Ahh, the eternal conundrum: We all want a song where every instrument and sound is perfectly clear, loud, and contributing to a greater whole. To have our listeners be truly moved by the momentum and emotion that is flowing from their speakers. It’s why we got in the biz yeah?? I think we forget sometimes though that for everything to be perfectly audible and clear, it means that nothing is perfectly audible and clear, kinda like that Jason Lee bit from The Incredibles.
Dastardly right? But very true and very applicable to mixing. When mixing, the goal is to have all your pieces work together to make a cohesive whole. It’s sort of like a giant puzzle, except you can change the shape of these puzzle pieces, and it can of course change colors whenever the mood strikes. Oh and it’s also a 3D puzzle… that’s invisible. So yeah, kinda tough but that’s basically what mixing is: attempting to make an invisible wave that wants to go anywhere and everywhere play nice with an infinite number of other invisible waves for three and a half minutes. Also don’t forget cowbell.
In this concoction of confusion, how do we achieve clarity with certain aspects and which ones should they be? This and more is our topic of discussion today: How we get the kick to pump through the mix. We'll cover:
- The importance of excellent source material
- Where to get your samples
- Choosing a sample
- Creating space for your kick
-Beefing it up
There are certain genres where kick isn’t quite as important (like classical or certain types of world music) but for our purposes we’ll be focusing mainly on how we can get the kick super fat in a modern music production scenario. So let's get it!
The 2 Most Important Factors
So how do we make it all perfect? Simple, be this guy:
For the rest of you mortals, read on.
Basically, for our kick to get on the path to being Thor’s Hammer status huge, we need two very important things:
1. Excellent source material (Sample or live recording)
2. Room for it to exist in a potentially crowded mix
(Note: EQ and compression come later, gotta choose a kick before you edit it.)
1. Excellent source material
I really can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Your life is made impossibly easier by getting an excellent starting point. It goes back to the old saying of how you can’t polish a turd.
No matter how much you polish it, it’s still a turd. Don't get me wrong, you can do a lot of amazing things with modern production for sure. Manipulating and fucking with sounds is imperative to the creative process these days and there is always room for layering, which we won't be getting to into in this post, but starting with an exemplary kick is the surest way to get your track on the right… track… Sorry.
So how do we succeed with step 1? Two more factors must be taken into account:
1A. Choosing a sample that is appropriate for your unique song
1B. Where the hell you do get your sample? (I’ve chosen to go with samples as opposed to tracking live drums since that's the overwhelming favorite for production these days.)
1A. Choosing a sample
Picking a kick that’s appropriate for your song is not something to be taken lightly as the samples are inherently tied to the actual composition. Allow me to bring forth an example. Back in the Motown days, the characteristics of the kick really didn’t matter. If it was slightly out of tune or a bit clunky for the song, sure the drummer or producer may have said something to touch it up but at the end of the day, it was a piece of the puzzle that was not nearly as important as the vocal and the composition. Listen to this bit and tell me to my face that they could have used any of the other 20 kicks in the studio and it would have made a huge difference:
Can't even hear that fuckin kick.
I of course say this with a super deep love for Motown so don’t get the wrong idea. I simply chose it because it’s a well loved piece of American culture and everyone knows it so it’s an easy example for everyone to get.
In the 70's and 80’s, the kick was becoming much more prominent as production values were steadily improving and by the 90's with techno, house, and other electronic dance genres especially, the kick was becoming the main aspect for A LOT of music. Because of improving production value, the kick now had the ability to move people like it never could before. Not only that, it had the capability of shaping the character of the track, not just the low end thump which it used to.
As one continues to develop their production chops and refine their composing tastes, likes, and dislikes, you will find that your desire will lead you to favor certain sounds, tones, and timbres.
(Note: We're not going to touch on layering samples in this post since that's the next step of building kicks and we're focusing on the foundation but just know it is something that happens all the time and it's freaking awesome.)
1B. Where to Get Your Samples
Before we get into it, this is a very deep rabbit hole as there really isn't an end to what you can do. The truth is that a lot of the drums you hear in the latest Major Lazer or Drake track are ones that the producers have not only used many times before, but share with each other. It’s a small world and a lot of these music makers know each other so they share tips/secrets and sharing samples is a big part of that. So what can we do today if we don't have access to that?
FUCK AROUND UNTIL YOU FIND SOME YOU LIKE.
There are so many libraries out there it’s sickening, where does one begin? Really, I can’t tell you that exactly. My taste are different than yours and I have no idea what you’re trying to make/what it’s contributing to so I couldn’t possibly tell you exactly where to go but I can give you a couple tips:
After you get your DAW, you'll have certain sounds that come with it so go through them all. That’s right, sit there and hit the down arrow until you’ve heard them and when you like one, write that shit down and keep it for later. Maybe even write some adjectives about it so you can check back when you’re producing. "Hmm, this kick has some nice clip in the 1-2K range but it's also nice and boomy in the lows and has a dark/mysterious quality to it. It also feels blue." That’s right, color your fucking kicks. Try to put some thought into the descriptions when you find some you like as it will help you in the heat of inspiration when you need that kick and you need it quickly. You’re a producer and the kick is part of your palette so put some time into finding some that work with your tastes. To find a couple you like should take less than an hour. Well worth the investment. Here are some that I use a lot:
Then there’s the pandora’s box of sample libraries. I’m really not going to go into this too much but I will say that something like Komplete by Native is a great place to start. It’s pricey but GODDAAMMNN you get a lot with it and if you’re serious about production, save up for a couple months and pony up the dough. You can sometimes find it for $500 or so.
(Note: You could just get Battery, Natives flagship drum sampler, but to save money in the long run, think about getting the whole package because not only do some of the studio drummer samples sound pretty good, but guess what? Your track is going to have more than kick in it! So don’t forget to have some high quality samples for the rest of your track as well.)
Be on the lookout for your favorite producers signature sample pack as well. We're fully entrenched in the information age and it’s getting to the point where it’s almost weird for a successful individual to not share some of their secrets. There are of course exceptions but nowadays, information is everywhere and sharing it is one of the most rewarding things one can do. You’ll never be Timbaland but hey, you can watch a youtube video where he shares some of his techniques. By doing that he's making the collective music making community better which is great, and it doesn't hurt he's gonna make a couple bucks on it too. Producers know this and some make their custom sample packs available for purchase. If you really dig someones shit, go see if they have a sample pack or maybe one that they use frequently for their own stuff. Keep in mind that LitSounds also has some sample packs so check those out here(insert link) if you wanna see how we do.
It’s also worth mentioning that if your goal is to flip samples and make beats that way, there is one source that is free, endless, and awesome: Youtube.
Get a youtube mp3 ripper and rip for days, rip until the fucking cows come home and chop up those kicks and make an army of your own. This is a deeeeeep rabbit hole so be very warned.
2. Giving Your Kick Room
Jeez, finally. Done with thing 1. Ok, thing 2 is when shit gets real: Mixing.
I’m glad we got this out of the way earlier but to recap, mixing is hard and a complete balancing act in the most literal sense. She knows:
quick thoughts on Perspective
If you want something to seem close, it means you have to have something far away, having something bright means you need something dark and so on.
So how does that relate to the kick? Well, it’s simple: To make your kick huge and full you need something seem small, far away, or lacking in frequency information. I’m not going to get too into this idea of everything being relative because it is one of the pillars of mixing and that’s not only a whole post, but a whole library of information way too long for this. Check out some Youtube vids if you want to start digging but always keep this in mind: When in doubt, it’s all about perspective.
But for example, you could have a really verbed out keyboard patch that is also pretty filtered which would give it the illusion of being far away. This in turn will make your kick bigger. But having that is not the total solution since there are things in the mix you don't want to seem super far away right? So what then?
Take our kick right here:
It's got a nice little clip to it, some sub around 55 hz, and a nice cuppy-like body around 170 hz. (Cuppy-like body... kinda weird right? But that's what it sounds like to me and now I have a frame of reference. Adjectives people.)
Ok, let’s add some bass:
This bass line is starting to clog up our lows and making the upper frequencies of the kick hidden. We haven’t even added vocals or glock yet and it’s already getting crowded! Fuck!
Enter EQ. If you’re unfamiliar with EQ then I would recommend getting familiar with at least the basics as soon as possible as it is by far one of the most important aspects of mixing and production. Perhaps I’ll write a post on EQ specifically some other time but for now let’s just say when we EQ something, we either make part of the sound go away or we enhance part of it depending on what we want to accomplish.
We’ve already established that our kick has some areas that are strong and it just so happens our bass has areas that are strong as well and they happen to coincide. Double Fuck!!
So what do we do? Simple: We EQ the bass. We take away from the bass the areas the kick has strength in so those strengths can flourish. DO NOT JUST TURN UP THE KICK. That is the surest way to get your track on the Clipping Like Crazy Express. We haven’t adjusted the volume at all but check out how they sound together now:
The difference is quite noticeable.
(Note: Keep in mind that “A/B-ing” like this is extremely common and you will be doing it all the time.)
To a greater extent, as you continue to hone your mixing chops, you’ll find that many elements of the mix will work like this, especially vocal. Some instruments and samples sound amazing on their own but in the mix, we gotta cut some of that shit out to make room for something else. Remember, it’s a balancing act with invisible waves that want to do whatever they want.
The last thing we’ll discuss in this section is compression. Once again, another super important aspect of production. It will be your other best friend (Although delay is cool as fuck and something that is endlessly fun to mess around with).
For those who aren't familiar with compression yet, here's a great description of its purpose:
"Compression is the process of lessening the dynamic range between the loudest and quietest parts of an audio signal. This is done by boosting the quieter signals and attenuating the louder signals." Source
There are a lot of things you can do with compression since you have the capability to really mess with a sound wave but you can also just slightly compress it for a smoothing effect which is helpful too. Here are a couple more vids that may help:
This dude is Brian Lee White and he knows his shit. Nice explanation of compression here.
Keep in mind that every DAW comes with an EQ and compressor so use those if you can’t afford a new plug-in at the moment. Honestly, they’re usually pretty solid and will get the job done.
Once you’ve gotten a bomb sample that works well with your composition and done your best to EQ and compress to taste, believe it or not, you’re 90% of the way there. If you were literally just making a track that was a kick pumping all the way through by itself, you’d pretty much be done but fitting it in with the rest of the song takes tweaks that happen as you go so keep in mind that once you get the kick up and running, it doesn’t have to be perfect, you can make it perfect later once other elements are involved and you know which one may be fighting it.
Remember that EQing, especially for kick, will most likely happen with many different instruments to make sure it sounds fat af and stays BEEFY.
We didn’t touch on some very important things like sidechain compression, layering kicks, and other ways to manipulate and bring out your samples but there is only so much time I have for ya sports fans so if you’d like to hear about level two of kick-beefiness, let us know and we’ll do it.
And there you have it. If this is your first foray into production, guess what, THIS WILL NOT SOUND AMAZING THE FIRST TIME.
No one in the history of anything has ever been amazing the first time they did anything so keep that in mind. If you love doing this and your goal is to constantly and consistently improve your craft, strap in and hunker down for the long haul because it won’t happen overnight. That isn’t supposed to be negative though, it’s supposed to be extremely encouraging as only after putting in the hours and enjoying the journey will you be able to reap the benefits and trust me, once you get to a point where you are constantly surprising yourself with your own production value, it's incredibly validating and rewarding. Keep making tracks and showing your friends, producers and non-producers alike, and keep asking for their thoughts and opinions. Keep listening to excellent mixes and comparing yours to theirs. It’s one of the best pieces of advice I can give.
So to recap:
1. Excellent source material
Take the time to find good sounding kicks through a variety of ways that work with your unique voice. This will require some experimentation and some chatting with other producers but it is well worth spending some time and a couple bucks on. It's what your tracks will be made of.
2. Give it Room
Perspective, EQing, Compression, they're all part of our invisible puzzle that will shape our kick for maximum beef-age. Keep at it and eventually they'll make sense.
That’s all I got guys, keep writing and feel free to send me some tracks if you want some thoughts on your Kick-aroonis.