5 Tips for Balancing EDM Kicks in the Mix
In EDM, no element is as important as the almighty kick drum. We look at five tips to balance them in the mix so they sound powerful but not overbearing.
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Great EDM mixes share a number of hallmarks: gigantic synths, powerful drops, slicing hi-hats, white noise splashes. But no element is as important as the almighty kick drum. To get festival crowds and clubbers dancing, EDM kicks need to pack a punch, though many new engineers confuse this sensation with redlining drum levels and overblown low-end.
Let’s get started.
1. Choose the right sample
As you may have learned in our beginner mixing mistakes article, there’s no use trying to turn a sound into something it isn't. The processing you add to your EDM kicks should enhance the character of the sound and not fight it. That’s why picking the right kick sample is the first step to balancing drums in the mix, as it will save you lots of time fiddling with additional plug-ins to save it later on.
It's not uncommon for EDM producers and mixers to layer complimentary samples together to form a single kick sound, like the boomy bottom of one with the click of another. However, if you find that with every mix you need six or seven layers to get your kick to cut through, it might be a better idea to revisit your sample folder and start from scratch with better sounds.
2. Get to the static mix first
The goal of the static mix is to achieve an initial balance between mix elements using just two controls: levels and panning. You might need a phase inverter plug-in for multi-mic’d instruments, but this is an unlikely scenario for EDM and its various subgenres.
Engineers will often start the static mix after getting repetitive tasks like editing and tuning out of the way, but before adding creative automation and ear candy.
Mix Assistant in Neutron helps you achieve a balanced static mix by listening to your session and automatically suggesting gain levels for each element. While it listens, your mix elements are bundled into groups based on instrument and focus, which you can make adjustments to after the analysis.
In EDM, your focus element is going to be the kick, bass, or vocal (if there is one), so I’d suggest picking one of these sounds, or all three. This way, you get a rough starting point suited for dance music to pan secondary elements around (which can be done from the Visual Mixer). Learn more in the video below:
3. Let the brightness in
Generally speaking, EDM mixes are high energy and bright. If the mix arrangement feels full and the structure is fleshed out, but the tone feels dark, add one or two small boosts within the 7–10 kHz range to the kick. It's surprising just how much air this can add to the mix. Be careful not to take this same approach with every element in the mix, as this will leave you with an overly bright and grating sound.
You can keep high-end hype in check with Tonal Balance Control, which displays the frequency content of your mix against a chosen target. If the amplitude lines in white run outside of the typical energy bounds of your target in blue, this is an indication that you may have gone overboard. Learn more about taming a bright mix with Tonal Balance Control and other tools below:
4. Snap it!
Much of a kick’s punch is packed into the initial onset of the sound, called the transient. Careful shaping of kick drum transients can impart a snappy and hard-hitting feel into your EDM mixes from just two simple controls: attack and sustain.
With Transient Shaper, found in Neutron, try increasing the attack on the kick to emphasize the transient. Like all things audio mixing, a careful hand is required here. Too much punch can be fatiguing and painful, particularly on headphones. Conversely, you may want a roomy sound, which can be accomplished by turning up the sustain. Experiment with these controls until you find the settings that serve the mix.
For more precise results, enable multi-band mode, which allows you to set up to three custom ranges with different attack and sustain settings.
Since in-your-face is what we’re after, try boosting the attack anywhere between the 2–5 kHz range to bring out the beater of the drum. You should hear a clickiness in the kick sound now, which will allow it to pop out of the mix more easily on speakers both large and small.
5. Clear the runway
Powerful low end doesn’t come from an abundance of bass, but a careful selection of clean, low-end elements. You may have a great kick drum on solo, but no one will be able to appreciate it fully if it is masked by other elements that share similar frequencies.
There are a number of ways to prevent a muddy mix. Try any of the individual tips below, or combine them together.
Filter elements that don’t need bass frequencies (like hi-hats, vocals, and synths) to ensure only the kick and bass occupy this space. A cut-off frequency of 100 Hz usually does the trick, just be sure not to thin out the mix.
Adjust your low end
If the mix sounds cloudy and the producer shared their MIDI files in the session, move low synths and percussive notes up an octave or two, as long as it sounds good. This will even out the frequency range and open up space for your kick and low-end. Granted, these kinds of decisions require a good relationship with the producer, so ask beforehand.
Pan with intention
Keep the kick, bass, snare, and vocals in the center of the mix and pan other elements to the sides of the speakers to create the stereo image. Remember to narrow the reverbs and delays on center-panned instruments—this will maintain the focus and glue together the wider-panned elements.
Don't forget to sidechain
Sidechain the kick to other mix elements, like samples and synths, so that every time the kick is played these other sounds drop in level. Combined with some of the techniques above, you will open up space for the kick and impart a subtle (or not-so-subtle) pumping effect.
There are a number of ways to balance kicks in an EDM mix. I’ve been producing and mixing electronic music for years now, and have found the solutions listed here work across most styles, tweaked to taste. Using intuitive techniques like filtering and panning, paired with assistive tools like Tonal Balance Control and Mix Assistant, you should have plenty to work with.
For more tips on balancing the mix, be sure to read the articles linked below.