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Essential Listening: Kick Drum Reverb

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This post is part of a series called Essential Listening.
Essential Listening - The Sounds of Jazz
Essential Listening: Snare Drums

Welcome back again everyone for another round of Essential Listening. Today we are going to take a step back into the more analytical and audio engineering side of critical listening and examine the use reverb/ambience on the kick drum. Why you ask? Because sometimes we need to break the rules!

Also, because while it is generally considered a big fat do not ever do it kind of rule, there are plenty of cases where it has been done to great effect. In fact some tracks simply would not have the same feel without some ambience on the kick.

So for those of you who love to break the rules, read on and add some space to your low end!


Rag Doll

Steven Tyler and Joey Kramer of Aerosmith Photo By Abog
Photo By Abog

A great example of big ambient drums can be found in Aerosmith's song Rag Doll. Starting out with a big shuffle beat, the track instantly hits you with a large ambience on the whole drum kit, kick included. In fact the track is so unapologetic about the ambience that the additional ambience stays on the kick and the rest of the drums through the whole song. No automation here, kids.

The reason this works so well in this track is that it gives the drums a big live that compliments the rock/big band sound very well. Additionally, the low end never builds up and gets in the way.

Here are some points to listen for...

  • The reverb is just long enough to be perceived more as an ambience than a big ringing hall.
  • The ambience on the kick has less low end power than you may think. Most of the kick ambience energy is coming from the high-mids and high end where the smack of the kick is.
  • The ambience across the whole kit creates a nice blended sound. If the kick was dry as could be, it wouldn't sound natural.

When the Levee Breaks

John Bonham of Led Zeppelin
John Bonham of Led Zeppelin

Everyone knows Bonham was known for a big huge drum sound while playing with Led Zeppelin. But what if you took away that ambience on the kick, would it have the same effect? Probably not, and When the Levee Breaks is one of the pinnacle examples of the Bonham sound.

Starting out with a slow big back beat, the impact of the opening does not come from just the beat itself, but by having the big additional reverb on the drums and kick as well. While there is a obvious delay line being used, if you listen carefully their is a big natural reverb on the kick as well.

Sure, closer micing could have minimized that to the point of being negligible, but instead they wanted that big booming sound.

Here are some points to listen for...

  • The reverb on the kick is flirting between ambiance and a actual reverb in how long it takes to decay. Probably the longest you would want to go for a constant effect.
  • The verb on the kick is very smooth, and less attack-heavy than in Rag Doll. This creates the illusion of a massive kick sustain.
  • Despite ringing out, the kick still does not get in the way of the bass. This is most likely due to the slow tempo of the song.

Hero ft. Keri Hilson

Photo By Mikamote
Photo By Mikamote

Some of the biggest proponents of never ever using reverb on a kick come the hip-hop/rap community. So many of the kicks in rap/hip-hop are dry and in your face that it is just assumed that a hip-hop or rap will have a dry kick.

However, Hero by Nas uses a deep, reverbed, and slightly muffled kick, and to great effect. If you want to stand out from the crowd you sometimes need to break the norm, but tastefully of course.

In Hero, what you will notice is that the kick has a big long reverb sound, but does not actually ring out too long. How is this possible? Gating! The reverb on the kick travels out long enough to give the impression of a big kick sound, and then is promptly gated to avoid muddying up the low end. You will only notice it when the drums first come in and the end of the song.

Here are some points to listen for...

  • The track lacks a bass line for most of the song. However, when it does come in the big kick and verb still takes precedence. The easiest way to avoid muddying up the low end is simply make one source louder to avoid conflict!
  • Listen for the gating effect on the tail of the kicks verb, it is subtle but present.
  • Despite being a genre heavily into clear lines, the kick and the verb do not accentuate the highs at all. This helps give the impression of a large far away kick drum, since the high frequencies would never reach the listener in real life if they were actually standing that far away.

Copperhead Road

Photo by Sean Rowe
Photo by Sean Rowe

While not commonly played, the country/rock song Copperhead Road by Steve Earle showcases the use of reverbed kick as an effect very well. The first half of the song focuses primarily on the  vocals and guitar/mandolin, but uses the kick to create a sence of space. The reason is that the guitars and mandolin are too rhythmic to take advantage of a reverb and would end up creating a mid and high end mess.

However, the kick in this case is the only low-end instrument, and could handle the reverb to create the much needed sense of space. Unlike the other examples, the reverb on the kick fades into the backgrounf once the rest of the song kicks in, effectively making the reverb on long drawn out effect for the intro; albeit done very well!

Here are some points to listen for...

  • How long the reverb lasts for on the kick. There are no ambience effects here, just straight hall reverb.
  • The tone of the reverb and how it emphasizes the upper mids more, but still has a low end rumble to fill the spectrum out.
  • Balance between the kick and the reverb. In this case the kick is still primarily in your face, with the reverb hiding more in the background hence why it does not fight the bass later in the song.

Conclusion, and Word to the Wise

Obviously kick drum reverb has its place, but as you have probably heard, it's not that common. The above examples work because they found ways to stay out the way of the rest of the bottom end, and maintain a respectable amount of clarity. Sometimes kick reverb is used as a temporary effect for intros, breakdowns, etc., and other times it is a full on sound scultping tool. But in any case, it has to be used artistically or it can turn into a mess.

While I encourage you to experiment with kick reverb, do be careful!  Until next time, thanks for reading.

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