The Kakapo is considered to be the world’s dumbest bird. A flightless parrot from New Zealand, it doesn’t show much of a reaction when facing predators, thus making it an easy target for cats and rats. It tries to mate only every couple of years and indulges in several other quirks that are not quite advantageous from an evolutionary point of view. This is what shrunk its population to a mere 67 surviving specimen. One of the Kakapo’s many oddities is that while on courtship display, the male birds continuously repeat a low frequency mating call named ‘boom.’ It is audible even from several miles away. Unfortunately, the source of low frequency sound waves – also known as bass – cannot be easily located. The ladies just have a hard time finding them. The unlucky Kakapo, booming from a sinkhole it dug out somewhere on the ground in the woods, is so hard to find it rarely ever happens to actually have sex.
Bass cannot be diffused directionally. That’s why a subwoofer in a stereo sound system is just one box. Bass travels the longest distances. You can hear it through walls, while the hihats get lost in the concrete. With a wave length of several meters, walls are not much of an obstacle. Thunder, slit drums in the jungle, the party on the other side of the bay, all go a long way. Bass rides over the whole inner ear before it is translated into neuronal pulse sequences. Bass massages your belly and makes your body vibrate. Even the deaf can dance in rhythm – by feeling the bass. Some claim bass stimulates your private parts too: clitoral resonance frequencies, a soft tickle in the testicles. While there were still hundreds of thousands of Kakapos around, that ‘boom’ sound maybe made sense. We humans filled the low range using drums and other rather huge instruments. The bigger the vibrating mass, the lower the resulting sound. When a recording is filtered so that only the low end remains, a Bavarian brass band, the Dominican carnival and a Ben Klock DJ set sound quite alike. Every culture so far seems to have developed a soundtrack for those excessive moments, resting on a fundament of regularly spaced bass.
As with so much else, the mating of electric amplification and Afro-American music brought us some very special ecstatic solutions for the low end. In 1951 Leo Fender strapped thicker strings to a slightly bigger electric guitar – the ‘Fender Bass’ was born. With it James Jamerson and a couple of other employees at Motown defined a great deal of the stock of basslines we still draw on today. Strings could be muted, slapped and pulled, which is allowing for all sorts of percussive treatments. Jaco Pastorius pulled out the frets on his Fender with a knife, so he could glide continuously through the tones (compare: Pitch bending).
Although synth bass brought forward a lot of innovation in the 1980s, the basslines themselves remained rooted in the stock of ideas developed in black music. Since then a lot of effort seemed to go into sound design. Moroder’s sequencer bass could be described as an update of ecstatic soul moments. For “Tour de France” Kraftwerk had their low end modifyed by Francois Kevorkian in New York. Sound systems turned into walls in order to impress below 150 Hz. Since disco that range has often been inhabited by a straight kick drum and bass lines circling playfully around it. In its techno version, Jeff Mills programmed absurdly beautiful lines, driven in odd metres against a 4/4 base. There’s hardly any direction in music surviving without great basslines. The phenomenal drop down bass sounds of drum’n’bass remain as unforgotten as classic hip hop’s booming bass masterpieces. Occasional less bass-heavy minimalist aberrations are quickly corrected: great bass proves irresistable.