Transcribing Hard-to-Hear Bass Lines

Headphones photo by Juan Croatto

Photo by Juan Croatto

Q: Sometimes I have difficulty extracting the bass line from a song my band has decided to cover, especially for songs where the bass is deep in the mix. Can you recommend any applications or techniques for isolating the bass line or at least bringing it up to the surface?

A: While there is something to be said for developing your ears to the point that you can pick up lines and recognize intervals with ease – and at tempo – sometimes you just need to slow something down to really hear what’s going on.

Thanks to the wonders of the digital age, your options are plentiful. There are quite a few powerful “slow-downers” out there for most any computing platform (Android, iOS, Mac, Windows, etc…) Almost all of them have the added benefit of also allowing you to adjust the tuning of the track, which is very helpful when transcribing older recordings that are slightly out of tune or anything that’s been slowed down or sped up and is no longer exactly in tune.

Most of these apps also include a graphic EQ allowing you to adjust the EQ of the track to help bring out the bass. Also, most of them will allow you to export the file in the altered state so you can email it or simply throw it on your iPod or computer and shed without the program.

The simplest to use is likely The Amazing Slow Downer from Roni Music. This is a pretty bare bones application but it does it’s job well. You can loop sections, change the pitch, slow the track and change EQ. Check out my review of this app. Anytune gives you a ton of control over… well, everything. The Mac version is just hitting the app store so keep an eye out for this one. You can also read my review of this app for more.

Two other apps I enjoy are Capo and Transcribe.

Capo is a wonderful “Slow Downer” on any platform. Check out my review of Capo.

Transcribe has an additional feature to allow you to also work with video files, not just audio. This may not be an obvious need but it is wonderful when you can grab a chunk of video and slow it down while watching the fingerings as well.

Transcribe is only available for Mac, Windows or Linux while all of the other apps mentioned are also available on iOS. Some are also available on Android.

Beyond that, I would suggest that you take it slow and work out lines, note by note. Pay attention to the shapes of lines and how they sound. This is a part of how you develop your ability to pick lines out of tunes quickly. You come to simply know what that line looks like on the fretboard.

Be patient and take your time. It will come!

Readers, what sort of apps or methods do you use to transcribe those tricky bass lines and recordings? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Personally I love Amazing Slow Downer. But the one thing that I use more than anything is my voice. If I can´t catch it I almost always sing it and then play it. And also if you use Amazing SD you can change the pitch. The lines might be easier to hear in another key. The speakers or headphones you use are also a factor. They all sound different and might bring out or bury the lines you´re listening for. All IMHO. God luck!

  2. Great advice. I have found Anytune to be very helpful especially when I play the song an octave higher and the bass line jumps out. The only problem is I now realize how awesome some of these lines are so yes, this will take some time, but time well spent!

    • Lots of time the octave trick works well!

      • Brix

        Yes! Raising the whole song an octave and learning it up one works often. And sometimes just doubling pitch AND tempo will let you hear patterns in the lines that aren’t obvious at correct speed/pitch.

  3. I use Transcribe. I also agree that putting the track up and octave helps. The bass literally jumps out at you…

  4. Slowing down a lick is one thing, but on many ‘gospel’ recordings, for example, the bass can be very hard to pick out- its just kind of subsonic! Then only a chart and repeated listening reveal the clues that can unravel the approach that uncovers the line. You have to try to make it feel natural.

  5. Tascam CDBT-1
    Couldn’t live without my bass trainer!

  6. +1 for ASD. The best thing is being able to sing it, then you can slow it down in your mind yourself. The challenge with bass is that it is so low it can be difficult to sing, so one needs to practice singing an octave above the bass (at the piano or with a bass instrument), If you can play these low notes and sing them an octave or two above, then it starts to sound pretty simple, but great article.

  7. George Atilano

    AudioStretch for iOS. Slow down, looper, and keyboard with spectrum analyzer.

  8. John Shaughnessy

    If I may make an “old school” suggestion: Run the output of your music player into the input of a bass amp – you’ll have to turn it WAY down, and figure out the adapters that work to make it happen. Even the most compressed and buried 1980’s basslines will magically appear…

  9. Cyrille

    A good way to clearly hear all the bass notes (especially for those subsonic synth bass line) is to cut all the mediums and highs (to leave only the low range (from 30 hz to 250 hz) and then tuning 1 octave higher. That will pretty much isolate the bass track. This is very simple to do with Transcribe. Another way is to use the karaoke mode. This mode will cut everything that is not pan centered. Since most mixes put the bass in the center of the spectrum (along with vocal or lead instrument), this will leave the bass and vocal in the mix. Everything else will be cut off (if not pan centered)

  10. Beat Time! by Guy Shaviv
    I love this..
    Beat Time! Allows you to slow and loop video too :-)

  11. Matteo

    The question concerned the mix and not speed. The answer is no. You have to use eq to try to clean up the bass in the mix, but that is tricky and it depends on the instrumentation of the track. Hiding cymbals with eq will also hide the high frequencies that help you define the notes on the bass. Open the track on a DAW software and try different things with a graphic eq plugin, sometimes it helps and sometimes the bass just gets more lost in the mix. Good luck!

  12. Jack Hanan

    Transcribe not only allows you to slow down the tempo of the music without changing the pitch but it also allows you to increase the pitch by one octave so if the bass is a little muddled in the low registers you can better hear the exact pitch, one octave higher. I really like Transcribe and highly recommend it.

  13. The slow-down option has already been mentioned many times.

    Another thing I always look for is a live version. The studio tracks are usually so well-mixed that the bass can be hidden, but the live cuts aren’t mixed the same way, and are easier to pick apart. Other options might be listening to cover/tribute bands’ recordings. Oftentimes, they will put a lot of time and effort into learning the correct part, but not as much time mixing, so you can hear their work without putting as much in. Ultimately, as mentioned in the article, you want to develop your own ear to pick things out.

  14. Bassline

    …or go to YouTube and watch guys doing a cover of that tune. It’s like watching your teacher play it, showing string & fret position, correct fingering and little idiosyncrasies that’d take dozens of listens to nail it on your own.

    Yes – it’s very important to develop your ear, but certain songs/players (Jamerson, Chris Squire, Marcus Miller, etc) I found I needed more than my ears to get up to their level.

    +1 for ASD, and for octave up trick.

  15. One of the easiest tools, if you just want to learn the riff, is Table Rock Sound. You just enter midi or tab files, and it plays them on a fretboard. You can speed it up slow it down, whatever you want. I’ve learned a lot of rock songs I needed quick just that way. The only problem is, if there is no midi or tab available, then you are out of luck. However, not surprisingly, midi and tab are available for most rock, classic rock, and even prog tunes.

  16. chris Taylor

    Chris Taylor. your advice is just like me……simple and easy to read. top job, THANKS. CHRIS

  17. mario cabrera

    In the web there are some foolish comments like “steal the bass track from the studio” or why do you want to isolate a line bass as such that on sultan of swing. Ok for me there´s a mighty reason for isolate a bass line from the track and that is to transcribe it into a sheet of music. But the process involved must be an easy one, i mean not time consuming for the musician. Well the process i visualize is the following: first isolate the bassline using for example audacity (there are a few tutorials on how to do this). Second converting the audio track in a midi track (file) (using cubase). Finally load this file in Sibelius this software will show you the correct score of the isolated bassline.