The kick drum is a foundational part of a mix. It can dictate the feel, tempo, and aesthetic of the music. The kick can signify not only genre, but also time period—e.g. a kick drum with less sub content might feel more like a 70s track than a 90s track. So, in this article, we’re going to show you four kinds of kick drum, and how to mix them. Think of this as the companion piece to a previous article which centered on the snares.
As with snare drums, one unfortunate truth is universal: everything depends on the recordings with which you’re presented. The quality of the drums themselves—and the quality of the drummer—will have a huge impact on the sound.
The rest of the arrangement matters as well: what the bass is doing in the low end influences how you process the kick drum, while synths that occupy the 100–250 Hz range can also hold sway over kick decisions. Don’t forget that a kick isn’t just low-end information; the attack happens in the midrange, where lots of other instruments and vocals live.
However, provided you’re not merely salvaging the drums, there can be wiggle room within your mix. Often you’re presented with at least two mics on a kick drum, and sometimes more. When you can blend “kick in” with “kick out” and “sub kick” tracks, you have opportunities to dial in a more deliberate, intelligible tone so the kick fits comfortably in the mix. Furthermore, the kick drum is easy to augment with samples, and in doing so you can further refine the resonant qualities of the kick from the overhead and room captures.
Once you get going on a mix, a specific reference can be extremely helpful. At the beginning part of the song, I’ll often hear the static mix and think of an appropriate reference tune. I recommend you give this—or a similar technique—a try and see how it influences your production.
With these things in mind, let’s address the first of our four kick sounds:
808s: will they ever go out of style?
Of all the kick drums you come across, 808s will tend to need the least amount of work. Leaving them alone can often be enough, and it’s usually a matter of keeping other elements out of their way.
However, there are a few tricks you can apply to take your 808s to the next level. The first is to make sure they’re tuned to the key of the song, or at least never feel out of tune. Producers usually see to the tuning of 808s on their end, but often enough an 808 can come your way which sounds atonal or dissonant. Thankfully you can tune them with many built-in plug-ins—just make sure you’re not adding horrible artifacts.
The biggest issue with 808s, other than their pronounced pitch, is their ability to cut through the mix on smaller sound systems. Consider that this beat might sound good in full-range monitors or headphones:
However, it won’t cut through on laptops or cheap headphones because there’s nothing really going on in the kick above 100 Hz. Here, parallel harmonic distortion can help, and you have a couple of options to that end.
First is the subtle approach, where you add excitement to the signal in parallel to bring out its harmonics. Let’s take our 808, send it to an auxiliary track, and place Neutron 3 on the track—specifically the Exciter. Let’s play around with the settings to add harmonics above 100 Hz.
It doesn’t spoil our recording, yet still helps the 808 cut through on smaller sound systems.
The second approach involves adding an amp simulation in parallel for more growl. In this case, let’s use Trash 2.
On its own, it sounds like this:
But put back in the mix, we have this:
Now, in songs which exhibit competing low-end information from other instruments, you might want to consider a bit of automation on the EQ of an 808. Let’s take our beat, swap out the 808 for a more lingering 808 kick, and add a bass synth:
Notice we have a conflict between the 808 kick and the bass. We don’t want to take out the low end altogether, lest we stymie the glorious bass. Instead, we can automate Neutron 3’s Equalizer over time. First, let the initial hit ring out.
But after the initial hit, a high-pass filter gradually sweeps higher in frequency, to about here:
The result gives us clearer bass out of the 808 at the moment of impact, with greater room for the bass instruments over the sustaining portion of the loop.
Also, consider that in many arrangements you’ll have both 808 kicks in addition to “knockier” bass drums. The “knock” kick does significant damage in the 100 Hz or 250 Hz range.
Keep the EQ balance in mind here: you may want to notch frequencies from the 808 that get in the way of the faster kicks, or use a sidechained dynamic EQ, so that these frequencies only duck out momentarily.
We’re talking about a classic sound here, the sort of kick you’d hear in 70s rock and funk tunes. I come back to the Alan Parsons Project’s “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” and Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” as references here.
Notice there isn’t a good deal of subharmonic information in this kind of kick. Most of the meat comes around the 80–100 Hz range, with some knocking reinforcement around 200–250 Hz. In many modern mixes, you might attenuate around 500 Hz on a kick to extirpate that “beach ball” sound. But in this instance, that’s not so much of a worry—in fact, overprocessing of any kind can be counterproductive. The kick is presented in a relatively natural state.
Let’s take this recording, which I’ve shown you before—it comes from my “demoing plug-ins” session. You’ll note the tune already has a bit of a 70s rock vibe. Here is a static, otherwise unprocessed mix (save for a limiter on the master bus).
If I wanted to give the kick more of a 70s, deadened flare, I wouldn’t reinforce the 60 Hz range—I’d give that low-end portion to the bass. Instead, I’d EQ something like this:
And it would sound like this:
Notice it’s not mixed too loud either—if we were to view the mix on a meter, it wouldn’t necessarily peak with each hit. Keep the levels in mind when mixing a kick like this; we don’t need it to dominate, we only need it to ring out enough to make us feel the rhythm.
In this mix, I’ll use two stages of compression to help the kick drum cut through at lower levels. The first stage shapes the transient on the kick:
It’s rather subtle, as you can see in the UI.
The second compressor acts in parallel, which involves routing our kick to an aux track. It helps fill out the level by being more aggressive. It preserves an apparent loudness without actually being loud, and adds a sense of attitude.
It sounds like this:
Compared to the version without compression, the kick is more even, and more in your face—even though the faders are lower, and the peak level is lower too.
The neo-soul kick is a personal favorite of mine, and in a way, you can trace its roots directly back to the 70s funk kit. It tends to be quite dead, like the 70s kit. It also isn’t often as loud as it appears—at least not metrically.
However, the EQ signature is often quite different: here, we hear more of the subharmonic range. We feel 60 Hz and below quite clearly. The 500 Hz “beach ball” range can also be scooped out, and you’ll often note some added attack around 800 Hz to 1 kHz—though not too much.
Observe songs such as “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” by D’Angelo, or “Pretty Wings” by Maxwell, and you’ll note two things right out of the gate: the qualities listed above, and also, the way these kicks don’t conflict with the bass in the mix.
If both instruments occupy the subharmonic range, how do we make room for them? My go-to method is dynamic equalization and sidechaining. Specifically, I will sidechain a conflicting frequency in the bass to the kick. Say the conflict centers around 60 Hz.
I’ll instantiate a dynamic notch on the bass, and use the sidechain feature in Neutron 3 to tie it to the kick. When the kick hits, the bass will duck down, but only in that frequency.
You can also do this with multiband compression if you like:
Notice that the bass lines in these arrangements tend to linger, while the kicks are sparse and staccato. Because of these arrangement choices, this sidechaining technique can be quite musical, as well as transparent: you might not hear it happening. You’d only hear it working.
There’s a certain kind of kick recognizable in indie songs such as “The Merry Barracks” by Deerhoof, “Alter Ego” by Tame Impala, or even “Lonely Boy” from the Black Keys. What these kicks have in common, despite disparate production stylings, is the sustain of each hit.
Rather than deadening to a quick kick like in our 70s and neo-soul kicks, this kind of bass drum lingers more, meaning the hits sustain a little longer.
I’ll show you how to achieve this song using our previous 70s rock example so you can see that it’s possible to get two different sounds from one track.
Naturally, the Transient Shaper does let you emphasize the front end of the kick, but you can also emphasize the sustain—the apparent roominess—with the Sustain control. Give it a little sustain, and you can go from this:
Next we turn to our room mics. Here, consider using a multiband transient shaper. For instance, these are the room mics for this kit.
If I use the transient shaper in multiband mode, I can emphasize the apparent sustain of the kick’s meatier frequencies, while leaving the cymbals alone for the most part.
That gives us a sound like this:
Next, we move to our overheads, which sound like this:
Again, we add a little transient shaping to the lows to beef up the kicks, and to the high mids to flatter the attack frequency.
We then have to EQ the overheads a bit to cut out some annoying harsh frequencies:
When blended with the rest of the static mix, we get something that sounds like this:
But we’re not done. Now we move to our drum bus, which gets a little more transient shaping (done subtly), and some multiband excitement, used ever so slightly.
The results sound like this:
We could take it one step further and narrow the drums for a more “indie” sound. If you reference the kinds of tunes I’m talking about, you’ll note the drums aren’t widely stereo, but narrower, to let the instruments into the corner. Let’s bring in the panning of the overheads, and see what we get.
Without question, there are far more kicks to cover than can be done in a single article—mid-00s pop, jazz, hard rock, and vaporwave are four styles that I’ve plucked out of my brain just now—but hopefully this article gives you a good starting point for your kick-mixing journey. In closing, remember that no two recordings are exactly alike: you are always limited to the quality of your recordings. Having said that, there is freedom in limitation. Embrace it, and you’ll have a great sounding kick, no matter which style you choose.