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The Kick Drum Compendium for the Home Studio - Part 1

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Love kick? Of course you do! The kick drum is by far one of the most important sounds in modern music. From four to the floor club, to hard rock, to tasteful funk, the kick drum is often the heart and soul of the rhythm section. It is what the audiences want to hear and ultimately needs to sound solid.


Also available in this series:

  1. The Kick Drum Compendium for the Home Studio - Part 1
  2. The Kick Drum Compendium for the Home Studio - Part 2
  3. Snare Drum Compendium - Start with the Best Sound
  4. The Snare Drum Compendium - Recording and Mixing Techniques
  5. Drum Overhead Compendium: Toms and Cymbals
  6. Drum Overhead Compendium: Toms and Cymbals Part 2

However most home studio enthusiasts have less than ideal room acoustics, mic selection, etc. and will need all the tricks they can get in order to get the best kick sound possible. That is where this tutorial series comes in!

In this first tutorial we will examine the kick drums from the instrumental standpoint and how it functions musically and acoustically so we can have a better idea of how to record and mix it in the next tutorial. You can't fake the perfect sound in the mix, it has to start with the drum itself. Now not everyone can afford the perfect kick but you can make it sound exponentially better if you know what you are doing! So if you want to master the tone of the kick drum, look no further. Be careful, things are about to get heavy!


Functionally

The kick drum from an acoustical stand point operates much like any other drum. The batter head is struck and this causes the head to resonate back and forth. As the head resonates air is moved inside the drum and this causes the opposing head to resonate as well as the rest of the drum shell. This resonance produces the tone of the drum while the initial attack of the foot pedal causes the striking sound of the kick. Finally, the fluctuating air pressure escapes from the small vent holes place in the drum.

Now why does all of this matter to us? Well for starters, being as large as the kick drum is, the time difference between the initial attack and the resonance of the opposing head can cause awful phase cancelations if we are not careful in our microphone placement. If you know anything about resonance then you will know that it is created by oscillation. If you were to mic the outside of the kick from both the batter head side and the resonant head side you will run a huge risk of phase cancelation. Why you ask? Because the two heads will most likely be in opposite oscillation (one causing compression and the other causing rarefaction). Finally when you sum them together in the computer you will most likely have unfixable phase cancelation. Even if you use a phase inverter you may knock other frequencies out of phase that were not out of phase to begin with. Remember, never try to fix it in the mix.

Now depending on the size of the drum, as well as the material and pitch of the heads, you may or may not suffer from these horrific phase cancellations if you mic the kit from the outside. So you probably are asking yourself well then why is it such a big deal if may not happen? Well for those of you who still need convincing, do you want the drummer to accidentally kick your mic? Do you want more room to place your batter head microphone? How about less squeaky noise from the pedal? Inside micing sounding better yet?


The Tone Controls

Like every instrument, there are natural built in tone controls that allow us to shape the sound of the instrument. A drum however is a little more unique than most other instruments. What makes a drum unique is that there is only one dynamic variable present in a drum; how the player hits the drum. Every other tone control is static and will only change from either excessive use or cheap parts. This makes getting a good sound of the kick much easier than other instruments. Let us take a look at what these static tone controls are. Here is a list of the tone controls for a kick and what they do to influence the sound...

Batter Head: Greatly influences the sound of the initial attack of the kick drum. It also has some weight as to what the overall pitch of the drum is and what overtones are present. The overall projection of the drums attack is controlled here.


Resonant Head: Controls some of the drums natural tone and can affect the overall pitch as well. In addition, the length of the kicks sustain is greatly influenced by this head. Finally it can greatly affect the harmonics and overall timbre of the kick.


Tuning Lugs: These lugs will help pitch the drum as well as what frequency the heads will vibrate at. The area around each lug has its own pitch that effects the overall pitch of the head.


Beater: The beater will have a large influence on how the initial attack sound. The beater can come in many forms and lengths to control how and where the attack is produced.


Pillow/Towel: These are generally used as a form of dampening to control the resonance but preserve some of the pitch. Other times they are used to completely deaden one or both heads on the kick.

While this is all well and good, what can we do with this knowledge? Well for starters we can get a general idea of how the kick will sound before ever hearing it. If you know what kind of heads are present and what kind of beater is being used then you are well on your way to knowing how the tone will sound. We can also better figure out ways to compensate for the tone of the kick via mic choice and positioning if another tone is desired. Finally, in a best case scenario we can go and change some of these aspects to get our ideal tone; new heads, beaters, etc. Remember, a good kick sound starts at the drum not at the microphone!

For the batter head you generally will find a clear strong 1-ply head that will give off a balance of attack and tone. However you can also have batter heads with built in foam rings and other dampeners which will shorten how long the head resonates and give a more cushioned sound with more focus on the attack. If you need more emphasis on the attack there also thick plastic stickers you can place where the beater meets the head which will help protect the head and deaden the sound further.

Resonant heads usually are of the same thickness and material construction (within reason) as the batter heads. The common difference comes in whether or not you have a porthole in the resonant head; or sometimes not even having a head at all! Additionally you can also get foam rings for the resonant head as well if you really want no sustain at all. When recording it is almost mandatory that there is a porthole in the resonant head. Without it micing the batter head properly is almost impossible (as we talked about earlier in the tutorial). If you do not have a porthole then your other option is to completely take the head off. Without the head you will have a very dead tone which will essentially be all attack, but keep in mind that some styles of music may want a very dead kick (metal for example).

The tuning lugs will be the most obvious method of tone control since by adjusting the tension of the head you can change the pitch of the head drastically and the overall tone of the drum. There are many different ideals people have about how the head lugs should be tuned. The primary idea to keep in mind when tuning is how the audience will hear it. If it is being close miced then you will need to worry about how it sounds from up close. If however you plan on taking this kick to a church without the aid of microphones then you will probably need to reconsider how you go about tuning your heads.

When it comes to beaters it will really come down to a combination of length and material. If you want more tone out of your kick then using a longer beater that is more off center will aid you much better. However, if you want more attack then the beater should hit more in the middle. When it comes to material you can use everything from a solid wood ball to a soft cushy felt ball and everything in between. If you want a very muffled sound then a thick plush felt beater would serve you well. However the wood ball will give you the most attack. Other options include rubber, hard felt, and flat or curved beaters. If you are unsure of what kind to choose from then use this list as a guide...

From softest to hardest

  • Soft Felt
  • Hard Felt
  • Rubber
  • Plastic
  • Wood

For internal dampening you really have only towels, blankets, and pillows unless you want to spend money on some of the fancier contraptions. However this tutorial is meant for the home studio on a budget so we will assume you do not have those toys. When it comes to dampening you have to consider how much dampening you want and why. No matter what you may use to dampen the effect will be the same. The more dampening you add to a head the less you will have a resonant tone. The benefit you have over the foam rings is that you can control the amount of dampening by adjusting how much the towel/pillow/blanket touches the head. If you need that extra punch without the boom then use more dampening and if you want more boom and less tick then I would keep the dampening to a minimum.


The Recipes

Now armed with all this knowledge you can go make yourself a good sounding kick out of even the most horrendous of kick shells right? You want some recipes for getting different sounds? Alright lazy folks this one is for you!

Note that there are so many variables in creating a kick tone that not every possible combination of heads, tuning, beaters, etc. can be written down. So I will try to give you some good general places to work from. There will be a few variables I will keep constant for the audio samples as I do not own every single piece available and as a home studio engineer you probably do not either. My batter head will be 1-ply with a foam ring, the resonant head is 1-ply with a off-centered porthole, and finally my kicks diameter is 22 inches. In addition, I will only be using a hard felt head.

For the recordings I will be using a CAD KBM 412 on the outside and a Audix D6 on the inside. While there are of course other techniques and mic choices, that is not the point of this tutorial. I choose these mics and micing techniques because they are common and easily accessible by those in the home studio realm. Once an gain structure was established, the gain was not touched again for the rest of the tunings.

For a punching tone with some dirty low end tune the batter head up higher than the resonant head and make sure the resonant head is semi loose; no wrinkles but not tight either. The batter head can be anywhere from 1 half step higher to a perfect 5th but more emphasis on the punch I would tune it significantly higher. By having a looser resonant head you will control the harmonic content and help give that full dirty low note. You will also preserve the rebound which helps with the drummers playing. I find that a hard felt beater will work better in this circumstance since you want a solid punch and less tick.

Notice the loose low end to my kick when I have it tuned in this fashion...

If you want all attack and that "tick" sound then tune the batter head to its lowest pitch so it still responds to being hit but moves easier; you will hear the plastic more than the tone of the drum. This technique is particularly useful for metal and other music styles that want clarity in the kick but at the same time to stay out of the way of the bass guitars range. You can also experiment with a loosely tuned resonant head or removing it completely for more emphasis on the attack. For beaters I would use nothing softer than hard felt. If you still want a little boom to your kick then consider using a different beater and tuning up your batter head just a touch.

Listen for how much more tick and less sustain I can get by using this tuning system...

For those of you who want a full sustained kick then up you go with your tuning. A solid higher pitched tuning on the heads will resonant more and in turn give you a longer sounding kick. Now each shell has its own range for what is an optimal pitch and depending on the type of wood used that perfect sustain pitch can vary within that range. Keep in mind however that the pitch of the heads do tno necessarily have to match the pitch of the shell. Unfortunately this is a more trial and error method as every kick shell will vary. However, if you want to hear the tone and sustain more then I would recommend using a soft felt mallet so you can really hear the sustain and less emphasis on the attack.

Notice how low and clear the note is despite the fact that I have the heads tuned way up...

There is one final example I wish to show so you know what it sounds like. Often times drummers will tune down their batter head to make the pitch lower but end up leaving the resonant head where it is. This creates almost a basketball sound to the kick. Some people prefer this sound and in fact a basketball being dribbled can be a good starting place for a sample based kick! I personally am not overly a fan of this sound but it is hear for your learning pleasure.

Notice how the pitch drops instead of rises as compared to the other samples...


Conclusion

Now you may have thought that all the samples sounded really similar to each other. I will not deny that they do but remember we are using the same drum and heads for each example. However if I add some compression and EQ the differences become a little more apparent.

So what have we learned? That if you need to have a good idea of tone you want before you even go ahead and start tuning away. There are a lot of options available to us to shape and craft the tone of a kick. Spend some time and think about what tone would best fit the style of music you are going for. But this is only half the battle. Next time we will cover how to record and mix the kick with only the few options available to us as home studio engineers. I may even throw in a few tricks to help fake that good tone if the recording part isn't going to well for you. Until next time, happy kicking!

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