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 1970s track than a 1990s track.
So, in this article, we’re going to show how to mix kick drums from four different styles of music.
Follow along with a free demo of Neutron, a powerful all-in-one mixing plug-in.
The truth about mixing kicks
As with mixing snare drums, one unfortunate truth about mixing kick drums 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.
As with snare drums, the recording technique will always influence the results. The same goes for the room in which you’re recording, and the way you treat the overheads and room mics.
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 track 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's what that would sound like through something like a phone speaker.
808, Phone Speaker
You can hear the hit of the kick, but not its tone. The tone and tune of it is lost.
Here, parallel harmonic distortion can help, and you have a couple of options. 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 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 timbre 808 cut through on smaller sound systems:
808 with Neutron Exciter, Phone Speaker
The second approach involves adding an amp simulation in parallel for more growl. In this case, let’s use keep the routing, but use a combination of plug-ins: Neutron in Trash mode, for a bit of heightened distortion before the amp sim:
And Guitar Rig 6 from Native Instruments:
On its own, it sounds like this:
808 Neutron Trash and Guitar Rig
But put back in the mix, we have this.
Neutron Trash mode and Guitar Rig, In Mix
It’s a high class sound, and it definitely cuts through inferior speakers, but I've purposely made things hard on myself in this example with multiple deep kicks and a deep growling bass. It’s a mess of my own making.
Receiving this kind of mess is not at all uncommon in the mixing game—so you have to find holistic ways to make your 808 kicks shine.
In the next audio example, you’ll hear precisely what can be done to preserve these elements in a before-and-after framework:
Subtle Changes to Kicks, Before/After
It’s subtle, but you can hear more delineation between the two kick drums, yet we don’t lose the beef. Here’s how we do it:
We’re talking about a classic sound here, the sort of kick you’d hear in 1970s 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 1970s rock vibe. Here is a static mix with minimal processing (like, one EQ on the snare, one on the room mics), and some sample augmentation (on the snare).
Giving the drums a bit of that 1970s dead vibe is a matter of sculpting the EQ, careful gating, kick drum compression settings, and appropriate saturation. For that reason, I’m going to choose a Brainworx plug-in. This one is the Lindell 80 channel strip, but it’s important to remember that the tips are applicable across plug-in brands.
Let’s take a look at what I’m going to do, and how it’s going to sound:
1970s Drums, Lindell Channel Strip
The first thing you’ll notice is the kick is louder—but remember, it’s not how loud it got, it’s how we got it loud: the first module in this channel's trip plug-in is a preamp stage driving the input hard.
The kick is then filtered at 50 Hz, but boosted a lot at 110 Hz, and this is where EQ comes in; a 70s dead kick doesn’t hit super super low in the frequency spectrum, but lets the bass reside there. So we’re gently rolling off below 50 Hz and letting the kick do its thing in the 100Hz.
Next, the gate: we’re cutting out everything that isn’t the kick. Finally, some kick drum compression helps even out the transients while adding some of that nice vintage British 1970s flavor.
However, this is only a half measure: the kick is of a whole, and to get a full 1970s dead kick sound, we need to affect the other instruments too. This means using gating on the other shell pieces—the snare and toms—and bringing down the room mics.
1970s Drums, Full Dead
And, if we want something that’s both 1970s dead but somehow lively—such as those found on many Led Zeppelin songs from 1973 onward—we can just bring our room mics up, smashing them a little with a compressor in parallel.
1970s Drums, Full Bore
In both these examples I kept the kick a little hotter than I would in a mix, but that’s just to make it exceedingly obvious how the kick should sound.
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 1970s 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 sidechain compression. 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 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 the Unmask module if you like, with the same sidechain routing:
Notice that the bass lines in these arrangements tend to linger, while the kicks are sparse and staccato. Because of these arrangement choices, this kick drum compression technique can be quite musical, as well as transparent: you might not hear it happening. You’d only hear it working.
Metal music is another genre with its own particular style of kick drum. That big fat kick drum you know and love is out of place in today’s metal. In modern metal, the kick feels more like a bullet, with a sudden, high-midrange, clicky impact.
As with anything, the drums you get initially have a lot to do with what you can accomplish for your kick in a metal mix. But these days, there’s no way around it: metal kicks are highly dependent on samples. Many engineers use samples to get that bullet-like click without compromising the original drums.
I’ve had metal sessions where only a kick sample is supplied—you can hear the kick in the cymbals, but instead of spot-mic'ing the bass drum, the engineer has simply slapped some sort of surface mic to the instrument, and the producer has sample-replaced it in advance.
The metal scene also tends to be fairly DIY in my practical experience; I find I’m more likely to get basement studio recordings from a metal project than a singer-songwriter or pop production, though that could just be the circles I travel in.
This means even in situations where the kick is spot-mic'ed, you’ll find yourself relying on kick samples to make it sound competitive with today’s sound.
Two words on this:
- Just because you may have gotten kick samples from the producer doesn’t mean they’re the right ones. They should be used as a guide to give you an idea of what they wanted, unless the producer says “yes, we’re in love with these kick sounds, we want these kick sounds.”
- You may find you’ll need to bolster things with sample augmentation because adding samples is a viable way to avoid the sorts of sonic compromise we incur when messing around with too much compression, distortion, or other effects. If you find yourself bending over backward to make the given sound work, it’s probably best to reach for a sample.
I dive into mixing metal kicks in this comprehensive metal mixing tutorial, but you can see some of the best kick drum mixing tips in this video below from the article.
I added two parallel chains—one to the kick, and another to the snare. As you can see and hear, these moves do a lot to add more heft to drum shells without upsetting the balances too much.
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.
And if you haven’t already, check out all of the mixing tools Neutron has to offer to get your kicks to cut through the mix without overpowering the other mix elements.