Whether you’re a fan of the genre looking to start making your own tracks, or an experienced producer that wants to try your hand at a new style, knowing where to start can be hard.
Here at DNB Academy, our goal is to help teach the art of drum and bass production in a way that is clear and easy to understand. That’s why we’ve created this comprehensive Beginner’s Crash Course. It includes everything you need to know to get started making drum and bass, plus some extra tips and tricks along the way.
While this Crash Course is choc full of knowledge, you should know that it takes time to become a good producer of drum and bass. It’s ok to be confused. Reading this guide is the perfect way to start your drum and bass journey, but remember, it’s just that – a journey. So enjoy the process, embrace the challenge, and look forward to an incredibly fun and addictive new passion.
Table of Contents
The Crash Course is divided into several sections. We recommend going through from start to finish, but feel free to jump around as suits your needs:
Table of Contents
What Is Drum and Bass?
While tracing the development of a genre of music is a tough (and often controversial) task, we’ll try to briefly sketch drum and bass’ history so that you can understand the broader context in which the genre sits.
Drum and bass is a veritable melting pot of styles and influences. It emerged out of the UK rave scene in the mid-90s as an evolution of breakbeat hardcore, a hard-hitting style of EDM then popular at UK clubs and parties. Artists experimented heavily with new sounds, while also plundering samples from classic records. Reggae records from the 70s and 80s became popular sources for drum and vocal samples, creating drum and bass’ direct predecessor, Jungle.
As this style gained more mainstream appeal, especially with the British public, many artists began to riff on the Jungle sound, keeping the fast-paced percussion while straying from the genre’s reggae influences. Since Jungle was heavily associated with the tropical sounds of reggae, these new artists began referring to their music “drum and bass,” a phrase that was used to describe certain reggae tracks in the 70s. Drum and bass was meant to emphasize that these artists were sampling the high-octane breakbeats from these records as opposed to the more melodic elements.
Over the course of the next 25 years, drum and bass grew into a many-faced beast, spawning dozens of its own sub-genres.
Styles of Drum and Bass
Which particular style of drum and bass you choose to produce will depend on personal preference. The best thing you can do is listen to a lot of drum and bass music and determine which particular sound appeals to you. We’ll go into greater detail on how to achieve the sounds of each style of DNB a bit later on, but for now, here is a list of some of the most popular variants:
- Jump Up
How to Program Drums for Drum and Bass
It’s in the name: drum patterns are one of the two defining aspects of drum and bass. The best artists program rich, layered drums, but they’re all building upon the same fundamental pattern.
A Note On BPM
In drum and bass, the BPM (beats per minute) typically ranges from 170 to 180. The vast majority of professional drum and bass, however, is going to sit at 174 bpm. This is pretty fast, and it’s one of the reasons drum and bass sounds so intense and hard-hitting compared to other genres of electronic music.
Kick & Snare Patterns
The kick and snare form the bedrock of the prototypical DNB pattern. It sounds as follows:
It consists of a kick on the “1” and “3 &” beats, plus a snare on the “2” and “4” beats. Introducing the kick on the “3 &” beat instead of the “3” beat is what leads to the swing sensation.
The world is your oyster here, though. You’ll hear tons of producers toying around with the drums, but again, the core of the track always remains the interplay of the kick and snare. It’s the driving force of drum and bass. It provides a track with its energy.
Another oft overlooked factor in DNB production is the quality of your drum samples. Luckily, we’ve got you covered. Check out our FREE Tentacles Neuro DNB Starter Kit, complete with 15 kicks, snares, and top loops to help you start making out-of-this-world neurofunk.
The “shuffle” is another important sonic element in drum and bass tracks. Originally used by funk drummers to add swing and feeling to their playing, shuffles are that little “roll” you hear after the first snare of each bar.
A shuffle consists of a series of 1/16th notes. Luckily, there’s a nearly infinite amount of shuffle samples floating around out there, so it’s as easy finding the one you like and throwing it after your first snare.
Shuffles act as a sort of glue by filling the empty space between the first snare and second kick. Unique, interesting shuffle samples are one way to add a personal touch to your drum and bass tracks, so experiment with placement and sound.
Hats, percussion, and other breaks are where you can really start to add personality and set your drum and bass tracks apart. When fleshing out your drums, it’s important to consider the overall sonic profile of your track. Are those particular shakers going to clash with the shuffle? Is the ride overpowering? There are no right or wrong answers, but be mindful of how each percussive element fits into the overall puzzle of your rhythm section.
Adding hats gives the drums a sense of continuity:
More unique percussion can really spice things up:
A “breakbeat” is a full drum pattern sample, usually taken from older soul and funk records. When producing drum and bass, you can use breakbeats in addition to your own drums, or even on their own. In fact, in some genres of drum and bass, like Jungle, a sampled breakbeat will be the only percussion present.
Working with breakbeats can be a bit of an art, and there are several things you’ll want to keep in mind. First, the quality of the breakbeat sample is not always guaranteed. Depending on where you got it from, the sample could have been compressed and encoded dozens of times, which is no bueno in terms of fidelity. Try and source your samples from quality sample packs or trusted sites like Splice.
Further, since most breakbeats are sampled from vinyl records that were recorded using older equipment, there are sometimes sound artifacts or other organic textural qualities present in the sample. This can often be a good thing, but if you’re looking to keep your drum and bass ultra-clean and modern sounding, this is something to be aware of.
Since these are recordings of humans playing live drums, they aren’t always going to be perfectly quantized. (When something is quantized, it matches perfectly to the bpm and time signature of your track.) You might need to stretch or compress the sample to make it fit your track. Not all time-stretching algorithms are created equal, and it’s likely that the sample will get pitched up or down. You can use a simple pitch shifter to correct this, but it will affect the texture of your sample.
Again, this is neither a good nor a bad thing – it all depends on the drum and bass sound you’re trying to achieve!
As a final note, if you’re not using a breakbeat on its own, remember to examine how it interacts with your kick and snare. Is it overpowering them? Creating some frequency clash? Use an EQ to inspect the frequencies, and don’t be afraid to cut any problem areas. As a rule of thumb, throwing a high-pass filter on your breakbeat will give your kick and snare room to shine through while still keeping most of the breaktbeat’s other percussive elements.
Utilizing Drum and Bass Samples
Don’t make more work for yourself than is necessary: there are TONS of high-quality drum and bass sample packs out there. In addition to our free packs, many pro drum and bass producers release their own packs for use. While you should strive to one day have a mastery of sound design and be able to whip up your own drum samples, it’s perfectly fine to make use of samples.
How to Design Basses for Drum and Bass
It’s the other half of the equation. We talked about drums, now we’re talking about bass.
Some Technical Stuff
Before we dive in, we should mention a few technical tidbits that are important to know when you’re working on your bass sounds.
DNB basses are heavy. They’re usually fat and very present in the mix. If you take a look at how one of these basses stacks up across the frequency spectrum, you’ll notice that most of the sounds are occurring in the 75hz to 100hz range and below.
For this reason, most drum and bass tends to be written and produced in the keys of E minor, F minor, and F# minor. That’s because the pitches of the notes in these keys have enough low frequency information for the basses to hit hard, but are high enough that they are perceptible to the ear.
Bass Sound Design
Bass sound design depends heavily on two main factors:
- the style of drum and bass you’re hoping to emulate
- the synth you’re using
Jungle basses, for example, are often gritty, full, and in your face, whereas Liquid features mellower, less harmonically complex basses. By “less harmonically complex,” we mean these basses have fewer added effects and are often comprised of just one oscillator outputting a sine wave.
The way synths work is by using “oscillators” (think of these as generators or sources) to create soundwaves. A sine wave is the most basic waveform an oscillator can generate, and it has smooth, round quality to it. Sine waves tend to have more stuff going in the higher frequencies, though, so in order to make your sine wave stand out in the mix, you can add a bit of saturation. This will help it cut through any other sounds that might be masking it.
Reese basses are one of the most commonly used basses in DNB. You likely recognize the sound: a full-bodied, gritty bass that feels like it has an edge. Depending on what sub-genre of drum and bass you’re working in, a reese bass can either be long and sustained note or a wobbly and high-energy.
Let’s take a look at how to design a simple Reese bass in Vital, one of the best free softsynths on the market.
TIP: “Softsynth” is short for “software synth,” and describes any synthesizer that is fully software and doesn’t feature any hardware.
Make a supersaw on oscillator 1 and have it play a low note. A supersaw is a detuned saw wave that has many unison voices. To do that in Vital, we’ll load up the Classic Blend wavetable, then cycle through the frames until you have a slightly modified saw wave. Up the voices to around 6, and detune to approximately 20%. By adding voices, you create the feeling that the bass is very wide and all-encompassing. This is because the voices get spread out across the stereo field. Pitch the oscillator down two octaves, or 24 steps.
Add another Classic Blend saw wavetable to oscillator 2. Leave this one in unison (1 voice), and keep the detune at 20%. Pitch this down just one octave, or 12 steps. Decrease the volume level slightly.
Load Filter 1 and route both oscillators through it. Then, shape LFO 1 like shown, and drag it to the Filter 1’s cutoff (the white bar below the filter graphic). By automating the filter cutoff, we can create that classic “wub” effect. Feel free to play around with the LFO and the filter to achieve the sound you desire.
Add chorus, distortion, and a compressor. A chorus widens the bass, while distortion helps to create a Reese bass’ crackly grit. Compressors are pretty standard for any signal chain. They work by decreasing (or “compressing”) the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of a sound. This helps it stand out in the mix.
Another drum and bass classic, roller basses are relatively sparse and typically feature “rolling” movement.
In the following video, we break down how to make a roller bass in Vital:
Synths & Samples for Drum and Bass
Drum – check. Bass – check. Now it’s time to flesh out your track and really bring it to life. One of the things that makes drum and bass such a diverse genre is that different producers feature wildly different instruments and sound in their tracks.
For example, a Neurofunk track will almost definitely have several futuristic synth pads and leads, while Liquid producers might prefer to have some mellow Rhodes keys play their chord progression.
The sounds of the instruments and other samples you use to build out your track will determine what style of drum and bass people label your track, but always remember – there are NO hard and fast rules when it comes what sounds a DNB song has to have! Make the music that you find inspiring. If that means throwing a classical piano sample in your Sambabass track, go for it.
You might just create the next big thing.
Dancefloor is an energetic style of drum and bass tailor-made for getting people to vibe on the dancefloor (as its name suggests). It features punchy, splashy drums, vocal samples, and simple, catchy melodies.
Jump-up is even higher octane, and often calls for hard drums, call and response basses, and unique rhythms that catch the ear.
Jungle is known for having a slightly tropical vibe due to its roots in reggae. Amen or other classic drum breaks are typically the bedrock of Jungle grooves, with reggae-esque vocals and dub fx layered throughout.
Drums that roll like the hills, silky-smooth basslines, and luscious melodic elements are textbook Liquid drum and bass.
The stuff that’ll still be hip in 2077. Basses that have complex modulation, drums that sock you in the face, and outside-the-box sound design. The Wild West of DNB.
It used to be that you had to have thousands of dollars to spend on hardware synthesizers if you wanted to produce electronic music. Thankfully, we live in an era of abundance, and there are literally hundreds of high quality synthesizers available on the internet – many of them for free. Below are a couple of our favorites when it comes to making drum and bass.
$189 or $10/month with splice “rent-to-own”
Serum is more or less the industry standard for electronic music production, regardless of the genre. Released in 2015, Serum is the brainchild of DJ Steve Duda. He wanted to create a “dream synth” that would make sound design a breeze, and, well, judging by the popularity of Serum, it’s safe to say he did the job. Serum is a digital wavetable synth, essentially meaning it uses scans of soundwaves to drive its oscillators. The interface is clean, and compared to other softsynths, very user-friendly, especially for beginners. One of the highlights of Serum is that you can easily route all of the parameters to one another by simply clicking and dragging, making modulation a breeze.
New to the scene, Vital is a spectral warping wavetable synthesizer. Sounds complex, but it basically means you can manipulate the wavetables in new and interesting ways. Vital’s user interface is similar to Serum’s in that it’s very sleek and intuitive. One of this synth’s most unique features is that you can use custom samples to create your own wavetables, leading to near endless sound design possibilities.
Check out some of our Vital tutorials on YouTube:
FX is what we call the little extras and textures that help glue drum and bass tracks together. A casual listener might not notice them, but they’re absolutely crucial to building tension and excitement in DNB.
Risers – Downlifters – Impacts
The most standard FX are white noise sounds known as risers, downlifters, and impacts.
We use risers to transition between the various sections of our tracks or before a drop. Their rising volume creates expectation, which primes the listener’s ear for what’s to come next.
A downlifter is basically the flip side of a riser. After a transition, a downlifter helps defuse the tension created and usher us into the next section of the song. Impacts help create atmosphere, especially in the intro and breakdown of a drum and bass track.
Other FX include textural samples that can serve as percussion, vocal samples you’ve chopped up, or anything else. Get creative, the possibilities are endless!
How to Arrange Drum and Bass
The structure of drum and bass isn’t too dissimilar from other genres of electronic music, but it’s definitely got some unique traits.
First, you should think in terms of phrases. A phrase is equal to one 16 bar loop, so if a section is two phrases, it’s 32 bars.
The general structure of a drum and bass track is as follows:
Intro – 1-2 phrases
- This is where you usher listeners into the sonic world you’re building. Intros are usually slower and more atmospheric. They might hint at the melody or tease other elements that will be heard later on.
First Build-Up/Breakdown – 1 phrase
- Here, you start working toward the first drop. The pace picks up and you begin layering in more sounds.
First Drop – 4 phrases (with progressions and switch-ups)
- The main show. This is where you give the listener everything you’ve got. Often, this is the first time we hear the kick and the bass to their full extent. Engage the listener by adding or subtracting different elements over the course of the 64 bars.
Second Build-Up/Breakdown – 1-2 phrases
- Time to decompress from the first drop and get mellow again.
Second Drop – 4 phrases
- Same as the first drop, but the first phrase should have a notable variation.
Outro – 1 phrase
- Cool down and let listeners reflect on having had their minds blown.
As always, rules are made to be broken, but this is where you should start.
Because most drum and bass tracks will be undergirded by a strong drum pattern and a bass sound that plays for more or less the whole track, it’s important to carefully consider what sounds to add or subtract and when to do so. You want to keep things fresh and ensure that your song has a sense of passage – the feeling that we went from point A to point B.
Think in terms of phrases. How can I make this phrase feel different from the one that came before it? Of course, not every phrase has to be different from the others.
Sometimes you’ve got a kickass melody that people just want to dance to, and thus can be repeated over and over again. How you vary the phrases should strive to be more subtle than obvious, though, so even if you’ve got that melody bumping for 64 bars straight, you can add texture and intrigue by throwing in FX or adding or subtracting percussion.
For example, in order to differentiate your second drop from the first, you might add an additional layer to your melody (or perhaps tweak the melody itself), add an ear-catching sample, or beef up the drums, amongst other tricks. This helps prevent the listener from getting fatigued and feeling like they’re hearing the same thing over and over again.
Often, new producers tend to think that more tracks equals better. I certainly did. But this is DEFINITELY not true. That is not to say that more tracks (or channels) equals bad, it just means that the number of tracks in your song does not correlate with the quality of your song. You can make a kickass drum and bass number with 10 tracks, easy.
Many professional drum and bass tracks have around 30-50 channels, depending on the genre. Sure, some of the more intricate styles of DNB can feature upwards of 130 tracks, but that’s no rule of thumb. In fact, when you’re first starting out, the more tracks you add, the more likely it is that you’re going to add clashing sounds that muddy up your mix.
The best pro DNB producers know that less is more. Every sound in your song should have a purpose. Don’t feel like you have to throw in an extra bass just because it’s what you’ve heard you need to do. Master your craft by making clean, tight projects without excess tracks.
Mixing & Mastering Drum and Bass
Mixing and mastering are two processes that often leave new drum and bass producers scratching their heads. While these can indeed be complicated art forms, there are a few overarching principles that can help you start down the path to doing your own mixing and mastering.
FREE Mixing and Mastering
How to Mix Drum and Bass
Once you feel like you’re completely done with the production of your song, it’s time to mix. Mixing refers to how you balance all of the sounds in your track across the frequency spectrum, as well as how you manage the track’s overall sound design.
Changing volume is one of the most powerful tools you have when mixing. This can be done in a direct fashion by simply adjusting the volume slider, or through other means, such as compression. In fact, a majority of the mixing process is balancing the volume of the various elements in your tracks.
In a genre like drum and bass, we unsurprisingly want the drums and the bass to stand out. The kick and the snare should be the stars, with the bass not much below them.
Then comes melodies and chords, followed by FX and other textures that will be pushed more into the background.
As we mentioned before, a compressor “compresses” the differences between the quietest and loudest parts of a sound, creating a more consistent volume level, which, in turn, helps the sound stand out.
You’ll want to compress all of your drum sounds individually, and then also route them to a master bus that has further compression. By processing your drums together on the master bus, they become “glued” together.
An EQ gives you the ability to increase or decrease the volume of the different frequencies in a track. As a general rule of thumb, ALWAYS use subtractive EQ (decreasing the volume) before additive EQ (increasing the volume). When in doubt, subtract!
(See, we weren’t kidding when we said mixing was just about changing the volume!)
EQ is important in a genre like drum and bass, where the kick and the bass compete with everything else, including each other, for sonic real estate. You’ll want to make sure none of the other channels in your track have much going on in the sub-150Hz, otherwise they will be crowding space reserved for the kick and bass.
You’ll also want to see how your melody is interacting with things like pads and chords. Perhaps your melody gets most of its power from the 600-1000Hz range, but your pads also have a lot going on in this range. Because your melody should stand out, you’d want to cut the pads between 600 and 1000Hz to carve out some space.
When reducing the gain – or volume – of an EQ band, you don’t need to be too extreme. It’s very contextual, but less is usually more.
How to Master Drum and Bass
Once you’ve bounced your mixed track out a single audio file, it’s time to master. Mastering is the final step in getting a song ready for release. It can be even more finicky than mixing, and many people opt to hire mixing engineers or use algorithmic mastering services like Landr. But you should have some basic familiarity with what’s going on, and following these steps can be helpful if you find yourself having to master your own drum and bass tracks (which many beginners do).
The idea behind is mastering is taking all of the sounds in your song, now mixed, and really turning them into a cohesive piece. Mastering aims to achieve three general goals:
To increase the perceived loudness of the track
Balance the track’s stereo image
Ensure the track maintains its sound across a variety of playback systems (speakers, headphones, car stereo, etc.)
When first starting out, many experts recommend sticking to just three tools in your mastering chain:
The goal here is to iron out any problem frequencies you may have missed in the mix. Remember, this EQ is being applied to every sound in your song, since it’s just one audio file now, so be sparing. And as always, cut before boosting!
Here are some general rules of thumb:
- If your mix sounds hollow and thin…
- Gently boost in the 500Hz range.
- If your mix sounds too bass-heavy…
- Roll off around 100-150Hz
- If your mix has too much in the high frequencies…
- Add some subtle cuts in the 3k-8kHz range.
- If your mix sounds flat and dull…
- Try a shelf boost from 10k-15kHz.
It can take awhile to fully grasp how compressors function, and that’s ok. Most compressor plugins will have mastering presets, which serve as great starting points for getting things right.
Adding a compressor in your mastering chain is optional. Depending on how much compression you added to your stereo buss during mixing, you might not need it.
Thankfully, you can rely on visual cues to help you out:
Look at the waveform of your track’s audio file. Are there lots of jagged peaks sticking way above low valleys? Or is everything more or less the same height? Remember, the point of compression is to decrease your track’s dynamic range, or to shrink the differences between the loudest and quietest parts. Having large peaks means that the loudest parts of your track are still much louder than the quietest parts, and thus, you need more compression.
Any jarring peaks that somehow make it through your master compressor should get chopped down by your limiter. Technically, a limiter is just a really aggressive compressor.
As its name suggests, this tool “limits” how loud a track can get. Again, sticking with one of your plugin’s presets is the safest bet, but for a much more in-depth look at mixing, check out this incredible blog post from Izotope.
And with that, we’ve reached the end of our Beginner’s Crash Course! Hopefully you picked up some useful stuff along the way. Here’s what we recommend doing next:
1. Download Our FREE Neuro and Liquid DNB Starter Packs
2. Download the Free Version of Vital and Use Our FREE Neuro Preset Pack
3. Enroll in DNB Foundations
65+ Hours of Content:
DAW Fundamentals | Music Theory | Drum Programming | Bass Programming | Structure & Arrangements | 6 Start-to-Finish DNB Projects | Sound Design Fundamentals | Applied Synthesis | Mixing & Mastering Fundamentals | Artist Development Course | Completed Project Files | DNB Academy Creative Suite | Bonus Content
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We’re always posting useful tips and tricks to our Instagram and YouTube. Got something you want to know how to do? Just leave a comment and we’ll do our best to make a tutorial!