How to Make Kick Drums Thump and More Punchy

Kick Drum

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The kick drum is the heartbeat. It is felt as much as it’s heard. It connects the cerebral ideas in the music to visceral, carnal feeling. The kick drum is the basis of modern dance music. From disco to EDM and beyond, the classic “four-on-the-floor” pattern is enough to get the crowd moving before any other instruments have even entered.

No matter what genre you are working in, though, a powerful and punchy kick drum is an attribute. It adds excitement, depth, and body. Whether you are working with samples and electronic drums, or a live recording, you may have felt this disappointment: you simply can’t match the presence the kick drum has in other recordings. As it happens, there are a number of tricks to give your kick drum more punch and presence in your mix. Read on to find out.



Punchy: Psycho-Acoustics

Kick DrumThe first thing to understand is that powerful drums can be deceiving. The obvious thought to add power to kick drums, would be to boost their powerful low-end. However, this will not have the intended effect, and comes with a number of drawbacks. “Punchiness” is less about having massive low-end, and more about other subtleties of the kick sound that make it feel bigger. Furthermore, having the bass frequencies of your mix too hot will eat up your headroom. That is to say: mixes can only get so loud before they run out of “headroom” and start to distort. Boosting bass frequencies disproportionately consumes this headroom. To add punch to your kick, read on for techniques that add power without demolishing volume.

I also discussed many of these techniques in a couple of my other articles- making a mix louder without clipping and making beats sound fuller.

Phase-Aligning Drums

If you are working with a recording of live drums, recorded with multiple mics (such as overheads, and individual drum mics.) It’s worthwhile to take the time and phase-align your drums before doing any other processing. What does this mean exactly? All the tracks in your drum recording are slightly out-of-time with each other, because the sound reaches all the mics at slightly different times. It’s not noticeable if you are not looking for it, but this can cause subtle phase issues that suck power from your drums and give them odd sonic texture. Zoom all the way in on your DAW, and align the tracks’ peaks visually. The entire kit should suddenly “click” and sound more powerful.

Layering Samples

Over the past decade or so, drum recording has experienced a trend: Sample replacement. Many acoustic-sounding sets in professionally-mixed songs contain very little of the original drumming sounds. The drum tracks are recorded, and then used to trigger drum samples using MIDI. The original drums are often removed, though sometimes the samples are layered onto the original drum sound.

The reason for this is that drums are somewhat finicky to process. Even with the relative separation achieved by miking the kit with multiple close and overhead mics- The snare is picked up at least a little bit by every single mic, which limits the ability to isolate and process the snare sound individually. By replacing the recording with samples, you have absolute isolation. Music production, particularly pop, has tended towards precise, nearly clinical levels of separation and processing.

Regardless of whether you are replacing or simply layering drum sounds, samples are an excellent way to add punch and power to all of your drums, particularly kick. Try comparing different samples, and don’t be afraid to layer multiple samples. Use your ears to beware of kicks with mismatched tuning. Ever drum has a tone, although we don’t often think of drums that way. The kick (as well as any other drum) will have a fundamental frequency that matches a certain note. If you layer multiple kicks that are out of tune with each other, you may create muddy and dissonant music. Trust your ears here. Monitor on headphones or speakers with good bass response. If your room is not professionally treated, you may want to invest in a pair of headphones with good bass response, such as the Sony MDR-7506.

Tuning Kick

Speaking of a kick’s fundamental frequency, here is a trick to use if you are able. This trick will work best if you have isolated kick. So if you are working with purely samples, or if you can use EQ to cut the kick bleed out of other drum tracks. Tune the kick track to the same frequency as the root note of whatever key your song is in. You can do this by ear, or use an auto-tune VST (I’m a fan of the powerful, free GSnap) to determine what note the kick is currently playing. If the kick is the same frequency as the fundamental, it will work in harmony with the other instruments (especially bass!) and feel extremely powerful.

Parallel Processing

Any processing to the lowest frequencies in your mix can have unintended negative effects on the mix. For any of these tips, try parallel processing. Different DAWs have different ways to do it. With parallel processing, you can hear the dry track and a processed one layered together. Try a high-pass filter on the processed track, followed by any of the following tips.

Compression

VU MeterThere are a few ways compression can make your kick drums punchier. First of all, if you are working with live drumming, there are probably a lot of variations in dynamics. The drums may be disappearing into the mix, or not cutting through well. Try a compressor with a fast attack, and play with different settings. Use your ears. Not enough compression won’t make much of a difference, but too much can make the drums sound “squished” and unnatural.

If you are working with samples, then your drum hits may all be the same velocity anyway. That said, compression can be used to change the “shape” of drum hits, including kick, whether you are working with live or samples. This can be integrated into the same compressor that you (may have) used before, or it can be a separate compression stage. Try adding a compressor with a very fast release. This will make the kick “sustain” more. Drum hits such as kicks tend to have a loud “attack” followed by a steep “decay.” If the compression releases quickly, the compressor will amplify the drum’s decay. Use caution, though. This can add a lot of presence to drums, but lengthening bass frequencies in particular could lead to muddier and less punchy mixes.

Sidechain Compression

Sidechain compression is often used as a subtle but effective way to get the kick and bass out of each other’s way- and therefore make your kick punch through the mix. Since the bass tends to sustain notes while the kick decays more quickly, try side-chaining the bass to duck when the kick plays. It’s important to balance this properly, though. If the bass ducks too much, it will sound very unnatural, and start to lose its own power. Too much sidechain compression can lead to an overall strange mix with a “sucking” sound (which can be desirable in certain EDM styles, but rarely other times.) Only a few dB of compression can go a long way here.

You will want your compressor’s attack time to be very very short, but you will have to choose the release time by feeling. Experiment, and trust when it “feels” good. Don’t be afraid to return to it later and check your feeling. Feelings can drift as you work on something for a while, and lose sight of what you are aiming for. Even pros have to take breaks from mixing to reset their senses.

EQ

There is a magic frequency range used to give kicks punch. Try boosting them in the range of 5k-8k Hz. The best way that I can describe this is that it brings out the “TH” in the “THUMP” of the bass drum. It doesn’t actually make the drum sound any louder, as I mentioned earlier, but it makes them perceived as louder. Try a boost in the 1500-2500 Hz area too, to add presence to kick drum.

While you’re playing with EQ, try boosting 100-250 Hz to add warmth and “round”ness, and cutting 250-800 Hz to remove muddiness. Beware that the 100-250Hz region may also be used by the bass, and by the low registers of other instruments. Beware of boosting too much, or consider cutting other instruments in this area to boost bass presence.

Distortion

One of the best ways to add punch to any drums, especially kick, is to add some kind of distortion such as tape distortion. We are at a unique point in music history: our recording equipment is now so quiet and clean, that we add distortion back in to add excitement to our recordings. It might seem counterintuitive, that we would try so hard to develop low-distortion equipment just to add it in artistically. But the truth is that now, we have more control than ever to add distortion where we want, without worrying about it where we don’t want it.

Go back and listen to great Motown recordings like this one. Notice how distorted the drums are! This might be a little over-the-top for your purposes, but it shows my point. This was a hit song that still gets regular rotation as a classic tune.

Distortion from old tape machines and pre-amps, and other analog sources, is called harmonic distortion. The name belies that this distortion can be very musical. Without getting too technical, this distortion adds extra layers of overtones to sounds. This distortion be even more prominent if you make EQ boosts in the upper registers like I mentioned earlier.

Reverb

Kick DrumReverb can add life to any track. Every sound you hear in life has some kind of reverb on it. Your brain often doesn’t even notice (unless there’s loads of it, like in a cave) but you use it to subconsciously notice what kind of environment the sound is in. In my personal opinion, some of the best production involves controlled use of reverb. In my projects, I tend to choose 2-3 tracks to use quite heavy reverb, and leave the rest of my tracks dry. For a kick drum, I would add a reverb with a relatively wet setting, but a very short reverb tail. This adds a lot of presence without losing impact. If you are going to add reverb to a kick, make sure to severely cut the bass frequencies of the reverb tail. Reverb in the bass frequencies in general is bad news, it leads to muddy and powerless mixes.

Conclusion

And there you have it! With these tips, you should be on your way to punchy kicks that really drive your mixes and make people want to move. For more mixing ideas, don’t be afraid to reach out to professional mixing and mastering services. They can be more affordable than you would expect, and a great resource to learn by example. Good luck and feel the joy of the music!