Updated: Aug 9
In electronic dance music the kick is at the centre of the universe. The kick drum’s repetitive rhythm provides the pulse for which every other musical element is built on top of and around. Combined with its rhythmic counterpart, the bass, is what makes our ass shake and hairs stand up on end.
Kick drums can come from almost any source imaginable - sampled from your favourite track, from a legendary hardware drum machine, a synth or euro rack kit, recorded live, or even by mouthing the sound into a microphone while sitting in front of your DAW. With a bit of tweaking, any sound with the right frequency range can be moulded into the perfect kick drum, and there’s never been a better time to make your own kicks using a combination of tried and true methods… or specially designed plugins tailored to shaping your sound source into the perfect kick.
Some producers boast of spending hours sculpting and layering sounds to achieve the perfect kick. While this may be fruitful, it sounds like the worst way to spend valuable time and an uninspiring way to kill your creative momentum. After trying this approach for years, I’ve refined my approach to this simple perspective, which is the approach I use now for any sound design -
THE PERFECT KICK STARTS WITH CHOOSING THE RIGHT SOUND FOR THE CONTEXT OF THE SONG
Other than during intros and outros, kicks generally aren’t playing on their own. Kicks are married to the bass, and are bonded sonically and when done properly form the rock solid foundation of the composition and mix. The kick not only dominates the lower frequencies of the mix, its high end frequencies also compliment the other rhythm elements such as the snare, percussion and claps. The kick’s initial TRANSIENT and higher frequency tone is sometimes referred to as the ‘CLICK’ or “TOP” and plays a very important part of the kick, which is used to cut through the mix and add definition, as well as allows the kick to be heard on laptops, phones and smaller systems.
Brothers In Arms - Kick & Bass
Choosing the right kick and bass sound will provide you with the best opportunity to make a great dance song. It’s very important to choose a kick and bass sound that oppose each other so that the sounds remain complimentary but separate from in the low end. Separation between the kick and bass will prevent unwanted build up of low end frequencies, and provide the ability to fuse the sounds together and bring power and energy to the low end of your mix. For example, pairing a low end sub bass with a boomy kick with lots of low end will create a muddy low end mess, with plenty of overlapping frequencies and create challenges when trying to make the kick and bass sound and feel powerful together.
The best approach for kick and bass sound selection is to pair either a mid-frequency lighter kick with a deep baseline (like so many great deep house and tech house tracks) or by pairing a low frequency 808 style kick with an aggressive mid-range synth bass growl (done so well with minimal and techno styles). While mixing these two elements, it's just as important to balance the low end of each as it is the high frequencies, which will allow the kick and bass to be heard and cut through all of the layers of the track.
Kick Drum Sound Design - EQ
Kicks can be cut into three frequency ranges, which need to be payed equal attention.
20Hz-120Hz - The low end of a kick holds the power and rumble in the sub frequencies that make your chest vibrate and the floor shake in a club or large venue. Adding 1-2 dB in the 60-80Hz range will add girth, weight and warmth. You can add punch by adding the same to the 100-120Hz range. Notice how the 80-100Hz is skipped over? Attenuating (or lowering) by 1-2dB in this area will create space and remove mud if needed. Try to make subtle boosts in the low frequencies, as they add a lot of energy and can eat into your headroom especially when going into compressors or limiters!
120Hz-1kHz - This mid frequency range is where the thump and knock can be found and will allow the kick to cut through the mix, best found between 200-800Hz. Use a parametric EQ or eq band with a sharp Q setting to locate the best frequency to boost by 1-2dB. A popular technique to create space for bass is to cut some of the 200-400Hz range to taste. Again, using a TRANSIENT SHAPER on the kick will increase the crack in this frequency range without boosting EQ or using compression.
1-18kHz - Kicks also have lots of tonal qualities in the higher frequencies, often consisting of vinyl crackle, bleed from hi hats and overhead mics, and added effects like saturation and bit crushing. A lot of character can be found and exploited in this range which enhances the grit and definition of the kick. A sweet spot can be found where the kick has definition in the high frequencies, yet maintains warmth without sounding brittle or overly crispy. To achieve warmth in the high end of a kick, use a low pass filter EQ and find the frequency the allows your kick to cut through but isn’t fatiguing or too sharp (around 5-8kHZ). To add click to your kick add a small EQ boost at 1.5kHz.
Compression and the Kick Drum
Compression allows us to enhance and shape the kick to get it to fit with the bass and other elements of your track. Our ears are trained through listening to decades of recorded music to appreciate the sound of 4:1 compression. This sounds most natural to our ears and is a great starting point… try dealing in the threshold so that the compressor is providing 6-10dB of gain reduction to hear the attack and release and dial these in to enhance your kick and then dial the compressor’s threshold back so that its reducing the gain so that the needle is barely moving. You’ll notice your kicks transients are maintained and will sound less squashed or overdone when using this method. A fast attack and medium release will make the kick sound smoother by smoothing out some of the initial transient, while maintaining the kick’s body and oomph. For a punchy kick, use a medium (slower) attack and release. This will allow the initial attack to flow through the compressor unchanged, saving the sharp click at the start of the kick and creates a tighter sound by compressing the body of the kick, reducing the mud and sogginess of a kick. Be sure to time the release with the tempo of the track so that the release opens before the initial transient of the next kick begins.
Pro Tips for Enhancing Kick Drums
A trick that was first made popular in the disco era and still widely used today is to route a low end frequency through a gate or ducker plugin (operates the same as a gate but is reversed polarity and opens when the gate closes and can be more useful for this effect) that’s being triggered by the drum sound. This will layer the low frequency under your kick drum. You’ll have to tune the low frequency to your track’s key and bass line so that it doesn’t interfere with the low end. Start by creating a frequency at 50Hz on a simple oscillator or synthesizer and adjust from there.
Saturation is our best friend in the modern recording environment. It not only makes sounds more authentic and interesting, but it also allows sounds to cut through without boosting levels or over compressing. Saturation can be achieved with native saturation or amp plugins inside your DAW, or a wealth of dedicated plugins: Soundtoys’ Decapitator, Ohm Force’s Ohmicide, Camel Audio’s Camel Crusher/Phat, Output’s Thermal, and UAD’s Thermionic Culture Vulture, Empirical Lab's EL8 Distressor, Oxide Tape or amp simulators to name a few. I’ll also use the Moog’s drive without any filter effect for it’s saturation. Lastly, don’t overlook routing the audio from your DAW to an outboard effects pedal for the ultimate analog treatment and unique sound! Ableton makes this easy with it’s External Audio Effect (be sure to set your interface settings and save them in an Effects rack for quick set up!)
If you find this helpful and want to learn more about how I use this to create electronic music from start to finish, please find the link below this post to my website Electronic Music Tips and download the FREE 6 Step Guide to making a dance floor and radio ready track that looks like this. It’s absolutely jam-packed with tips and tricks and it’s completely free. You’ll also be able to sign up for my weekly insider email where I provide tips not available anywhere else and is growing every week with thousands of people signing up who want to make better music using professional methods for composition and production, mixing and mastering all from your home studio or bedroom!