Kick drums form the foundation of dance music – whether it’s a booming 808 to rumble subwoofers or a snappy LinnDrum to cut through the densest of mixes, we’ve come to rely on kick drums as the core of a track.
There are innumerable approaches to getting a good kick: sampling, synthesising, drum machines, acoustic sources, layering or all of the above. In this article we’ll cover every angle, equipping you with the necessary tools to turn that whimpering beachball into a chest thumping kick you can be proud of.
We’ve also created an exclusive Ableton Live project for you to practice our theories. Download the Perfect Kick Drum Ableton Project here.
History & Science
The drum kit as we know it has been around in its current form since the early part of last century to accompany jazz bands and other ensembles. Arguably most important feature of this is the kick drum (or bass drum to some). Like a large tom it sits on the floor but is instead triggered with a pedal, underpinning the rhythm and outlining the downbeat.
When a kick drum is struck, the head (or skin) vibrates at a fast rate. As this gradually dies out, the amplitude and frequency of the vibration drops. Below is an extrapolated kick from Bicep & Omar Odyssey’s track Don’t.
It’s likely to be a Roland TR-909 (not an acoustic source) but we can see how the same principle still applies: a short, high frequency blast at the beginning, simulating the beater hitting the skin (this is the snappy part of a kick that cuts through the mix); then the tail decreasing in pitch where the body of the kick, or sub, is felt.
Miking up drumkits was still quite rudimentary right up until the late seventies, with ambient and room mics being preferred. This method has created many classic records and breakbeats so although there’s nothing wrong with it, it gave the engineers little in terms of isolation when it comes to mixing.
Arguably one the most popular kick drum mics is the AKG D112. Known for its large diaphragm, it’s perfect for picking up lower frequencies which have a much longer waveforms. Other notable choices are the Neumann U47 FET, Electrovoice RE20 and the AKG D12. Rewiring an NS10 speaker is also a renowned practice to pick up more bottom end from a kick drum.
The AKG D12 mic is a kick drum classic, since been replaced by ‘The Egg’ D112
A key factor when close-miking is the distance of the microphone to the source. The closer to the beater the mic is, the more snap will come through whereas moving the mic further away will pick up more of the sub frequencies. In the example below, the D112 would be used to pick up more of the high frequency energy from the transient as it’s much closer to the impact. The U47 is further away, picking up lower frequencies that would be blended in for weight and pressure.
A classic kick drum recording setup capturing both the ‘snap’ and ‘boom’ of the drum
One of the most common questions that crops up is how to tune kicks. Having the right frequencies in your kick and getting the right sweep from low to high is going to make it stand out and nicely fill out your bottom end without engulfing the mix.
Kick drums can sit anywhere from as low as 50Hz in house, techno, trap and hip-hop right up to 90-110Hz for drum ‘n’ bass. Where your kick sits also depends on what your bass is doing: if you’ve got a big sub sound with lots of content below 90Hz then using a higher-pitched kick would complement it better. However if you’re using bass guitar, or something with more low-mids/mid-range frequencies, then you can get away with a beefier kick drum.
To keep an eye on our kick’s progress, let’s get Ableton Live’s Spectrum up and running and a free plugin called s(M)exoscope by Bram @ Smartelectronix (sorry guys, 32-bit only). In Spectrum you can hover your mouse over the kick’s peaks and see the fundamental frequency (in the example below the MIDI note is B0, 61.7Hz). Using the sampler’s transpose function, we can shift this up or down to better suit our bassline or more closely match other drum samples or layers.
Synthesising a Kick
In the last decade and a half or so, dance music has become increasingly forensic in its approach – it’s harder and harder to get away with not taking proper time and care over your kicks and, to a wider extent, overall bottom end. There are plenty of dedicated plugins for kick drum creation, such as Nicky Romero’s Kick Synth or BazzISM VST, but we can get really flexible, heavy-sounding kicks just from Ableton Live’s native plugins and a small selection of samples.
Live’s Operator is a good starting place to synthesise a kick. Create an empty MIDI clip by double-clicking in a clip slot. Program a MIDI note on each quarter beat using the b hotkey, which brings up our pencil tool. Turning our attention to Operator, you should be confronted by its default patch:
On the left we have our four operators (which is frequency-modulation speak for oscillators) and in the middle is our envelope and oscillator information; to the right are the filter and LFO, neither of which we’ll be concerning ourselves with today. Start by disabling operators D, C and B. What’s great about Operator is we can set our oscillator to have a fixed frequency. Enable this and turn the frequency to 50Hz – this gives us a deep thumping. Shape the amplitude envelope to have no attack, a short decay (about one second) and no sustain and leave the release as is.
Audio: The basic kick we’ve created in Operator
Ensure that Osc A Retrigger is enabled and the phase is set to 0% – this restarts the oscillators phase cycle at the same place each time a note is retriggered. Disabling this, or using a synth that doesn’t have this feature, can not only introduce annoying clicks and pops to beginning of our kicks but they also won’t be at a consistent level.
We’ve resampled some of these kicks with phase retrigger enabled and disabled to show the difference. Firstly, this is switched off:
None of these kicks are going to sound exactly the same and could cause phasing issues when layered or mixed with other low-end sounds. Below is the same clip with Osc A’s Retrigger enabled – four carbon copies of the same kick:
Let’s look at adding in another oscillator. Enable Osc B then Ctrl + click near the enable button, click Copy From Oscillator A and tune Osc B to 62Hz:
Click on the Global Shell and ensure the Algorithm is set to have none of the oscillators modulating each other – this way they’re all outputting to the master:
Audio: The kick, now with a second oscillator and without phase issues
Keeping your kicks synthetic allows a surgical level of flexibility with tuning and enveloping. Increasing the length of our decay stage will increase the amount of tone perceived and bass that seeps through. Enable the pitch envelope and drop the sustain down to -48 semitones for an even deeper kick. Modulation amounts of between 50-70% will give you the necessary energy at the transient of a kick with shorter decay times.
Audio: Adding pitch decay gives the kick a sharper transient
In the Download
An instrument rack with macros for the level, frequency and decay times of a two-oscillator Operator synth and a macros for the pitch envelope. Download the Perfect Kick Drum Ableton Project here.
The Practical Implications
Choosing the right kick can be a laborious process and Live’s browser doesn’t make it easy to just slot a kick in your project. The Hot Swap feature goes some way towards dealing with this, but unless you’ve carefully organised all your best kicks into one project it’s not ideal. One way we can get around this is using the Drum Rack and the Pitch MIDI effect. Create a new MIDI track (shift + cmd + t) and add a Drum Rack from the instruments menu. I’ve dropped in some kicks from Sample Magic’s SM101 Club Kicks, SM21 Tech House and SMP05 Hed Kandi by shift + selecting them and dropping them on to the note C-2.
Create a new MIDI clip and program a C-2 note on each quarter beat. This will play the first kick in our Drum Rack (sm101_ck_kick_01). Next, select the Drum Rack and hit cmd + G to add it to an Instrument Rack. Now we can see our Drum Rack nested in the Instrument Rack, add the Pitch plugin (found in MIDI Effects).
Next, enable the Macro view for the Instrument Rack, ctrl + click on Pitch Transposition and click Map to Macro 1. Click on Map and adjust the range of our newly-created Macro; we want a range of 0 – 100 semitones. I’ve also renamed the Macro Smp Sel and coloured it pink:
We could map our Smp Sel Macro to a MIDI controller and, without adjusting our MIDI clip’s notes, browse through multiple samples whilst our track is playing. This may lead to decisions you might not ordinarily make when selecting samples out of context; it’s also great when trying to find a sample that’s tuned correctly with another layer, too.
Audio: Here are four bars of kicks with the Smp Sel macro being automated
In the Download
A selection of three Sample Magic packs in a Drum Rack layered with macro controls for sample select, decay, tuning for top and bottom layers. Also macros for velocity modulation and crossover frequency for layering. Download the Perfect Kick Drum Ableton Project here.
Once you’ve got a great layered kick you might want to process it to help it gel together. There are numerous ways we can go about this, so let’s look at a few. Parallel processing (or New York Compression as it’s sometimes known) is processing a duplicate of our signal while keeping the dry signal unaffected. When dealing with drums this is particularly useful as we can compress or distort our signal and still preserve the transients. Sadly, Ableton Live’s Send/Returns channels don’t compensate for plugin delay but we can use the Audio Instrument Racks found in the Audio Effects folder.
We’ve created a kick composed of three layers: a meaty kick that has a lot of sub, one that has a bit more bite and snap and an acoustic one from a breakbeat with some crisp top end. We’ve not processed these any further at this stage, only enveloping, adding some mild high-pass filtering and re-tuning them:
Audio: Three kicks, layered and filtered
Add an Audio Effects Rack after our Instrument Rack, enable the Chain view and create two chains (cntrl + click) (I’ve named mine Dry and Wet).
To the Wet chain I’ve added Live’s Dynamic Tube and Saturator (I’ve tweaked the Warm Tube and A Bit Warmer preset) and the Glue Compressor with hard, audible gain reduction. Remember, as we’re blending this with our dry signal we can process things more noticeably.
Add another Audio Effects Rack after our parallel processing one and add Live’s Multiband Dynamics to it (any Multiband compressor will do, but Live’s is phase coherent), solo the low band and name the chain Low. Repeat this process for the Mid and High bands.
Audio: The three kicks with three chains of effects applied
Let’s add a Utility plugin to our Low chain and reduce the width to 0% (it’s always a good shout to keep your bottom end in mono so the levels are more consistent when summed). We’ve also compressed this further to keep the lower frequencies at a more consistent level:
The mids didn’t need too much work: we’ve used a sharp notch filter to remove a boxy frequency band. The compressor has a hard ratio and high threshold to contain our mid-range:
Lastly, the High chain has some light overdrive and Live’s Reverb providing a tiny bit of room to our sound that will both help it bounce and glue it together. We’ve utilised the built-in EQ to reduce the top end from our reverb:
Audio: The three bands are now processed separately, ready for further tweaking
In the Download
A versatile Instrument Rack including the aforementioned macros for sample selection, amplitude decay, velocity modulation, tuning and also parallel compression, distortion and multi-band processing. Download the Perfect Kick Drum Ableton Project here.
Though there are several key factors in choosing the right kick drum, selecting the right sample is paramount. If you select an inferior kick no amount of compression or EQ is going to salvage it. Good, strong clean transient information with a solid, weighty sub that moves the speaker is what’s necessary to start with.
If you’re layering kicks, be careful to tune them correctly. You can try and use a spectral analyser to monitor your peaks but using your ear is the best solution. Normally a semitone up or down will fix it. If you can’t get close with more than a few steps it might not be the right kick. When you’re layering with subbier kicks, be sure you roll-off unwanted frequencies to avoid clashing.
Enveloping your kicks is important, too. Shaving off too much at the decay stage of the amplitude envelope can leave your kick as just a mid-range blip, but having an overbearing bass explosion will swamp your mix and almost certainly clash with your bass. It’s all about balance.
Finally, compressing or other gain regulation plugins are not always the best tool to reach for. Using audio samples or a drum machine will not have the same dynamic range which some of these plugins were designed to attenuate, so there’s no need to slam your sound into a brick wall limiter to get it louder. With EQing, try to remove problematic frequencies rather than add in ones you want to hear.
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