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I’m trying to get in the habit of transcribing music. I don’t have a lot of experience, so my ear isn’t very good yet, and in particular I often have trouble distinguishing parts of the bass line from similar-sounding instruments like bass drum and guitar. What practices or tools can I use to develop this skill?

It seems like a good A–B repeater and equalizer might help with this, perhaps other tools as well. If you have software or hardware recommendations, please note that I use Apple computers and tablets.

I have only tried a few pieces so far, mostly riff-based rock like Silversun Pickups, or Pink Floyd’s “Money,” where it is relatively easy to follow the bass. I also try to follow bass rhythms with my fingers while I’m in the car, which is how I noticed how difficult it can be to separate bass guitar from kick drum in rock styles. I mostly listen to modern rock, some classic rock and trip hop, occasionally blues, jazz, soul, funk. I especially like to play blues and soul.

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    Amazing Slow Downer Simple & effective. – Tetsujin Dec 11 '14 at 7:45
  • What type of music are you trying to transcribe? This can make a very big difference. For instance, a lot of rock music will have the bass line follow the guitar part to the extent that they basically function together as one part. Similarly, lots of genres will often have the bass drum and the bass follow each other rhythmically, so it can cause some issues hearing all of the specific notes of the bass. Additionally, there are differences in the way tone is set up for electric bass in different genres that can round out the sound enough that frequencies of the bass are harder to perceive. – Basstickler Dec 11 '14 at 17:25
  • @Basstickler Question updated. – Bradd Szonye Dec 11 '14 at 19:42
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    I would say that you will typically find it easier to pick out the basslines on blues, jazz, funk stuff, as the bass parts are usually rather separate from other parts, though the bass and kick will often line up in funk and soul. A lot of more hiphop based stuff will often have the bass follow the kick and the tone is muddier, such as the classic 808 bass sounds, which tend to blend right into the kick. When I have difficulties, I will often just try to play with the track and listen to how my playing blends in. If it fits right in, you're probably pretty close. Sounds bad, probably wrong – Basstickler Dec 12 '14 at 20:40
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I always use Audacity for transcribing music. It's a free audio editor (for Mac and Windows). If necessary you can change the tempo, and you have a lot of other useful options. However, I've been transcribing music for many years and I've come to the conclusion that in most cases you just need to be able to select the difficult bit and be able to loop it until you start hearing what's going on. I hardly ever slow down or use any other processing. Since you can select arbitrarily short pieces, you can track down each and every note, even in fast passages. When transcribing complex harmonies it helps (me) to have an instrument at hand playing a single note while the chord sounds to be able to judge whether that single note is part of that chord or not. Anyway, if you're a beginner I would start with transcribing single note melodies (or bass lines).

As a final note, general ear training helps a lot for transcribing. Of course, transcribing itself is also ear training but if it's too difficult in the beginning you might want to go through some basic ear training exercises before starting the more difficult transcriptions.

  • Thanks for the tips! I used this approach today with the Amazing Slow Downer for iPad to learn Muse’s “Supremacy.” My setup makes it easier to use a tablet than my laptop, so if you know of any apps as good for AB looping as Audacity I'd like to know. The Amazing app makes it easy to learn a measure at a time but the interface is not quite up to isolating individual notes or chords. – Bradd Szonye Dec 12 '14 at 8:47
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I guess you could put some time and effort into ear training. It will definitely help you transcribe more accurately, but it will also boost most of your other musical skills. Not the funniest type of practice, but absolutely essential.

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Posted as an answer at the OP's request - though I'm not really sure I deserve the points for a 'point & shoot' software link ;-)

Amazing Slow Downer Can adjust speed & pitch independently, & also select short segments to loop, allowing you to hammer away til you figure it out.
Not free, $50

Sceenshot -

enter image description here

Edit:
One trick I've used in the past for working out bass lines, is to not use a bass whilst working them out, as you can cover the very thing you're trying to hear. I've used everything from acoustic guitar, piano, synth - just something I can work through the notes yet stay out of the way of what I'm trying to listen to.

  • Thanks! This would be even more helpful if you had tips for how best to use the software. Are there any settings especially helpful for isolating bass? Some of them might also work well with the software tools I already have. – Bradd Szonye Dec 11 '14 at 20:59
  • Oh hey, there is an iOS version too! $15 instead of $50. That's pricy for an app but a lot more palatable than the computer version. – Bradd Szonye Dec 11 '14 at 21:05
  • tbh, I've never actually used it, other than as a demo many many years ago. I would normally loop a bit in Cubase, without usually changing speed or pitch, but ASD just seemed designed to do precisely what you asked (& is nowhere near the price of Cubase ;) – Tetsujin Dec 12 '14 at 7:25
  • The iPad app was tremendously helpful. You can AB loop a section of a song, say 16 or 32 measures, then cut it down and walk through 2 or 4 measures at a time, then open it back up to the whole passage. I learned Muse “Supremacy” that way today, very handy. I'm going to accept Matt L’s more comprehensive answer, but this was very, very helpful! Thanks! – Bradd Szonye Dec 12 '14 at 8:43
  • I up voted his answer too, mine was just a one-liner :) – Tetsujin Dec 12 '14 at 8:44

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