The sacred kick drum! I once watched a video of Morgan Page, where he stated that the kick drum is the most important aspect of a dance track. Since Morgan is an absolute genius, I began to take this as gospel and you know what? He is absolutely right. Weak kick, weak track! I should state that by ‘weak’ I do not necessarily mean you need a ‘phat’ or ‘massive’ kick, in fact it is much more primitive than that. For your kick to work you need to start from the very basics. Firstly, you need to think of the actual genre of track you are creating. What does that genre require for your track to work? If you are going to be making a straight up house track then you might need to look for a 909 kick, you would not dive in there with a big distorted kick drum. This works for all genres, if you want a techno track you may look for something a little more sub orientated, or for a big room track you will want a good top end to cut through the mix or maybe you roll with the whole distorted hardstyle kick, that is fine but make sure you are choosing samples, or making a kick drum that is suited to the genre you want to create. These are very very basic tools but you would be surprised how many people make these errors. Once you have decided the type of track and what type of sound your kick is going to need then you need to locate GOOD samples. A wise man once said: ‘you can polish a turd, but it will only ever be a shiny turd’. This is very true. If your kick is to be sample based then invest in some good sample packs, I tend to get my samples from these sources: loopmasters, vengeance, Thomas Penton or the free CD’s you get with Future Music magazine. Do not start putting bad samples into your track because making a bad sample good is just a waste of time, especially when it comes to the kick drum. It is possible to sample kick drums from other professional tracks, however; you want to sample from the highest possible quality bit rate, do not be cutting out a drum on a 128kbps track. In the same breath, make sure the sample is clean. Clean in the sense that there are no other noises crowding the kick sample, if there are other sounds present when you sample then I seriously suggest you delete it and source out better , cleaner samples to use.
If you are not much of a samples kinda guy, have no fear! There are many great plugins out there where you can create you own kick sound, or better yet use one of the many good quality presets. Very recently, I started to use the Kickstart plugin from Sonic Academy in conjunction with Nicky Romero. In my honest opinion, it is absolutely brilliant. Very easy to use and extremely easy to adjust all the parameters for your kick. The thing I like about these things is it lets you control the tonality of your kick. If you really want to save yourself some trouble it makes sense to keep the kick in key with your track, or more importantly your bass. The relationship between kick and bass is essential, and having your kick tuned to the key of the bass helps massively. Another notable kick plug in is Bazzism. I have only ever used this on one track but it was very fun to use, and you can make some killer kicks while easily keeping the tonality of your kick in check.
Lets talk layering. For some reason everyone seems to think layering is the be all and end all of making a kick. Layering kicks is a great way to get a full sound, but there are a few things you should bare in mind when layering because it is also a great way to completely destroy your sound. The first thing when layering kick drums is to take the tonality of the sound into account, make sure your layers are in key with each other. Although you will be rolling frequencies away and surgically EQing, it makes sense to tune your drums so that they are in key. The second thing you want to take note of is the actual shape of the kick drum. Take note of how the attack and release of each layer is working together. Some sounds simply do not fit together because the shape of the waveform is not an ideal fit. An example of this would be trying to layer a long decaying 808 drum with a fast attack and snappy kick, it is just going to sound out of place. Once you have these two things in mind then you can start paying attention to your spectral analyzer. Using this tool it will enable you to really fill out your drum if you are layering. Your layers do not want to compete with each other so try getting a sound with a nice bottom end then a sound with a more prominent top end. EQing when layering kicks is completely down to the producer but you want to high pass any unnecessary frequencies on the ‘top kick’. A cool little trick is to scoop out the mids on the sub kick, it will make the sub kick feel slightly more rounded.
Since we have established that the kick drum is our focal point of the track, a good way to go about mixing dance music is to mix around the kick. Ensure the kick is always present in the mix and that nothing is competing with it. Personally I like to sit my kick quite high in the mix, admittedly sometimes maybe a little too high but it is the driving force behind dance music, especially on a 4/4 beat. This is a good point to take note of what volume your kick is peaking. Remember how we established earlier that you want to preserve headroom for the master. My desired level is around -6 to -8 db. I have encountered instances where people mix the kick as low as -10db. In general you want the main output to be peaking around -6db if you are going to be sending it off to a professional to master. If you are doing it yourself you can go a little higher than this as your ‘master’ may not require that much headroom.
You have to remember that plenty of sample packs out there have really good quality audio and have already been processed, so before you go slapping compressors and EQ’s all over it, take this into account. It is more than likely that if you are using a fairly generic, good quality sample pack, that it has already had treatment, therefore; further treatment isn’t necessary.
There are 3 main elements to the kick drum: the boom (low end thud), the smack (primary attack of the drum) and the click (higher frequencies that help the kick cut through the mix). Granted that in some genres you may not desire the ‘click’, for example some deep house tracks simply have a really subby kick drum and not much high frequency information. When it comes to EQing a kick I only really high pass to about 30Hz, I take my ‘find the right sound’ from the outset seriously so that I do not have to make any drastic EQ boosts or cuts. I may make a few adjustments later on in the mix as the mix becomes more dense. I do recall watching a video where a really talented artist showed that he makes crazy boosts in the the high end of his kick drums, and you guessed it……..sounded great!
Lets run through some techniques:
EQing the Kick
As I stated above it is important to realize if the kick really does need EQing. Focus more on getting a good sound without it. Bare in mind that if you are making boosts to the low end then you really are inviting ‘mud’ into your mix. Undesirable sub sonic audio wants removing. If you begin adding resonance to try boost the higher frequencies then you will also risk smearing the low-end of the kick. The only time I would advise making boosts is if you want the ‘click’ of your kick drum to really poke through the mix. You can solo your frequency bands and search for this ‘click’ zone and then make boosts accordingly. Remember that the broader your Q, the more transparent the effect is. You can also use the sweep technique I mentioned previously to hunt out any unwanted frequencies - this goes for any sound really. You should also keep in mind that if there is pitched ringing at 300Hz for example, then you may need to make a small notch at 600Hz and then 900Hz etc.
Here is a rough guideline to EQing the kick:
More low end thump - if you feel there is not enough of this then try treating from 50Hz to 80Hz. You can even try a low shelf from aroun 100Hz.
Boominess - too much boom makes for not enough clarity. The problem area probably lies around 200 - 250 Hz.
Boxiness - Similar to above, this problem area can occur from around the 300Hz to the 600Hz mark, I know some guys that make tight Q cuts at 300Hz as they feel it is a problem frequency. Each to their own I guess!
Snap or click - All about your higher frequencies here, try treatment between 2kHz and 4kHz, this will give your kick more presence and help it cut through a dense mix.
High end - try low pass filters on the high end to remove any unnecessary frequencies, this will also free up some space for snares or claps.
EQing your kick is definitely a way to improve it but trust me just try to locate great samples in the first place, a lot of the time EQing on the kick is just done for the sake of EQing.
Compressing the Kick
Once again bare in mind how samples may already be compressed. I find a gain reduction of about -3db is a nice subtly amount of compression, but do not hesitate to really push the compressor, sometimes the results are amazing. As of late I rarely compress my kick, simply because I use samples that are already compressed. If you are going to use a compressor then make sure it has a longer attack so that the initial transients do not get squashed. A short attack on the compressor here will completely kill the punchyness of the kick. Try 4-5ms and up for the attack range and a release time of about 200ms. The ratio id advise to stick around 2:1 or 3:1.
Below is a picture from the stock compressor within FL studio. This little plugin is highly underrated, honestly for a simple stock compressor it does a great job. All credit for the picture goes to Image Line FL studio.
Do not be fooled by volume when it comes to the kick drum. A louder kick is not always better. Do not dial in to much make up gain on your compressor, if you want more volume use a volume fader, but remember to watch those levels! Since you are mixing around your kick, everything will be mixed in relation to that drum so make sure you clear out some space for it. One ther thing I will mention about kicks is this: it really is not necessary to have a vast library of thousands and thousands of kick samples. Find or make ones that you like and then use them often. If it isn’t broke then why try to fix it? How often does a band change their kick? If you have made great results previously then get them saved into a folder for quick and easy use on your next track.
- Mix with your kick around -6 to -8db
- Don’t be a slave to unnecessary EQing or compression.
- Invest in some good quality samples, research them and keep the ones you like.
- If you have spent time crafting good kicks then save them and use them again. Don’t needlessly slave away crafting a new kick every time you make a new track.
- Bare the tonality of kicks in mind, make them in key with the rest of your track.
- When layering bare in mind the shape of the waveform, the attack, release and delay. Keep the layers in key and use some surgical EQ to blend them together.
- A lot of the time compression is not necessary, but when layering it is a good idea to buss them together and compress them, it adds a little bit of glue and helps them become more like one sound rather than different layers.
- The ‘click’ part of the kick is essential if you want your kick to cut through a mix.
- Start with the right sound. A big room EDM sound does not require a deep, subby and decaying kick. You may want a distorted kick or a punchy kick. And if you make tech house then quite obviously you do not want a huge distorted hardstyle kick drum sound.
- Keep the kick in mono. Or if you are not a firm believer of the kick in mono then at least sum the low sub frequencies to mono, anywhere from 300Hz and under. I find 175Hz is a good compromise because sometimes the sample you are using simply sounds better when you do not sum the entire sound to mono.
- Don’t be afraid to add a reverb send to the top end of your kick buss, this can add some cool atmospheres in intros. It may be beneficial to create a duplicate of your kick so that there is no need for automations. You can keep this reverb in the mix, so long as it does not clutter the mix up.
- Make use of automations on your high and low pass filters and have little ‘kick drop’ sections in your tracks. Making use of some kick fills is also a good way to vary your drums. Even simple double kick drums make a nice break from the repetitiveness.
- You can even try adding some different sounds as layers on your kick, for example a clap sound or a high hat sound can sound nice. Sum it to the kick buss and apply the necessary EQ and compression. If it is a high hat sample you will be using a high pass filter and rolling away any unwanted frequencies and possibly taming the top end a little so it glues better with the overall sound.
The above text is from a book I am writing about mixing dance music 'in the box'. If you would like to sign up for my email list and be notified when it is getting released please feel free. Also I occasionally send our free tracks and stuff to my list so look out for those also :D