Need some welly in your bottom end? Studio hound Chris Lyth is here to help...
In musical genres that live and die by their rhythm section, it’s not an overly bold claim to say that the kick drum is king. It provides the punch and drive that the entire track is built upon, so it’s important to get it right if you want your track to have impact on the dance floor.
As with most things in life, creating the perfect kick is not easy, and the first thing to say is that there is no such thing as the perfect kick - only the kick that fits perfectly into the track you’re creating. What may sound amazing in track A may sound awful in track B.
But with an almost infinite amount of samples to choose from, how do you make the correct production decisions that fit your track?
1. Pick the right tool for the job
Every sub-genre has its own particular aesthetic in the way it uses kicks. Lines are often blurred, but as a basic guide, minimal will often use analogue-style kicks (eg Vermona DRM) and synthetically created kicks (eg Elektron Analog Rhythm), but the archetype it leans on most heavily is the Roland TR 808 kick. House music in its many variants often uses the classic 909-style kick and layers it up with disco or live kit samples for added tone and texture. Often the sampled kicks have hi-hats or other high frequency content that help the kick cut through a busy mix. Techno will use all of the above and even go as far as creating hybrid kicks using intricate layering (see point 3).
If you’re a beginner and are looking for a good place to start, you really could do a lot worse than the 909 kick - its ubiquity is no accident. It works for pretty much all genres, and its combo of massive punch and midrange cut is the reason why.
2. It's all about that bass
It should be mentioned early in these proceedings that the kick and bassline go hand in hand. They both occupy a huge amount of your track's energy, so it’s important that they’re not fighting each other. As a general rule, a shorter, punchy kick pitched higher will sit well with a huge, deep bassline, while conversely a longer, deeper kick can lead the charge if the bassline is higher in the scale.
Use a touch of side-chain compression on the bassline, but most importantly get the pitch and envelopes right to make sure the two don’t sound uncomfortable together. Getting the ADSR envelope right is critical, and no amount of EQ and compression will rectify this. With too much decay, the kick could end up as a wobbly mess; too little, and you will have a short midrange pop with little power. As both instruments occupy a very similar part of the frequency range we can EQ small holes in the bass and kick. For example if you boost 80Hz and cut 120Hz on the kick then you should EQ the bass so that you’re cutting 80Hz and boosting 120Hz. When cutting, aim for a narrow band of EQ.
3. Mix and match
Depending on your patience threshold, creating a hybrid kick will give you ultimate control. Choose three kicks and spilt them into three frequencies: low, mid and high. This technique gives you the chance to get the best of all worlds.
You could have, for example, the deep boom of an 808, the snappy punch of a Linn Drum and the pristine click of a digitally created kick. Use EQ aggressively to filter out the unwanted frequencies in each of the samples. In the above example, you could filter out everything but the following: 20Hz-100Hz on the low 808, 100Hz-2.5kHz on the mid Linn Drum and 2.5kHz-20kHz on the high digital kick. Note, though, that these settings are just examples - you will need to experiment with the frequency settings as every three samples will be different.
Again, the envelope and tuning of each kick will be crucial. You are probably best advised to do this in a sample player such as Maschine, NI's Battery or Ableton's Drum Rack, so you can tweak the levels, pitch and envelopes easily to fit your track. Be aware of phase when layering: if this feels like a hassl, try layering your existing kick with a closed hat or click to achieve more clarity in the mix if your kick is lacking in the high midrange.
4. Compression is your friend
Compression can add further punch and glue to your kick once your mix is up and running. The ratio and threshold controls are used to adjust the strength of the compression applied, and the attack and release settings control how quickly the compressor reacts.
Using a fast attack (10ms or less) and medium release (200ms) will smooth the transient punch of the kick, which can be useful for smoother styles where you don’t want the kick to dominate, but still need to feel punch. A slower attack (20ms and upwards) and fast release (100ms) are required for ‘Hammer of Thor’-type kicks. This will allow the initial transient through while thickening and tightening the kick's body. If your compressor has a wet/ dry control, try adding really brutal compression by setting the control to 30/70 or thereabouts.
5. Bend it, shape it
EQ is an important part of shaping your kick in the mix. First off, unless you have monitors that are the size of a 1970s fridge-freezer, it’s a fair bet that you are going to struggle to hear the very low end of your mix accurately. So it’s a good idea to trim off the extreme low frequencies (20Hz and below) that can make a kick sound baggy and ill-defined.
Add or cut EQ at around 60Hz-80Hz to control the low-end weight. This is the area to be really critical about, as it carries the most power in the mix. Use an EQ with a sharp boost to sweep through the midrange and tune your kick further if needed by cutting out low midrange “boxiness” around 250Hz-700Hz. Don’t cut too much, though, as this carries a lot of the punch and knock.
Finally, the 2kHz-4kHz region will add a touch of bite in a busy mix, as it helps the ear to find the transient click. EQ can’t boost what's not there, so if your kick is still not cutting it in a particular range, look for another sample or layer it with another.
Nothing is going to beat choosing the right kick to fit your project. With sample engines, it’s possible to audition whole libraries while your track is playing, so choose a sample that seems to gel with your track, paying particular attention to your bassline, then sculpt it further until it gels perfectly.
No amount of compression is going to save your track if the sample is fundamentally wrong, so listen at all levels and on as many different speakers as you can. Mix balance is also a huge factor, as having the kick too high or too low in the mix will undo all your good work. Listen to tracks alongside your own at identical levels and A/ B your track against them to judge the level and weight of your kick.
Words: Chris Lyth
Tags: kick drums, kickdrums, bass drum, production tips, production advice, studio tips, Ableton, Maschine, Battery, Native Instruments, Roland, TR-808, TR-909, EQ, compression, side-chaining, sidechaining