What Makes a Great K-Pop Bassline?
Has any K-pop song has ever made you really, really want to dance?
If so, that was probably because of the sound of this instrument:
The beat (discussed here) is what you move your feet to, but if you have ever wondered what it is about a song that actually makes you want to bop your head, the answer is almost always the bassline.
Here’s FTISLAND’s Jaejin proving that point nicely for me. Thanks, Jaejin.
However, although there are some fantastic K-pop bassists out there – the aforementioned Jaejin, CNBLUE’s Lee Jung Shin (and Kwon Kang Jin, now with N.Flying), Wonder Girls’ Sunmi, and AOA’s Mina to name but a few – most modern K-pop tracks do not actually feature physical bass guitars.
In the Korean press, K-pop is usually divided into the following genres: dance, hip-hop, ballad, and rock. Except for the latter, most of these dispense of bass guitarists altogether and instead feature synthetic basslines.
You may think this sounds quite unromantic if you are a music purist, but there is actually a very good reason why most modern K-pop producers have little time for bass guitars.
In 1982, Japanese musical instrument makers Roland released the TR-303, a bass synthesizer/sequencer. The early ’80s were a time of musical innovation, and the TR-303 (also known as the 303) was the company’s attempt to create an automated, programmable bass machine. Here, have a play about on a free bowser-based 303 simulator.
Although a few pop and rock acts did make use of the 303, such as this British act in 1983, most mainstream artists had little time for it, as it sounded too artificial and unrealistic for them.
However, underground house musicians in Chicago absolutely adored this machine. For them, this synthetic sound was brand new, and allowed them to create game-changing electronic soundscapes.
When acid house spread to Europe, it fused with the nascent techno movement to create a whole generation of songs built around synthetic basslines.
Eventually this sound hit the mainstream. In 1989, the acid house-inspired “Theme from S’Express” became the first 303-infused song to reach the number one spot on the US or UK charts.
By the 1990s, almost all electronica tracks were using bass synthesizers, including Daft Punk’s 303 symphony, “Da Funk.”
And this is where K-pop comes in. American and UK electronica is the main source of inspiration for modern K-pop producers, and has been for some considerable time, especially when it comes to making basslines.
From retro audio concepts like 1980s synthpop (think Dal Shabet’s “B.B.B,” Stellar’s “Vibrato,” or Infinite’s “The Chaser”) and 1990s deep house (like SHINee’s “View”)…
…to recent genres like dubstep (NU’EST’s “Action”), electro-moombahton (4MINUTE’s Crazy”) and Big Room house (T-ara’s “Sugar Free”)…
…the synthetic bassline is now a defining sound in up-tempo K-pop.
The other big influence on modern K-pop is the disco and funk music of the ’70s and ’80s.
Discoheads and funkateers emphasized the bass guitar above all other instruments, as they realized that bass-led songs were more danceable.
Traditional rock had emphasized the guitar, but funk and disco musicians considered the guitar too shrill, and confined it to a supporting role.
…the bassist became every band’s superstar.
K-pop artists are forever revisiting this era of music, though now they usually make use of virtual instruments.
Obviously this kind of thing owes a very large debt of gratitude to the funk and disco era:
B1A4’s CNU also had a crack at it with this:
VIXX even took a shot at disco/funk on the “Jekyll” album with “Chaos.”
For the most part, K-pop songmakers like to take a leaf out of electronica and old-school disco’s book. Almost everything you hear in K-pop now, with the exception of rock and ballad songs, is bass-led.
As most K-pop artists are not just about the audio product, performance is almost as important as the song itself. That means that almost every song needs to be very danceable – and if you want to achieve that, your weapon of choice is almost certainly a killer bassline.
What makes a good bassline is ultimately a matter of subjective opinion.
K-pop basslines need to sound tuneful because, as discussed above, K-pop has little to do with rock nowadays. In rock, the bass is mostly a percussive and rhythmic instrument, rather than a melodic one. In disco, funk, house and modern electronica, though, basslines are usually both melodic and expressive.
A “good” K-pop bassline is one that succeeds in leading the song wherever the artist and producer wants to take it.
And as it is often so tuneful, if it is memorable, it’s good. Whenever an uptempo K-pop song has a good groove, and makes you want to dance, that is almost certainly down to its bassline.
For what it’s worth, here are a few songs worthy of note (in a few different categories that I just invented) with basslines that really stand out.
Not every song needs to smother you with bass. Sometimes a bassline can guide a song without slapping you in the face with its presence.
Smooth. “Magic” also has a great bassline.
Yoseob (BEAST)’s “Caffeine”
Very unobtrusive, but drives the entire track.
Sonamoo’s “Round n Round”
Should have been the lead track from the sophomore album. A very classic, clean post-funk bass sound. Sonamoo, a seriously underrated act with unfailingly great basslines.
Because sometimes you are just in the mood to be slapped in the face with bass.
BTS’ “Hold Me Tight”
Ground-shaking stuff from one of the best albums of the year yet.
For when you want to get down and dirty with bass frequencies so low, they are almost beyond the human audio spectrum!
Hello Venus’ “Wiggle Wiggle”
This bass goes way down low.
C-Clown’s “Let’s Love”
And talking of deep low-frequency bass, there is also this. The kind of thing that could blow a speaker if you’re not careful.
As this man would tell you, there is always a time and a place for a nasty bassline. One that obnoxiously, positively, and deliciously invades the entire track.
Yes, them again. Nasty bass indeed.
BTS’ “I Like It”
I like it all; especially that bassline.
C-Clown’s “My Lady ”
More C-Clown. Come back, C-Clown! And bring that bassline with you!
Well, now you have read our take on it, what do you think makes a good K-pop bassline, Soompiers? What K-pop songs do you think have a good bassline? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to join us for the final installment of this mini-series as we explore the world of the K-pop melody line – coming soon, only to Soompi!
timmydee is a music geek with a penchant for pop, an enthusiasm for electronica and a hankering for hip-hop. When he isn’t writing for Soompi, he is remixing your favorite K-Pop tracks – with sometimes astounding (but often catastrophic) results.
*The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not represent Soompi as a whole.