When you are mixing a pop or dance, or even a rock song, you probably spend a lot of time with your kick and that’s true for everyone because kick drum is crucial for this genders. It is responsible -along with the base and snare- of the groove, and it also has a really wide frequency range, it has important information from really low frequencies (let’s say 30Hz) to high frequencies (10KHz).
So, let’s see 5 techniques to make it bigger in the mix.
Compressors are a really useful tool because they can help to even the loudness of the sound, and that’s something you’d wanna do with a kick. Let’s say you have a drum kit played by a live drummer, probably, all kicks have different levels, some harder, some softer, so, insert a compressor, set the threshold to the level of the softer kicks so the compressor kicks in with the harder hits.
Next, set the attack to somewhere between 10 and 30 ms to preserve the attack transient and then adjust the release to be musical, you can do this by ear, adjusting the release time so one kick dies when a new kick is played, or you can use the magical 60.000/BPM formula to find the quarter note duration in milliseconds, and this will work especially well if you are dealing with a four-on-the-floor groove or kicks placed in the one and three if the groove demands smaller values like “eight” you can use the formula 60.000/BPM/2 to find the eight-note value in milliseconds. Next, apply medium ratios, to my experience, something between 3:1 and 6:1 will work fine, depending on the material, but, the idea is not to use higher ratios like if you were limiting.
Remember, a kick has a very wide frequency range, and you probably wanna remove some frequencies to make it bigger. A good idea is to remove everything below 30 Hz with a high-pass filter. Another common practice is to remove some boxiness, usually found in frequencies around 200 Hz and 400 Hz. As a general EQing rule, when removing frequencies, it’s better to use a wide curve and just cut a few dB than using narrower curves cutting lots of dB.
After removing those unwanted frequencies, you may wanna do a little boost on the low frequencies of the kick. A good idea is to boost frequencies in tune with the song, just google Note to Hz chart to help you with that, and make some small wide curve boost on the root or fifth note, so, for example, if the song is in C major/minor, you may wanna do a little boost on 32.7 Hz (C1) or 49 Hz (G1), and this will make the bottom end heavier and more musical.
3. Parallel Compression
This is a very simple trick for that NY style punch. You need to set a compressor via Aux send/return, and this time, you really wanna squash it, set the threshold for the compressor to act with every kick, use high ratios like 10:1 or even 20:1, medium attack times, and musical releases, again, you can use the formula mentioned before to make the kick breath, then blend the return track gradually until you reach the desired punch, remember, the original track should be louder than the compressed one, to my taste, it should be at least 6 dB louder for the trick to work properly.
Tube or tape distortions work great on kicks! Insert a distortion plugin and try and compare between tube distortion or tape distortion. Wait, don’t abuse unless is really necessary! Use the wet/dry knob to blend a little bit of distortion in the mix, and probably it’s not the best idea to use guitar pedals or guitar amps emulations, there are some great Culture Vulture Thermionic emulations around for the tube sound, and many tape machine emulations. Also, there are some saturation plugins like FabFilter Saturn 2 or even the simpler WARM from Antares that you should really try on kicks.
5. Design a Tuned Subkick
Ok, this is by far the most time-consuming option, but it might give you lots of satisfaction!
Grab an analog synth or a virtual analog plugin, you just need one oscillator producing a triangle or sine wave, filter completely opened, all envelopes set to gate, and no LFO modulation at all. Record all the root notes as whole notes in the lower octave (A0 to G#1), now, insert your favorite Gate with the side-chain option in this triangle/sine track you have just recorded. The side-chain must be the kick track, set the threshold level so every kick opens the Gate.
To avoid unwanted clicks, use a slow attack like 30 ms and set the Gate’s release as we discussed before, in a musical way so the kick breaths. Now, every kick should trigger the tuned sub kick we’ve created using just a triangle or sine wave.
You can also use a high-pass filter with some resonance on it after the Gate to boost a little bit the lower frequencies. Blend the sub kick track with the kick, again, remember the original track should be louder than the sub kick track. This trick is very useful to create some heavy 808 style kicks with more natural transients. Use with moderation!
You can combine all these techniques to make your drum kicks bigger, and remember, it all depends on the gender, the groove, the drummer, and the drum itself. In every case, you should not boost the same frequencies in the kick and in the bass, remember those two guys usually work together to develop the groove. Enjoy!
AUTHOR: Rafael Hofstadter is a recording and mixing engineer and sound designer with 10+ years of experience in playing and programming synths, recording, mixing, and producing pop/rock/folk albums.