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Problems with transcribing by ear

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Bthebassplayer, Oct 11, 2019.

  1. Hello everyone,

    since I started playing bass when I was 14 I always had difficulties transcribing basslines by ear. When I was younger I always asked a friend to transcribe basslines for me. That friend thought me the beginnings on bass even though he was a guitar player.

    the last few years, after I had a break in playing bass, I really want to do it myself but I still struggle and I am insecure about it. For example. I’m now trying to transcribe the song “Is this love” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. I figured out the first bars but then to me it gets complicated because Aston Barret uses a lot of notes in between the root notes and those are lost to my ears! Somehow it gets mixed up with the lyrics and guitar and I can’t hear them clean. I wonder if this is normal and I’m starting to doubt my ears and I would really like all of your input to get me past this point! Thanx in advance...!
    BOOG likes this.
  2. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    Where are you in terms of transcription tools? Are you using any software tools?
    Bthebassplayer likes this.
  3. I have an old Tascam CD player where you can slow down the music and boost the bass. I also have an IPad but I don’t know any apps or anything like that. I appreciate your option but I guess I also want to learn it totally by listening only. Or am i asking too much of myself then?
  4. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    In the old days I would learn to play the part by ear then write down what I played on paper with a pencil. This was before 'slowdown without pitch change' technology really existed.

    These days I take a different approach. I use a DAW to play the audio file, which allows looping of sections. I match the tempo, including drifts and changes. I then add a virtual instrument track, mapped to a bass or piano, to recreate what I hear as MIDI data. I then export the MIDI data and transfer it to a notation program, where I can then verify and make tweaks. The final steps are to 1/ export from the notation program as MIDI, then import that back into the DAW to confirm that the written score sounds OK, and 2/ print the score and play along from it to make any final annotations.
    With easoer stuff I just go straight to notation with bass in hand then do the export just to cross-check for accuracy.
    The advantage of the DAW, for very difficult to hear sections, is being able to loop very short section at any tempo, and move the MIDI notes around until I am confident of the pitch. All the time I have the bass in hand so I am validating and learning the part as I capture it.

    As for tools, I use Mixcraft Pro Studio and MuseScore, which are both Windows based applications. MuseScore is freeware, and the trial version of Mixcraft can do all of this without limit. The only thing it can't do is mix down to audio (*.mp3/*.wav etc) at the end.
  5. DWBass

    DWBass The Funkfather Supporting Member

  6. bholder

    bholder Affable Sociopath Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2001
    Vestal, NY
    Received a gift from Sire* (see sig)
    There are so much much better software tools available now for not a whole lot of money. Song Surgeon is great and is one of our own TBers here (for example).
    smogg and Bthebassplayer like this.
  7. Those are all nice tips! Thank you!

    There’s also another meaning behind the reason why I posted this. Do other people experience the same problems with transcribing? I feel like I am not a complete musician if can’t do this......makes me feel insecure to be honest...
  8. bholder

    bholder Affable Sociopath Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2001
    Vestal, NY
    Received a gift from Sire* (see sig)
    Of course, there's some cost overhead getting into the DAW and software side of things as @SteveCS and I are suggesting - but there are a lot of good inexpensive(-ish) interface boxes out there now. And you can hardly buy a small mixer without a USB interface built in anymore...
    Bthebassplayer likes this.
  9. bholder

    bholder Affable Sociopath Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2001
    Vestal, NY
    Received a gift from Sire* (see sig)
    I'm insecure about it too, but I need to do more of it. Well, the listening and learning part. I really need to do more of the writing it down part, too, but that's hard, I'm hoping the software can do most of the heavy lifting. Even got a guitar controller that allows direct hex tab input (can be used to tab anything with 6 strings or less). And a fretlight guitar to play the tab back to me (or a student) on the guitar fingerboard too. Just connecting all the pieces and getting my brain and fingers working with all of it. :D
    Bthebassplayer likes this.
  10. I have an IRIG 2 that runs with Amplitube. I’m going to try that and see if it works with song surgeon! Thanx!!
  11. Amazing Slow Downer (pc/Mac) and Anytune Pro+ (iPad) are also useful tools for this. In addition to slowing down and adjusting EQ, they also allow you to adjust the pitch in case the song isn’t in standard pitch, and loop short sections. They probably provide clearer sound when slowing audio and more precise control of looped sections than your Tascam machine.

    Software aside, you’re right, this is hard to do. But the more you do, the easier it gets. Your ear improves and you have a bigger and bigger mental library of other bass parts to compare to.
  12. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    My advice with transcription is to choose the easiest possible songs at first, so that you can get a few "base hits" and feel good about your progress. :)

    "Is This Love" isn't the world's most complicated song, but it has some syncopated rhythms that can be a little tricky to transcribe. Why not start with an even easier Bob Marley song, like "Stir It Up"?

    Or if that is still too tricky for your current ability level, why not transcribe some even easier songs, like the melody to "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"? You'll feel good about yourself, and build confidence for transcribing more difficult songs.

    Above all else, I will leave you with these two important suggestions: 1) Don't be afraid to show your work! You said you figured out the first few bars and then got lost. Well, maybe if you upload your work so far, we can double-check your progress, and give you tips for the specific part where you are stuck. If you're accurate with the pitches, but struggling with the rhythm, then that's different advice than if you were good with the rhythm but struggling with the pitches (for example). Show us what you've done so far! 2) Get a good teacher! Doesn't need to be a bass teacher, just any musician who specializes in ear training. For me it was an adult education night class at my local music school. The teacher (a pianist) had specialized experience teaching transcription to thousands of students, and was able to get through to me when I was stuck trying to learn it on my own. (Also, for what it's worth, we didn't use any special equipment or software for the transcription class, just piano, paper, and pencil.) :)
    LeeNunn, Rilence, mikewalker and 5 others like this.
  13. Col Pruse

    Col Pruse Supporting Member

    May 28, 2003
    Savannah, GA
    I've gotten better at it the longer I've been playing. As I was learning the bass I was jamming with people often so it forced me to figure out what/where to play.

    You'll go crazy trying to figure out exactly what is on a recording. I'm going out on a limb to say Family Man didn't play the same thing every time... I go for close enough when learning covers for my band. No one's going to know or care.
    Nevada Pete and Bthebassplayer like this.
  14. bholder

    bholder Affable Sociopath Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2001
    Vestal, NY
    Received a gift from Sire* (see sig)
    That's the absolute best way for learning for sure.
    Bthebassplayer and Mushroo like this.
  15. brianrost

    brianrost Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2000
    Boston, Taxachusetts
    Yes, I've always had issues transcribing. My ear literally gets fatigued after a while and then it seems like I can't hear any patches reliably. It's like when you stare at a printed page long enough that the words start looking like they are misspelled. So I have to take breaks every so often.

    I now use a program called Transcribe! but there are so many that do pretty much the same thing. The ability to loop, slow down and EQ out high frequencies is critical for me. I still can't understand how people used to do it with vinyl.

    One thing I do not do that most people recommend is I do not try to sing the line along with the recording before picking up the bass.

    Nowadays I always write it down, whereas for years I would just memorize it. Writing it down helps you better understand what's going on in the line plus you can refer back to it in the future if you haven't played the tune for a long time.
  16. boggus


    Feb 21, 2018
    Even with good speakers/headphones, sometimes it's really hard to clearly discern what is actually being played, especially if it's in 40-80 Hz range, the bass mixed low and not that 'cutting' through the mix, it can be obscured by the kick drum (which is around 50Hz), etc.

    Even in the days of LPs people would play a 33 RPM at 45 RPM speed, sure this increases the speed, but it also increases the pitch, which helps to hear the bass line more clearly.

    With some experience you will start to find out the main notes or patterns in the song, but if you want to find out every fill and how the bass line is exactly, you will have to use some tools and spend more time anyway. Mostly the ones that can alter speed and/or pitch and have looped playback.

    These days it's much easier:

    - many popular songs are already transcribed and exist on youtube in forms of people playing covers, sometimes providing the tabs/notation;
    - isolated bass tracks from the original song sessions have also became available, they mostly come from games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band;
    - sometimes it's worth to grab a 5.1 mix of a song, chances are the bass would be in center channel with vocals only, or something like that, but these are rare;
    - tools like "Transcribe!" are great - you can loop playback, change speed/pitch, even select a fragment and it will detect the notes by the present frequencies, apply EQ, etc... when you lift whole song +1 octave, it becomes much easier;
    - software like "Audacity" is also useful - there's a cool feature to isolate or remove "center" information in a stereo mix, sometimes this helps a lot;
    Bthebassplayer likes this.
  17. mrcbass


    Jan 14, 2016
    Sacramento, CA
    Yes it can be a challenge to extract the precise bass lines on some songs. They typically are not "featured" and sit deep in the mix.

    I typically don't worry about note for note transcriptions when learning new songs. I find the root patterns and add from there. If I need to learn a specific iconic lick that "everyone knows" and it's hard to hear, I'll use a tool (I use Riffstation) to slow the song down at pitch and grind through it as best as I can. I have on rare occasions looked for tabs (I hate tabs!) or a You Tube bass "lesson" on the song as shown above.

    But unless it's iconic, I just try to honor the groove of the song rather than worry about the note for note lines.

    It sounds like you might benefit form learning some basic theory and doing some ear training. There are a lot of repetitive chord patterns in music and one you learn them, you start to recognize them much faster, which can turn learning some new songs into a very simple task.
    Marc valero and Bthebassplayer like this.
  18. funkymonk13


    Aug 22, 2014
    Something really important no one has mentioned is ear training drills. Spending some time on ear training every day can really help clear up your hearing. I recommend The app tenuto. Learn all your intervals. Also listen to them harmonically On your bass and pick the notes apart, that’s a great exercise.

    As for other tools, tempo slow is probably the best I’ve found. You can also pop the song on a daw and eq to boost/isolate the bass as much as you can.
  19. bfields


    Apr 9, 2015
    Ann Arbor, MI
    That sounds totally, completely normal. There's nothing wrong with you or your ears.

    I've been doing this for years and I'm a lot better at it than I used to be. I still get frustrated on tricky parts. And it's still a big rush when I finally understand something I've been banging my head against.

    Keep at it!
  20. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    to me the unspoken secret weapon for learning by ear is memorizing the sound of common chord progressions.
    If you understand functional harmony, and learn to recognize I-IV- V , I - vi- ii V, and so on
    You can very quickly shrink the field of possibilities and zero in on the notes you are hearing.

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