How To Make a Kick Drum Sound Good
Tricky isn't it? Because on the outset it should be simple enough, grab a good kick drum sample, stick it in your track and press play. But somethings missing, it doesn't sound like it does in your favourite tracks by producers you follow. Let's make it better.
The importance of good source material can’t be understated in any area of music production, and the kick drum is, of course, no exception. Whether you’re laying out one-shots on an audio track or triggering them in a sampler, drum sampler or drum synth, or evevn a hardware sampler via MIDI, your sample (or samples) must be up to scratch in terms of power, tonality, weight and depth, and appropriate to the genre and accompanying instrumentation.
If you’re even vaguely in doubt as to the quality of any sample at any point, drop it and look for a better one, and tune your kick drum to the key of the track. (see here https://www.soundonsound.com/sound-advice/q-how-do-i-tune-my-kick-drum-samples-fit-my-song)
Layering Your Drums
Although there’s no end of mix-ready kick drum sounds available at sample sites around the web including our own, building your own custom kicks by blending two or three sampled layers is always a rewarding endeavour. Each layer should add its own component to the sound, so you might have a high-pass filtered ‘transient’ layer, a low-pass filtered ‘body’ layer, and an acoustic kick sample for ‘personality’, for example, mixed and processed to sound like a cohesive whole. Remember to save your construction as a preset, and/or bounce it down to a single one-shot sample, for re-use in future projects.
Compression and Equalisation
While the one-shot kicks found in electronic and dance music sample libraries often won’t need much – if any – processing to sit comfortably in the mix, those captured from acoustic drums, with their more ‘organic’ dynamic profiles and frequency variations, will usually demand some degree of compression and EQ. Compression is a powerful weapon for adding punch and weight, but be wary of squashing the life out of your kick – the compressor’s attack, release and dry/wet mix controls are your friends in this regard. And on the subject of EQ, don’t fall into the trap of just boosting the low frequencies to increase prominence: a great deal of a kick’s character and energy comes from the midrange, while the frequencies present in the initial transient might well range up into the highs.
Distortion and Saturation
For many pro producers, the application of some measure of distortion is standard for any kick drum sound, whether it’s the lightest touch of presence-enhancing tube saturation or – for harder forms of dance music – the abrasive aggression of full-on bit decimation. At the gentler end of the spectrum, tasteful harmonic saturation can be elicited by simply overdriving any analogue compressor or pre-amp emulation plugin.
Something like FabFilter Saturn can go from soft tonal analogue tape saturation to full on crunchy sample rate and bit depth reduction.
Transient shapers can do wonders for attack and sustain, or the initial hit and following thud and you can play between the two for snappier kicks or longer drawn out R&B style beats. Simply raise or lower the Attack knob to boost or attenuate your kick drum’s transient, adding punch or taming the initial impact; and tweak the Sustain knob to emphasize or dial back the non-transient content that follows, for a longer or shorter tail.
If your kick drum is lacking low-end heft and sustain, the addition of a synthesized sub-bass layer could be the answer. Fire up pretty much any synth and set it to output a very low-pitched sine or triangle wave – or solo its dedicated sub-oscillator, if it has one. Perhaps give the oscillator a bit of downward bend using a pitch envelope, then trigger it along with the main kick. Mix your newly generated sub in to taste, and play around with the amp envelope decay and sustain to tailor its length and fall-off.
One excellent technique for getting the kick drum cutting through the mix is the employment of sidechain compression to duck the bass out the way at the same time – and perhaps other elements – every time it hits. Almost any compressor plugin will be up to this particular job with many VST3 ones having side chain functionality built right in whilst others will require a bit of behind the scenes routing of audio channels which will depend on your DAW. Ableton and Logic have it built right in. Another alternative is to employ a sidechainer plugin like Nicky Romeros Kickstart (made by the respected cableguys developers https://www.kickstart-plugin.com) or LFOtool by Xfer made by the also well respected Steve Duda (Here https://xferrecords.com/products/lfo-tool )