Processing Kick Drums for House, Techno, Tech House, and other styles of EDM

For a majority of EDM tracks, the Kick drum is a dominating instrument, it holds the pace and drives the track on the dance floor, This is especially true for genres like House, Techno, and Tech House.

The aim of this tutorial is to highlight the desirable characteristics of a Kick drum, with ideas on where to source a Kick drum, popular Kick drum rhythmic patterns, how to handle a kick drum in the mix, and ways to control the dynamic range and frequency information of the sound.

Sourcing and auditioning Kick Drum Sounds

Sourcing an appropriate Kick drum sample to fit your track is the simplest way to build a great foundation. Depending on the DAW or sampler you use, there are many ways to quickly audition multiple kick drums against the other instruments in your track,

The following videos will give you ideas on how to approach this using an Ableton Drum Rack to add multiple samples. This demonstration is done with a hi-hat but the technique is exactly the same for a Kick Drum.

Kick Drum frequencies for mixing

The Sub

Not every kick is the same, however, typically you will find the lowest frequency to be between 50hz to 80hz. This frequency range gives you earth-shaking power which can be very desirable especially when listening to the kick drum without any other instruments in the mix. The subfrequencies can also cause lots of problems as they are difficult to monitor in less than perfect listening environment and will take up the range where you would normally include a bass instrument. Instruments fighting for sub-frequencies will cause uncontrolled volume dynamics, a compressor will struggle to tame this and your loudspeaker will struggle to replicate the information you are trying to output.

A great way to understand this is by comparing a waveform with the way your speaker cone vibrates, the highs and lows of the waveform corresponding to the vibration of the speaker cone.. A smooth and simple waveform makes it easier for a large speaker cone to push in and out to replicate the sound. If you ask the speaker cone to vibrate at many different speeds at the same time, it will struggle and won't behave as you intended it to, you won’t get clarity, power, and warm in the bass and sub which is extremely important when you're trying to achieve the most professional sound possible.

Volume Envelope for the Sub Frequencies

As I’ve already mentioned the low sub-frequencies can be problematic to a compressor and other audio equipment if it has to deal with sudden volume changes, you will want to the tail to fade out with a volume ramp-up for the attack otherwise you experience Clicks with your equipment and compressors with sudden sub volume spikes. Although the sub does add to the punch of the Kick, the attack is handled better by the high-frequency range. The sub is a layer the other frequencies will sit on.

The Low Mid Punch

These are the frequencies that hit you in the chest, the attack and decay are faster than the sub-frequencies and can be heard on smaller speakers and smaller headphones so these frequencies are much easier to work with and monitor. These frequencies can also share the same frequencies as your bass instruments so making decisions based on other instruments sharing the same frequency band such as which instrument needs this frequency band more or if the kick or bass still translates desirable information outside of this frequency band and if the bass and kick are taking the same space in time.

Volume Envelope for low Mid Punch Frequencies

The low mid or Kick punch is typically found between 100Hz to 200Hz and has a lightly faster attack and decay than the sub but still not the transient peak like the higher frequencies. You will find that the volume of the mid-punch will fade out before the sub leaving the sub-tail as the last audible part of the kick. Because this frequency is used as the punch then the attack will still be reasonably quick with a softer decay to create a resonance.

The High-frequency attack or click

The higher frequencies are used to help the kick cut through the mix and add presence as in tech-house, or lots of other EDM genres the kick plays a huge part of the track. The click that’s used can range massively from a closed Hi Hat sound, a very short snare, or even noise to add a snap and transient to the kick. This click sound is for the transient only and will have a very quick attack and decay time. Whatever you use, I would recommend a High Pass filter to take out any low sound so it doesn’t interfere with the sub or low Mid punch frequencies.

Adding extra harmonic content to your kick

Saturation is sometimes used to add extra harmonic content this can make a Kick sound richer or fuller but will also take up more room in the mix or distortion for a more extreme result.

For more control over the sound and characteristics of your kick drum, a number of tools or techniques are traditionally used. These techniques include layering multiple Kicks to create an individual Kick, manipulating a Kick Drum Sample using tools such as gates, compressors, saturation, and EQ, and using synthesizer and sampler tools such as Kick 2 or Punchbox.

Kick 2 and Punchbox:

Kick 2 and Punchbox are virtual drum synthesizer plugins that offer users the ability to create and customize drum sounds using synthesis and sampling technology. They provide options for generating and shaping sounds, including oscillators, filters, envelopes, and preset libraries. Both plugins offer control over pitch, dynamics, and other parameters to shape kick drum sounds.

Replicating a real Kick Drum

The kick drum is an essential component of many EDM genres, and in order to recreate the sound of an acoustic kick drum, it is important to understand its mechanics and characteristics.

The kick drum consists of several parts: a beater, an inner drum skin, a drum frame, and an outer drum skin. The size and tension of these components affect the volume, pitch, and character of the sound. The sustain and tone of the kick drum are also influenced by the size and shape of the drum shell and skin, as well as the material used for the drum shell.

When the beater strikes the inner drum skin, it produces an initial attack sound, often described as noise or click. This is followed by the vibration of the inner drum skin, which creates a waveform that travels through the drum shell and bounces off the outer skin. The resulting resonance causes overtones and additional higher harmonic frequencies, which eventually decay as the higher frequencies run out of energy faster than the lower, fundamental frequency. When these overtones and harmonics fade, only the fundamental note remains, resulting in a perceived drop in pitch.

Synthesizing Kickdrums

The kick drum sound begins with a noise or click, often produced by the beater striking the drum. Synthesizers typically include a noise generator that can replicate this sound. To recreate the behavior of an acoustic kick drum, it is possible to use an oscillator to create a quick drop in pitch, leaving only the fundamental note as the tail of the sound. This simulates the way that an acoustic drum produces sound.

The attack
Using a noise generator with a volume envelope to create the initial attack of the sounds can be done as per the screen print below.
The Body and tail
Using a single oscillator to replicate the resonant overtones/harmonics of the drum frame and the waveform bouncing from one skin to the next. As high-frequency waves lose energy much fast than lower frequencies, the body of the kick can be replicated using an envelope to rapidly drop the pitch after the attack. A pitch envelope as per the image below would work well.

This video by giving you a demonstration and a greater understanding

Kick Drum processing

The Kick will nearly always be in mono, kept in the center of the stereo field for maximum presence and to lessen any potential mix issues which can be highlighted on a large club system. This is also true for any other dominant low-frequency instruments such as the bassline and especially the sub-bass frequencies. Keeping these instruments in mono will ensure the track is mixed to cater to club systems which are usually mono or at least have the bass in mono. 

A typical Kick drum occupies various frequency ranges with the most important being the low mid frequencies.  the body, the low and sub-frequencies for the tail, and the mid-high frequencies for the attack. I am going to describe the character of important frequency bands, these different bands can be processed in many different ways such as. Compression, multiband compression, volume envelopes, and Eq. You may also find you have more control over each frequency band by layering 2 to 3 Kicks, using 1 for the sub, 1 for the body, and a separate for the high-end attack. Tools like Kick 2 also give you lots of control over the character of your kick.

Kick Drum music production method

1. Start with a Quality Sample:
- Choose a kick drum sample that fits the genre and style of your track.
- Look for samples with good low-end presence, punch, and clarity.

2. Layering:
- Layer multiple kick drum samples to create a fuller and more unique sound.
- Combine samples with different characteristics, such as one for the low-end thump and another for the high-end click.

3. EQ:
- Use EQ to shape the kick drum's frequency response.
- Enhance the low-end by boosting the sub-bass frequencies (around 50-80 Hz).
- Cut unwanted frequencies, such as boxiness (around 200-400 Hz) or muddiness (around 300-500 Hz).
- Add presence and attack by boosting the upper midrange (around 3-5 kHz) or high frequencies (above 10 kHz).

4. Compression:
- Apply compression to control the dynamic range and add sustain to the kick drum.
- Use a fast attack time (around 5-10 ms) to let the initial transient through.
- Adjust the release time to allow the kick drum to decay naturally.
- Experiment with the compression ratio to achieve the desired level of impact.

5. Saturation and Distortion:
- Add subtle saturation or distortion to add warmth, harmonics, and character to the kick drum.
- Be cautious not to overdo it and maintain the kick drum's clarity and definition.

6. Layering and Processing:
- Layer additional samples, such as acoustic kicks, percussive elements, or synthesized tones, to add texture and complexity.
- Apply similar processing techniques to each layer to ensure coherence.

7. Sidechain Compression:
- Use sidechain compression to make room for the kick drum in the mix.
- Set the sidechain input to a key element, such as the bassline or other instruments.
- Configure the compressor to duck the volume of the sidechain input whenever the kick drum hits, allowing it to cut through the mix.

8. Fine-tuning:
- Continuously adjust and refine the processing settings based on the context of your mix.
- Consider automating parameters like EQ, compression, or saturation to add variation and movement to the kick drum.

Remember, these are general guidelines, and the specific processing techniques may vary depending on your creative vision and the characteristics of the kick drum sample you're working with.