How Did Nu Metal Bands Achieve Extra-Low Sounds in Their Music?

by Patria

Nu metal, a genre that emerged in the mid-1990s and peaked in popularity in the early 2000s, is characterized by its fusion of heavy metal with elements of other genres such as hip-hop, grunge, and alternative rock. One of the defining features of nu metal is its heavy, aggressive sound, often highlighted by exceptionally low guitar and bass tones. This article explores the various techniques and technologies that nu metal bands employed to achieve these extra-low sounds.

The Role of Downtuning

Downtuning is one of the most fundamental techniques used by nu metal bands to achieve lower sounds. This involves tuning the guitar strings to pitches lower than the standard EADGBE tuning.

Drop D and Beyond: Many nu metal bands started with Drop D tuning, where the low E string is tuned down a whole step to D. This allows for power chords to be played with a single finger and provides a deeper, heavier sound. However, bands often went further, using drop tunings such as Drop C (CGCFAD) and Drop B (BF#BEG#C#). These tunings create a significantly lower pitch, contributing to the genre’s characteristic heavy sound.

Seven-String Guitars: To achieve even lower pitches without the floppiness and lack of tension that can come with downtuning six-string guitars, many nu metal bands adopted seven-string guitars. The additional seventh string is typically tuned to a low B or A, allowing for extended low-frequency range while maintaining the standard tuning on the higher strings for versatility.

Heavy Gauge Strings: The use of heavier gauge strings is crucial when downtuning. Thicker strings maintain tension and playability at lower pitches, producing a tighter, more defined low end. Standard guitar strings would become too loose and produce an undesirable tone when tuned down, so heavier strings help to preserve the clarity and power of the sound.

Amplification and Effects

High-Gain Amplifiers: The choice of amplifiers plays a significant role in achieving the low-end crunch that nu metal is known for. High-gain amplifiers, such as the Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier and the Peavey 5150, are popular among nu metal guitarists. These amplifiers provide the necessary distortion and sustain to enhance the low frequencies, delivering a powerful, aggressive tone.

Equalization (EQ) Settings: Careful EQing is essential for crafting the desired low-end sound. Boosting the low frequencies while cutting some of the midrange can help to emphasize the bass and give the guitar a fuller, heavier tone. Additionally, fine-tuning the high frequencies ensures that the sound remains clear and articulate, avoiding a muddy mix.

Effects Pedals: Effects pedals also play a role in shaping the low-end sound of nu metal guitars. Overdrive and distortion pedals are commonly used to add grit and sustain. Additionally, pitch-shifting pedals, such as the Digitech Whammy, allow guitarists to drop their tuning by an octave, further extending the low-end range.

Bass Guitar Techniques

Five-String Bass Guitars: Just as guitarists use seven-string guitars, many nu metal bassists use five-string bass guitars to achieve lower pitches. The fifth string, typically tuned to a low B, extends the bass’s range and allows it to complement the low-tuned guitars.

Amplification and Effects: Bass amplification and effects are equally important. High-powered bass amps with robust low-frequency response, such as the Ampeg SVT series, help to deliver the deep, rumbling tones characteristic of nu metal. Additionally, effects such as overdrive and fuzz pedals can add grit and texture to the bass sound.

Recording Techniques

Layering and Doubling: In the studio, layering and doubling guitar and bass tracks is a common technique to achieve a thicker, more powerful sound. By recording multiple takes of the same part and blending them together, producers can create a more massive and impactful low end.

Subharmonic Synthesis: Some producers use subharmonic synthesis to enhance the low-end frequencies. This technique involves generating harmonics an octave below the original signal, effectively adding lower frequencies that can be mixed in to create a deeper sound.

Production Techniques

Compression: Compression is widely used in the production of nu metal music to control the dynamics and maintain a consistent low-end presence. By compressing the guitar and bass tracks, producers can ensure that the low frequencies remain powerful and prominent throughout the mix.

Sidechain Compression: Sidechain compression is another useful technique, particularly for managing the relationship between the bass and the kick drum. By setting the compressor to trigger when the kick drum hits, producers can ensure that the bass does not overpower the kick, maintaining clarity and punch in the low end.

Live Performance Adjustments

Sound Reinforcement Systems: In live performances, sound reinforcement systems play a crucial role in delivering the low-end impact that fans expect from nu metal bands. High-powered subwoofers and bass bins are essential for reproducing the deep frequencies generated by downtuned guitars and basses.

Stage Monitors and In-Ear Monitors: Proper monitoring is also important for the musicians on stage. Stage monitors and in-ear monitors help guitarists and bassists hear the low frequencies clearly, ensuring that they can perform accurately and in sync with the rest of the band.

Influence of Hip-Hop and Electronic Music: Nu metal’s incorporation of elements from hip-hop and electronic music also contributed to its low-end sound. Many bands used samples, drum machines, and turntables to add extra layers of bass and rhythm.

808 Kick Drums: The use of 808 kick drums, popular in hip-hop, added a sub-bass element to nu metal tracks. These electronically generated kicks provide a deep, resonant low end that complements the downtuned guitars and basses.

Iconic Nu Metal Bands and Their Low-End Techniques

Korn: Korn is often credited with pioneering the low-end sound of nu metal. Guitarists Munky and Head use seven-string guitars tuned to A standard, while bassist Fieldy employs a unique slapping technique on his five-string bass. The band’s heavy use of distortion and effects, combined with their downtuned instruments, creates their signature low-end sound.

Slipknot: Slipknot’s sound is characterized by its aggressive low end, achieved through a combination of downtuning, heavy gauge strings, and high-gain amplifiers. Guitarists Jim Root and Mick Thomson often use seven-string guitars, while bassist Alessandro Venturella utilizes a five-string bass to match the guitarists’ low frequencies.

Deftones: Deftones incorporate a variety of low-end techniques in their music. Guitarist Stephen Carpenter frequently uses seven-string and even eight-string guitars, tuned to extremely low pitches. The band’s use of effects pedals and studio production techniques further enhances their deep, heavy sound.

See Also: Metallica’s Top 10 Songs: A Deep Dive


The extra-low sounds in nu metal music are the result of a combination of downtuning, the use of extended-range instruments, heavy gauge strings, powerful amplifiers, and sophisticated recording and production techniques. By experimenting with these elements, nu metal bands have created a unique and influential genre that continues to resonate with fans around the world. The fusion of these techniques not only defines the sound of nu metal but also demonstrates the innovative spirit of the musicians who continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in heavy music.

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