Making a good song starts out by building a solid beat. For me, and for most house producers I would say, the kick is THE most important part of your beat, or of your song, for that matter. The kick is what drives your track and what makes your chest thump on the big speakers. To do this, the kick has to have a heavy bottom that fills out the low end and a top that makes you hear it and not just feel it. There needs to be a balance of bassy thud and punchy top blended together to make a good kick. After many songs I have experimented with many different ways of assembling kicks to attain this balance. By no means am I calling myself a professional, just someone who has spent a lot of time trying it and wants to share what they have learned. I am going to be building a kick from the ground up using samples (free, by the way) that I've collected and processing them to piece them together to make one kick. And even better, I will give you the samples I'm using to make this kick and examples of the kick as I go along! You can download the samples and examples to follow along here:
Let's start with the pieces we're going to use. If you have your own samples or don't download mine for whatever reason, you will need:
(1) A bass-heavy kick. I like 808 kicks for this. There are free packs of 808 kicks out there. I forget where I found mine. Sorry.
(2) A kick that has punch. By punch, I mean it sounds like it has a lot of frequencies in the upper bass region around 100-130 hz. I like 909 kicks for this. Again, there are packs out there. And again I don't know where I got mine.
(3) A kick that has attack. Try finding a kick that has a tight attack and is clicky, but the click doesn't stand out like a sore thumb and sound, well, clicky. It's hard to describe, but hopefully you get the idea. It's almost like the click is surrounded by other frequencies that help it blend in.
(4) A semi-closed hi hat. I like using semi-closed hi hats because I can choose how much sustain I want on the treble part of the kick. I like 909 hats for this.
(5) General processing plugins like comps and eqs.
Keep in mind that the parameter values I will be giving out will be focused on the samples I'm giving out and for the ableton device. By the way, I'm also using ableton live and the included simpler plugin to load my samples and edit them. I'm also using the stock eq and compressor unless I otherwise say so.
Preparing the Samples
Adjust the start point on all of your samples so that the samples starts exactly in time. The samples I gave are cut pretty well, but it's always a good idea to make sure. Also, put a spectrum analyzer at the end of your chain so that you can see the frequencies each kick is taking up and where and how much to eq them.
Let's start with the bassy kick. Slap an eq right after this kick and do a couple of things. Apply a filter starting at around 1.2 kHz. Then dip out some higher mids by cutting with a in-the-middle bandwidth by 7 to 8 db. Do the same for lower mids by cutting around 330 Hz with a similar q as with the previous parameter. Finally, use the high shelf to roll off the last bit of mid and high range starting right around 300 Hz but with a bit of a higher q than the second of third parameters. Then, at your drum sampler, use the volume adsr envelope to lessen the long decay on the 808 kick. BTW, I chose this kick because it has good sustain for a good amount of time. I don't really care about the long tail because I'm cutting it off now anyway. Anyway, take the sustain all the way down on the envelope and adjust the decay until it fits what you want. I'm going to leave mine at around 3.75 seconds. Tweak the volume on the sample so that it's peaking around 0 db or wherever you have your channel fader set (i.e. make sure it's coming out of the sampler at 0 db). This means it will peak around where you have your fader set. This is something that I'm just really meticulous about. You don't have to go as far as I do to make it peak EXACTLY at 0 db.
Now for the kick that will give the whole kick some punch. Take a second and solo the bassy kick. Look at where its peak is on the spectrum. It's peaking at around 57 Hz. Now solo the punch kick and see where it peaks. Its highest peak is around the same area as the bassy kick, but you'll also see that it has a lot of frequency content around the 120-140 Hz range. That is where the punch comes from in my experience. We'll be cutting the low peak on this kick, since the bassy kick has that covered, and cutting the higher area since the attack kick will have that covered. So, what we're essentially doing is creating a band pass filter around the frequencies that we want this kick to take up. As with the bassy kick, adjust the volume adsr to get rid of the tail so that we only have the punchy bit. I'm going to take off all the sustain and leave the decay around 1 sec. Then, put an eq after.
Start by using a hi pass filter around 75 Hz and another one around 50 Hz. This just cuts out the low end that we don't need because of the bassy kick. Does it sound thin? Yes, but when we put everything together it will become part of the entire kick. Then do the same filtering thing for the high end. Using two filters set both at around 1 kHz, remove the high end we don't need. Finally, take up an area around 130 Hz by a few dbs to emphasize the punch. Now play both kicks together. You hear the bass of the first and the punch of the second. Cool, huh? And it sounds like one kick, not two kicks filtered and put on top of each other. This is because we filtered the kicks the way we did, so the frequencies sit on top of each other nicely without any phasing or competition for frequency space. Don't worry about mixing the kicks yet. We'll do that later.
Now move on to the attack kick. I'm actually going to start eqing it using a high pass filter at 250 Hz. I'm choosing a lower frequency than I normally would because I feel that just because of the samples I'm using, there wouldn't be anything in the midrange, so I'm leaving most of it intact. If you find you're getting phasing issues, invert the phase of this kick to make it gel with the rest. I'm not gonna do that, but Live makes it easy with the utility plugin. If you slap the utility on this kick, there are convenient buttons for flipping the phase at the bottom. If you click both of them, the phase of whatever is inverted. Lastly, I'm going to take the sustain on this kick to around -10 db and leave everything else. That's all I'm gonna do for this one, but feel free to add a bit of distortion to bring on the attack a bit.
I'm going to leave the hi hat for later to see if it is needed.
Mixing the Kicks Together
Start by moving all the faders down to -inf dB. Bring the bassy kick up to 0 dB. Then slowly bring up the punchy kick until it blends well with the bassy one. I'm going to set it at -6 dB. Finally, move the attack kick up until it blends well. I set it around -3 dB. If needed, move all the samples down an equal amount so that nothing is clipping.
EQing the Kicks Together
Slap an eq after all of your kicks to get started on eqing them together. Look at your spectrum. Do you see any dips where your kick could use a booost? Are there any prominent frequencies that you don't want? We're going to fix that with the eq. For me, eqing the entire kick helps way more for bringing the samples together into one solid kick than compression. First, I'm going to low cut the kick around 40 Hz. Yes, that's right. LOW cut your kick. Anything below this is essentially clutter and only eats up your low end space and your headroom. Next, I see on the spectrum that there is a dip around 110 Hz. I'm going to smooth the dip out with the eq or until it sounds right. I ended up boosting by about 3 dB. I also see a dip around 260 Hz. Do the same for this dip. In the interest of time (for me) and interest (for you), I'm gonna go ahead and eq the kick until I get it sounding closer to what I want. One thing I want to mention is performing a pretty big cut (like 12 dB) around 800 Hz with a fairly tight bandwidth. I don't know what it is, but this frequency really annoys me. When I cut it, the kick sounds much more "together" and professional.
Compressing Your Kick
I tend to use hardly any compression on my kicks, especially at this stage. But I will start by setting the threshold until the gain reduction (GR) meter is JUST flickering. For me, this is around -4 dB. Then, I set my attack and release. From my experience, relatively long attack give the most punch to a kick without the clickiness. I set it around 37 ms. I also like fairly long releases. I'll set it around 85 ms. If my GR meter isn't flickering anymore, I'll lower my threshold 1-3 dBs, depending, until it is. Then, I'll set my threshold around 3.2:1. On Ableton's compressor, there is a knee setting that I'll set around 5 dB. If your comp doesn't have an adjustable setting, just set it on soft knee. If your comp doesn't have a knee setting, then oh well. It's not a HUGE deal anyway. Adjust your makeup gain so that the kick is peaking around 0 dB again. Sometimes I find a little higher isn't such a bad thing.
Warming up your kick
Now I'm going to be using PSP VintageWarmer to beef up my kick and give it analog warmth. If you don't have it, I would highly recommend it. I use it on pretty much everything. For now, just over drive the output on your comp to simulate the warmth. It won't be as good, but it's close enough. Experiment with the settings if you have it. I really don't go crazy with the drive, maybe just a couple dBs. Also play around with the speed and release settings.
Now it's a matter of experimenting. Try moving around your comp, eq, and VintageWarmer, if you have it. I chose to go through the comp first, then VintageWarmer, then my eq. I found it gave the most "together" sounding kick. Try playing with the levels of your samples. I'm gonna lower my bass kick by .2 dB. Yes, this makes a difference. Also play around with the adsr envelope. I'm also going to lower the decay on the bass kick to 3.15 sec.
I think I'll add the hi hat that I put off earlier. High pass it around 1 kHz and play with the volume adsr envelope until you get something you like. Adding the hi hat just gives the kick some brightness. I think I'll lower it a bit, though.
Compressing on the Bus
I like to route my drums channels through a few different buses. I normally have hi hats and other percussion going to a bus, and the kick and snare going to their own bus. Then, I have all of my drums grouped in one bus so that I can compress all of my drums together to blend them well. On my kick and snare bus, I like The Glue. I often use the preset "bonzos room" with a little bit more wet mix, one click more attack, and two clicks more release. This is one of the reasons why I hardly compress my kick on its own: because I'm also compressing it with the snare and with all the drums together. I also like the Ableton comp preset "generic compressor" on my drum bus with a bit lower threshold, a higher attack, and a higher knee so that I don't destroy the wonderful attack I worked so hard to get on my kick. I also like VintageWarmer on my drum bus to warm up my drums a bit, too.
And there you have it! Now you should have a kick that has an ultra-tight attack and a pounding bass that will glue together your entire track.