Mixing Kicks: Frequencies, Tones, Tuning & Transients
The Kick is one of the most critical elements in your mix, in all genres from Hip-Hop, Pop, Rock/Country to Progressive Metal, and of course in all types of EDM. This post is deconstructing the components of a Kick sound, and shows you what type of „handles“ you can create to control it in the mix. The Kick is of extreme importance, and it’s worth – as part of building your mix – to spend a few minutes creating the „handles“ to control the parameters we’re talking about in this article. What you need to control will develop as you’re progressing with your mix, but it’s important to have those controls at hand when needed, and to know how to use them.
“Mixing is 80% preparation, and 20% inspiration.”
Kick Tones: Frequencies + Tuning
Think of the Kick Drum Sound consisting of 3 different frequency components:
- 1 – the fundamental root note in the low end (45 – 75 Hz).
- 2 – the pressure point (an octave higher, 90 – 150 Hz).
- 3 – harmonics and noise (anything above).
Think of them like an ensemble of tones and frequencies, like a string section that has a bass, celli, violas and violins. To place the Kick perfectly in your mix, it helps to look at and treat those 3 distinct components separately. Some producers use different samples for these components, and I often get them as separate tracks for my mix sessions.
But even if your tracks come with a single Kick, you can create a copy of your Kick track on another track. By cutting (HPF) everything below 150Hz you can exclusively treat the harmonics and noise-component (3.). Experiment with various treatments from Tape Simulation to Distortion, Compressing/Limiting, then add that channel to the original sound.
Just as an example for the separation of the 3 distinct frequency components: the screenshot below shows the fundamental removed with a HPF, pressure point (138 Hz) dipped by 5 dB, and a broad boost of the “noise” of + 5.1 dB at 2500 Hz.
The fundamental (1.) and pressure point (2.) are both an essential component of modern music and need their resonance frequencies for themselves to really cut through the mix.
The harmonics and noise components (3.) are very important to „find“ the Kick in your mix, especially on small consumer devices like laptops, smartphones, small portable stereos and cheap earbuds.
I sometimes separate those three components to 3 distinctive tracks that sit on 3 large faders on my SSL console – top engineers have done this for many years and it’s quite easy to achieve on an SSL, you just send the signal to the routing matrix via the „small fader“, and „mult“ it to another 2 faders. That’s without even considering added parallel compression channels, and virtual overhead and room mics generated from a Drum Replacement Plugin (another future post).
808 Kicks typically have a strong fundamental, but lack harmonics and noise.
Synthetic Kick Drums, like of a Roland TR-808 or TR-909 have a very clean and defined fundamental tone. It often gets bend down after the initial attack though (by an Envelope Generator modulating the pitch), which means the fundamental tone of the sound sweeps through the low end, for example from 80Hz down to 10Hz. A bend can make those Kicks more difficult to mix, and I recommend to always carefully watch and use an analyzer while listening for the right balance. This is where a good sounding room is a huge advantage.
There are all kinds of boxes (or their plug-in versions) that generate harmonics – from subtle Pultec EQ, Fairchild Compression, or Analogue Tape Simulation, to more extreme treatments like a guitar amp or distortion pedal simulation. Sometimes creating a copy of your Kick through a distortion pedal or amp simulation, mixed slightly in the original sound brings up exactly the harmonics needed to make your Kick easier to „find“ in the mix.
Real Kick Drums are a lot more complex than 808/909 -sounds.
A real Kick Drum is a small physical space in itself, with two resonating drum heads interacting within the recording room, which also adds to the sonic characteristics. The result are very complex harmonics, and sometimes a few neighbouring fundamentals and pressure points compete for each other in the mix. While the complexity of tones modulating, adding to and cancelling each other adds to what we perceive as a real sounding Kick Drum, there is a lot more that can be done to those sounds in the mix.
Use a digital EQ with a very high Q-Factor (a narrow band) to identify the fundamentals and pressure points of the sound.
Yes, there can be several competing ones, and which ones to boost and cut is depending on many factors, like the key of the song, where the frequencies of the bass guitar or bass synth sit in the mix, and of course most importantly your taste and the genre of music. Even a Kick that is totally out of tune with the key of the song and the rest of the instruments can be spot on in the mix, if it fits the genre and has the right attitude.
However, tuning those frequencies in harmony with the key of the song is something many successful producers and engineers do. For more on this, have a look at my recent blog posts analyzing the low-end of the two biggest hits of 2014, „All About That Bass“ (Meghan Trainor) and „Shake It Off“ (Taylor Swift).
BTW, „convert audio into sampler track“ is a sensational feature in Logic Pro – it basically imports your audio-track into Kick Notes in Logic Pro’s EXS24 sampler, and triggers them via internal MIDI.
Now that they’re in the EXS24, you can tune them in the sampler plug-in. Works great if your Kick is for example, a semitone too high, colliding with the key of the song, you just transpose it „-1“ in the EXS24 and your low-end magically aligns.
Sometimes 10 cent of a semi-tone can make a huge difference.
Keep in mind, low end instruments have a lot of energy, and you don’t want them to collide and modulating by not being properly fine-tuned.
Regardless of how you end up balancing the different components of the Kick, make sure to find the frequencies of the 3 main components so that later on in the mix you have handles in place to balance your Kick. You can easily identify those frequencies with a digital EQ, and an analyser obviously helps. In Logic Pro X, the Channel EQ in conjunction with the built in analyzer works great for finding resonances (as the Channel EQ is creating strong resonances like an analogue EQ), however, to boost or reduce them in level I recommend using the Linear Phase EQ, which works a lot cleaner and precise which is important when balancing the low-end.
Concepts to use here are to pinpoint EQ-bands to the exact frequencies of the fundamental and pressure points, and boost or cut them depending on whats needed. Also, you can make the Kick more defined by cutting the frequencies between the fundamental and the pressure points – make sure to use very high Q-factors! Again, a high-quality Linear Phase EQ is your friend. The one in Logic Pro is great, but there are many others on the market.
One more thing…
The final boosts and cuts should be performed when all tracks of your mix are playing, or at least Kick, Bass and Vocals.
“The final boosts and cuts should be performed when all tracks of your mix are playing, or at least Kick, Bass and Vocals.”
Kick Dynamics: Attack aka The Transient
The transient is the initial attack of your Kick. On a real-life Kick Drum, a pedal-controlled beater hits the drum-skin, and that short initial impact creates the transient in the audio.
On electronic Kick-sounds, the transient is either the fast ramp-up of an envelope which results in a tiny click noise (808/909) or an added noise generator with a very short envelope. In both cases, a very short click noise is the result. The added click noise was first used on a drum-synthesizer by Dave Simmons in the early 80s, if you’re old enough you might remember the SIMMONS Drumset which was basically a 5 or 6 channel synthesizer with one voice for every drum-instrument. The sounds were created by mixing short click noises (simulating the stick or beater hitting the drumskin) with tones that could be tuned and connected to a pitch envelope generator, plus longer noise sounds added to the tones.
You might have heard some of those iconic „laser-gun“ or “spitting”-type of sounds from the 80s.
The SIMMONS Kick-sound was somewhere in between 808/909 and a modern progressive metal Kick.
Tools to control Transients
If you want to bring the transient in the Kick up or down in the mix, there are 3 ways to achieve this:
1. Transient Designers
There are several of those plug-ins on the market, the most popular being SPL Transient Designer, which is based on the original 4-Channel hardware unit.
The picture shows the hardware version of SPL Transient with 4 Channels.
Many plug-in companies offer tools to achieve similar results, I personal like the original hardware best (and there is a plug-in version of that as well)
2. Noise Gates
If you copy the Kick to a second DAW track and use a noise gate to make it extremely short, you can turn the transient up by mixing the noise gate track with the original sound. If you phase reverse the noise-gated sound, you can remove the transient or at least soften it slightly.
If your Kick is in a sampler, you can just shorten the envelope of the sound in the sampler plug-in. See the feature we discussed above (converting an Audio Track into a Sampler Track)
Kick Dynamics 2: Length aka Decay Time
To control the length of the KICK TONE is of course of utmost importance. The Decay Time of the Kick can make or break the groove, and again – it’s helpful to be able to control the three tone components of the Kick separately in length. The tools to use are somewhat similar to the Transient Control, but of course you can just go into your Waveforms and cut it where you want tone Kick to end, and apply the desired Fade to the audio.
Another useful feature in Logic Pro… “Remove Silence from Audio Region”
Automatically separates the silence between the Kicks below the threshold you can set.
Applying a fade to the separated Kicks.
Finally, the Kick sits in the middle, mono, period.
At least the direct and low end component of the Kick. If necessary, split the Kick at 300Hz, keep the fundamental and pressure point mono and only leave noise and harmonics from 300Hz upwards Stereo.
Set up a Side Chain
I recommend to always feed a side chain bus with your Kick. In my personal mix template, the first send in the channel strip is set to 0dB (unity gain) and sends to Bus 64. Bus 64 doesn’t send to an output, disable the output. The busses 64, 63, 62, 61 are my standard side chain busses for Kick, Snare, Vocals, and whatever else needs to push other elements to the back of the mix). I’m not always using it, but when I need it, it’s already setup by default.
Without going into detail here, just know you would assign Bus 64 as your side chain, most commonly on the bass guitar or bass synth, and push the bass a few dB back, triggered by the side chain signal. Again, Logic Pro’s standard compressor works great for that, but this technique works of course very well with a multiband compressor/EQ like the Waves C6 Side chain.
There is of course a lot more to be said on this topic, but the techniques above will give you the handles on important parameters. Please keep in mind that having the handles in place doesn’t mean to have to use and tweak all of them. There are some genius producers out there who deliver Kicks that are sitting perfectly in the mix. In that case, turn it up and be done.
If this article was useful for you, look into my forthcoming eBook “Your Mix sucks”.
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„Mixing is 80% preparation, and 20% inspiration.“ (Marc Mozart)
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Your Mix sucks! – Table of Contents
Chapter 1 – The Magic of the 1st listen
• Mixing for someone else
• Mixing your own song
Chapter 2 – Creating the „good enough” Mix Room
• Room Layout + Speaker setup
• the 10-Minute Room Test
• Quick and Effective Improvements
Chapter 3 – Preparing your Mix Session
• Building the DAW Template
• The Concept of „handles“ and Complete Control
• Grouping on Consoles and DAWs
• References and A/Bing
Chapter 4 – Monitoring, Loudness and your ears
• Essential Monitoring Setup
• Listening Levels
Chapter 5 – We are mixing! The Foundation, Bass and Gain Staging
• Drum Replacement
• Shaping Kicks + Bass (frequencies, tuning, transients, dynamics)
• Side Chaining
• Gain Staging: the bank account of your mix
Chapter 6 – It’s all about the Vocals
• Handles for your Vocal Chain
• Tuning, Esses, Breathing
• Syncing Doubles and Backing Vocals
Chapter 7 – Creating Consistency
• Levels at the source
Chapter 8 – Parallel Compression
• Blending clean and compressed sounds
• Parallel Compression on Vocals and Drums
Chapter 9 – Colors, Dimension + the Dynamic of your Mix
• Magic Chains: your Colour and Dimension Tools
• Compression Secrets: it’s not what you think it is!
• EQs, Filters, Reverb, Delay
• Drama: the Dynamics of your mix
• Stereo Bus Magic
Chapter 10 – Stems, Mastering and Delivery
• Client Feedback on your Mix: ready for anything!
• Deadlines: how to survive them
• iTunes Sound Check is your friend
• Stems, Mastering and Delivery
• Client: „There’s one more thing…“
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- Mixing Kicks: Frequencies, Tones, Tuning & Transients - November 4, 2014