardware interface and included groove-production software that’s compatible with both Mac and PC. The idea behind Maschine is to give you everything required to make beats and songs and to let you compose and perform primarily with the hardware. To sweeten the deal, Native Instruments supplies you with a free copy of Massive when you purchase a Maschine.

To fully appreciate all that Maschine has to offer, B&H created special Dubstep production kits with everything you need to start making tunes. The kits include a Native Instruments Maschine, a Novation Nocturne 25-key USB MIDI controller, a full-copy of Ableton Live 8, and a pair of closed-back Audio-Technica ATH-M20 studio headphones. Kits are available with a Maschine Mikro in black or white, or a full-sized Maschine in black or white.

The QuNeo by Keith McMillen Instruments is another interesting hardware control option. It’s a compact controller that features 251 multi-colored LED lights beneath its velocity sensitive drum pads, buttons and touch faders. The pads are pressure sensitive, and the faders can recognize more than one finger, so you can use pinch commands. It’s really lightweight, and nearly the same size as an Apple iPad, so many of the accessories that are made for the iPad can be used for the QuNeo. With the addition of a Camera Connection Kit, the QuNeo can be used to control an iPad, a device that can be very useful for making Dubstep and all kinds of musical styles, thanks to all of the incredible music-making apps that are available for it.

The Lacquer: Signal Processing

Admittedly, my fine-art painting analogy is stretched a bit thin with the suggestion of using lacquer, but humor me, okay? One of the elements that really pushes Dubstep to the edge is the heavy-handed use of effects. Signal processing is typically used throughout the Dubstep production process. Most DAW software comes with a comprehensive set of effects, but there are many third-party plug-ins that Dubstep producers have fully embraced.

One of the key ingredients that gives Dubstep its brash persona is the liberal use of distortion. A favorite distortion plug-in for Dubstep is iZotope Trash. Among other things, Trash enables you to isolate four separate frequency bands in a sound, and apply compression and distortion differently to each band. You can also stack two different distortion types on each frequency band. This level of precision can be used to make your bass lines and other elements jump right out of the mix.

iZotope Trash Melodyne Editor

Vocal samples are another central character in Dubstep, and electronic music in general. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a great idea to create your own samples with portable digital recorders, but when you bring a vocal sample into your DAW to use in a track, it’s a good idea to liven it up with some plug-ins. Many Dubstep artists choose to tweak their vocals with Melodyne editor. This software can be used for pitch correction and general mangling, and Dubstep producers will often use Melodyne to mess with the formants of a voice, skewing it and giving it an alien, other-worldly quality.

One of the ways that some Dubstep artists acheive such a chopped up, dynamic sound is with a tool called Stutter Edit by iZotope. This is an effect that makes it sound like you took a chunk of audio, tossed it in a blender, pressed the Purée button, then jumped over to the Liquify button, and so on. Stutter Edit features a battery of various automated effects, like low pass filters, bit-crushers, echoes and more. What makes this plug-in so powerful is that separate groups of these effects can be triggered with a single command, which is called a "Gesture." The Gestures automatically map to an external USB MIDI keyboard, and pressing a single key on the keyboard applies a unique sonic onslaught. Pressing a different key brings on a totally different Gesture. A couple of key presses create wild audio landscapes that sound like they took hours to chop up and compose. This an excellent tool for creating the all-important drops in Dubstep. You can tweak and fine tune Stutter Edit all you like, or you can just bang on some keys and plunge into chaos. Stutter Edit is compatible with Mac and PC and runs as an RTAS, VST or AU plug-in.

Managing the bass frequencies in a mix is one of the great challenges of Dubstep. When you want your bass line to take center stage, you need to make sure that its frequency range doesn’t interfere with the kick drums and other sounds. To avoid overlapping, many artists find that they need to cut low frequencies of certain instruments, or create bass wobbles that take place mainly in the mid frequencies. In order to end up with a tight-sounding mix, compromises need to be made, and there may not be as much low end as you wanted. That’s why Dubstep producers often use MaxxBass by Waves in their final mixes. It’s a Mac- and PC-compatible VST, AU and RTAS plug-in that extends the perceived bass response by calculating and combining harmonics.

MaxxBass iZotope Ozone 5

If you’re not going to be sending your tracks to a professional mastering studio, you can prepare them for final delivery by using iZotope Ozone 5. The Maximizer plug-in found in Ozone 5 is a must-have for mastering a Dubstep tune. It raises the overall perceived audio level without clipping your track. There are many useful sonic tools in Ozone 5, and you’ll likely find yourself using it for all kinds of things, outside of pumping up final mixes. 

On a final note, if your goal is to get that Dubstep sound, the best thing you can do as an artist is to push the genre further. It’s a sound that evolved organically from other styles of electronic and Jamaican music, and it will continue to evolve going forward. Keep it fresh by avoiding formulaic composition. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try unusual things. Ultimately, your audience is most interested in listening to the fruits of your imagination, so the deeper you dive in, the better.

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Great article. Lots of valuable tips.