The Kick Drum: Tips and Tricks for a Better Mix

   Here in the studio, I mostly master house and techno music. A very successful label manager once told me if the drums in a track don't sound amazing, the rest of the track doesn't matter. The most important drum element is of course that 4-to-the-floor kick drum.

   Most early producers assume that to make their kick drum sound big, they need to boost the bass frequencies. That is almost always exactly what you DO NOT want to do.  When producing, I do three things to help my kicks sound awesome - remove bass frequencies, boost high frequencies, and shape the sound with careful compression. These methods - especially the first two - may seem counter-intuitive, but hear me out and try these on your next track!

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   While inserting a high-pass filter (HPF) is often thought of as a part of mastering, there is no reason why you cannot use HPFs while producing your track. A HPF lets all the content above the curve pass through while filtering out frequences below the curve. In dance music, the tonic note of the kick drum is usually between 38-55Hz. There is still a good bit of information below this, all the way down through 20Hz and 10Hz even. Removing these infrasonic low frequencies can instantly clear up your kick drum and allow the important parts of it to pass through the mix with less of a muddy feeling. Experiment with adding a touch of resonance and slowly moving your HPF around from 40-50Hz or so until you find the main sub note of the kick. Everything below that, get rid of. Less bass sounds like more bass.

If I do use any boosts on a kick drum, it usually is on the high frequencies. Try a broad and small boost between 900Hz and 1.1kHz - the 'knock' or 'pop' of the kick drum lies here. Increasing the level of this part of the kick can help give some punch. Also experiment with high shelf equalization. A shelf at 5.0 kHz or higher with a boost of 1-3 dB can significantly help a kick cut through a mix with a busy high end. Your kick will sound bigger, punchier, and have more clarity with more high frequency content.

The last trick I almost always use on kick drums is compression. Applying compression properly can give the kick drum a sense of movement. You have to hear this to really understand. The key here is long attacks and a fast release. Attack times of 10-25 milliseconds allow the initial transient of the kick drum to pass through uncompressed. Any less than this and you will start to hear the front end of the kick become narrow and less impactful. The release should be fast, but not necessarily the fastest. With the threshold just below the peak of the kick, listen to the changes in the way the kick drum moves as you go from fastest attack to slightly slower. Longer release times can cause the kick to throb or thicken up in a nice way -- BUT, make your release time too long and the transient of the next kick drum could be squashed. 0.2-0.4 seconds is generally where my release gets set. Just be certain that the compression circuit has time to reset to 0dB of gain reduction between each kick drum. I also find, especially with hardware compression, that setting the ratio fairly high (3:1 to 4:1) and just barely compressing a dB or two works the best and sounds the thickest.

So, to wrap it all up, stop boosting the bass on your kicks! This contributes to a muddy sounding track and will make things sound worse, not better. Instead, try removing bass frequencies below the root of your kicks with a resonant HPF, make some subtle and broad boosts higher up, and use precisely dialed-in compression. Your ears will thank you! Oh - and if you would like some kicks that have gone through our analog toys and gotten all the treatment we just discussed and more, check out our first sample pack: Studio Sample Selects: Analog Kicks Vol. 1 includes 108 hand crafted analog-processed kicks for just $5.99!  Happy producing!