One of the biggest things beginner engineers struggle with is finding the best kick drum compression settings for their mixes. They don’t know when or where to use a compressor to make the kick stand out in a mix.
In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to find the best settings for attack, release, threshold, and ratio so that you don't rely on guesswork when compressing any type of kick. This is a concise guide so it will work no matter what DAW you’re using. It could be fl studio, logic, cubase, studio one, etc. it doesn’t matter.
Just make sure that your kick is well recorded or that you’re using good quality samples that have great sound design.
What are the Best Kick Drum Compression Settings?
All you need to find the best kick drum compression settings is a simple 5 steps process. Once you know this method you’ll be able to compress any type of kick and get the results you want without guessing.
The goal of this tutorial is to help you mix any kick drum with confidence.
To make the process of compressing a kick drum is much easier you need to know what type of sound you want to achieve. Determine whether you want to add punch, reduce transients, increase decay, control dynamics, etc.
Once you have the right intent then half of the battle has been won and you can now pull out your favorite compressor without worrying about the settings.
Here are some guidelines that will help you nail kick compression settings all the time.
Kick Compression Ratio
Finding the perfect ratio settings for a kick drum is much easier than you think. If you want the effect to be aggressive you use a high ratio (4:1 or higher). When you want a subtle amount of compression then you use a lower ratio (1.5:1 to 3:1).
So all you need to do is to figure out what will work best for the bass drum you’re compressing. Here’s a quick starting point for you.
1:1 - this ratio setting will work best if you’re just using the compressor for its character without affecting the sound because 1:1 means no compression will be applied.
1.5:1 to 3:1 - use this amount ratio if you just want to apply a subtle amount of compression on a small dynamic range kick.
4:1 to 6:1 - works well on a kick drum performance that has a big dynamic range so that you can compress the loud parts and bring up the quiet ones to keep the bass drum consistent in volume.
5:1 to 8:1 - great when you want to control loud transients without affecting the quieter kick hits.
10:1 or more - this is limiter territory. At this point, the compressor starts working like a limiter and it will compress everything that goes above the threshold hard.
A starting point for the threshold is to apply too much (around -7dB to -10dB). When you squash the signal you’re able to tell what the effect is doing to the kick.
You can then set all your other parameters to taste and then revisit the threshold to set it to a moderate effect where the compressor is only affecting the loudest parts of the signal.
You can also look at the gain reduction meter to make sure that the compressor goes back to rest (zero) before the next kick hit. This means you’ll always have to revisit the threshold throughout the mix to check the threshold.
Every time you make some changes to any of the parameters on the compressor you’ll need to revisit the threshold.
In most cases, you will not set it up once and forget about it. You need to keep checking it to make sure that you’re applying enough compression and not overcompressing the kick.
But don’t rely too much on what you see on the gain reduction meter, you have to also use your ears so that you’re not fooled by what you see.
The key to getting the best settings for the threshold on a compressor is to make sure that the effect goes back to zero before the next hit. If the compression overlaps to the next hit it will affect the punch and attack of the sound.
The kick drum will be pushed at the back of the mix and prevented from cutting through, unless you're going for a smooth sound then you can let the compression overlap.
Attack and Release Settings
Getting the right attack and release settings for the kick drum is all about having the correct intent. It’s hard to get the best results without a valid reason as to why you’re applying compression. Once you know why you want to compress then you don’t have to think about the settings.
Here’s a guideline that will help you know when to apply a fast/slow attack and release when compressing a kick.
Fast Attack (1ms - 15ms): this setting can be used to control loud transients if you want to reduce attack and make the kick sound smooth.
Medium Attack (15ms - 25ms): use a medium attack if you want some of the transients to pass through without getting affected. Usually used when controlling dynamic range to keep the volume consistent.
Slow Attack (30ms or more): allows the transients to pass through unaffected. Often used to make the kick sound punchy and upfront in a mix.
Fast Release (10ms - 20ms): a fast release is normally used when you’re controlling loud transients so that you don’t affect the decay.
Medium Release (20ms - 40ms): works perfectly when you want to reduce dynamic range to make the kick sound consistent throughout the entire song.
Slow Release (40ms or more): a slow release will usually control the decay. Just make sure that the compressor goes to rest before the next hit.
Compression will most likely decrease the overall volume of the signal which is why it’s always a good reason to use the makeup gain to compensate for the lost gain.
This will also give you a fair comparison of the before and after so that you’re able to hear whether what your settings did benefit the entire mix or not.
Take advantage of the auto-gain feature, it will make your life a lot easier. It’s not always 100% accurate but it does give you a solid starting point. But in most cases, it will work perfectly to help you level match your signal.
Gluing Multiple Kick Drums
When you’re mixing layers of kicks or using multiple microphones then you might need to send all of them to a kick bus to glue them together. Gluing them together will make them sound like one sound.
Not all compressor plugins are designed for this purpose. The types of compressors that work well would be tube and VCA compressors.
Use VCA compressors if you’re going for a more aggressive sound for genres such as EDM, hip hop, pop, rock, etc.
Tube compressors work well if you’re going for a much warmer and vintage sound. These are perfect for acoustic genres such as folk, blues, jazz, soul, etc.
It is also wise to use a subtle amount of compression. Here’s a solid starting point to help you avoid relying on guesswork.
Ratio: 1.5:1 to 2:1
Attack: medium to slow
Release: medium to slow
Gain Reduction: -2dB to -4dB
Sidechain Compression Settings
Sidechain compression is often used to create space for the kick drum to dominate the low-end. You can sidechain the kick and bass to ensure the kick is always punchy throughout the entire song.
The most common way is to use a single-band compressor to duck the bass whenever the kick is playing. This will reduce the transients of the bass and sometimes it can make the bass sound unnatural.
Most EDM producers don’t mind shaving off the transients because they like the pumping effect you get when sidechaining.
However, if you prefer to keep things sounding realistic then you might want to choose a different approach to sidechaining.
The best way to create space with sidechain compression is to use a multiband compressor or dynamic EQ. Unlike a single-band compressor, with a multiband or dynamic EQ you’re able to target a specific frequency range.
For instance, if the kick is peaking at 50Hz on a frequency analyzer then you duck the bass at 50Hz whenever the kick is playing. This method sounds more organic because you fix the problem without affecting the other frequencies that are not clashing with the kick.
The best part is that you'll be able to fix the problem only when it occurs. This will keep the performance sounding organic.
The attack and release settings are usually fast so that you can tame down the transient and leave the decay unaffected. Gain reduction and the ratio will depend on how aggressive you want the compression to be.
Use high gain reduction and ratio settings if you want the pumping effect to sound obvious, and do the opposite if you want the compression to be subtle.
It’s important to mention that most genres don’t rely on sidechain compression, it’s mostly used in kick-heavy styles such as house, EDM, and other dance music genres.
So, it’s more of a stylistic technique rather than a crutch for fixing poor recording or sound design issues.
Kick Drum Parallel Compression
The goal of using parallel compression on a kick drum is to get it sounding punchy throughout the entire song. Parallel compression will make all the quieter kick parts hit at the same level as the louder ones.
To achieve that you’ll need to apply heavy compression, this is why this is done on a parallel track. Doing it on the original signal can make the kick sound unnatural and change its character.
You’ll need to use a fast attack to catch all the transients (including the quieter ones). Set the release to medium or slow to keep the kick well-controlled.
Start with a ratio of 4:1 and increase it if necessary. The gain reduction is often -10dB or more to make sure that the signal is heavily squashed. You can also use make-up gain to compensate for lost gain.
On the parallel track, add an EQ after the compressor to boost everything below 100Hz using a shelf filter. This will bring up all the low-end you’ve lost due to heavy compression.
The final step is to blend the two signals to taste. Here’s a great video that will show you the entire process.
Kick Compression Cheat Sheet
Here’s a snare compression cheat sheet that will give you a solid starting point, no matter the sound or genre.
Normally, you use this type of compression when mixing kick drums that have a wide dynamic range (a lot of difference between the loud and quiet parts).
- Ratio: 4:1 or more
- Attack Time: fast to medium (5-15ms)
- Release Time: medium (around 20ms)
- Gain Reduction: Make sure that the threshold is pushed so as to affect everything except the quieter kit hits.
- Knee: Hard
Kick Tonal Compression
When the kick is not very dynamic but struggles to cut through the loudest parts of the song, this approach can help. Tonal compression also works well for musicians who want instruments to remain natural and maintain the human feel.
- Ratio: 1.5:1 to 3:1
- Attack Time: medium to slow (15ms or more)
- Release Time: medium to slow (20ms or more)
- Gain Reduction: around -2dB to -3dB
- Knee: Soft
Reducing Loud Transients
Some kick drum performances can have peaks that become way too loud in certain parts of a song. You can reduce the intensity of those loud transients with a fast compressor like the 1176.
This type of compression can also be used to smooth out a kick sound in a mix or to keep it from sounding aggressive.
- Ratio: 5:1 to 8:1
- Attack Time: fast (5-10ms)
- Release Time: fast (10-20ms)
- Gain Reduction: initially, you should push the threshold to only affect transients. Once you start to affect the decay of the kick, you should reduce the threshold.
- Knee: Soft
Punchy Kick Drum Compression Settings
To make the kick drum sound more punchy, boost the attack with these compression settings.
- Ratio: 3:1
- Attack Time: slow (30ms or more)
- Release Time: slow (40ms or more)
- Gain Reduction: around -2dB to -5dB
- Knee: Soft
By now you should be able to see that all it takes to get the best kick drum compression settings is having the right intent. Once you have a valid reason then you won’t get stuck or confused about how to set a compressor for your kick drum.
Feel free to save this page so that you can find it much easier when you’re mixing. This tutorial should also help you avoid relying on guesswork and compress any type of kick with confidence.
Leave a comment below to let me know which of these techniques you’ll be using on your next project. You can also post your questions in the comment section and I’ll get back to you as fast as possible.