There’s no doubt that there are many terms and words to learn when you’re getting into music production, but frankly, it doesn’t take long to figure out what it all means.
Like I explored in my article on the difference between an 808 and a kick, an 808 is practically a catch-all term now that refers to bass instruments, especially in hip-hop and rap production, so what does this say about the difference between 808s and bass?
The difference between an 808 and bass is that “808,” inspired by the Roland TR-808, is used to describe the sound of the bass and kick together in the context of hip-hop music, whereas the less-specific term, “bass,” refers to any instrument whose purpose is to fill out the low-end.
Explained another way, the word, “808,” is a little more specific than “bass,” because it mostly refers to synth bass in hip-hop and rap music. It’s based on the kick from the Roland TR-808, but the word has now evolved into something else entirely with whole instruments dedicated to the sound, often up and down several octaves like what I explored in my video here at the 2:00 minute mark. The “bass,” on the other hand, can refer to the double bass, the bass guitar, and the bass synthesizer, without being called an 808.
The Main Differences Between the 808 and the Bass
1) 808 Refers to the kick from the TR-808 Whereas “Bass” Doesn’t
If you want to read more on this, make sure to check out the article that I already linked above, because I explore it in more detail, but essentially, the 808 is a term that has evolved a lot over the last couple of decades. Originally, the TR-808 was an initially unpopular drum machine made by Roland that had to be discontinued in the early 1980s before it went on to experience a surge in popularity with hip-hop and electronic producers.
The TR-808 sound, mostly because of rap music – and more specifically, the southern trap scene – has become a commonplace sound in the popular culture at this point. In fact, it’s so common that people use the word, “808,” interchangeably to refer to any bass and kick drum working in conjunction with each other in a rap or pop song, even though the instrument may have absolutely nothing to do with the original TR-808 (which you can grab off eBay if you wanted).
The same thing can’t be said about the word, “bass” which doesn’t necessarily refer to the TR-808 or any of the sounds that came with it. The bass can refer to just about any instrument whose sole purpose is to produce low-end frequencies; these are just some examples: bass guitar, double bass, bass synthesizers, cellos, and the bass horn (like a tuba). It’s most common for the word to refer to an instrument that produces low-ends from C4 until C2.
2) Every Single 808 is a “Bass” Instrument, But Not Every Bass Instrument is an 808
I believe this is really what separates the two from each other. While 100% of “808” instruments are considered as “bass,” the same rule doesn’t apply to bass instruments when flipped around. You wouldn’t call a cello or a tuba an 808, for example, which is actually kind of hilarious now that I think about it. It’s hard to imagine someone asking a producer to add 808s and then they head to the back room to grab their tuba. For the most part, an 808 can refer to just a couple of instruments:
1) an 808 plug-in
- that produces bass and kicks like Initial Audio’s 808 Studio II (my personal favorite – you can grab it here from Plugin Boutique)
2) A Bass synthesizer
- used in conjunction with a kick drum, kind of like what I show you how to do in my How To Make 808s with Garageband article.
And really that’s about it.
3) The 808 is a Specific Sound – It’s Often the Bass and Kicks Together
The 808 is also a very specific term that describes a specific thing in a specific context. For instance, it’s almost always used to describe one of two things: 1) either the bass frequencies just after a kick hits the drum or 2) the bass sound and kick used together at the same time.
4) 808 is Used in the Context of Hip-Hop and Modern Pop Music
Additionally, people use the term “808” only to describe this sound in hip-hop and rap production. Other than in these two genres (and maybe pop as well), you won’t hear anyone use the term unless we’re talking about the rise of emo-trap, the mixture of hip-hop and pop-punk, or what has been described as rock music with 808s. These genres haven’t experienced mainstream popularity yet, but that’s not important.
For the most part, you won’t hear anyone call the bass an “808” in genres like rock, metal, jazz, or anything else like that because they mean entirely different things. 808s are commonly the bass and kick drum working together, and not just a specific instrument like the bass, double bass, or cello.
5) Bass Can Also Be Used to Describe Low-End Frequencies
The term “bass” can also be used to describe certain frequencies, always in the low-end and also sub-bass frequencies as well. For instance, if you’re a mixing engineer and someone said they wanted more bass, that means you’d either turn up the actual bass instrument (or all of the other instruments down), or you’d go into the Channel EQ plug-in and add more bass frequencies in there.
The same thing obviously can’t be said about the word “808,” which isn’t a word you would use to describe the low-end frequencies in a song. On a slightly unrelated note, it’s also worth mentioning that a lot of people actually adjust the bass frequencies of their 808s to make them sound better, or they might even carve out space in the kick’s frequencies to make way for the 808. This has the effect of “gluing” them together, so to speak.
6) Bass is Used More Commonly to Describe Instruments Rather than VSTs and Plug-Ins
Bass is also used to refer to specific instruments usually or – like I mentioned above – low-end frequencies. You might use the term to talk about the double bass, a cello, a bass guitar like the Sterling Bass from Music Man (on ZZounds), an upright bass, or any of those more old-school instruments. Sometimes someone might refer to it in the case of the bass drum as well.
808s, on the other hand, almost always seem like they’re in reference to some kind of computer instrument or software instrument track, like a plug-in, a VST, or some other software that you download and use with your computer. In the past, it referred literally to the TR-808 from Roland, and I’m sure there are other situations where it’s used to describe an actual synthesizer as well.
Important Things to Note About the 808 and Bass
1) Like the 808, the Bass Guitar and Kick Drum Also Work Together
I think it’s definitely worth mentioning that it is commonly stated that the bass and drums work together with each other, especially the kick and bass guitar. This is one of those things that people love to mention when giving advice to beginners who are trying to build a rhythm section, and it’s definitely good advice, simply because the average listener is so used to hearing this combination together.
It’s also one of the reasons why I say in my Drummer Track tutorial that you should try and get the drums to follow the bass in the song which you do with an actual feature of the drummer track. It’s just a good way of adding a rhythm section that will sound good to most people’s ears. At the end of the day, people like the music they’re somewhat familiar with.
YouTube Video Tutorial
Gear I Mentioned
1) Initial Audio’s 808 Studio II (from Plugin Boutique)
2) Roland TR-808 (from eBay)
3) Sterling Bass from Music Man (from ZZounds)