Understanding EDM Kick Drums

Kick Drum

Kick Drums

The Kick is by far the most important element in modern electronic music. Without a solid Bottom end (Kick and Bass), a club track would not stand a chance with the crowd.  Get it right and you probably have a great chance of a DJ throwing your track in their set, if it’s good. If your sample library is like mine, then you have several thousands of kicks to choose from for your compositions. Let’s spend a few minutes discussion some of the most important factors when choosing of designing a kick drum.



A good rule of thumb is to use a short, snappy, higher frequency kick when the bass line is thick and full of rich sub-frequencies.  It is also true to say; that when you use a really long fat 808 style kick drum then you should have your bass lines using higher frequencies.   You want the 2 to handshake, not head-butt.

Drum Tuning

A really good tip when working with kick drums is to tune them to your track.  This can easily be achieved if you’re using aDrum Key sampler or a drum machine. This is actually more important than you may think.   When your kick is tuned to the key signature of the track, then you will be adding the correct bottom weight for you song.  The bottom end needs to gel together as much as possible.  It’s also good practice to tune the rest of your drums to the key of the track, but not necessarily the root note.


Envelope Shaping

envelopeHaving access to an Envelope shaper or transient designer plugin is also a good step in the right direction.  These dynamic effects will take your kick and mold the sound envelope to give you the exact tweaks you are looking for.  Generally you will make adjustments to the kicks Attack and Release times. This is a great way to bring your kicks forward or backwards in the mix without having to make adjustments the overall volume.  It’s also good to use a transient designer plugin on the bass line when the track is complete, just so you get the bass line to sit better with the kick pattern.


compressionThere’s a big debate about compression nowadays. Everything seems to be over compressed and soundcompletely squashed.  It may have been good practiceto compress a live kickdrum in the 1970’s-1980’s, but in the world of electronics music there’s a very good chance that the kick drum sample you have, has already been heavily processed.  A very good rule of thumb is….   Only compress as a last resort.

Try to exhaust every other technique possible before you reach for a compressor on a kick.  This rule even holds true for vocals and bass.  I would rather ride the volume fader to fix amplitude issues before deciding to chop of the signals peaks and use gain to restore the volume.  If you decide that kick drum compression is required then remember that a “Fast” Attack will chop off the transient and make the sound muddy.  A Slower Attack will allow the transient to come through and fatten up the signal. Never keep the release really “Fast”.   This is end up squashing your kick and draining the life out of it.   Aim for 20-50ms Attack and 100-250ms Release times.  If you can try to use a visual display to help you , like the Pro-C compressor from FabFilter.


Every tequalizerime I reach for an EQ plugin to make any adjustmentsto my sampled kick drum, I always think about 3 specific frequency ranges.  The first bandwidth I call “Phat” frequency.  It’s the frequencies between 20 Hz and about  120 Hz.  This is the Sub-Bass range.  Iusually set up a Low-cut filter to remove everything below 30 Hz (24dB Slope), and I sometimes boost the fundamental frequency of the kick (What note you have tuned the kick drum too) up by 1-3dB.  So if my song was in the Key of “G” then the note “G1” on your keyboard would have the frequency of 49 Hz. If the Bass in the song was going to own the sub-bass frequencies for the song, I would then boast the next 1-2 octaves up on the fundamental frequency (G2=98, G3-196).

The second bandwidth is called The “Meat” of the Kick. It’s found between the Frequency ranges of 120 Hz – 1000 Hz.  This is the range that provides all the banging and thumping you here in the kick.  It all contains a lot of mud and “Boxy” qualities.  If your kick lacks “Balls” then I’d spend some time boosting between the frequencies of 250 Hz -800 Hz.  You may find that there are some problem frequencies in this range.  I would remove them with a notch filter with a very narrow Q.  There may be more than one, so spend some time looking for them.

The final bandwidth is called the “Beater” of the kick.  It’s found anywhere above 1 KHz.   I usually float around 2Kz-4KHz and boost there.   If possible try to stay near the note of the key.  This is so there are no frequencies clashing on the top and bottom end. Depending on the style of music you are making you and also but a Hi-Cut filter on the top and roll off the high frequency’s to get the tone you are looking for.  I do this a lot for my Deep House tracks.


There may come a time when you want to design your own kicks because the ones you have been trying are just not fitting in your track. I would use the exact same approach layering as I do with equalization. You will need to find 3 kick samples.  They will be 1 “Phat”,”Meat” and “Beater” kicks.

You’re going to use Low and Hi-pass filters to single out the frequency ranges that you want to use. So on the sub kick (PHAT) I would set a high-cut filter at 120 Hz (24dB Slope).  Now the “Phat” Kick only has frequencies at full amplitude up to 120 Hz. Then they roll off.  You will need to set the correct cross over frequencies for each kick layer.   Then I would recommend some glue compression, just to gel the kick together.  That would be about a Ratio of 2:1 with about 2-4dB of gain reduction. You’re probably going to have to EQ the kick again for the song you’re working on too.

I hope the topics we’ve discussed regarding kicks drums in electronics music have helped you.  I’ve spent many years accumulating this knowledge through experience and trail & error. You will find the more you put this knowledge to practice, than the easier it will be re-create the expected results. Your workflow will increase and your tracks will sound more professional.

All The Best


More Human than Human: Part 2


Audio Programing

In the first part of this tutorial we discussed how to use a step by step approach to adding life to a programmed midi track. Hopefully you guys have had some practice with the techniques we discussed. Within this lesson we will discuss how to program your VST instruments to help bring life to your midi tracks.  This would include your VST instruments, Samplers, bounced audio, and FX inserts.  All of the concepts taught can be used in with any DAW that has basic Automation or midi FX features.

This is not a tutorial on how to make your sound more analog.  This is a very tiresome “Saying”.  I’ve been using analog fx, amps and pre-amps for 30 years.  The truth about analog is that is “sometimes” noisy and “usually” unpredictable. If that what you’re going for, then add some 50hz or 60hz hum and we you bounce your tracks to audio make sure to pass each track through a tube pre-amp with the gain set really low.

Remember the goal is humanizing your instruments track is to automate 3-4 parameters in your channel and to make sure the adjustments are barely noticeable (when each parameter is isolated).


Analog Drifting

The first topic we should discuss is Analog Drifting. An analog synthesizer is a comparatively unstable device. Its components tend to be imprecise, never producing a truly constant value; compared to the digital soft-synths we use in our DAWS. Synthesizer enthusiasts call this tendency drift, and it is often cited as a major part of the difference between the warm sound of analog synths and the cold sound of digital synths.

Most soft synths with analog modeling will have this option available.  You can the set the level of drift to suit your needs.  If this is not available you can  modulate a variety of parameters by each another to create this effect. Here are some examples.juno6

  • If you’re using a multi oscillator synth, thenset the “retrigger” active for some of the oscillators.
  • If you’re using LFOs to modulate parameters then do not sync to tempo.
  • Use free tempos that are really slow (Between 1 – 10 bars in length)
  • Use different Wave shapes for the LFOs
  • Try to modulate only the oscillator parameters (Volume, Pitch, Duty cycle, Wavetable, detune, unison, stereo, phase and pan ). 1 or 2 parameters Is usually good enough per oscillator.
  • Always create a new modulator (LFO/ADSR/STEP) for each parameter modulated. Most Soft-synths will have 5-20 different available options to modulate parameters.
  • Modulate other modulators.



The Portamento knob sets the amount of time it takes to slide from one note to another. A small value makes notes slide fast, while a higher value will make them slide slower.

PortamentoUsually most soft synths will have at least to different modes of portamento. The first will always slide to the next note played (Glide).  The Second will only slide to the next note 2 keys are press together (Legato).

You can get some pretty interesting results if you modulate the Portamento rate parameter. Regardless of the rate of modulation it will sound good as long as the intensity is subtle.   This means that is you use an LFO with a variable rates it will sound realistic if the amount modulated is very small.


Key Tracking

Key tracking is made possible when we link the cutoff frequencies of the filters to the pitch of the note played on the keyboard. This can be done using the Key track knob on your soft synth. The Knob controls the intensity of the modulation.  The greater the value of the knob more the cut-off filter opens/closes up. If your synth does not have this option then you can always use a modulation parameter to route the pitch to the cutoff frequency. Using this feature alone will even provide great results for humanization.

key tracking

It’s also very common practice to set up a Low-Pass filter that is controlled by the velocity of a key stroke.  You’ll find that a lot of bass and Pad synth patches from the 1980s used this technique to add flavor to their sounds; especially with a steep cut-off slope and moderate resonance.  You can get some really funk sounds happening.


Filter Modulation

Filter modulation has 3 main factors that you must take into consideration.volcano

They are Frequency position, Gain (Resonance), Bandwidth (Q).  Staging some filter automation in your DAW or through the VST to control these parameters is an excellent way to add some movement to your instrument track.  I find myself modulating a Hi-cut filter on hi-hats all the time.  I usually get it to sweep back and forth from 17K-19K. This adds some sparkle in the “Air” type Frequencies of the hi-hats.   With Basses I will sometimes set up a Notch Filter with 10-15dB of negative gain and sweep back and forth between 500-800Hz.  With Pads I like to set up a bell with 5-10dB of Gain and modulate the width of the bell (Q). This gives the patch a rising and falling emotion.


There are several types of Filter modulation FX plugins. My personal favorites are FabFilter Volcano2, CamelPhat, Sugar Bytes WOW 2 and Soundtoys FilterFreak1 & 2. Each of these plugins give a wide variety of sonic possibilities.  A great place to start is by scanning through the Plugins presets.  Even If the present is totally exaggerated, most plugins will have a blend/mix control. Set the mix up to 3-10% and see what happens.   Your most hated preset may end up being the one you use most. Filter modulation is a wonderful thing.


Spatial FX

Spatial FX are FX inserts that manipulate time.  These would include reverbs, delays, phasers and flangers. Your DAW will have these FX as part of their standard plugin library.  There are also many VST FX Plugins on the market that specialize in multi-FX processing.  In general they will all have very similar parameters to be automated or modulated. Typically they include Rate, Depth, Feedback, Mix/Blend, Damp,  Low-High Cut Filters and Saturation.


It’s unbelievable how many times I’ve looked at someone’s project file and noticed that the Spatial effects are left Static (Untouched).  Most of the time these FX are blended into the mix and ignored.  Remember that any subtle changes make huge differences. Sometimes I will automate the Reverb decay or room size to get this massive feeling of over space.  Modulating the Damping on a Delay or Reverb unit will bring the instrument Back and forth in the mix. The instrument is crystal clear one moment and hazy the next.  Another great trick is automating the Reverb/Delay EQ filters this has a magically way of moving the instrument forward and backward I the mix.

More Human Than Human: Part 1



So you’re listening to your track, and it sound’s lifeless…  You’ve finally realized that midi sequencing is a bitch. All of your midi programming correct but it sounds like a machine is playing it back.  Wait a second…  It is a machine playing it back…  Hmm…

So here’s the big question…  How do I make my midi sequences sound more human?  Thought about with for many years and researched for a very long time about it.  I realize that the answer is based of 2 main factors.

  • Midi Programming

  • Patch Parameter Automation

You can pretty much say that Movement it the key.

Let’s spend a little time together discussion some the factors involved in making your drum, bass and synth tracks come to life.    I can almost guarantee that when you recorded your track you probably quantized it.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  I do it all the time.  I actually do it on purpose to make sure the timing of my beats, melodies and harmonies are correct.


Midi Programming

So.  I’m going to say the first thing you should do is

Step 1) Quantize your instrument track.

Many of you will disagree. That’s OK. But I personally would rather have a track that was melodically correct to begin with before I start making alterations. If you’re happy with your performance I would recommend an Iterative Quantize.  This is  function in most DAW’s Where you adjust only a percentage of your notes to the grid.

Step 2) Choose a Quantize Swing.

Your DAW will have several types of swing ratios in its quantize panel.  You may even have the option of manually creating your own or stealing the groove from an audio loop by using hit point detection.   Either way, take a look at your manual and make the adjustments to swing your track to give it the sound you are looking for.

Step 3) Turn the Snap Off

This is the point where you have the opportunity to save a backup of your midi track before we make major alterations.  It’s probably a good idea if you already put a lot of effort into the midi program of performance.

Step 4) Start and Stops

Here we expand our Arranger view (Piano Roll) Here I would look at all the “Stops” of every note.  With the Quantize snap of I would shorten or lengthen the notes between a 1/16th note down to a 1/128th of a note. This works especially well with chords or 2 part harmonies.  Pay attention to the release or reverb tails of the instruments take to hear the difference.

Step 5) Velocity and Accents

This is the section where we make all the adjustments to the intensity of the attack of each midi note. Velocity parameters range from 1 – 127.  The higher the velocity parameter then the harder the instrument will attack.  Listen to your instrument patch at a content velocity at different levels (30, 60, 80 and 110) to find which velocity sounds the most musical.

Depending on the location of your velocity placements, it may alter the feel of your track. If your velocities are higher on off beats then you may bring a slight swing feel.  Try to accent a specific midi note in groups.  Make it Stronger than the others.  Here’s an example of 4 groups of notes:

Group A:          (100,67,81,72) (102,71,83,68) (101,69,80,73) (103,74,84,69)

Notice the first number (Note) in Group “A” was greater than the rest. This means the first note is accented.  It is emphasized.


Here’s an example of 8 groups of notes:

Group B:          (100,67,81,72) (83,71, 102,68)       (101,69,80,73) (84,74, 102,69)

Notice the first and 7th numbers (Note) in Group “A” was greater than the rest. This means the first note is accented.  It is emphasized.

You can do this with any number of notes in a group.  This repeated pattern gives human feel with some excitement and anticipation.

Step 6) Pitch

Pitch is an amazing parameter that you can adjust within the midi realm, especially for the percussive instruments. Let’s take for example a snare drum.  If you hit a snare drum with a drumstick in 8 different spot on the skin, then it will sound different 8 times.  The Pitch and tone (EQ) will change slightly at each location.   We can make these adjustments manually in the piano roll or with the use of 3rd party software.

In the picture below there is the Humanizer plugin found in Native Instruments Kontakt (Sampler).  The Pitch control is Labeled “Tuning”.  This plugin will let you pitchshift midi notes randomly up and down by a specified percentage in between 2 semi-tones.  2 Semi-Tones is a lot.  Notice that the reading on the tuning knob is 20%.   I would recommend that you make the pitch modification between 5% and 20% (5 to 20 Cents).  You do not want it to be noticeable, only to feel slightly different.

Kontakt - Humanizer



You want to have many subtle variations; this will bring life to your tracks.

Step 7) Position Shifting

Instrument InstectorThis technique has become very popular in the hip-hop and house music industry. The point of this technique is grab all the notes in the midi track or section and the Micro-shift them to the left or to the right.  Usually the distance is a 1/64th or 1/128th note.  So yes.. That is really small.  Live performers just like myself, call it “Playing on top of beat” or “Playing behind the beat”.  It’s very common for bassist to “play behind the beat” (Lazy) and drummers too.   You may find in very high energy parts of a live performance it feels like that part is “Rushing”… That is “Playing on top of the beat”.  Experiment with hi-hat and percussion patterns to a better understanding of this concept.  It is very useful.

Most DAW’s have built in delay compensation to adjust the playback of the track.  Take a look at the picture below of CUBASE 8’s Instrument Inspector Panel.  The Red Arrow in the picture is pointing to the Delay compensation tab (Clock).  Here we can make the adjusts to the instrument without having to alter the location of the midi in the piano roll.



These 7 steps should get you enough subtle midi variations to build a life like performance. I recommend bouncing then original version of your track to the newly altered midi track. Make the adjustments you feel are necessary and then we can continue to the 2nd part this tutorial where we focus on the adjustment to the midi patches.

I hoped this helped!!!


Making the Best Drum Mix Possible



What’s up! It’s SkipTracer here with another insightful tutorial on music production.  Today we’re gonna focus on the Drum Bus, and different ways to get the best possible drum mix for your tracks. Now, we are all aware that drums are the “Make or Break” of most modern contemporary music. I, myself as a professional guitarist have been trying to avoid saying that statement for many years (Smugness…).  Yet, unfortunately it is true. It is the foundation of a great mix. No matter how good your arrangement is.  Everything will fall apart if the there is no solid foundation with the drums.

Assuming that everyone understands how to correctly level the faders for each piece of the drums on their mixer and pans everything correctly to taste then there are only 5 factors getting in the way of you making a solid tight sounding drum track.

  1. Compressions
  2. Equalization
  3. Reverb
  4. Saturation
  5. Parallel Compression


Volume Leveling with Compression

If your using a live drummer, then there may be an issue with their consistency of hitting the drums at the same volume level. It’s common practice to use a compressor to steady each hit so that every drum hit is more or less at the same volume.  I would experiment with different types of compressors (Optical and VCA) to get the flavor you are looking for.


EQ, EQ and EQ

When you approach equalization for the drums there are really 3 factors you generally have to consider.

  • Lows – Boost
  • MIDS – Cut them (Around 400Hz)
  • Highs – BoostEQ


  • Kicks:
  1. Boost between 2000-4000Hz for the beater.
  2. Boost 50-100 for weight.
  3. Wide Cut 150 – 400 Mud
  • Snares:
  1. Boost between 2000 – 3000Hz for the Crack
  2. Boost 150-300HZ for the Weight
  3. Narrow Cuts between 500-1000Hz



LexiconWhen it comes to reverb, you’re gonna find it’s good practice to just set up a send FX channel and route the drums you want to the channel and add the appropriate amount reverb too it.  It’s easy and gets the job done.  Remember that you really don’t want any reverb on the kick, but depending on your track, really anything goes. I generally put a low cut filter on the reverb channel so I don’t get any reverb below 500Hz for the drum channel, but you should do whatever works for the track.  Lately I’ve been using an entirely separate reverb for the main snare in my drum bus.  Another neat trick is ducking the reverb FX channel with other instruments like vocals or hi-hats on of beats.  You could also add chorus or a Phaser after the reverb on the FX channel to get some nice ambient sounds from that too.


Tape Saturation

PSP-VintageWarmer2Before you reach for an EQ to tweak the upper mids and highs on your drum buss you may want to considerreaching for a saturation plugin. I almost always grab my U-hE Satin, Fabfilter Saturn (Multiband distortion) or Ozone Exciter when adding the final tops to the top end of my drums.  I find it add a lot more life in the drums instead of using a high shelf.   You can always experiment with the different type of distortion/Overdrive plugins, but I find that Tape and Tube distortions sound best.


Parallel Compression

If your drums still sound dull or just don’t sound fat enough you can always try some parallel compression.  Just bounce your drum buss to audio, put a compressor with a high ratio, fast attack and fast release.  Try to squash the sound really hard and add some tape saturation.  It will not sound very pretty but the goal here is mildly blend it into the original drum track.   This way you will add some warmth but not lose all the transients from the heavy compression.  It’s also a pretty cool trick  play with the Hi and Low pass EQ’s on the Parallel Compression track so you can isolate and blend in the only the target frequencies you want.   This also work wonders on Vocals, guitars and synth tracks too.



So take some of the advice I’ve giving in this post and watch how your drums transforms in to a monstrous sounding mix.  Don’t forget to experiment with the order of the chain of FX and to also bypass each FX just to confirm that you are helping the drum and not making things sound worst. Most of all…. Have Fun.