The All important kick drum
I wanted the first educational post to be about the kick drum - arguably the most important part of a dance record. If your kick drum doesn't fit then your track is doomed from the outset. The kick is the holy grail of dance music production so get some good samples which fit your style of music.
At the end of the day if you start out your productions with poor samples then you are going to end up with a poor track. You can polish a piece of shit all you want, it just becomes a shiny piece of shit.
Click 'Read more' - Lets dive in and take a look.
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. This is a very basic concept 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.
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 trying to make a bad sample sound 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. I am an advocate for narrowing down your kick sample library. Find some good kicks which suit your music and stick to them. Seriously, you can get by with simply having 6 or 7 kick samples in your library that you know work well. Some producers literally use the same kick every track they make. That isn't an issue so long as you are tuning the kick to the key of your track, specifically the key of your bass line.
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. I like to use 'Kick' or 'Kick 2' by Sonic Academy. In my honest opinion, both are brilliant - Kick 2 being the more recent and updated version. The thing I like about 'Kick', is it lets you control the tonality and length 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. It lays out the key of your kick which you can easily manipulate, as well as easily adjust the length of your kick to work in conjunction with your bass - absolute game changer!
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 keep in mind when layering because it is also a great way to completely destroy your sound and introduce phasing issues. 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. Pay attention to the transients of each kick you are trying to layer. 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 in similar frequency ranges, 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. Honestly, i cant remember the last time i layered kicks. It is more of a chore and if done incorrectly then it can introduce phasing issues or a muddy bottom end. When it comes to sub information, understand that you are dealing with Sine waves and in essence, you will just be stacking sine waves on top of each other - a perfect recipe for phasing issues and a muddy bottom / lower mid range.
Mix around the kick.
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. You want to preserve headroom for mastering so i like to leave at least 6db of headroom. My desired level is around -6 to -8 db. You can mix your records slightly higher than this if you are mastering your own music, but mastering engineers usually request headroom of around 6db.
Sample packs may have already been processed.
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. Packs like Vengence have probably already been subject to some form of processing.
Anatomy of the kick
There are 3 main elements to the kick drum: the boom (low end thud), what i call 'the smack' (transient / 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. This is by no means a rule, you can add all the EQ and compression you like to a kick drum but my method is to simply find a good sample and apply a simple high pass filter to 30Hz. Thats it. Occasionally i might add a little boost somewhere in the EQ if i feel it needs to shine through a little more, but in all honesty 90% of mixing is volume levels. First try simply adding a little more volume to your kick rather than drastic EQ boosts.
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. Keep 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.
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.
All of the above doesn't really apply to me. I very very rarely add or remove frequencies in my kick, other than sub 30Hz. Have a play around with the mix and find what fits your track.
Compressing the Kick
Once again keep in mind how samples may already be compressed. I find a gain reduction of about -3db is a nice subtle 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 transient does 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. When i first started making records i was slapping compressors on my kick just for the hell of it - with experience you learn when and when not to use compressors. Try to learn why something might need a compressor before you go adding them to your chains.
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 then 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.
Ok so hopefully that has given you some information regarding the kick drum. It was a lengthy one i know!!
Future posts coming, folks!!
If you liked the article or have anything to add then please let us know in the comments. It helps me make future blog posts better for you guys!
All the best.