The kick is the bedrock on which your song stands. It's the pulse that drives your track; therefore, a great-sounding bass drum is crucial if you want to keep listeners moving on the dance floor.
To give your kick a massive, chest-thumping sound, you'll need a compressor. Compression is an important — if not the most important — item in your toolbox for crafting a punchy-sounding kick drum.
In this post, we'll delve into the proper way to compress a bass drum. Whether you're working with miked acoustic drums or cutting-edge electronic drums, following the steps in this blog post will get you a rock-solid, professional-sounding kick that guarantees an engaging, hard-driving mix.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
While piling a bunch of plug-ins onto your kick drum can be a lot of fun, it's vital that you solo the track and give it a careful listen before you start processing it. After all, if your unprocessed bass drum track sounds bad, trying to cover up its imperfections with compression and other effects will sound just as bad, if not worse.
If your bass drum track is suffering from poor sound quality, re-recording it is always going to be the best solution to rescuing it. That said, if you're mixing a project for someone else, re-recording isn't always an option. If this is the case, try using sample replacement.
You can be as gentle — or as aggressive — as you'd like with sample replacement.
If your kick drum sounds weak, but otherwise passable, blend your sample with the original to bolster its sound. If your bass drum track is completely unsalvageable, replace the entire track.
Either way, once you attain a solid, impactful kick sound, you'll be ready to move onto the next step.
Eliminate Unwanted Resonances
Resonances are caused by a buildup of frequencies within your kick drum track. Unwanted resonances not only suck the dynamics and headroom out of your track, but they'll also create unpleasant artifacts that make your track difficult to work with.
The old-school way to resolve unwanted resonances is to instantiate a dynamic EQ plug-in on a track, create a large boost with a narrow Q bandwidth, then sweep around the frequency spectrum and listen for any annoying frequencies. You then lower the gain on the offending frequency band until the unpleasant artifact disappears.
The easy way to eradicate unwanted resonances is with our RESO plug-in. RESO is not only an effective solution for ridding your track of unwanted resonances, it also does it automatically — no time-consuming EQ sweeps required!
Just place the plug-in on your bass drum track, click the Calculate Targets button, and RESO does the rest. RESO not only supplies you with Target Nodes for getting rid of the resonances, but it also provides you with helpful setting suggestions for optimal results.
Slamming Your Kick: A Logical Starting Point
Okay, now it's time to grab a compressor from your toolbox and start slamming your bass drum.
Any compressor plug-in can deliver a killer-sounding kick. You can also use a hardware compressor or an analog-modeled plug-in, such as an SSL-, dbx 160-, or 1176-style compressor.
It doesn't matter if you use a plug-in or hardware; the principles of using a compressor are the same.
We suggest that you use our guide as a starting point, then let your ears take you the rest of the way. After all, we're not listening to your mix — you are!
Start with your compressor set at a 4:1 ratio with a slow attack, and a release setting that blends with the rest of your mix in a musical way. Allowing the compressor to reset back to a non-compressing state just before the next beat is a good way to get the release sounding ‘musical’.
After that, adjust the compressor's threshold until you hear a clear, punchy sound. In most cases, 2dB–6dB of gain reduction is enough for an individual kick drum track.
We recommend that you don't rely on generic plug-in presets. Even if your compressor plug-in includes "celebrity presets," the individual who created the preset hasn't even heard your mix.
There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all compressor setting. Use your ears!
Troubleshooting Tips for Kick Drums
My Kick Sounds Muddy
Muddy tracks result in a muddy mix. That's why you should eliminate unwanted low-frequency mud from all your tracks — especially tracks that shouldn’t have lots of low-frequency information.
Luckily, low-frequency mud is easy to eliminate. Simply fire up your favorite EQ plug-in and apply a highpass filter to a channel outputting unwanted low-frequencies.
Start with a cutoff frequency around 10Hz and a slope around 12dB. Increase the cutoff frequency until your channel sounds too thin, then decrease the frequency until it sounds right.
You don't want to get heavy-handed with the highpass filter. Removing too many bass frequencies will result in an anemic-sounding mix.
My Kick Sounds Boxy
If your kick sounds boxy, it's because there's an abundance of energy in the 300-500Hz region. This is a common issue with nearly every bass drum, and it's especially noticeable with acoustic drums.
To solve this issue, deploy your EQ of choice and create a band around 400Hz with a relatively narrow Q. After that, cut the band until the unwanted character goes away.
Like we said, this is a common — as in nearly universal — issue. Many veteran mix engineers set up a 400Hz cut on their kick track before they even listen to the mix!
My Kick Sounds Muffled and Distant
If your bass drum sounds muffled or distant after applying compression, try using a slower attack. Most likely, your compressor is eating your drum's transients.
Adjust the compressor's attack time so the transient pokes through before the gain reduction engages. This will maximize both the drum's attack and add the desired level of punchiness.
My Kick Contains Out-of-whack Frequencies
If your kick sounds off-kilter from a frequency standpoint, an equalizer is the tool to reach for. The key frequencies of a bass drum are 100Hz or so for body, 6–8kHz for definition, and 3kHz for attack.
Even though a kick drum is a bass instrument, it's the upper frequencies that are most audible — especially on bass-deficient playback systems like smartphone speakers. So, if your kick disappears into your mix, try boosting the 3kHz range rather than the sub-100Hz range.
You also want to avoid excessive EQ boosts. If your kick requires heavy-handed EQ, either re-recording or sample replacement would be a more effective way to get a better sound.
Any EQ plug-in can get the job done, but if you're tired of the endless guesswork, take our MIXROOM plug-in for a spin. MIXROOM is an intuitive EQ that gives you application-specific presets and target frequencies based on a reference track.
Just place it on your kick drum track, choose an applicable channel preset, or create a custom target value with the Target icon on the bottom left corner of the plug-in's interface and import a reference track (or kick sample).
MIXROOM's Target EQ Curve enables you to create pro sound without any tedious trial and error. Beyond that, you can use the Add Smart Bands button to deploy EQ bands matching the Target EQ Curve.
MIXROOM is a major time saver, even for seasoned mix engineers. After all, who wouldn't benefit from having intelligent EQ starting points dropped directly on their lap?
My Kick Sounds Boring
If your bass drum is fitting into your mix, yet something appears to be missing, you can use a character compressor to give it extra color and grit.
As far as character compressors go, Distressor-style comps are great for colorful dynamics shaping. Distressors are capable of both 1176- and LA-2A-style compression, plus they include a built-in saturation circuit for adding ear-grabbing grit to your track.
You can also deploy 1176-style comps, SSL-style comps, and API-style comps, which have been used by engineers for decades to add coloration to flat-sounding tracks.
My Kick Doesn't Have Enough Bass
Even if your kick drum was recorded well, it's possible that it doesn't contain enough bass energy for your application — especially on bass-heavy playback systems. That's where sub-bass enhancement plug-ins like Waves MaxxBass, MeldaProduction MBassador, and Brainworx bx_subsynth come in.
These processors synthetically generate the low frequencies that are missing from your kick track. You can then blend the generated frequencies with the original track.
Sub-bass enhancers are a great way to reinforce a bass-deficient kick. It's crucial, however, that your monitoring system is able to reproduce these ultra-low frequencies.
If your studio monitors don't enable you to hear these frequencies, you may want to invest in a subwoofer. A full-range set of open-back headphones can also be of help.
No matter how you go about it, proper monitoring is especially important for bass-heavy material. You don't want any surprises when your mix is played back on a club system with bajillion-watt subs!
Don't Forget Your Reference Track
It's not hard to lose your perspective after listening to the same mix over and over for a long period of time. Even experienced mix engineers suffer from this phenomenon.
That's why reference tracks are vital to achieving a balanced mix that translates well to other playback systems. A reference track is a professionally mixed and mastered song that you use for a periodic reality check.
Thanks to our REFERENCE plug-in, using reference tracks is easier than stealing candy from a baby. Simply import a reference track you'd like to emulate, preferably within the same genre you're working on, then use the reference track's bass drum as a guide for how yours should sound.
This will help you with levels, it will make EQ decisions easier, and it will aid you greatly in getting the right sound and behavior for your kick's compressor.
At the end of the day, a reference track will ensure that the bass drum in your song sounds as good as — or better — than the next song on your listener's playlist.
It's nearly impossible to attain a pro-sounding bass drum track without a well-placed compressor. This is what transforms a raw, tubby thud into a punchy, studio-quality kick.
Following our mixing tips and tricks is a surefire way to take your bass drum tracks — and your entire mixes — to the next level.