September 9th, 2009

Bass Is a Feeling

I’ve really been enjoying all the feedback I got on my “treble culture” post. One idea that’s been especially interesting is the seemingly common notion — repeated & affirmed by many commenters — that we tend to imagine/assume bass even when we don’t hear it.

I suspect that this phenomenon may be at work more frequently than we think. Indeed, I suspect that even when we’re in the presence of a good enough system to “hear” bass, it’s hardly bass at all if we’re not feeling it. Comments from Nina and Beni emphasized this point, but nothing brought it home quite like last night’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli concert at the House of Blues.

As you can see in that picture above, the speaker stacks at the HoB are pretty damn serious (see the arcing array rising from the stage). Corporate sheen aside, I can’t remember being in a club with a system that pumped like that. The highs and mids could have used some teasing out — 30 years in & soundmen still haven’t figured out how to mix hip-hop unmuddily? — but the “lows” were perfect. It feels a little odd to call them “lows” actually, since rather than hearing the bass frequencies I felt like I was being inhabited by them, body cavities vibrating in sympathy. There’s no way I could translate this physicality for you — YOU HAVE TO BE THERE, simple as that — but this little video, and the crushing distortion produced by the bass therein, gives some sense — if a kind of bizarro, fractured representation — of what it was like.

I’d love to hear more thoughts on this, if anyone has any.

I’ll leave you with an apropos photo c/o Botswana brethren, Ruff Riddims. Seeking to push their sound out, they’ve been building their own speaker boxes, which are as beautiful (and, I’m told, as awesome) as the studio they built last year. Moemedi, aka Red Pepper, says they’re going to build four more like these, for the other side of the flatbed!

& if you think that’s impressive, here’s what Mr. Ruff himself told me yesterday:

Ruff: today I started molding bricks for the new night club that I dream of building
me: bredrin, you’re an impresario!
Ruff: we have 200 bricks so far
me: 200 bricks so far!
Ruff: yes and 4000 is where we must reach
me: brick by brick! that’s some real industry right there
Ruff: I told the guys helping me that, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step and they where very motivated and laughed too.
me: i’m sure they can see by the studio and soundsystem that you mean business
Ruff: the thing is the building where the club is now is sold and so we need a place to party so I will build one
me: necessity is the mother of invention

What I’d give to feel some Botswana bass bouncing off 4000 bricks!


  • 1. Canyon Cody  |  September 9th, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    i think its important to distinguish between the “imagined” bassline we (actively) create as listeners and, say, the “imagined” images our brain automaticaly inserts between 30/24 frame per second video. In contrast to analog listening, we are always imagining sounds to fill the space in all digital music — an unconscious blurring of the interstitial space between bits — but I think there’s a higher level of agency in our participation with treble culture. I’ve been recently struck by the bassline from Eric Bobo’s song “Muevelo” and find myself incorporating variations on that theme into all the trebly music I’m listening to lately, regardless of the original bass pattern. I also catch myself imagining 2:3 claves when there’s none (thanks abuelo)

    ripley and maga bo’s show in brooklyn a few weeks back was some of the bassiest dancing i ever done — no imagination necessary

  • 2. nina  |  September 9th, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Heh, yeah I know what you mean by the bass inhabiting you.

    Like being back in the womb, surrounded by the feeling of your mom walking and her heart beating. (I still dont think crunk music in cars is designed to “soothe” tho)

    Canyon Cody
    I like to add “The Funky Drummer break” to EVERYTHING because that was the law when I was a teen-“make song, add funky drummer”.
    My default imagined patterns, when I dont want to go with the original, are merengue. I find a 1-2 and sway to that and insert the other patterns by drumming on my thighs or desk and nodding my head.

    Maybe we should differentiate between imagined bass and remembered bass. Imagined bass we supply ourselves to make up for the lack of it, remembered bass is filling in the blanks with what is there but just not heard at the moment.

  • 3. w&w  |  September 9th, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Remembered bass seems like a kind of imaginary bass, but I appreciate the distinction.

    Also, @Canyon, yes, another important distinction: I didn’t mean to imply any real equation between the kind of imagining happening when watching a video or listening to music on a trebly device. I like the idea that there’s more agency involved in treble culture than, say, in filling in the gaps, (second) naturally, in grainy video.

  • 4. nina  |  September 9th, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Yeah, i think they are both imagined.

    Anyway, now for some reason I have the urge to go find a lot of old school booty bass music.

  • 5. boima  |  September 9th, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    I know there were some talks about economics being a factor, and I really like to see ways people overcome economics to solve their lack of bass problems.

    I think those speaker cabinets of Moemedi’s are great!

    I like this from my friend’s house in Senegal, a car stereo amp and subwoofer hookup to a home receiver hook up to a laptop to solve the problem of not having bass:

  • 6. nina  |  September 10th, 2009 at 8:42 am

    Love the car stereo components in the house! I used to have some good subwoofers &speakers on my pc, but I’ve adjusted to the lack of boom.

  • 7. i'm in shambles?  |  September 10th, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    i know the discussion has kinda moved on past this point and i’m a little late joining it… but these panasonic cassette recorders were the BOMB. they probably actually weren’t very cheap to buy new from the store but if you ever were/are to find one cheap at a goodwill or salvation army the sound quality is really tops. plus i kinda like the fact that they weigh like 20 pounds. something satisfying about it, like ‘oh, that’s where all that bass comes from’

  • 8. nina  |  September 10th, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    my mom is a school librarian,we had TONS of those tape recorders lying around

  • 9. kwala  |  September 11th, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    i’m a little late coming to this thread, but i’m loving the bass-treble ideas you are playing with here. i actually contributed a chapter for the same volume on mobile music, specifically on how digital/mobile culture has affected DJing, and was moved by the ways in which people talked about issues of sound, fidelity and media in terms of feelings. the way i heard it, some music heads searched for the visceral “stuff” of vinyl – its warmth, range, its imperfections, even its personality – often using scientific arguments to justify the superior quality of analog recordings. It’s an interesting web of emotion and technology, with the highs of a good, gritty analog bassline explained via its heightened sound wave and more legitimate recording technology (cause “it feels better” doesn’t stand on its own?). On the flip side, some DJs more readily accepted digital music because of the access it gives to a larger library, mainly because it’s so much cheaper. so there were two interesting arguments i encountered that relate to what you’re thinking through: a hierarchy of feelings as linked to media and fidelity, and a class-based undertone linked to the digital, mobile tip (perhaps even going so far as to literally interpret it as bass as “rich” and treble as implicitly cheaper, though we know that’s far from the truth). anyway, that’s some stuff that came up among the DJs i interviewed, and the loooongstanding analog/digital debate.

    on a separate note, those Botswana boxes are beautiful!!! thanks for sharing.

  • 10. james gyre  |  September 12th, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    i don’t have the time to read the whole thread right now, but i’ve always (as a deejay of heavy subs minimal techno and now the dubstep diaspora) always preface my playing of these musics for people at home with a line that echoes yours, “you have to hear this music in a club to understand it… you have to be there to hear this music played int he context it was designed for”… the bass being at skeleton buzzing levels dissipates any “sparseness” in the music. the producers making these musics understand this… so they leave room (often) in the compositions for the system itself to finish… the musics aren’t as “minimal” or “empty” when thumping in watergate berlin or fabric london… the harmonics of the subs and subtle distortions in the low mids create fluttering melodies, often closer to maqam sensibilities than funk, but no less moving to the dance. in this sense without the brahman class of the club owner we may not be able to really have our religious experience without the necessary low-frequency range sacraments! i’m tired and off today, but that’s my take… nice article.

  • 11. wayneandwax  |  September 17th, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    just making some notes as i reread portions of kode9’s recent interview w/ derek walmsley, wherein he says, germane to this discussion, that subbass is

    not worth even commenting on because it’s like air, it’s like oxygen. It’s not even a sonic thing for me, it’s just a pressure, a vibrational physicality, it’s whether the music has a physical presence. Not in auditory sense, whether you’re in a room with an entity, sense.

  • 12. hua  |  September 21st, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Really fascinated by your Treble Culture posts. You just mentioned him, but wanted to add that Steve Goodman/kode9’s forthcoming book “Sonic Warfare” collect some incredible ideas/future uses of sound, esp. bass, esp. bass that is felt but not ‘heard’/perceived (i.e. not just as music or something audible/experienced, but as crowd control tool, engineered “feeling,” etc.). Whereas, in that discussion with DW they’re more interested in dubstep etc., “SW” has more on the uses of that “vibrational physicality” for non-pleasurable purposes.

  • 13. wayneandwax  |  September 21st, 2009 at 9:45 am

    Yes! Thanks for this, Hua. (And looking forward to seeing you this Friday.)

    I’ve been dying to read this book (and bugging the people at MIT Press, so far to no avail). And I’ve been exchanging some emails with Steve about the topic. Indeed, I should probably go ahead and post his recent reply to keep the conversation going. New post coming soon…

  • 14. Laurent Fintoni  |  September 21st, 2009 at 10:52 am

    on the subject of bass felt/imagined. I’ll never forget my first time at DMZ when it was still held at Third Base, beneath their current venue, Mass in Brixton. The physical sensation the music gave me, and the physical dimension it took, provided by the system’s tuning still haunts me to this day. I think in a way I’ve been spending the last few years going to DMZ dances in London and elsewhere looking to replicate that feeling but always falling a little short. Until i went to see them in Leeds on the Iration Steppas system, where once more bass took on an entirely new dimension for me.
    It’s like you said, there’s no way words can help translate the physical experience, you had to be there.
    However i’ve noticed in recent years, especially when I was living in Japan and unable to go to big clubs with decent systems regularly, that when I listent to certain bass music on my ipod, while I may not hear certain bass frequencies, and definitely don’t ‘feel’ them, i can get the same level of physical excitement (need to start dancing spontaneously for example, regardless of where i am) or even higher than when I’m at a dance, surrounded by bass, feeling the music.

  • 15. wayneandwax  |  September 21st, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Thanks for sharing, Laurent. It’s funny — your description of your first DMZ experience and your subsequent search for that same high LOW (!) sounds so much like a drug experience, a la MDMA. Not sure what to make of that, as it seems less about diminishing returns than perhaps equal conditions, but interesting all the same. Bass is a funny thing innit, a force that can really work wonders.

  • 16. » B&hellip  |  September 21st, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    […] by jake walters, via the wire As the treble/bass culcha conversation continues here and there, it keeps coming around to the words & work of Kode9 / Steve Goodman. It became increasingly […]

  • 17. Laurent Fintoni  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 9:22 am

    ha ha i’d never thought about it like that, but yeah I guess there is a certain similarity with drug experiences where you chase the intensity and pleasure of the original high (or low in this case).
    Talking of that i think one thing you might want to keep in mind/explore if you haven’t already is the (seeming/apparent) move of dubstep from tracks with huge sub melodies, tuned for systems liked DMZ or Plastic People towards mid-range wobble at the same time as the scene started to move from primarily alcohol and weed towards synthetic club drugs (coke/pills). Again in my own (rather short i guess compared to other hardcore fans in/around LDN) experience from my first times at dubstep dances in 05 (or even early FWD>> sessions in 03 when I first met kode) to my last DMZ and FWD in late 06 before i left for Japan, the crowd and their drug consumption changed rather drastically, at the same time as the music moved towards a templated formula involving wobble bass, a disappearance of deeper sub melodies etc… this is something Martin Clark’s talked about a fair bit too. And actually just looking at the email answers from Kode you posted, he mentions it too. so yeah, anyways looking fwd to reading more on this, dope project!

  • 18. wayneandwax  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Thanks for the follow-up, Laurent. It’s definitely interesting to note the parallel shifts between venues, sound, and drugs (though this gets us perilously close to Reynoldsian theorizing*). Seems that the move from subby systems to midrangey ones is enough to explain the shift in producers’ sounds, even without the emergence of ubiquitous mobile listening.

    One thing, though: cocaine’s not synthetic, I don’t think. But I get the distinction you’re drawing.

    * [update] speaking of which

  • 19. Bass Poverty & the Po&hellip  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 11:10 am

    […] of Frequency: Kode9 on Treble Culture Some interesting discussions at wayne&wax here and here + a short interview with Kode9. No […]

  • 20. » B&hellip  |  September 29th, 2009 at 9:03 am

    […] regard yet again to bass feeling, but especially the way that loud, low frequencies operate at a seemingly (sub?)atomic level, […]

  • 21. SLOfella  |  October 1st, 2009 at 1:49 am

    Long time reader (years before children appeared), first time commenter…

    Just catching up on this treble series and have a few comments. Personally, I first noticed the cell-phone-as-boombox in Paris back in 2006. After that, it took about a year before I noticed it again here near Oakland. Then in 2008 I noticed a car (I still see it, but it’s still the only one) that had a loud speaker in it’s grill, donating it’s treble to the street… same with a bicycle around the same time.

    Now, I’ve always dreamed of making a sub-audible truck… huge diaphragms pumping out huge sub-20Hz tracks that shook everything, but couldn’t really be directionally placed. (Lower frequencies hide their location, treble gives it away). Thinking back to police/ambulance/fire sirens, especially those where white noise (?) is interspersed with the normal wailing to aide echolocation, got me thinking that these folks could be using the treble to draw attention to themselves amongst the sea street of noise.

    Back to the concert venue where bass wasn’t that noticeable, but seemed to be present, that reminds me of my own dream truck; The bass is there, you can’t hear it, but it gives your organs that gentle molecular rub down (by moving air). I don’t know the venue, but in contrast to the small speakers in an arc, the subs could easily be hidden under the stage or out of sight.

    Kinda reminds me of those mix tapes from the late ’80’s-early 90’s that had warnings on them about blowing out your speakers. I think this website likes them…

    Thanks for the insight!

  • 22. wayneandwax  |  October 1st, 2009 at 8:13 am

    Hey SLOfella, thanks for the comment! Always good to hear from longtime lurkers readers!

    I love the idea of a truck pumping surreptitious subs! That would probably terrify some people and titillate others.

    As for the use of sirens and such, I’d like to direct readers to an informative post over at wordthecat’s wrt sonic/sensual weaponry (which I find not only terrifying but deeply offensive):

  • 23. Could it be that Bass Cul&hellip  |  October 10th, 2009 at 10:11 am

    […] on iPods and phones, can we see a march towards treble in the way we consume music? Here are parts twoand three of the string.  It’s an interesting exercise, thinking about the ways in which the […]


I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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