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.
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 a 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.
Having 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.
There’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 time 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