Version. 2 – updated June – 2018 (After 5 years tweaking the same kick drum…)
So as I am getting back into writing some new production blogs, I figured it was high time I updated some of the old ones to add in a few more tips and knowledge about mixing the mighty Kick Drum. The world’s a different place 5 years on…
The Big Bass Drum
It’s hard to overstate the impact your kick drum has on your tune as a whole, something I can get a bit obsessed about but its a healthy obsession considering the impact the Bass Drum can have on a House or Techno tune. Putting my personal OCD aside, the fact is, if your mixing breaks or four to the floor or anything else. Quite often the Bass or Kick drum is elevated in importance because of the way every other sound you hear is given its context by its relation to it. Everything plays off it… or directly works in reference to it. So your work and choice with the bass drum is really important, but hey I don’t need to tell you guys that do I? Hands up who hasn’t spent a whole evening going through kicks trying to find the right one, or spent the evening tweaking the EQ until the sun came back up. This kind of obsession may seem unproductive, a by-product of not having that overview or perspective on your track… I am here to tell you… carry on its a vital part of the process and if you’re not happy with your kick, keep going until it’s right as the most important thing is to get your anchor right, and of course there are a few things to keep in mind as you work.
Music is tricky, bass drums even more so.
One of the most common mistakes people make in their production is trying to fix all sorts of problems in the mix. By far the most common miss-step I find is that people seem to think that by just making the kick louder they can alleviate a lot of issues with their groove, make it smack more and help everything sit in place. The reason this mistake is common is because there are all sorts of psychological and psycho-acoustic cues that you get from something becoming louder, it sounds better ‘at first glance’. When you’re working on your song and mix you are often zeroing in on one sound which can leave your perception of the mix as a whole a bit lacking, but when it comes to the balance of the kick you really need to take a step back to get it in the pocket. Of course there is a lot of artistic license for how your mix stacks up, so where the “pocket” is on your song is going to vary, but having your kick way too loud is always going to sound worse, the kick should always sit in that pocket, it’s the fact it sits nicely in that pocket that will make it impact-full and energetic in the context of your track and making it 10Db louder than the rest of the mix will do nothing for your mix and start to break some of that context it gives to all your other parts, so be on your guard.
Don’t be scared to compress your bassdrum, if it worked in the context of the overall mix. But when compressing always be wary of sapping the dynamics or loosing warmth – Listen to Grums music
Weak and flat kicks – the curse of EDM.
In super loud music, like Top40 chart pop, EDM and other unmentionable and inexplicably popular top 10 stuff – I have noticed more and more people reaching for almost bodiless, poppy kicks. Either flat and poppy by design or squashed to death so they lose all their weight and power. Maybe this is something to do with it all being played on iPhone or laptop speakers, maybe it’s because it’s easier to just completely avoid having to balance the bottom end properly when you’re working on a laptop on a plane? I don’t know, what I do know is it sounds like utter tripe when it’s played in a club so mixing your stuff super loud with a thin bass drum is not the way to go if you want your music played in clubs. Although it may be easier to mix a kick like that, what it does to your track is suck all the rhythmic energy out of it. The body, the frequencies from the sub 50Hz region through to the 100-250 area are the weight of your kick. The energy your kick puts into the mix comes from having a nice balance between your attack and the body. So don’t fall into the thin pop kick trap, make sure you have a nice balance of body, sub and depth to the sound.
Spotify and Apple Music Loudness normalisation.
With trends towards loudness taken into account, in more recent years there has been a much welcomed shift in the tide away from this way of thinking. Big streaming companies e.g: Spotify and Apple Music, alongside many radio stations, are implementing loudness normalisation.
In layman’s terms, all music will be turned down a bit – so instead of peak level it’s equal in average loudness level. This means if you crush your track, it won’t sound any louder, it will sound less dynamic and somewhat weaker when played back next to other tracks with more dynamics.
It always pays to be conscious of the dynamics of your track, which often can be a little difficult as psychoacoustics make louder seem better when producing, so you can see the trap people could fall into.
You must pay attention, your mind can play tricks! One of the main dynamics in your track will be the Bass Drum. Spend some time listening to the attack and the body of the kick, the relationship between them, and the overall dynamic state. You need enough to cut through and give your track punch, but not too much as to make it nervous and sporadic with too stark dynamics. As with most things it’s a fine balance.
Mixing the kick is one of most important things in mixing down a dance music track in my opinion. The most important thing is finding (or creating) the perfect kick to fit your song rather than tweaking one that isn’t right. I often notice that people turn up their kicks too much if it actually just lacks the required presence for example. Once I have the perfect kick for my song, I start mixing the bass line. Once these elements start melting together, you can easily move forward with all the other elements. I am generally not a friend of compressing kick drums. If I need to work on the attack or sustain of a kick, I rather use a transient designer. One thing I usually do and I can really recommend is, checking your mix down with a limiter on you master bus. Just start limiting it slightly and see which element starts compression first. I usually try to have the kick being the first element that kicks into the threshold followed by claps and bass with an offset of like 2 or 3 db. – Listen to Daniel Solars music
The 909 and 808 and how to get the best out of them
There is a reason these old Roland machines were so popular back in the day, and there is good reason they continue to be popular even as more choices came onto the market. Not because they were perfect, as there is no such thing as perfect sound in music, we like our variety. So this longstanding popularity despite changing trends alone makes their wide use quite a phenomenon. The reason they retain almost mythical status and wide use even by people who don’t own the original kit is because they offer a really idealized shape and tone for the basis of you kick. Notice I say the basis not the end product. The trick to getting the best out of a 909 or 808 isn’t about capturing what comes out of the box, no, that would be far too simple. Remember rule No.1 of music is that nothing is ever simple. The secret to using the old drum machines is in how you twist and change it beyond that, that’s not to say occasionally a pure 909 track is bad, but for everything else you are going to find the most joy in layering, sampling, compressing and distorting. So you should really think, when you buy a 909, do you have a nice desk to drive it into? Do you have some outboard compressors that have a nice tone? Your work with these machines is mostly in the kit you have joining them in the chain and when you work like this you will find they really stand up well to being twisted around and messed with a lot whilst still retaining their fundamental energy that works perfectly in a dance track. Incredible forward thinking design or sheer luck, who knows?
Check the kick level on different systems – studio monitors, headphones, laptop speakers, club systems (if you get a chance) – it is easy to mix it too loud. Side chain the bass if the kick needs more room to breathe. Try EQing out the mid a little to give a nice rotund thump – Listen to KRL’s music
Three Important Elements – the core of your track.
How do we start a mix? A good mix-down is about energy and detail, the best tracks sound complex but the core flow and energy is succinct, not cluttered. It is easy to get side-tracked and on a path where you have an element (or two) dragging the whole thing down. A good technique is: start by muting all your tracks, dropping the faders and bringing up the 3 main components of the track. These are the core or minimum elements for you to hear the energy and groove of the track. It could be the Kick, Snare and Bass or possibly the Kick, Bass and something else – just the core elements to the sound and groove for you to hear the energy that you want without all the extra bits. You need to get the delicate balance of these three elements first.
Once you have this core balance, you can start to bring back other elements one by one. Assessing all the time, is it doing the job it needs to do and is it messing up that core flow? As you bring elements back in listening to the groove you will soon hear when an element messes with the energy. Here you have some choices whether to mix it a little differently or change it completely. The most important part is maintaining the energy of the core elements whatever the three elements you picked and everything else fits around or behind. Listen for frequency clashes or dynamics ruining the groove – anything that takes away from the feel of the core.
Right in the pocket.
Your kick should not dominate your mix – as I mentioned it’s a game of balance. It should sit nicely but prominently in it. It’s one of the most important parts of the mix but the best kicks always sound louder than they really are because of the way they’re mixed and how they sit with the other elements. You need to know where the bass in your kick sits, where the mid punch and the top end sit in terms of EQ and then adjust the things around them in the mix to compensate and to clear room for them so they cut through. You will often find you can carve a couple of Db away from other prominent lead or bass parts thats fall at the same time as the kick and it will really let the bass drum come through clearly without losing any feeling from the tracks you cut from. You are effectively taking advantage of the kicks ear catching qualities to clean up your mix and lock in the groove. Once the balance of your kick and other main mix elements is nice you gain a lovely texture and rhythm to things. Everything feels natural – with nothing fighting against anything else – that’s what you are listening for. Free flowing sound, well balanced tones and that everything can be heard fully in the mix. A good technique/experiment is to turn your kick down a few Db even if it does sound right, once it’s turned down, adjust the EQ on the other tracks to make sure the kick has plenty of room around it and nothings clashing or masking it. See how your mix sounds, then if your groove sounds tighter, and things don’t seem so squashed… then you had previously set your kick too loud 😉 Which is a common mistake.
Another thing to listen out for is which part of your kicks tone is cutting through in your mix. Is the sub bass coming through nice and clearly but not much mid or body? Can you hear the high end click but the rest seems lost in the mix? EQ is one of the most powerful tools in your toolbox, and the changes can often be quite subtle. Which bit of the kick you want clear in the mix will always be a choice that’s dependant on the kick you pick and the rest of your mix. Using EQ to gently boost and cut on the bass drum and the sounds that interact with it can really change the tone that comes through clearly. Especially in House music sometimes you want a bit more of the lower mids and mids coming through to give the kick a sense of chunkiness when paired with a nicely balanced bottom end. If you are struggling and having to make drastic changes with EQ thats also a sure fire sign you 1. have the wrong kick. 2. Your core balance between the 3 elements is off or 3. you need to take a break.
EQng is the key. Its pretty obvious, but a well EQed kick will sit well with the sub and the rest of the tune. I usually do a pretty big boost and sweep around 200-300hz to find any muddy/resonant frequencies and then make a dip once I have found one. A bit of a boost at 90-110 hz always gives proceedings a bit more thump. I find playing the kick and standing in all sorts of places in/outside the room will give you an idea of how it will sound in different places, which essentially is the aim, for your music to sound as similar as it does in the studio to out in clubs/cars/homes.” – Listen to Midlands music
Tuning the drums.
Tuning can have a massive effect on the mix, changing phase relationships and the way sounds lay over each other often quite drastically. There is a lot of great music where the drums are not tuned. This is why I find it hard to say it’s vital to a good mix. BUT, with that said, what will bring down a mix in no time is if the kick is truly out of key, or clashing in some way. This is what you need to be most aware of. It’s sometimes hard to listen to percussion in terms of tune as the note is often so short and often all over the place. But always have a think about things in terms of clashing, try moving its pitch up and down a little bit see if things start to sound a little more solid and clear. If your kick has a prominent tone to it, you can try tuning it fully by ear, or by pitching it up and checking it on a guitar tuner or something, it’ll never harm your track. Often I will mess with the fine tune on the sampler just to see if i can get the bottom of the kick coming through clearer.
When I begin the process of writing a track I generally settle on a nice sounding kick thats close to what I want and carry on writing, once elements and vibe are locked in I re-address the sound and texture of the kick to compliment the track. Layering kicks EQing and processing play strong parts.” – Listen to Oli Furness’s music
Sampling, layering and other techniques for getting a good unique kick
Hybrid, this is one of my favourite terms when talking about sound design and especially crafting new kicks, start with a 909 bass drum, add an old disco kick on top to give it some character…now you’re talking. Layering and mixing with kick drums (and all drums really) is a great way to create really complex and unique new sounds. When you’re mixing two sounds together in this way you have to take into consideration a few things: firstly the frequency content of each component sound, you can’t often mix 2 kick drums with nice bottom end and get them to instantly sound good together, you might need to take the bass out of one and just mix in its mid and top, but really, as always there are no rules, you just need to know what tools to reach for when you’re working. Those tools are your EQ, work in broad strokes with an EQ or filter, cutting out the bottom end or top end until the sounds mesh and sound as if they are one sound. You also have the tuning of your samples; working with these can often change a lot of things in a bass drum due to the effect of comb filtering and frequencies cancelling each other out so I would advise getting a nice tuning between your 2 samples as the first step. Next is your timing, make sure you work with your sequencers sample start or track delay settings so you can shift sounds back and forth a bit. Listen to what happens as you move things about. Frequencies will become strong some will disappear, most importantly you’re looking for a nice tight sound with as little flab as you can get but whilst retaining a good fundamental balance needed for a kick drum. (Unless you’re after a kick drum which is a little loose in the attack of course) So move the samples about a bit until the attacks line up nicely, this may not mean they both start at the same time so don’t do it by eye. Do this by when it sounds tightest, do this by EAR, that’s your number one rule. The last of the “most important” tools when layering kicks are your envelopes, sometimes you might want to have one kick really short so you’re just taking its attack phase and then another with a slower attack so you’re just getting its body and boom afterwards… this can be a powerful technique but pay great attention you don’t end up with too much separation between the two sounds, as it could slow your mix down and cause other rhythmic problems.
For me hardware can be a great benefit here, even a cheap hardware compressor can grab the sound and give you more weight than most software compressors, but the true weight comes from drive and distortion, pushing the kick into sherman or a culture vulture to get that little bit of harmonic distortion really is what my kicks are all about – Listen to Kastils music
Sampling from vinyl is good.
Not that I am some old fashioned purist but you have to know that sampling stuff from vinyl is always a good source. Not just because of the sonic qualities inherent to the format that we all like. Trust me we do all like them, even those digital monkeys who insist they aren’t interested, they are just being stupid. FACT :-p
Sampling from vinyl is a strong source for another reason. In the digital realm we have suffered from what people call the loudness war for a long time, this has meant that over time engineers and marketing departments have competed to slowly push us towards over limited and over processed masters, where most of the dynamics have already been annihilated from the track as a whole, sacrificed on the altar in the name of taking advantage of the old psycho-acoustic effect that makes people think louder is better, i.e: the louder your song is on the radio the better people will like it compared to the others. Obviously this kind of thinking is over -simple, incomplete and lacking in any clarity or appreciation for quality, and is about what we should expect from major labels. So you end up with kicks which are already too compressed to be of much use for your mix. Getting hold of stems or of a copy of a mix-down is also rare but not impossible. This is why sampling from CDs or digital stuff generally gives material that isn’t as useful as it might seem once you get it in the mix, and you might find that you end up layering in other sounds to add back some of that lost punch. When pressing vinyl none of this loudness war really existed in any major way, vinyl in fact held the loudness war back due to the inherent restrictions of the format and the way it is produced. A vinyl master often has most, if not all the dynamics left in since you got a nicer sounding and playing record that way, so what you’re getting from that sexy plastic disk is a lot closer to what the producer would have been working with in the studio. With kicks the dynamics are the most important thing. You might need to control and tame them, but you absolutely need some punch with your kick… Going back to what I said earlier about flat popping kicks, that’s what makes them so bad too, they lose that dynamic and impact and it’s especially bad for house music or techno.
The most important thing for me when mixing a Kick is to bring it in the same pitch like the rest of the track. It’s much easier to mix especially Bass drum & Bass lines together which both are in the same frequency range when they have the same pitch. At the end I think it’s better to search for another Kick sample if you still have the feeling that it doesn’t fit into the track before trying to rework the Kick with an EQ or a compressor. I’m just using an EQ for deleting the low end frequencies and maybe pointing out some frequencies that fits to the rest of the track, so I’m getting a connection to other sounds. I’ve noticed that many producers are quite often mixing the kick simply too loud which actually isn’t necessary. For me it’s much more important to get a harmonic overall sound. If you really have the feeling that your Kick needs a bit more punch then use a compressor with a quite short attack to limit the kick and bring out the low frequencies. But personally I’m actually not working that much with compression.” – Listen to Marc Poppckes music
Arrangement, Arrangement, Arrangement….errm location.
So we have said a lot about bass drums and what you can do directly to them, but the funny thing is – the fact remains that probably the most important thing ever is arrangement. Music is all about symphony of parts, so the impact of what surrounds your parts has on the part itself cannot be understated. I have heard kicks that sound floppy and horrible in isolation but sound absolutely perfect in a mix because the arrangement and syncopation of the percussion around it was just so right. So a lot of your mix issues can be alleviated without touching your mix at all, moving some percussion around, making sure your groove is right and your placement is right and your envelopes are tight. This advice can apply to your whole track, on the macro level as well as the micro level. Arrangement is pretty much king, so in many ways, if something’s not right – reach for the arrangement FIRST to see if there is an improvement which can be made there first, before following any of my other advice. If you are struggling to get a bass drum to sit in your song, and you have tried everything else, then it’s pretty certain it’s going to be fixing something else in the arrangement or changing the kick out.