The Kick DrumJun 11, 2020
In dance music, the kick is king. Across virtually all genres and tempos, the kick drum, and its bassline partner, lay down the foundations upon which all other beats and mix elements are built.
The Perfect Kick Drum: It's All About Context
- Short and Tight
- Deep and Subby
- Raw and Overdriven
When it comes to picking a kick drum for a track, the producer has a near-limitless number of choices, with sounds sourced from samples, drum machines, synths, and even studio recordings, all of which can be tweaked and refined to make the 'perfect' kick drum.
There are rumors of producers who spend days in the studio painstakingly crafting the 'perfect kick.' We're skeptical about this approach; however much you enjoy sound design, a single drum sound should demand no more than an hour or so's work.
Besides, what makes a kick drum 'perfect' is context. Kick drums don't stand alone. Instead, in the low end, the kick drum forms a symbiotic relationship with the bass. It's this relationship that provides the track's foundation. Higher up in the frequency spectrum, the crucial role the kick plays on the broader beat and its interplay with other drum elements, most notably the snare and clap, defines both a track's groove and its tonal aesthetic. This means that the kick drum must work seamlessly with both the bass and drum mix. Only when it does both can it be considered perfect.
Kick and Bass
When choosing kick and bass sounds, opposites attract. When mixing the lower frequencies, separation is paramount. Separation starts with the choice of sounds. Partnering a subby 808 kick with a low sine wave bass is a recipe for disaster. Not only is such an approach courting low-end excess and asking for headroom trouble, neither the kick nor bass will be heard or felt in the mix.
The most effective mixes twin complementary - 'opposite' - kick and bass sounds, a subby 808 kick with a midrange-weighted stacked sawtooth bass. Or a lively Linn-style kick with a deeper bassline.
We'll repeat it: the kick and bass stand and fall together. They cannot and should not be treated in isolation.
Compression not only allows you to alter the tonal characteristics of a kick drum, but it also offers a powerful means to control and change the drum's overall shape, tightening or loosening the initial transients and shaping its body.
To easily hear what effect a compressor is having, dial in a medium ratio (5:1) and set it up so that around 6dB of the signal is reduced each time the kick hits. Then start tweaking.
For a smoother kick: set a fast attack and medium release. This subdues the clicky opening transient at the start of the waveform to give a sound with more weight and body.
For a punchier kick: dial in a medium attack and release. This allows the kick's opening transient to pass through unprocessed before the compressor sucks in the body making the sound tighter - useful not only for adding more click but also for reducing fat/mud in a saggy kick.
When the compressed sound has the qualities you want, pull back on the ratio/signal reduction as required.
Be careful not to do more harm than good when compressing. If the release is too fast, you can lose control of a kick's tail and end up with flabby results. If it's too slow, you can end up hitting the compressor with a new kick before it has a chance to reset. Meanwhile, if the attack is too fast, you can end up removing the front-end bite.
If all you want to do is alter the attack and release transient of a kick drum without impacting on its tonality or body, opt for a transient designer instead, increasing the attack or release time to taste. If a compressor has been used, you can add the transient designer next in line to add a spike lift at the start of the kick. Equally, if the kick drum has too much bite, a transient designer can be used to ease back on the front end.
Transient designers work best in moderation. You can quickly get overly spiky results by pushing them too far.
The kick drum can be usefully broken down into three distinct frequency regions, each of which may need attention.
The Low End (20-120Hz): The bottom end of a kick contains both subsonic frequencies that make club rigs tremble and girthy lows that ensure a solid foundation. For weight and warmth, add a dB or two in the 60-80Hz area. For punch, increase the 100-120 zone. At the lower end of the range before with boosts and use a frequency analyzer to aid with tweaks: very few studio monitors are able to faithfully reproduce these frequencies. If an analyzer reveals excess headroom-munching signal in the subs, roll away extreme lows at 20-30Hz.
The Mid-Range (120Hz-1kHz): Knock, thump, crack and bang are the orders of the day in this wide frequency range. To help the kick cut through a busy mix, boost 200-800Hz (to pinpoint the right area use the search and destroy method). For added weight, body, and clout notch up the lower part of the area. When adding gain, be judicious: any more than 2-3dB is likely to overbake a kick drum. More likely you'll be cutting in this range to carve out space for the bassline. An alternative to EQ boosting is to increase the kick drum's attack transient.
The High End (1-18kHz): Think kick drums are all about the lows? Not so. Almost all kikc drums - especially if layered using samples that include vinyl noise and hi-hats - have information stretching up the frequency spectrum. These frequencies contain the crunch, bit and defintion of the sound; if reduced you can destabilize the rhythm section and divorce teh kick. To soften a kick, use a shelving EQ to roll away from 5kHz. If boosting, go wide and gentle. To add beater 'click' try a notched boost at 1.5kHz.
Remember, especially when tweaking the low and mid range, that you're operating on frequencies shared by the bassline.