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6 ways to recreate the sound of classic '80s live bass

sculpture
(Image credit: Apple Logic Pro X)

Many associate the rise of synth and sampled bass with '80s music, but let’s think about how to make realistic bass guitar sounds. 

Coming out of punk and post-punk, there were so many great rock players around, like Jean-Jacques Burnel (Stranglers), Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads), Bruce Foxton (The Jam), and Colin Moulding (XTC). 

In other genres there were slap monsters such as Louis Johnson (The Brothers Johnson), Mark King (Level 42), Nick Beggs (Kajagoogoo), and then, of course, the fretless came into its own, with players such as Mick Karn (Japan) and Pino Palladino (Paul Young). 

These players weren’t submerged in the mix, they were up front and identifiable. Put down a fretless bass track, a bit of DX7 piano, maybe some Simmons electronic drums, throw in some sax – that’s the 80s for a lot of people! 

1. The basses and the amps

80s live. bass

(Image credit: Future)

For bassists, the 80s were a time of innovative, flamboyant instruments, such as Musicman, Jaydee, Status, and Wal, while for amps, it was the heyday of brands like Trace Elliot and SWR. Noting the character of these is important while reproducing 80s techniques.

2. The effects

80s live. bass

(Image credit: Future)

If you were going to put one effect on your fretless bass in the 80s, it had to be a flanger! Flanger plugins are easy to come by these days, although some will be more period-correct than others. See Line 6 Helix Native, Logic Pro (as shown above) and IK Multimedia.

3. Faking it - slap

80s live. bass

(Image credit: Future)

For those who can’t play bass, there are a few software-based alternatives. If you’re after slap bass, Apple provide a tutorial for creating a slap sound using Logic Pro X’s Sculpture modelling instrument. For immediate results, try something like Scarbee’s Jay-Bass plugin. 

4. Faking it - fretless

80s live. bass

(Image credit: Future)

Fretless bass plugins aren’t common, but Toontrack have recently released Fretless EBX, a sample-based plugin with an assortment of bass sounds, plus a MIDI library of ready-to-use bass parts and articulations. Again, there’s a Logic Pro X Sculpture tutorial, if you prefer.

5. Recording

80s live. bass

(Image credit: Future)

Even if you prefer real bass, it can be hard to record without the right setup – plugins help with this. Most DAWs offer some kind of decent bass amps as well as their guitar selections, although some are more decent than others! Logic Pro X has some good ones.

6. Audio to MIDI conversion

80s live. bass

(Image credit: Future)

DAWs like Ableton Live have an audio-to-MIDI conversion tool, so if your captured live bass track isn’t what you hoped, you can convert it to a MIDI clip that you can edit, and add a bass/synth plugin, and process as much as you like.