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The Kick Drum Compendium for the Home Studio - Part 2

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This post is part of a series called The Kick Drum Compendium for the Home Studio (Premium).

When we last spoke we discussed different tuning techniques, parts of the kick, and microphone techniques for recording the kick. Hopefully you were all able to get a solid kick sound out of your drum kits. However, if you want that extra punch, click, or whatever to your kick that you couldn't get from recording and tuning then you are in luck!

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

In this tutorial we are going to cover various techniques to enhance our kick after the fact to make it really stand out so it can always be heard in a mix. The home studio world is never perfect to record in but with a few tricks here and there you could fool most anyone. Come with me as we look at compression, EQ, and a few other tricks you may have not heard before. If you thought your kick hit hard, you haven't heard anything yet!

Punch and Sustain

One of the most important qualities for a modern kick drum sound is that it hits the listener hard when they hear it. It has to hit quick and sustain long enough to have a noticeable body of air behind it. Obviously the easiest way to get this sound is with a properly sized kick drum, proper tuning, and good recording techniques. But most of us do not have access to all three at once for one reason or another. So we need to enhance what we have been given. The best tools for accomplishing this will be compressors and gates.

The primary reason for using compressors and gates is because we are shaping volume, not tone. If we wanted to shape tone then we would be using an EQ. The compressor in our case is going to control the kick's sustain and attack while the gate will control the kick's transients. By using these tools and their parameters in various combinations we can achieve different sounds. Since we have both an batter head track and an resonant head track here is what I believe will be the best combination to achieve both punch and sustain...

  • Place a compressor on the batter head track and give it a slow attack and release. Make sure that the initial attack of the kick does not get compressed.
  • Next add a gate with a reasonably quick attack and release to get rid of any unneeded sustain and add some snap to the attack. Be sure to avoid artifacts from using a gate that is too quick.
  • In the resonant head track add a compressor and make sure it has a quick attack and release so only the attack gets compressed.
  • Finally bring up the gain on the resonant heads compressor until you have the desired amount of sustain.

The idea behind this technique is that the clear attack is present in the batter head and the full body is present in the resonant head. By removing the sustain in the batter head and any sharp attack in the resonant head, you will give the different kick tracks their own place that will not conflict. Of course you can control how drastic you use this technique to find a pleasant sound for your mix by adjusting the ratio and threshold parameters. Here is a before and after for comparison...


Now that we have shaped how the volume of our kick operates we can now look at the kicks tone. The benefit we have now is that we can adjust the tone of the attack and the tone of the sustain separately in our mix. Whatever you do, make sure your EQ is AFTER the compression and gate effects! Unfortunately this can be a very subjective subject however I will attempt to keep it as objective as possible. First let's look at the batter head's track and how we can shape the tone of the attack of the kick.

The attack of a kick usually says more about the kick than the sustain. The attack is what cuts through the mix so that you know the kick is even there to begin with. If you need something hard hitting but take away all the high frequencies then you will be left with the exact opposite. Here are some general guidelines for EQing the attack of the kick...

  • For a very clean cut 'tick' like quality to the attack either boost the high end between 2-5 kHz or EQ down more of the lower frequencies (or both!)
  • If you want more perceived body and a darker tone to the attack and less emphasis on the head of the drum (that plastic tick sound) then EQ down some of the 2-5 kHz region; this will also create the muffled or cushion sound. If you actually want more body and not just the perception then boost the lower regions of the kick between 150-400 Hz (roughly).
  • When a more 'airy' sound is desired then a boost in the range of around 10 kHz and up will be needed to emphasize the harmonic content.

When it comes to working on the sustain you will have the same choices as above in regards to the tone. But what you have to consider now is how the sustain will either play with or against the tone of the attack. You also should consider where you want to leave space for other instruments in the mix as well. Here is a list of possible combinations you could use for your mix...

  • A 'tick' style attack and a dark sustain will sound less realistic on its own but can work very well in a dense mix. The attack will still come through and there will be a felt presence to the sustain but if it is ever played by itself it may sound strange.
  • A bright attack and a more open (airy) sustain will feel very open but lack the lower end body some styles may call more. It does have the added benefit of not conflicting with a bass guitar however and can be desired for fast double kick music.
  • A muffled attack and a dark tone will give you a more traditional sound. If the original kick sound still had a nice punch to it you will maintain the punch but lack a little clarity. If the kick lacked punch to begin with then you will end up with a very cushion-like sound (try hitting a pillow).
  • A muffled attack followed by a airy sustain will give something similar to the previous entry, but with a little more clarity and sense of space.

There are always other possibilities but these would probably be your more common combinations. The important part to remember about adjusting the tone of the kick is that every drum has its own frequency ranges where it will naturally resonate. Try to find those sweet spots so you get optimal clarity, sustain, pitch, etc. and are not fighting the kick with outrageous amounts of EQ. Here is what I ended up with for my kick sound...

Pitchable Attack

You know how I said each drum has its own pitch it naturally resonates at? Every attack obviously then has its own pitch (albeit a rather high pitch by comparision). But what happens if the attack of the kick and the picking of a guitar are in the same frequency range? Well then only the louder one is perceived clearly; this is known as masking. Then what are you to do if you want your kick to cut through and not get in the way of attack of the other instruments? You could EQ it but that will only get you so far; I have a better idea.

  • This technique involves the use of an additional track so with that in mind make yourself an additional empty track.
  • Next add a noise generator or render noise into the track where your bass drum will be played. For this to work make sure the noise is Pink noise and not White or some other form of noise.
  • Next add a gate effect to your noise track and side chain your batter head track to the kick opens the gate.
  • Change the attack and release of the gate so that they both read 0.1ms; we need the noise to be in and out as quick as possible.
  • Now add an EQ after the gate and cut out all the frequencies you do not want in the noise.
  • Finally adjust the volume to taste.

Let's go over what we did so that you can easily adapt this technique to any given situation. We added Pink noise to a second track to mimic the sound of a beater hitting a plastic head. Without getting into any science-oriented talk, Pink noise is equal energy in all octaves and White noise is equal energy per hertz; for our purposes Pink noise sounds less harsh to the human ear. This allows us to more easily shape the tone of the noise and create an attack that doesn't fight with other instruments.

If your kick and guitar are fighting around 3 kHz then pitch the noise so it emphasizes the 2-2.5 kHz range. It may take some tweaking to get sounding right and to some it may not sound completely real. However in a dense mix you will never notice and in my experience if your listener never hears the original kick without the noise track then they will never notice. Here is a before and after with the noise track; I have left the compression and EQ in...

Pitchable Sustain

This next technique is almost identical to the above process, however we will be effecting the sustain of the kick. This is a trick often used in rap and hip-hop music to get that extra low boom in the kick drum. Since this technique is so similar to the pitchable attack, we are simply going to use a modified version...

  • You are going to follow the following sections directions however instead of rendering noise you will render a sine wave. This sine wave should be between 60-100Hz and should compliment the tone of the kicks sustain.
  • Change the gates attack and release settings to 20ms; this will avoid any artifacts from opening or closing too quick.
  • While you might think we should side chain the sine wave from the sustain kick, we actually will still side chain from the attack kick.
  • Finally we do not need the EQ so you do not need to add that after the gate.

The reason we use the attack kick to trigger the gate and not the sustain in this case is for delay reasons. The sustain kick will occur a few millisecond after the attack kick as a result of mic placement. Since our gate has a 20ms attack time, if the sustain kick track triggered the gate then we wouldn't hear our sine wave until 20ms after the sustain kick. By using the attack kick as the trigger the sine wave and the sustain kick will occur closer together and sound more unified.

The most important parts to this trick are finding an adequate attack and release on the gate and pitch of the kick. You can experiment with different waveforms other than sine if you wish but you will probably need to EQ them so that they fit right in the mix. Finally I would not add too much of this sine wave track to your kick volume wise unless you want that more artificial sound; use less if you just want to fill out the natural sound of your kick. Here are my results with the sine wave; note that I removed the noise track for now so you can focus on the sine track...

A Sense of Space

One of the last important tricks you can use to get a good sound of your kick post recording is to add a sense of space to it. Some engineers will tell you to shy away from adding ambience to the kick and in some circumstances I would whole heartedly agree. In fast or dense music you will just muddy up the low end and under no circumstance should you use a long reverb on a kick drum other than for a very specific effect. However that doesn't mean we cant add some subtle ambience to our kick

The right amount of ambience will give the kick drum a believable space and can help shape the tone of the sustain. Depending on how you approach the ambience effect will effect how it will ultimately sound. Here are some guidelines I would recommend you follow...

  • Reverb should not last longer than 1 second more a moderate tempo song; you could possibly squeak in 2 seconds if it is a ballad.
  • A bright reverb will sound like the kick is inside a concrete room with very little diffusion. In contrast, a darker reverb will give more of a wood room quality.
  • Setting the diffusion to 100% will help to make it sound like it is in a larger room while a smaller diffusion will sound closer to a tight intimate room.
  • If you are sending the batter head kick track to the reverb your reverb will most likely sound thinner depending on how you shaped your batter head track. The resonant head track going to the reverb will more than likely make the reverb sound fuller.

Of course these are only suggestions and every situation will be different. In my case I opted for the resonant head to go to the reverb as opposed to the batter head. I also did not overdue it on the volume of the ambience and kept it much more subtle. Here is my result before and after; keep in mind I do not have the noise or sine tracks on...

Final Thoughts

As you have seen there are many ways in which you can easily enhance your kick drum recordings with some basic processing tools. From enhancing the attack to the sustain to the overall tone you have a multitude of options available to you. Ideally you will not have to use all of the above techniques as nothing can truly replace a perfect recording. Try not to overdue the amount of the effects as you could easily loose the original recording in the process.

Finally here is a before and after from the original unprocessed tracks and the final kick drum with all the processing done. May your kick always hit hard and processing be simple! Thanks for reading!

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